ATHENS - When he interviewed at Georgia late last month, Mike Ekeler knew special teams was going to be a big emphasis. So he culled together film of Georgia's special teams last year, watching every snap.
He noticed that Georgia didn't take many chances on punt return, not wanting to risk giving up possession when it has a prolific offense. Ekeler joked with head coach Mark Richt about it - "you set a record for being in punt safe" - but he also understood it's a delicate balance.
It seems Ekeler wants to tilt that balance towards being aggressive.
"It's an offensive play when you're returning a punt. So in doing that, you've gotta attack," Ekeler said Thursday. "You want to attack, and use their rules in their punt protection against them, and you want to try to capitalize on that. And you want to attack and be able to block punts. So there's that fine line now.
"We're not just gonna be standing up and showing return every time, and let those guys release and pin their ears back. We're gonna come, we're gonna block some punts, but we're also gonna make them account for us, and use their protections against them to help set up our returns."
That was just part of the insight Ekeler provided during a media session on Thursday. Ekeler was indeed full of quips and one-liners. But he also shed some light on what he's bringing to the staff as co-special teams coordinator and inside linebackers coach.
Ekeler, 42, was a linebacker and special teams standout as a player at Kansas State. Since entering the coaching ranks he's helped in "every aspect" of his special teams, he said Thursday. At Georgia he will oversee kickoff coverage, punt return, and field goal/PAT block.
"It's something that as a player that I loved," Ekeler said. "I thin it's a little easier to coach it if you did it. It's something I can relate to, and I understand that these players how they feel about it, and how you really have to get them to buy into it."
That means conveying to players that special teams is one way to eventually reach the pro level, Ekeler said.
"One of the first questions scouts ask when they come in is, what special teams has this young man played on?" Ekeler said. "They track it back from their freshman year. That's where they start. Because about five percent of the players drafted in the NFL go in and start. And the rest better be money on special teams. It's pretty easy. If you don't want to play on special teams you're crazy."
Special teams is where Ekeler could ultimately help Georgia the most, considering how much it struggled recently, especially last year. Of course, Ekeler is also coaching the inside linebackers, which will end up taking as much, if not more, of his time.
Like all the defensive assistants, Ekeler has been getting to know his players. During mat drills he's been literally looking at the media guide to put names with faces.
"I know my position guys right now and I'm branching out from there," he said.
Ekeler didn't break down his linebackers on Thursday. He didn't even name any. He's only been on the job a couple weeks, and he's still figuring them out.
Amarlo Herrera was the defensive MVP last season, per a team vote. Ramik Wilson was a consensus first-team all-SEC selection. They will be seniors next season, and seem entrenched as starters. Reggie Carter, Tim Kimbrough and Ryne Rankin played sparingly as freshmen.
It's possible that Ekeler and new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt will move players around, and do things a bit differently schematically. That hasn't been outlined publicly yet. Either way, Ekeler is setting expectations high.
"To me, if we don't develop into the best linebacking corps in the country I've failed," Ekeler said. "That's how I look at it. And I'll throw it out there, because that's how I'm wired."
Another issue the past couple seasons is subbing at the inside linebacker position. Wilson and Herrera racked up tackles in part because they were on the field basically every play.
Asked his philosophy on subbing, Ekeler said he wanted to use as many as he can, though he didn't get more specific than that. He did say that he wants his inside linebackers to be able to play both spots.
(Interestingly, Ekeler named the two spots as the Mike and the Will. In the past the two spots were the Mike and the Mo, and the Will was an outside linebacker spot. It could be an indication of one of the changes coming under Pruitt.)
"You're looking for your best players," Ekeler said. "These guys, I don't know them. It's open competition right now. I'm forming opinions based on what they're doing in mat drills. How they're gonna compete. Are they gonna do a drill and jog back with their head down? Are they gonna sprint back with their chest out and look somebody in the eye and say, Let's go! That's what I'm looking for right now."