Solid special teams have been all Richt hoped for

mlough@macon.comNovember 28, 2012 

ATHENS -- Alabama’s offense is no secret.

Quarterback A.J. McCarron is second nationally in passer efficiency, playing behind an elite offensive line.

The Tide’s defense is even more renowned and has been for several years.

Georgia can counter on both sides of the line of scrimmage, between skill positions on offense and pretty much the entire defense.

In the third part of the game, special teams, Georgia has been up and down the past few years.

Alabama this season takes quality in all phases of that unit into Saturday’s SEC championship game, and Georgia head coach Mark Richt hopes his group can keep on keeping on.

Bettering Alabama in that area will be difficult.

“Their extra point/field goal kicker, (Jeremy) Shelley, he hasn’t missed a kick all year,” Richt said as he perused the Alabama special teams résumé. “Their punter, (Cody) Mandell, is averaging 44.1 a punt, which is outstanding. What’s more impressive is their net punt is 43.8, so basically less than one yard of return yardage per kick, which is really phenomenal, almost 44 yards on their net.”

The Tide lead the SEC in kickoff returns but are ninth in kickoff coverage, which Richt said is misleading.

“I think by design, they try to kick it high and kick it in play, force you to try to return the ball,” he said. “They’re so good in coverage, they want to get you inside that 25-yard mark.”

In most special teams areas, Alabama has a decided advantage. And while Richt would like to have some better numbers, he has no complaints about how Georgia’s special teams have fared this season.

“My goal this year was for us to be solid on our special teams,” he said. “My goal wasn’t to try to lead the nation in any one category.”

The biggest concern involved kicking. Georgia was breaking in freshmen at punter and place-kicker, and the Bulldogs can’t complain too much about the performances of Collin Barber and Marshall Morgan.

Barber is averaging 41.2 yards per punt, with 24 fair catches, and the Bulldogs average 36.1 in net punting.

Barber’s 41.2 is lower than the three years of Drew Butler as the starter but stands up well against Georgia’s punting average of the past decade, ranking in the middle.

“On your punt, you’ve gotta make sure you protect,” Richt said. “My goal is just to kick that sucker high and have the least amount of big plays in that situation.”

South Carolina’s return of a punt for a score is the lone blemish in that area.

Morgan is 8-for-12 in field goals, by far the fewest field goal attempts for the program since Richt took over. In fact, Georgia has made more field goals every year under Richt than it has attempted this season. The previous low in attempts is 21 in 2006.

“Every game, I (get) little more confident,” Morgan said. “I learn a few more things, and watch a lot of tape. I still get the jitters before every game. But once you get out there, you feel comfortable and you’re in your rhythm.”

He hasn’t been called on to win a game since high school, when he drilled a 40-yard game-winner with six seconds left as a freshman.

“I’ve thought about it, yes I have,” he said, with a laugh. “It’s a good daydream.”

Georgia has focused on fundamentals, relying on the offense to do more with the ball, regardless of field position.

“Every time we forced them to punt, I want to make sure we got the ball,” Richt said. “If someone had to fair-catch it, that’s OK with me. At the end of the kickoff, I want to make sure we got the ball in our hands.”

Georgia is fifth in the SEC in kickoff returns, 2.5 yards behind Alabama, and 12th in punt returns, 3.5 yards behind Alabama.

Blake Sailors is a special teams specialist at gunner, so he works on coverage. Georgia is fifth in the SEC in kickoff coverage and tied for eighth in punt return yardage coverage.

“It really starts on special teams with the opening kickoff: if we pin them inside the 20 for the defense, they keep them in there, we get good field position on the punt, it all just works together,” Sailors said. “It all just plays off each other. If we have a big play, then the whole team gets excited and playing good.”

-- Seth Emerson contributed to this story.

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