University of Georgia

How special teams can become a factor in a closely-contested SEC Championship

Georgia receiver Mecole Hardman, right, laughs with his teammates during the Bulldogs walkthrough Friday afternoon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
JASON VORHEES/THE TELEGRAPH Atlanta, GA, 11/30/2018: Georgia receiver Mecole Hardman, right, laughs with his teammates during the Bulldogs walkthrough Friday afternoon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Each time Mecole Hardman fields a punt, there’s a sudden gasp in the stadium crowd.

There’s always a chance of ending up in the end zone.

Hardman has only taken one punt return back for a touchdown for 70 yards against Middle Tennessee State on Sept. 15. But in regard to average yards per return, there’s none better as Georgia’s junior playmaker sits at 21.8.

Georgia readies for its SEC Championship bout with Alabama, and the last time Hardman got his chance against the Crimson Tide, he had 40 yards on three punt returns. His longest went for 20 yards.

“Mecole Hardman is as fine a returner as I’ve seen anywhere in the country,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “This year he’s very explosive, he’s very fast. If he gets a seam, he can certainly accelerate through it, and he’s made some big plays in that regard.”

Against the top-ranked Crimson Tide, his prowess could be vital to the Bulldogs’ chances of victory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Both head coaches, Saban and Georgia’s Kirby Smart, implored on the importance of special teams’ play in a game that’s expected to be closely contested.

JASON VORHEES/THE TELEGRAPH Atlanta, GA, 11/30/2018: Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and Alabama head coach Nick Saban pose with the SEC Championship trophy Friday afternoon in Atlanta. Jason Vorhees

In last season’s national-title matchup, it did prove to be a factor in a multitude of ways. Georgia was given its overtime opportunity after former Alabama place-kicker Andy Pappanastos missed one-of-two field goals at the end of regulation. Georgia also had a chance slip away after the highly-controversial Tyler Simmons’ offsides call on a punt-block formation.

Nearly a year later, it could be the same as Georgia and Alabama stand at 11-1. They’re ranked amongst the top four nationally and have former five-star talent scattered across the roster.

That’s why Georgia and Alabama don’t shy away from the third phase of the game that doesn’t garner much attention. In fact, they make it a core value. There’s no hesitation in putting a top player on punt coverage, and the Bulldogs have a display of special teams’ rankings near the practice facility to serve as a reminder for players.

“I always say the closer the two teams are, the more special teams has a bearing,” Smart said. “We spend a lot of time and energy (on it), put a lot of our best players on special teams units and so do they. I think (on) those plays, you’ll see elite talent against elite talent. You’ll see a lot of good matchups that may be the game within the game.”

So, back to coverage units. Smart has harped on the need for improvement in the area, especially after Georgia Tech’s Juanyeh Thomas scored on a 100-yard kickoff return last Saturday. It was the first time Georgia had allowed one since North Carolina’s T.J. Logan did so to open the 2016 season.

Alabama poses similar threats as punt returner Jaylen Waddle ranks 10th nationally in average per return, and also has a touchdown. He’s complemented by Josh Jacobs and a host of other interchangeable playmakers. “(Georgia has) got a really great challenge,” Smart said. “Their punt returner is incredible. Their kickoff returner is incredible. They also have good people blocking for them.”

With Hardman, Alabama faces a similar challenge. Saban referenced the importance of special teams in two different ways: controlling vertical field position and avoiding an explosive play that could be a difference-maker.

Hardman could be influential in either way.

“It’s going to be very important for our cover teams to control him,” Saban said. “I think in close games, special teams always has a huge impact on the outcome.”

Smart credited Alabama’s personnel on special teams, and rightfully so as the Crimson Tide’s fast-scoring sequences have been aplenty this season.

But if Hardman finds himself in space, Georgia could have an advantage a few seconds later.

“We think our special teams are ready to go,” Smart said. “We work really hard on them.