University of Georgia

Isaiah McKenzie provides spark on Georgia’s special teams

Georgia’s Isaiah McKenzie (16) returns a punt 77 yards for a touchdown against Vanderbilt during the first half Saturday in Nashville, Tennessee.
Georgia’s Isaiah McKenzie (16) returns a punt 77 yards for a touchdown against Vanderbilt during the first half Saturday in Nashville, Tennessee. AP

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Georgia had a serious problem scoring points against Vanderbilt on Saturday. That is, until Isaiah McKenzie touched the football.

McKenzie caught a punt during a scoreless deadlock and took off 77 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. The return was no easy accomplishment, as the sophomore backtracked to reach the ball, broke one tackle after he received the punt, worked his way from the right side of the field toward the left and outran Vanderbilt punter Tommy Openshaw to reach the end zone.

Georgia wound up winning 31-14.

“It was very windy when he kicked it to me,” McKenzie said. “I told everybody to just get in the way. All I needed was a block; just get in the way. That’s what my teammates did. I broke a tackle and took it around the corner.”

Not only did McKenzie come through for the Bulldogs’ first score, but he also called his shot. Wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell couldn’t hide his excitement about the return, interrupting McKenzie after the game to congratulate him on his accurate prediction.

The performance was a bit of a reward for McKenzie. He dealt with injury in the spring, aggravating his hamstring on a 72-yard touchdown reception in Georgia’s G-Day scrimmage. He also missed time during preseason practice with a hamstring issue unrelated to the one from April.

After being absent from Georgia’s victory over Louisiana-Monroe, questions lingered about when he would become a factor again. He then took off and silenced those inquiries.

“That big return really got the whole team going,” quarterback Greyson Lambert said. “He electrified the sideline and our fans. That was big to see him go out there and make a play like that.”

McKenzie came to the offense’s aid, as well. He stepped in with close to five minutes remaining in the third quarter. He took a handoff on an end-around for a 24-yard gain. He also made a 15-yard reception later in the quarter and ended the game with 128 all-purpose yards.

He wasn’t on the field for all the punt returns for Georgia, as he split the duties with fellow wide receiver Reggie Davis. It’s part of the plan for Georgia head coach Mark Richt, who realizes McKenzie’s breakaway speed. Davis is the decision maker who steps in the game when the punting unit is aiming toward the goal line. McKenzie is the playmaker who steps in when a big return is in mind.

“When he gets the ball in his hand, there’s a good shot at him getting a lot of yards, if not a touchdown,” Richt said. “When we go punt safe, [Davis] is the one making decisions on whether to fair catch it or let it go. Isaiah is there when we’re going to return it.”

McKenzie said he doesn’t worry about his past injury issues when he’s on the field. A constant concern like that can only hamper his play. Instead, he worries about making the next play and finding another route to a touchdown.

“I had no thoughts about my hamstring,” McKenzie said. “I was just running. Once I saw the end zone, if I pulled my hamstring running in the end zone, I still scored.”