Fixing the Dawgs’ ‘scary’ special teams

If Blair Walsh was rushing his kicks, why didn't anyone on the coaching staff notice it? (Associated Press)

If Blair Walsh was rushing his kicks, why didn't anyone on the coaching staff notice it? (Associated Press)

Along with the lack of experienced depth in the secondary and the rebuilding project on the offensive line, the aspect of Mark Richt’s Bulldogs causing the most offseason apprehension among fans is special teams, where Georgia will be starting brand-new kickers and trying to turn around last year’s dismal performance.

Plus, doing all of that without the benefit of a special teams coach or coordinator, as Richt stubbornly sticks to the Bobby Bowden model of going without one.

That’s a decision that many have questioned, and the topic came up again over the weekend thanks to a report out of Minnesota, where the Vikings are betting they can fix what was wrong with placekicker Blair Walsh during his disappointing senior season at UGA.

The Vikes’ special teams coordinator, Mike Priefer, told 1500espn.com that after working with Walsh and studying film of last season, he’s figured out how the ex-Bulldog went from one of the nation’s most reliable PKs to making only 21 of 35 field goal attempts.

“He was rushing every kick,” Priefer said. “Every kick he missed, he hit them well, but he was much too fast with his get off time. I don’t know if that was what he was coached to do, maybe that’s what he wanted to do.”

That last bit sounds somewhat like an indictment of Georgia’s special teams coaching … or, more accurately, lack of special teams coaching.

Whether Priefer has nailed it remains to be seen — and there’s still the suspicion that most of Walsh’s problem last season was between his ears — but there’s no doubt Richt’s staff was clueless about how to help their placekicker get back on track, basically leaving it up to the kid to fix himself.

Hopefully, incoming freshman placekicker Marshall Morgan and punter Collin Barber won’t arrive in Athens with any hitches in their mechanics that need diagnosing, because it appears Richt’s staff wouldn’t be able to help them much.

Of course, they weren’t much better at improving any other aspect of special teams play last season, which Richt himself summed up rather generously as “mostly average to scary.”

More scary than average, as the numbers show: Georgia ranked 116th out of 120 teams last year in punt return defense and merely 88th in kickoff return defense, allowing two kickoffs to be returned for touchdowns and another long return by Florida that set up a field goal.

It's off to the races for the Honey Badger against Georgia. (Associated Press)

It's off to the races for the Honey Badger against Georgia. (Associated Press)

At least it’s good to know that John Lilly, the assistant coach who oversees Georgia’s punt coverage unit, is still haunted by his team’s performance against LSU in the SEC championship game, where Tyrann Mathieu returned one punt 62 yards for a touchdown and another punt 42 yards to set up a score as the Dawgs quickly lost control of the game in the second half.

“You think about that game every day and what happened there,” Lilly recently told the Athens Banner Herald.

Lilly recognizes that coaching is a big part of special teams play: “We’ve got to do a great job of coaching it,” he told the ABH. “We’ve got to give them a great plan and scheme that fits our personnel and then we’ve got to get the right guys on there and then motivate them. Then, at the moment of truth, we’ve got to make the plays when they’re there to be made.”

He reiterated what Richt has indicated several times, that it’s “all hands on deck,” as the head coach put it, and that starters and other high-profile players need to take the place of the many walk-ons that have populated Georgia’s coverage teams in recent years.

Said Lilly: “You’ve got to put guys in the right place and I do think from a personnel standpoint, I think you’re going to see guys across classes. You’ll see everything from a true freshman to seniors out there. You’ll see everything from a high-draft pick to a guy that might be one in two or three years but hadn’t done it yet. We’ve got to do — I’ve got to do — a great job of motivating them and getting it done. The punter’s got to do a great job of putting the ball where we want it and how we want it there, and I think we’ll be very good again.”

Richt, at least, is talking the talk about special teams … finally. As he put it a few months ago, “If we’ve got to put a bunch of starters on defense on some specials or starters at wide receiver or whatever you’ve got to do — tailback, I don’t care what position. We’ve got to get the best guys out there and understand how crucial it is.”

And he said after spring practice that Georgia most likely will have more live kicking reps in fall practice than in the past because of breaking in a new punter and placekicker. “They need to be under pressure as much as possible and it’s hard to create that pressure unless you’re doing some live situations. But we also just need to see for our own eyes can a guy make a tackle out in the open. Drills are great, but when it gets down to it, you have to have that sensation of being able to corral a guy out there when you’re covering a punt or covering a kick. You need to have your punts rushed full speed to make sure there’s no problems.”

