Georgia focuses on special teams improvements

semerson@macon.comSeptember 26, 2013 

North Texas Georgia Football

Georgia head coach Mark Richt walks off of the field after their 45-21 win over North Texas in an NCAA college football game at Sanford Stadium Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, in Athens, Ga.


ATHENS -- Last month, Georgia was going through field goal preparation drills, where the emphasis isn’t just on Marshall Morgan making the kick but also on a clean snap and a clean hold and everything done quickly.

Each time, standing or hunched over on the side would be head coach Mark Richt, his thumbs on a stopwatch, timing the field goal attempt.

“He was the one charting us,” Morgan said. “It wasn’t the (graduate assistant) doing it. He was doing all the work.”

This might surprise some outsiders under the impression that Richt and his staff have a laissez-faire attitude toward special teams. Georgia is one of the few teams in the SEC without a designated special teams coordinator, and some glaring errors so far this season have made it an issue again.

“We spend a lot of time and effort on it. Things just went wrong,” said freshman Tray Matthews, who is on the extra point and field goal block team.

Now here comes LSU, which historically has had outstanding special teams. But Georgia’s players said there wasn’t any more time spent on special teams this week, because enough attention is already paid to them. And coaches say they’re being careful not to overreact to the most recent problem.

“You’ve gotta be careful,” Richt said. “If all you’re worried about is protection and you don’t go down and cover a kick, then you’ve got problems.”

“I guarantee you, there’s no harder critic on what we do and what we are than ourselves,” said tight ends coach John Lilly, who handles the punting unit. “You evaluate, you let guys compete every week, whether you do well or you have a blow-up.”

Lilly’s unit had a blow-up last week against North Texas. A high snap led to a punt being blocked and pounced on for a touchdown. Earlier in the game, Georgia’s kickoff unit gave up a 99-yard touchdown return.

Those mistakes didn’t cost Georgia the game. But in the season-opening three-point loss at Clemson, a muffed field goal snap loomed large.

So what is doing Georgia doing about it? The one tangible move is to open the competition at long-snapper, where sophomore Nate Theus, guilty of the two bad snaps, is being pushed by walk-on Trent Frix. Otherwise, the Bulldogs appear to just be focusing on minor tweaks. If they’re putting any more starters on special teams, they haven’t said so yet.

Georgia’s coaches will point out they’ve had some positive plays on special teams thus far: a fake punt for a first down at Clemson, a successful onside kick against South Carolina and forcing and recovering a fumble on a punt at Clemson.

“Those were huge plays for our team to have a chance to win the game,” Lilly said. “But then you have a disaster play, and they’re so much more important in that game than any other plays.”

Georgia’s special teams overall haven’t been that bad, other than the three glaring mistakes. If you take out the 99-yard touchdown return, the kickoff coverage unit is holding opponents to 18.8 yards per return. That would rank in the top third nationally.

Punter Collin Barber is off to a great start, averaging 47.9 yards per punt. Georgia is allowing just 6 yards per average punt return.

But Georgia is averaging fewer yards per return on its own punts (5.14) and is only averaging 19.33 yards on kickoff returns. It’s part of a do-no-harm strategy, where long returns aren’t discouraged, but the bigger emphasis is on not making mistakes. Let the prolific offense get on the field and do its thing.

Richt has split the special teams duties among his assistants throughout his 13-year tenure at Georgia. Six different assistants are in charge of the different units. So why not hire one assistant to handle all special teams? The NCAA limits each team to nine full-time assistant coaches, so it’s not as easy as just bringing someone else in. Even the programs that do have a special teams coordinator also have that coach handle a position unit, often the tight ends or inside linebackers.

In any case, Richt has pointed to success in special teams at different points in his tenure. And players say that the first 20 to 30 minutes of most practices are dedicated to special teams work.

“I think we’re gonna come out there (Saturday) and do a great job,” Barber said. “Yeah we’ve made some mistakes, but I’ve got all the faith in the world we’re gonna come out there and do great, and be the best we can be.”

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