Georgia’s special teams philosophy has evolved.
In years past, the Bulldogs turned mostly to walk-ons and veteran backups to handle coverage and return units. The bag was mixed and Georgia didn't always get the kind of output it needed in this phase of the game.
Evidenced by Saturday’s 51-14 win over Louisiana-Monroe, the Bulldogs changed course and have now turned to their younger scholarship athletes.
One player in particular is sophomore running back Sony Michel, who will cover kicks and punts as well as return them when asked to. One thought is this is a bit dangerous, given Michel is a player that is integral to the running game. As head coach Mark Richt sees it, it’s beneficial to have proven players add potential to special teams.
“We like to have starters that are on offense and defense on our special teams because we know they’re outstanding players,” Richt said. “We have guys taking an awful lot of pride in the special teams area -- Sony being one of them, being one of our better special teams players. Football is football, you have to get out there and play. Special teams play can be just as explosive as any other play, and a lot of times has a greater chance being a game-changing play.”
When Michel arrived to Georgia in 2014, he wasn’t necessarily expecting to play a major part of the special teams group. He’s since embraced the role, which has given him even more playing time during games.
“I just came in here to work hard,” Michel said. “Whatever they need me for I was willing to play that role.”
During Saturday’s game, lots of freshmen saw time on special teams, including linebacker D’Andre Walker, linebacker Roquan Smith, cornerback Juwuan Briscoe and safety Johnathan Abram. Junior college transfer Chuks Amaechi saw time on special teams, too.
Sophomore linebacker Lorenzo Carter partially blocked a punt in the first quarter and Walker blocked one in the third quarter that went for a safety.
Richt knows it’s a balancing act by doing this. He’s potentially risking injury to key offensive and defensive players by doing this. But the reward of having a much faster and athletic special teams phase is quite enticing.
“We just want to make sure we have our very best players on the team,” Richt said. “On the other hand, we have to be very careful not to spread guys too thin. As we have veteran guys getting reps, we’re also working young guys to hopefully be able to pick up that load as the season goes on.”
Running back Keith Marshall has also been working as a return specialist this year. This aspect is new to Marshall as it wasn’t something he saw a lot of during his first three years on campus – partially due to a long recovery from a torn ACL sustained during the 2013 season.
“We’re committed to special teams,” Marshall said. “It’s been a big emphasis since I’ve been here. Everybody plays special teams so we can be competitive because obviously it’s a big part of the game.”