ATHENS — Georgia’s two place-kickers are involved in one of the most talked-about depth-chart battles of the fall, and more than a half-dozen speedsters are working to earn a chance at return duties on punts and kickoffs. But if head coach Mark Richt has his way, the most competitive battles for playing time on special teams will be the fight for the far less glamorous roles on the Bulldogs’ coverage units.
Richt grabbed the attention of the Bulldogs’ fans and more importantly, the true freshmen, by announcing last month that he expected a large number of Georgia’s newest signing class to see action immediately this season.
“They certainly can help on special teams immediately in my opinion, even if it’s a scout-team look,” Richt said. “But we’ve got to gear them up to be ready to run down the field and make plays on special teams.”
It’s a departure from the status quo at Georgia, where a mix of walk-ons and second-team veterans have generally been the key contributors on special teams.
While the plan has had its merits in years past — namely a more dedicated crew for coach Jon Fabris to work with — the rash of injuries that befell the Bulldogs a year ago got Richt thinking about a new approach.
“When you have the amount of injuries we had a year ago, it not only depletes your first-team and second-team offense and defense, it also depletes your special teams, and it actually depletes your scout-team looks,” Richt said. “It was definitely a trickle-down situation.”
Fabris said it’s a lot like running a minor league baseball team — just when he has a player ready to contribute on special teams, another coach is ready to swipe him away for a more glamorous role on offense or defense.
That’s part of the reason Fabris has relied so heavily on walk-ons in years past, but this season, Richt sees numerous benefits to getting scholarship players — and more specifically, his youngest scholarship players — a taste of the action on special teams.
When Georgia’s depth on coverage teams grew increasingly thin a year ago, it was a mad dash to find players who could fill in. The prevailing wisdom is that a coach can grab anyone from the sideline and throw them onto a coverage team, Richt said, but that’s not the case.
“There’s a little more to it than that,” Richt said. “Whoever is coaching special teams wants to have guys he can count on just like a linebackers coach wants guys he can count on or a quarterback coach wants to make sure his guy is reliable before you put him out there.”
So the idea this season is to start getting players ready to contribute on special teams immediately.
Georgia’s freshman tailbacks, wide receivers, tight ends, linebackers and defensive backs are all being groomed this spring for special teams duty, regardless of their position on the depth chart at other positions.
The walk-ons and veterans will still be a big part of the mix, but this year, Georgia’s coaching staff wants to be prepared.
“The bottom line is, can a guy get the job done — whether he’s a highly recruited scholarship player that’s a true freshman or a player that doesn’t have a scholarship or a fifth-year senior that’s never really played a lot,” Fabris said.
Of course, that prevailing wisdom that special teams don’t take much preparation can filter down to the players, too, and that’s a notion Richt said his staff is working hard to dispel this fall by selling the opportunity at hand to each of Georgia’s freshmen.
“I’ve told them, ‘You need to be fighting like mad to get on special teams,’ ” Richt said. “You’ve got to be driving that coach crazy and prove to him that you’re not going to perform like a rookie. You need to prove you can be a reliable player.”
Richt said he’s worked on selling the freshmen to his coaches, too.
Fabris, like many of Georgia’s assistants, can lose patience with an inexperienced freshman who makes a few too many mistakes in the early going, but Richt said he has asked all of his coaches not to write off the new recruits too quickly.
If all goes according to plan, the Bulldogs’ coverage teams will be a bit faster and a bit stronger right away, Richt said. But more than that, a handful of players who would otherwise have been relegated to redshirt status this season will earn some valuable experience that could have them ready to play at other positions much sooner than they might otherwise have been.
“As they’re playing, they’re gaining confidence,” Richt said. “Game 1, they may not be ready to play a bunch of scrimmage downs because of the amount of knowledge that you have to have to do it well, but by Game 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, they may be starting.”