Georgia ranks 62nd in the nation in average yards per punt return, 47th in total punt return yards and 43rd in punt return yards per game. The unit’s numbers convey mediocrity. Statistics portray a group slightly above average, but Georgia’s head coach is pleased.
“We got a stat on punt return where we’re one of the only teams in the country to have eight or more returns of 10 or more yards,” Kirby Smart said. “When you start talking about that, that’s what you want. Our goal is to get a first down every time we get a punt return.”
Instead, Smart wants to see improvement on kickoff returns.
With Georgia’s defense holding teams to minimal scores, the Bulldogs have attempted 11 kickoff returns all season, an average of 1.6 per game. The team with the fewest kickoff returns in the country, Utah, has eight.
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The Bulldogs have yet to return a kick to the 50-yard line, much less for a touchdown. Their longest kick return — a 90-yarder by Elijah Holyfield against Notre Dame — was all but erased by a holding penalty.
“Kickoff return probably hasn’t been what I’d like for it to be,” Smart said. “It’s been OK.”
Tight end Charlie Woerner, who is on the kick return unit, said the Bulldogs are reaching their assigned man. In order to spring a long return, Woerner said, the Bulldogs must execute at the end of their blocks and avoid holding calls.
“Every time we’re on kickoff return, it’s always that one person away,” said Sony Michel, who is on the kickoff and punt return units.
Michel said it’s the same way on punt return.
“We’ve been so close this year, and we’re tired of being so close,” Michel said. “We want to get there.”
Within the past decade, Georgia possessed two elite returners — Brandon Boykin and Isaiah McKenzie. Boykin returned four kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns. McKenzie set a program record during his three-year career by returning five punts for touchdowns. With Boykin, McKenzie and even Todd Gurley returning kicks for touchdowns, the sight became rather common place at Sanford Stadium.
This year, Georgia’s primary returner, Mecole Hardman, has yet to return a kick or a punt longer than 40 yards.
“We’ve got to do a good job because Mecole is a weapon,” Smart said. “And he’s got to do a better job. I have been proud of him for his decision making and his ball security, but he’s got to do better of when we get him an opening, making people pay.”
More times than you can count on one hand, Hardman has been an ankle tackle away from returning a punt or a kick for a touchdown. His elite speed allows him to weave through defenders, but he has yet to translate that to a score. Multiple times, one hand has tripped him up.
Said offensive lineman Kendall Baker, “I feel like he’s going to take one to the crib soon.”