After years of Georgia's special teams being, oh, let's call it inconsistent, inconsistency, the units had a rebound last year. So as the team heads into the summer, Mark Richt is zeroing in on the area that remains a concern.
Punter Collin Barber is trending the wrong direction, averaging 39.3 yards per punt in 2014, a drop of nearly five yards from his average the previous year. That came while splitting the punting duties with walk-on Adam Erickson, who has graduated.
But with the show to himself this spring, Barber didn’t do much better. His G-Day kicks tended to be lacking, and that was without a rush.
Every now and then Barber will boom a punt – he had a 60-yarder last year against Clemson, and he also had 11 punts downed inside the 20 last season. But the good doesn’t happen enough for Richt’s liking.
“He’s just not been very consistent,” Richt said. “And he needs to have a good offseason as well. When he does it right it’s as good as anybody. But we need eight or nine out of 10 of those, instead of four, five out of 10 of those.”
Richt went on to say that the “only thing good” about the bad punts is they only end up being about 36 yards, and there’s no return.
“So the only good point was when we were mis-hitting some of them they were balls that really weren’t returnable,” Richt said. “We always knew that the defense would get to line up and play.”
Well yes, I suppose there’s that.
Georgia didn’t do a lot of special teams work during the spring, so the needle wasn’t moved too much. Here’s a look anyway at where things stand at the specialist spots heading into the summer:
STARTER: Collin Barber, Sr.
TOP BACKUPS: None.
ON THE WAY: Rodrigo Blankenship, Fr., walk-on.
THE SKINNY: Blankenship is coming to campus as a recruited walk-on, with the potential to earn a scholarship. The assumption was he could end up the place-kicker once Marshall Morgan leaves. But if Barber doesn’t improve this season, Blankenship could get a shot at those duties as well.
“He’s got some ability to (punt),” Richt said of Blankenship. “So yeah, he’ll throw his hat in the ring on that.
Georgia has other walk-ons who could also get involved. But Barber could solve a lot of problems with just a few more good punts.
STARTER: Marshall Morgan, Sr.
TOP BACKUP: Patrick Beless, Sr., walk-on
OTHERS: Thomas Pritchard, Jr., walk-on; Tanner Stumpe, R-Fr., walk-on.
ON THE WAY: Blankenship.
THE SKINNY: This job obviously belongs to Morgan, who also improved his kickoffs last year. It’s still not great: Georgia’s touchback rate of 31.6 percent ranked 77th in the nation last year. But Georgia’s opponents averaged just 19.2 yards per kickoff return, including no touchdowns, and the longest return was for 42 yards.
As for the place-kicking duties, Beless heads into the season with a perfect record: He made both field goal attempts and all 10 extra points while filling in for Morgan the first two games of 2013, and hasn’t seen the field since. The team lists Beless as a senior, which he is academically, but technically he redshirted in 2012, so if he wanted to stick around he potentially could compete for the job once Morgan leaves.
STARTER: Isaiah McKenzie, Soph.
TOP BACKUPS: Reggie Davis, Jr.
OTHERS: Sony Michel, Soph.; Keith Marshall, Jr.
ON THE WAY: Terry Godwin, Fr.; Jayson Stanley, Fr.; Michael Chigbu, Fr.
THE SKINNY: McKenzie returned one kickoff for a touchdown last year, and averaged 28.1 yards per return. He’s a threat to go a long way every time he touches it.
The question is whether Georgia will send McKenzie back as the single returner, or pare him with someone else. If it’s the latter, Davis had three kick returns last year, and Michel had two, before his injury. Marshall could do it as well if the team doesn’t want to risk injury. And any of the new receivers offer some speed options.
TOP BACKUP: Davis.
ON THE WAY: Godwin, Chigbu, Stanley; DB Deandre Baker, Fr.; DB Juwuan Briscoe, Fr.; CB Rico McGraw, Fr.
THE SKINNY: McKenzie had two punt return touchdowns, and was seventh in the nation with an average return of 12.7. So yeah, this job is his as long as he’s available.
But Davis is a good backup plan: He averaged 8.6 yards per return last year, including a 51-yarder against Troy. The only other current player with punt returning experience is Malcolm Mitchell, and that was in 2012. Given his importance to the offense, don’t expect him to be risked in this role.
That means a number of other players will get a look this season, including the new receivers and defensive backs. Baker was an all-state sprinter. Juwuan Briscoe rushed for 1,408 yards and 22 touchdowns as a high school senior. Among the incoming receivers, Stanley twice was on teams that won the state championship in the 400 meter relay.
Defensive backs are always an option to return punts, as they’re usually on the field anyway for fourth down, which is convenient for fake punt purposes. (Or if it’s uncertain whether the other team will punt or go for it, the defensive back can be at safety, then run back if it definitely becomes a punt.)
That’s not saying a defensive player will definitely be out there. In fact the team appears set with McKenzie and Davis. But more players will get reps just in case.
STARTERS: Nate Theus, Sr.
TOP BACKUP: Trent Frix, Jr., walk-on.
OTHERS: Matthew Herzwurm, Soph., walk-on; John Courson, R-Fr., walk-on.
ON THE WAY: None.
THE SKINNY: Yes, Georgia does not lack for men who can snap the ball far. At least it can say that.
Theus emerged as the primary long snapper last year, after sharing the duties in 2013 with Frix. You only notice the long snapper if there’s a miscue, and Theus had a quiet season, which meant he did well. It was another thing that went right for Georgia on special teams.
Next up: Offensive line.