Jamal Golden is on my list. As anyone who knows me can tell you, planning is not a great strength of mine. So it was with a modicum of enthusiasm that I actually had a story idea well in advance of the intended run date – how Georgia Tech hasn’t scored a touchdown off a kickoff return for a touchdown in 14 years.
It would be timely this week since the last touchdown was scored Halloween 1998 by Dez White at Maryland. I had a useful interview with Orwin Smith last week, who returned a kickoff down to the 1-yard line against Duke in 2009. He was saying how Wes Durham sometimes reminded him of the drought, and how he wanted to score on a return before his senior year was over, and how he was positive he actually scored against Duke, but it wasn’t reviewed.
A perfect confluence. Not exactly a story destined for the front page, but a fun story to write and hopefully read, I thought. So it was with a small amount of dread that I saw Golden tear down the west sideline Saturday, my story crashing and burning before my eyes. My luck seems to work that way sometimes. So, thanks to Golden, all I have is this blog post.
You may be interested to know, as I wrote in notes posted Tuesday night, that it was tied for the fourth-longest non-scoring kickoff-return streak in FBS. Remarkably, Nevada also scored on a kickoff return Halloween 1998 and hasn’t scored since. Rice stands alone. The Owls haven’t scored on a kickoff return since 1984. They’re followed by Memphis (1996) and Miami (Ohio, 1997).
I talked to White Tuesday. He had no idea of his unusual place in Tech history.
“That is very surprising,” he said. That’s a long time. You’re talking about a lot of kickoff returns in 14 years.”
White’s return was 100 yards, three yards longer than Golden’s. White said he remembers getting a big hole and then cutting across the field and then outrunning the Maryland kicker.
“I remember Ralph Friedgen being really happy he didn’t have to call a series,” he said.
White, if you’re wondering, is living in Gwinnett County. He’s a certified fitness trainer and is founder of The Body Firm Atlanta, which runs exercise boot camps in Gwinnett and Atlanta. He said he has a clientele of about 250 people, many of whom are surprised to learn that he played at Tech and in the NFL.
“I do try to kick their butt (in workouts), but don’t try to flaunt (my past),” he said.
So how do you explain the drought?
A good bit of it is having subpar kickoff return teams. Obviously, the more well-blocked returns you have, the greater your chances. Tech is ranked 48th this year in kickoff return average. Going back to 2000, the year-end rankings were, going backwards from 2011 – 108, 97, 64, 95 (Paul Johnson’s first year), 54, 74, 67, 33, 57, 76 (Chan Gailey’s first year), 21, 6.
(Information available here on the NCAA site. Very useful.)
But some of it just seems random. You’d think that having the No. 6 and No. 21 kickoff return teams in 2000 and 2001 (when Kelly Campbell returned kicks), you’d think one return would have broken.
As I was going through NCAA records, I’d guess 75 percent of the teams in FBS have returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the past three or four years, and obviously not all of them have had good kickoff return teams.
Once I got past seven or eight years in eliminating teams, Tech and the other four schools remained as the outliers. I guess the fact that the other four aren’t exactly football powerhouses says something – a cursory look indicates that Rice’s kickoff teams have just been bad – but at some point you’d think you’d score one just by random chance or by playing against an overmatched FCS team.
But, the possibly odder thing is something White clued me in to. He returned two kicks for scores, one in 1997 and the 1998 score. His 1997 touchdown broke another drought. Prior to that touchdown, Tech’s last kickoff return for a touchdown was scored in 1990, by Kevin Tisdel. So, starting with the 1991 season, Tech has scored three kickoffs for touchdowns. Central Florida has scored that many this month.
About to go down a rabbit hole…
UCF is coached, of course, by George O’Leary. The Black Knights’ national ranking is No. 13. Last year, they were No. 3 (one TD). In 2010, they were No. 1 (two). In 2009, they were No. 13 (one). Then, No. 7 (two), No. 21 (three), No. 76 (0), No. 95 (0), No. 54 (0).
If you’re wondering, Tim Salem coached tight ends and was special teams coordinator 2009-2011. He’s now at Illinois. He was replaced this year by Allen Mogridge for both positions.
It appears in 2007, when the kickoff line was moved back to the 30-yard line, UCF jumped from 76 to 21, O’Leary made a concerted effort to improve kickoff returns and coverage, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
The special teams coordinator/linebackers coach that year was Dave Huxtable, who coached at Tech from 1992 to 1997 and is now defensive coordinator at Pitt. In 2008, it was Brent Key, the former Tech guard who is now O’Leary’s assistant head coach and line coach.
A couple observations. During this run, special teams has been coordinated by a coach who was also a position coach. Second, that job has been held by four different coaches. The constant, obviously, is O’Leary. Whatever he’s doing, it’s working.
So what does this say about Tech special-teams coordinator David Walkosky? First, he gets credit for coaching the unit that broke the streak. Golden said Saturday that he was supposed to go right but saw that BYU defenders were closing hard on his left. Golden said Walkosky coaches him and Smith to trust the return play, but also gives them the freedom to break the play if they see an opening.
Putting Golden at returner, obviously, was also the right call by Walkosky.
The kickoff cover team has obviously had issues and the kickers are clearly having some problems, both on kickoffs and field goals. The punt team, the horrendous block aside, is an improving unit. Both return teams are doing better. If the return team holds at No. 48, it’ll be an improvement of 60 spots from last year and the second best finish since O’Leary left.
Congratulations if you made it this far. I thought this post was going to be about half as long as it’s turned out to be.
Thanks for reading.
In case you missed it…
Thanks for reading.
Ken Sugiura, Georgia Tech blog