I was driving home from Athens Saturday night, listening to the “Fifth Quarter Show” on WNGC, and the subject of the Dogs’ terrible kickoff coverage came up.
The frequently asked question since last year has been why Georgia can’t get a kicker to put the ball deep into the end zone for a touchback like so many other teams do. At the end of last season, after too many of Blair Walsh’s directional kicks had sailed out of bounds, Mark Richt indicated he wanted a kicker who could “boom” it and famously said he’d go as far as Poland to find one.
Instead, he looked to California and signed junior college player Brandon Bogotay to a scholarship, ostensibly because of his strong leg. But in preseason competition, it was decided that Walsh should keep the kickoff job as well as handling PATs and field goals. And the Dogs stuck to special teams coach Jon Fabris’ policy of preferring high, shorter kicks directed into the corner.
If you’re wondering what happened, former Georgia players A.J. Bryant and Kelin Johnson, now regulars on the “Fifth Quarter Show,” put it all into perspective. Both of them played on special teams for Fabris, and they said that it wouldn’t matter whether the Dogs had a kicker who could put it in the end zone or not; Fabris likes “the challenge” of directional kicks. That’s just Coach Fab, they said, get used to it.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Fabris would rather his coverage team face “the challenge” of containing a return than get a touchback and have the other team at their own 20.
Of course, the argument that Richt continues to make in favor of directional kicks is that they have more hang time and allow the coverage team to get downfield and prevent a long return. Theoretically, that is. As the Dogs have shown time and time again, including in Saturday’s Oklahoma State game, that frequently isn’t the case.
Meeting with reporters Tuesday, Richt said of the OSU game, “The fans want the long kick, but the longest kick had the longest return. The kicks that were a little shorter had the better hang times and ball placement. We covered those better.”
It’s worth pointing out, of course, that it’s not just “the fans” who would like to see Georgia kick it into the end zone. Some folks who know a thing or two about kickoffs, including former Bulldog greats Kevin Butler and Rex Robinson, have come out against the directional kicking approach. Why Richt sticks with Fabris’ philosophy, even when it obviously has greater risk than kicking it deep, is a real mystery.
But let’s put aside for now the argument over deep kicks vs. directional kicks, since apparently Fabris is going to go with the latter, no matter what, and Richt shows no sign of doing anything about it.
The bigger problem for several seasons now is that Georgia’s kick coverage is just plain lousy. The first players to reach the kick returner are usually pretty easily eluded — frankly, they fall down a lot — and once a returner gets past the first wave, there’s frequently a wide-open seam running through Georgia’s coverage that produces results like Saturday’s 74-yard return by the Cowboys’ Perrish Cox.
Richt himself conceded that on the long return by Oklahoma State, “I wouldn’t say that because we kicked it deeper that was the cause. We had a young man who should have contained and forced [Cox] inside to where our coverage teams were. We didn’t do a good job of that. Our second wave didn’t get in position to corral him. There was some great hustle at the end to keep him from going the distance. The guys that were designed to be safeties did their job, so it didn’t become a touchdown at that point. Ultimately that ensuing drive was a touchdown on a short field. We just can’t have it.”
Richt talked during the preseason about bolstering the coverage by using some of the Dogs’ much-lauded freshman talent, though Fabris apparently wasn’t so enthusiastic about that idea. But that’s not really the problem. The Dogs could load up the coverage team with first-teamers and it wouldn’t matter if they’re not properly coached and if Georgia doesn’t devote the needed time to improving its special teams play.
Bad coaching, or not enough coaching, seems to be the problem.
Here’s another example: On the other side of the kickoff game, the Dogs had a true freshman, Branden Smith, receive a kick deep in the end zone Saturday and, against all common sense, he tried to return it and got stopped inside his own 10-yard line. OK, chalk that up to a stupid freshman mistake. Surely, he’d get coached up on the sidelines, right?
Nope, next time he tried the same thing again.
All of which makes it seem that Richt and company don’t take special teams play seriously enough.
Until they do, it’s likely that Georgia is going to continue to lose the field-position battle. And games.