If Georgia had to use a specific game to stress the importance of special teams, it wouldn’t be difficult to find one.
The Bulldogs’ last matchup against Vanderbilt serves as a glaring example. A variety of miscues within Georgia’s special teams group led to a 17-16 defeat to the Commodores last year.
The mistakes that proved to be most influential on the game’s outcome came at the opening of each half. Vanderbilt’s Darrius Sims returned the opening kickoff from Rodrigo Blankenship 95 yards, putting the Commodores in position for an easy score.
When Georgia got its chance to answer after halftime, Georgia returner Reggie Davis caught a corner kick at the 3-yard line and stepped out of bounds.
“There were a lot of errors in that game,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. “They caused them by what they did on their kickoff return. We had two returners backs and tried to field some rugby punts, which are really tough the way the kid was kicking the ball. There were 200 yards of field position that were — give or take — lost, and we have to do a better job in regards to that.”
Those mistakes were costly enough to nullify a number of significant individual performances for the Bulldogs. Jacob Eason, accounted for 346 yards and a touchdown. Georgia outgained Vanderbilt 421-171.
But it didn’t prove to be significant as the discrepancies were too great on special teams. A year later, Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason notices some differences in Smart’s approach — most notably with the Georgia punt coverage unit.
Mason believes the Bulldogs switched from a pro-style to a “college cup” methodology, which he saw improvement in.
“Last year, those opportunities went our way,” Mason said during Wednesday’s SEC coaches teleconference. “I thought we worked hard, executed in practice, and it showed up in the game. After you see things in your first year, you re-evaluate, and I think Georgia is strong in all three phases. Special teams is improved, and they have great returners.”
Georgia learned plenty of lessons from the loss last year. Throughout preseason practice, Smart implored the importance of improvement under special teams coach Shane Beamer and analyst Scott Fountain.
When both teams take the field for the opening kick Saturday, the Bulldogs are confident that the result will be different.
“We learned that you can't just slack up on special teams,” tight end Charlie Woerner said. “That's one thing we've focused on since the beginning of this year, to get better at all phases. I think we have one of the best punters in the nation, a very good kickoff team. You saw Mecole (Hardman) on punt return last week, so I just think that shows we've gotten better at all phases. We've been focused on getting better.”