But as David Ching of ESPN’s Dawg Nation noted, “Georgia’s unsightly return defense average doesn’t even include other disasters for the punt team. South Carolina defensive lineman Melvin Ingram rumbled 68 yards for a touchdown on a fake punt, providing points that made a huge difference in the Gamecocks’ 45-42 win. And Vanderbilt nearly pulled off a massive upset a few weeks later when the Commodores blocked a Drew Butler punt in the closing seconds, with Butler’s touchdown-saving tackle being all that preserved the Bulldogs’ 33-28 win.”

Spending more time in practice on live kicks and getting more starters out on the field for kick coverage definitely sounds like a good idea, but beyond that I’d like to see a heightened sense of awareness on the part of both the players and the coaching staff. Last year Georgia was a sucker for a fake punt (not for the first time under Richt). And against LSU you watched the Dawgs punt with a true sense of foreboding because they didn’t seem to know how to counter the Tigers’ return game.

I’d like to see some variation in how the Dawgs approach punting — for instance, on occasion using the rugby kicks that so many teams used to good advantage against us last year. They’re tough to return, and in the SEC championship game, it certainly would have made more sense to kick those, or at the very least squibbers that are hard to pick up, to try and keep the Honey Badger from breaking a long return. Instead, we kicked it right to him and depended on our obviously suspect coverage.

In order for the Dawgs to have a chance of living up to the high preseason expectations that have been placed on this team, there’s going to have to be a major turnaround on special teams. Yes, on-field execution is a key, and that’s on the players up to a point. But coaching is a big part of college football, and the approach taken with Walsh and the punting game last year certainly isn’t going to get it done.

Got something you want to discuss concerning UGA athletics or a question for the Junkyard Blawg? Send it to junkyardblawg@gmail.com.

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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg

337 comments Add your comment

GTDog

June 26th, 2012
11:03 am

GTDog

June 26th, 2012
11:06 am

Aha! First time in HISTORY, I win, I win, I win!!!!

I’d like to thank all those who helped make this possible, and a special thanks to Bill for posting his article at the exact moment he did. I’ll await my “kudos”, then like an old soldier…I’ll just fade away.

Okay, now I quit…………………

GTDog

June 26th, 2012
11:07 am

First AND second? Man, if I get third too I’m going to quit my job and do this full-time!!!!!!!!!!

GTDog

June 26th, 2012
11:09 am

Wow! Three? I just sent a resignation e-mail! If I get FOUR I’m leaving the wife and kids…and moving to Vegas TODAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!

OldFan

June 26th, 2012
11:10 am

Well said, Bill. There’s no excuse for a program with so many excellent athletes to be so poorly prepared and coached on special teams. I hope there will be more than incremental improvement, but I imagine that every kick and kick coverage will still be plenty scary.

GTDog

June 26th, 2012
11:10 am

Packing now….Oooops, forgot: “Bye honey, I’ll write”………

kerryb

June 26th, 2012
11:14 am

Lets not forget what helped the Honey Badger was a non call on a block in the back at the 50 yard line and a non call of him tossing the ball away before he crossed the goal line.

Vance Duly

June 26th, 2012
11:16 am

Who knew that the old Jewish proverb (also referred to by Jesus) that basically states, “Physician, heal yourself” would also apply to the Dawg’s field goal kickers. “Kicker, fix your own kick!” That doesn’t sound like a great approach…… GO DAWGS!

chilidawg

June 26th, 2012
11:16 am

Richt to reporter after the Vandy game: “We have to address special teams.” Richt to special teams during practice: “I want you guys to know that I think you are special. Now hit the showers.”

chilidawg

June 26th, 2012
11:19 am

kerryb, we never should have kicked the ball anywhere near him.

Moobs Johnson

June 26th, 2012
11:24 am

Special teams have been awful during most of Richt’s regime. To expect drastic change is unrealistic and Disney.

