There’s little difficulty in selecting the highlight of Georgia Tech’s special-teams efforts this season – kick returner Jamal Golden’s two kickoff returns for touchdowns.
After that, it gets a little murkier.
After four years of largely sub-par special-teams play, coach Paul Johnson went against his career-long pattern of dividing up kicking-game coaching among the staff and hired David Walkosky to be his first assistant to coach only special teams. As Golden’s touchdowns would suggest, the change has paid off in some ways and has yet to return an investment in others.
“It’s been a lot like the team,” Johnson said. “It’s been hot and cold.”
The biggest weakness was the placekicking. Tech’s three kickers have made 11 of 18 attempts, 10th in the ACC at 61.1 percent. Remarkably, Tech was also 11-for-18 last year, all but one kick off the foot of Justin Moore.
This season, all but one of the misses came in a stretch against Clemson, Boston College and BYU when David Scully and Moore combined to make three of nine attempts. Walk-on Chris Tanner has settled the position since, going 5-for-6. He’ll take the field goals against USC in the Sun Bowl. Injuries to Scully and Moore didn’t help.
“That’s on me, not on the kids,” Walkosky said. “We’ve got to drill ’em and keep the competition.”
The injuries also affected Tech’s kickoff coverage, which has netted 36.1 yards, meaning an average start point just inside the 29-yard line. It ranks 11th in the ACC. Last year’s average starting point was just past the 28, ninth in the ACC. While the kickoff spot was moved this year from the 30 to the 35, most ACC teams’ kickoff nets have remained similar to their 2011 averages, as Tech’s did.
However, opponents have started on their 40 or beyond 14 times this year, compared to six times last season (not including two starts at the 40 due to out-of-bounds kickoffs). Walkosky conceded the cover teams have had “some major mistakes, but I think they’re starting to buy in. They’ve gotten progressively better throughout the season.” Opponents have also started inside their 20 more times this year than last, 12 to nine.
Tech’s punt net has dropped from 36.9 to 35.3. Punter Sean Poole, who took 27 of the 41 punts, again showed superior ability but found consistency elusive. Tech also had its first punt blocked since 2010, a costly block of Ryan Rodwell in the BYU game.
Said Johnson of the punt game, “It’s not been good.”
The return game has improved. Thanks in no small part to Golden’s two scoring returns, the average start spot on Tech’s kickoff returns has moved from between the 24 and 25 to past the 27. A year ago, Tech had two drives off kickoffs start at its 40 or better (not including two out-of-bounds kickoffs). Thus far this season, the Jackets have had five including the touchdowns, but also the safety against Miami.
Tech’s punt return team, again with Golden returning, has done 2.5 yards better on opposition punt net, 35.6 to 38.1. If Golden had enough returns, he would rank fourth in the ACC at 12.8 yards per return. He is second in the conference on kickoff returns at 29.0 yards per return.
Walkosky called Golden’s play “phenomenal.”
Players have responded to Walkosky, particularly the specialists. Long snapper Tyler Morgan said he and the punters and kickers have done more drill work than in the past, and that there has been more film study and game planning than in the past. Walkosky has given players more detailed coaching, Morgan said, like instructing kick return blockers on how to respond if they lose their assignments.
“That’s stuff we’ve never done, and that’s just an improvement that I’ve noticed,” he said.
For better or worse, for Tech’s special teams to be solid in some spots and still weak in others constitutes improvement from last season. Tech’s kicking game could also get a boost next year with the commitment of Westminster kicker Harrison Butker, ranked by ESPN as the No. 3 senior kicker in the country.
“I was pleased with a lot of things, but definitely have a lot of work on,” Walkosky said.
How Tech will proceed with its special-teams coaching is unclear, though. With the midseason firing of defensive coordinator Al Groh, Walkosky took on the responsibility of coaching the defensive line. Asked if Walkosky will return to coaching only special teams, Johnson replied, “Possibly.”
In case you missed it…
Thanks for reading.
Ken Sugiura, Georgia Tech blog