It's time for our annual summer list of Georgia's most important players for 2014: Not the best, or those expected to be the most productive. The most important.
This is not a ranking of the team's best players, rather a look at the players who are most vital to the team's success. That takes into account the team's strengths and weaknesses, the depth at certain positions, and the importance of each position.
In past years this has been a top 10 list. That was the plan again this time until I started compiling and revising the list, and decided to expand it by two. (Plus, it’s a two-week vacation.)
This list will also spark some disagreement, and some questions. So in two weeks when No. 1 is unveiled, I will also post an explanation for why some guys didn't make the list. (Spoiler alert: The starting quarterback and starting tailback will make the list somewhere.)
Now, on to the list ...
12. ISAIAH McKENZIE
WHY HE’S VITAL: Imagine what a dynamic return man could do for Georgia’s special teams. Last year the Bulldogs ranked 108th nationally in kick return yardage and 122nd in punt return yardage, and last in the SEC in each category. The last Georgia kickoff return for a touchdown was Todd Gurley vs. Buffalo in the 2012 season opener, and the last punt return TD was Brandon Boykin in the Capitol One bowl vs. Michigan State. Boykin is long gone, and Gurley’s time on special teams ended soon after that TD, his worth proving more important. Since then Georgia has played it conservative on returns, especially punts, partly out of strategy and partly out of necessity. Strategy, because if you have a prolific offense why risk a fumble on the punt – which gets to the necessity, because the past two seasons the Bulldogs have lacked someone they’re comfortably can safely secure a punt and then return it. Enter McKenzie, the small (5-8, 175) but speedy talent who Mark Richt called “a very dynamic return man.” It’s not set that McKenzie will be the return man, but Richt and the coaches sure made it sound like it was his job to lose in the preseason. McKenzie could also see some looks on offense. But the staff is hoping that McKenzie quickly proves he should be the deep man on the opening kickoff or first punt by Clemson.
QUOTABLE: "It could be the difference in one ballgame, and obviously help us on offense if we can sometimes just get 10 yards on the punt return. That's the first down for the offense. And field position is so crucial, it sometimes doesn't matter how effective you are as an offense, the percentages go down if the field position isn't in your favor. It's hard to go 80 yards on anybody, I don't care who you're playing." – Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo
BEST CASE: McKenzie immediately wins the return man job and is a big part of a rejuvanted Georgia special teams. He proves dependable, not coughing up any fumbles, has at least one return touchdown and improves that team return yardage average. Other teams start kicking away from him.
WORST CASE: McKenzie either doesn’t win the return job, or he does and starts making freshman mistakes. Georgia goes another season without a special teams touchdown, and the offense again has to carry almost the entire scoring burden.
FINAL WORD: It’s unfair to expect McKenzie to be the next Tyrone Matthieu right away. But if he can at least be a factor it would be big for Georgia. A decent improvement in those dismal return stats will take some pressure off Hutson Mason and the offense.