BalkansDawg

June 26th, 2012
11:26 am

I think over and above both the OL and patchwork secondary for the early games is my concern for special teams play. Has anyone actually done the math on how many points we left on the field and gave our opponents each game as a direct result of bad special teams? I’d “love” to see that number; I just hope the coaching staff has seen it and plans to do something about it. It sure seemed like we gave up at least 7 points in each game last year (except for NM State, Coastal Carolina, and Auburn) because of special teams gaffs. And that doesn’t even take into consideration poor field position we handed our defense in key games (i.e. SC, LSU, FL). The only game that our special teams actually looked good was the Auburn game — when we used several of our starting defenders on punt and kick coverage units. The secondary will be fine and the OL will gel well enough by the time we get into the meat of our schedule. But for the love of everything that is sacred, fix special teams before game 1!

UGA Insider

June 26th, 2012
11:31 am

I will say this without any doubt…UGA had the worst special teams unit that I have ever seen on a football field. EVER! How about this for an idea…let’s punt it to Honey Badger and see if we can stop him??? We have terrible decision makers as well….. CTG is not staying long if UGA doesn’t hire a guy to do special teams… CMR better get with it.

DawginLex

June 26th, 2012
11:35 am

How do you hire another coach with no openings on the staff?

I’d let Grantham take over.

I guarantee you he could fix it and get 11 players out there who know what to do.

Our special teams used to be great. Last 4 years – AWFUL

UGA Insider

June 26th, 2012
11:36 am

Also, the Melvin Ingram fake was so easy to see. Our coaches should be ashamed…but if you don’t have a special teams coach who can you blame right??? That play I went downstairs to grab a beer and my wife asked why are you going now? I said because it’s a fake and I don’t want to watch what happens. When I came back my wife said you were right how did you know that. I said everyone in the world knew it except our special teams coach. Oh wait, we don’t have one.

claytondawg

June 26th, 2012
11:38 am

If the special teams play is no better in 2012, then our record will be no better. Sad note but true.

DIT

June 26th, 2012
11:42 am

@kerryb

I frustrated with the special teams as well, but can’t really put the finger on a call. Our coverage was atrocious! No urgency what so-ever and they all forgot how to tackle. I have a feeling special teams and the O-Line will keep us out of the SEC CG this coming fall. I hope I’m wrong.

Mr. ConeDawg

June 26th, 2012
11:44 am

Hire Hines Ward as ST coach. He knows how to hit!

ozzfest

June 26th, 2012
11:48 am

BOBO FOR SPECIAL TEAMS COOR!!!

GATiger

June 26th, 2012
11:56 am

Richt is going into his…what…10th season as HC, and he’s just now figuring out that you have to put your best athletes on kick coverage teams? Is this guy learning impaired or just stubborn? If he’d watched Alabama or LSU, he’d have noticed that Saban and Miles always have their best and fastest on the field.

AltamahaDawg

June 26th, 2012
11:57 am

I noticed that you left out the part of that article where it states that unlike the NCAA, the NFL has unlimited staff, and it’s pure speculation that something that an NFL specialized coach could guess at in hindsight, during the offseason, could be a something that a college staff could realistically have just “fixed”during the middle of an actual season going on.

Dr. P

June 26th, 2012
11:58 am

Richt is soft and he recruits soft players that are afraid to go down field with the reckless abandon necessary on coverage teams. Either get us a Grantham type to coach the special teams or get rid of Richt—my personal preference

Aaron Murray

June 26th, 2012
12:01 pm

They call the “special” for a reason, and it aint because they ride the short bus.

Aaron Murray

June 26th, 2012
12:03 pm

It’t also not just sticking the best players out there….it’s coaching a desire to make big plays on ST and taking the task seriously. These other teams COACH special teams, hence the sucess.

No worries though, I got some new heels this summer…..no more INT, just TD,TD,TD all day long baby. We wont need the ST unit but a couple times this year after I run up my huge score.

oh…..that’s right, our O aint been stellar either. Call Belin back!!

Dawg eat Dawg

June 26th, 2012
12:04 pm

If Richt likes to pay his coaches a little extra here and there why not pay one a little extra to focus on special teams? FFS this is a huge part of the game and can really set the tone!

Oh well, maybe Richt will retire in two years and Grantham can take over and bring some REAL swag to the team…

Frank Lane

June 26th, 2012
12:07 pm

Good article. You are absolutely correct.

Frank Lane

June 26th, 2012
12:08 pm

If Walsh gets his problems fixed, it should be a slam dunk signal that we need a special teams coach who is an expert also in the mechanics of kicking.

