ATHENS -- Supposedly, there were two major coaching changes in Georgia’s offseason, both aimed at fixing the failings of last season -- defense and special teams. And when it comes to the first, the changes have been tangible and well-chronicled.
Special teams, however, changes have been more subtle. Or, one could certainly argue, overblown.
A big deal was made of Mike Ekeler and John Lilly being named co-special teams coordinators. It ended, theoretically, head coach Mark Richt’s long-held and much-criticized practice of distributing the special teams duties among his assistants.
But it has since become evident that it’s still very much a committee approach, just a little more intense.
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“There’s always been about four or five (coaches) with each team,” said Lilly, also the Bulldogs’ tight ends coach. “But I think the difference is just the accountability for different things ... you know, who’s accountable for them at the end of the day.”
In other words, if something goes wrong, the media will grill Lilly and Ekeler about it.
“Exactly,” Lilly said, smiling.
That doesn’t mean Georgia isn’t working to improve its special teams this year. Obviously something had to be done. Special teams mistakes might have cost Georgia last year’s Clemson game. Attempting a short field goal in the third quarter that would have tied the game at 31, Nate Theus’ snap to holder Adam Erickson was too high. The Bulldogs never got off the attempt, and they lost the game by three points.
Then there was the loss at Vanderbilt, when a punt snap by Trent Frix went high and was downed at Georgia’s own 13. Vanderbilt scored on the next play to take the lead for good. That game also featured a muffed punt catch that set up a Vanderbilt touchdown drive and a Commodores fake field goal for a touchdown.
There were more errors in games Georgia won despite them. North Texas blocked a punt for a touchdown and had a 99-yard kickoff return touchdown. Tennessee also blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown.
Besides the errors, Georgia generally didn’t make much happen to help itself. It scored no touchdowns on special teams. The longest punt return was 17 yards; the longest kickoff return was 48 yards. Georgia’s punt return unit was 122nd nationally or second worst at the FBS level, averaging only 2.92 yards per return. The kickoff return unit was 108th nationally, netting only 18.6 yards per return.
Georgia is hoping that freshman Isaiah McKenzie, a 5-foot-7 speedster, can make something happen on those returns. But Richt’s first emphasis is still on making the catch.
“We’ve got to start with who we think can field the best and go from there,” Richt said. “But do I want them to score? Yes.”
Richt always denied that his special teams coaching strategy was to blame for the special teams issues, pointing to the good years the Bulldogs have had under the same system. But in February he announced the co-coordinators titles. But the committee approach has remained. Tony Ball is still running the kickoff return unit. Bryan McClendon is still running the punt return unit.
What has changed, according to players, is the intensity of teaching.
“Definitely stressing more fundamental-wise and trying to focus on some of the little things,” said senior Kosta Vavlas, a special teams standout. “I mean prior (to this year) we kind of just jumped in, going all the way through without breaking each phase of each game down.”
Defensive players, especially in the secondary, have talked often about the detailed coaching that they’re getting from first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, and receiver Reggie Davis made it sound like that was happening -- from all coaches -- on special teams.
“Coaches are definitely paying attention to details this year,” Davis said, adding for emphasis, “Small, small details.”
Davis muffed three punts last year.
“They’re really cracking down on just looking the ball all the way in, especially because of what I did last year,” Davis said.
Vavlas also said that coaches are teaching players what the other 10 players on the special teams unit are doing. That, again, is similar to what Pruitt and the new coaches have been doing on defense.
But Vavlas also said the time commitment during practice is about the same as in past years.
“Just the mindset we have about it now (is different),” Vavlas said.