The greatest area of improvement Georgia saw from 2016 to 2017 season was on special teams.
In head coach Kirby Smart's first season at Georgia, the Bulldogs were regarded as one of the worst teams on special teams in terms of efficiency. A season later, Georgia fielded some of the better coverage units in the nation.
Rarely did an opposing team return a punt. And if a player tried to run one back, it usually didn’t go for a big gain. Smart has credited Scott Fountain, who was a special teams analyst last season, with aiding the Bulldogs in this department.
Fountain has since become an on-field assistant and is the likely candidate to be Georgia’s special teams coordinator now that Shane Beamer has left for Oklahoma. But while the Bulldogs are set with one of the best place-kickers in the SEC, they will have a battle on their hands for the starting punter job.
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Georgia reaped the benefits of bringing in Columbia graduate transfer Cameron Nizialek, who ended the season with an average of 45 yards per punt. More impressively, Nizialek’s net average was 43.6 yards per punt, indicating that he got great hang time and was aided by his coverage unit.
The Bulldogs will have the tough task of replacing Nizialek, as well as long snapper Trent Frix. But the Bulldogs should have good competition at punter while returning a long snapper who was able to get some experience in 2017.
They left: Nizialek, Frix
They return: Rodrigo Blankenship (Jr.), Marshall Long (Soph.), Bill Rubright (R-Fr.), Nick Moore (Sr.)
On the way: Jake Camarda
What to watch: Blankenship was arguably Georgia’s most improved player in 2017. The longest field goal he made in 2016 as a redshirt freshman was from 49 yards, and that attempt barely cleared the uprights. As a sophomore, Blankenship not only boomed field goals with plenty of distance from the 40s, he made two of the most clutch kicks from over 50 during the College Football Playoff.
Against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl, Blankenship nailed a 55-yard field goal just before the end of the first half that turned out to be a big difference in the game’s outcome. In the national championship, Blankenship hit a 51-yarder in overtime that gave the Bulldogs a lead before Alabama’s game-winning touchdown.
Blankenship made 87 percent of his field goal attempts (20-of-23 kicking), which was good for third in the SEC. Georgia is in good hands — or feet — at place-kicker. Blankenship was also a weapon on kickoffs, where he ended the year with a program record 67 touchbacks.
At punter, Georgia will go through the spring with a competition between Long and Rubright. Long was Georgia’s starting punter as a freshman in 2016 before suffering a dislocated knee during practice before a game against Auburn. Long averaged 38.7 yards per punt and redshirted during his second season.
In the summer, Camarda, the nation’s top-ranked punter according to the Kohl’s Professional Camps rankings, will join the competition. He could prove to be a viable option to start at the position too. As a high school senior, Camarda averaged 46 yards per punt. He is also an accomplished place-kicker and hopes to one day do both during his career at Georgia.
“I’d love to be able to do that,” Camarda said. “But really I just want to be able to do whatever I can to help the team win.”
Moore is the top candidate to fill in for Frix as Georgia’s long snapper. Moore got some playing time last season, too, with Frix injured to start the season.
Outlook: While Georgia will be fine at place-kicker, all eyes will be on how it replaces Nizialek at punter. Whoever winds up the winner of that spot will need to provide similar distance and hang time, with the coverage unit taking care of the rest. The hope for Georgia is to have as little dropoff as possible after the stellar season Nizialek put in.