ATLANTA — When the floodgates opened last Saturday for Georgia Tech’s special teams units, they sent a deluge of problems pouring upon the Yellow Jackets.
It was as if everything bad that could happen, happened. From the left, the right and the center, the overall group was blindsided by penalties, sacked by poor play and completely upended by rough drive-starting positions.
That’s how Paul Johnson saw it, at least.
“It’s almost one of the deals where you put your finger in the hole here and it pops up over here,” the head coach said, describing his unrelenting whack-a-mole-type mountain of issues his team had against Kansas.
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Following that 28-25 loss, one whose after-effects still seem to resonate throughout the mostly silent halls at 150 Bobby Dodd Way, Johnson attributed the seeming comedy of errors that struck his entire team chiefly to one area: special teams.
“The reason in my mind, bottom line, why we lost was special teams,” Johnson said Sunday. “As poorly as we played on offense and defense, it (special teams) killed us.
“It killed the field position, no question. We get the ball first after halftime and instead of having it at the 30-yard line, we had it at like the 10.”
On that particular series, a blocking penalty during Georgia Tech’s second half-opening kickoff return pushed the Yellow Jackets back to their own 8. Four plays later, with a wild Midwestern wind to his back, punter Chandler Anderson lofted a kick that traveled 13 yards and stopped at the 28.
The Jayhawks were knocking on the door of the red zone, and Johnson was not amused.
“That kind of changed our momentum,” he said.
Kansas scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive, obliterating the three-point lead the Yellow Jackets had at the half. The Jayhawks retained that lead.
While there were other special teams penalties — two more; one for booting a kickoff out of bounds and another for roughing the punter — the one that set up the poor punt and good Kansas field position may have hurt the most.
Regardless of which stung the worst, when it came down to it, each special teams penalty left a bitter taste in the mouth of special teams coordinator Charles Kelly. The mistakes, he said, were all mentally driven.
“Mental, in some cases, is a guy trying to do something that he doesn’t need to do. Maybe trying too hard,” Kelly said. “Sometimes it’s a reaction thing. You’ve got to make what I call a decision point. You’ve got to make a decision, ‘Hey, I’ve got to do this. Can I get it or not?’”
The roughing the punter call on redshirt freshman Lance Richardson was a prime example of that, Kelly said.
“We got the block open, it opens up, we leave our feet, we’re out of control and that’s a penalty on the return game,” he said. “Yeah, if we affect the punt or if we block it, that’s great, but don’t get a penalty.
“That’s just a case of a young guy who doesn’t get in there a lot. Hopefully he learns from it.”
With Saturday’s ACC opener with North Carolina just days away, the turnaround time for error correction is short. In that less than five-day window, however, the players can only one thing to make things better: keep performing.
Senior place-kicker Scott Blair said he is no stranger to special teams woes and tried every remedy he could to get past the mental blockages that hampered his own progress in past seasons.
“As you can tell from my years past, a lot of kicking’s mental,” Blair said, half-smiling. “But you have to make every kick. You have to make yourself think you’re going with the wind and everything’s perfect.”
Blair’s sophomore season was no walk in the park. Tossed in at punter, place-kicker, kickoff kicker and any other kicking duties the Yellow Jackets needed, he struggled. He was only 12-of-19 on his field goals and couldn’t connect from beyond 40 yards. As a punter, he averaged just 38.9 yards per punt and booted just 11 balls inside the 20-yard line.
Two years later, however, Blair is glad he had a chance to go through the mental anguish that went with his combined performance.
“I got every dose of kicking that year,” he said. “So whenever I see someone who does something wrong kicking, or if they’re about to go out, I’ll give them a little pointer or a reminder depending on what the situation is. Yeah, that sophomore year really helped me out.”
In turn, it has helped him understand his role as a leader on the special teams unit, and the resonance he hopes his words can have.
“There were a couple of small mental mistakes that turned into some really big penalties or mistakes (last Saturday),” Blair said. “It’s definitely something that needs to be fixed, and it will be fixed for the rest of the season.”