Skokie Dog

June 26th, 2012
12:09 pm

The weaknesses of our special teams in recent years are just a symptom of a bigger problem with the program: lack of preparation. When the opposing teams are talented and show up well prepared for the game, the results on the field leave us wondering why our talented team doesn’t match up well. Like others here, I have become weary of anticipating the fake punts, while our brain trust seems oblivious over on the sidelines. Coach Richt is simply stubborn about this aspect of the game.

ARdawg

June 26th, 2012
12:10 pm

Moobs

I disagree. All of Richt’s ST’s haven’t been awful. In the last 3-4 years yes, awful, pathetic and progressively worse each year. It simply needs attentiopn. Hopefully, he is through his lip service phase and is ready to do something about it

old dog

June 26th, 2012
12:14 pm

Special teams can win you one or two, or lose you one or two. they definitely helped lose the South Carolina game. Va. Tech uses lots of starters…..maybe we need to after our coverage last year. We may need to look at that coach………………….

59bulldawg

June 26th, 2012
12:21 pm

Betcha Coach Hartman could have figured it out!

old dog

June 26th, 2012
12:26 pm

@59bulldawg,
Right on!!!!!!!

Craig

June 26th, 2012
12:26 pm

Trust me- it will be the same story this year. Its always something…OLine…..Dline….Special teams…….Running Back……QB……..9-3 at best……..WE HAVENT LIVED UP TO EXPECTATIONS IN YEARS NOW…as a UGA fan all my life- I have come to accept that.

AltamahaDawg

June 26th, 2012
12:27 pm

I think the team “special teams” gets pretty watered down in here. In the past 5 years, UGA on the aspect of special teams that dealt with offense has been one of the best in the SEC. Punting, PK, point, runback average, points.

Are we really going to have a discussion that UGA’s model for PK coaching is lacking with the past TWO all time SEC scoring champs?

It’s the defensive side of that where the problem has been. return coverage has pretty much been the only problems. So obviously it’s a specific problem, not some stubbornness to do i tbroadly like Bowden (and most other college coaches too).

Truth be told, Alabama has been pretty average, and in fact lower half of many aspects of the “special teams” during Saban’s 5 yrs there.So what can we conclude from that? I mean explain to me how Alabam can be the 7th worst team in the SEC at KO coverage? (UGA 7.8) Or the 6th worse in punt coverage (only percentage points better than UGA)? Urban Meyer and his legendary handling of the ST, was, in many years not any better than anybody else at various aspects..

You can also look at the years that any SEC team has been much better at certain aspects of special teams, and not coincidently, they also were better at othr things too. Its called depth. And talent.

tide roll

June 26th, 2012
12:27 pm

Scary? Scary? Have you seen your center (Andrews), and right tackle ( Houston). Now that’s scary.

dga

June 26th, 2012
12:28 pm

@DawginLex: I agree that someone on the staff should just take over special teams instead of splitting it among the coaches, but not sure if I’d really want CTG coaching special teams either. If there was one thing that could definitely be criticized about the defense last year, it was the inability to predict/stop a trick play. I think everyone that ran a trick play against our defense succeeded. Ole Miss had a couple succeed, Vandy had one or two work and Auburn’s only success against our D was early in the game when they ran a trick play. I like CTG, but that’s still a concern of mine. With the way we already fall for fake punts, not sure that him taking over special teams would be the fix.

tide roll

June 26th, 2012
12:30 pm

No worries. we’ll just put Theus on Carl Lawson. Can’t you just see it. Murray’s helmet goes one way, and hair product the other! Do it Dawgs!

Inlet Dawg

June 26th, 2012
12:31 pm

I still am hearing the same” I don’t give a dang about special teams coaching” that keeps us almost good.Still doing less with more than anybody else in the SEC.

Skokie Dog

June 26th, 2012
12:32 pm

All of those missed field goals last season didn’t have anything to do with the lax coverage of our units on punts and kickoffs. The problems with our special teams have been on both sides of the ball in recent years.

old dog

June 26th, 2012
12:33 pm

@Altamaha,
You are right on the depth…….we are gonna have to put some starters on our coverage teams. Folks can talk about the no-call against LSU, but our coverage was at best atrocious and at worst non-existent. ‘Bama was strong enough to make up for not necessarily good special teams (although field-goal kicking hurt them.) Hopefully, we will address these issues. I’m still thinking about a coach, though…………

AltamahaDawg

June 26th, 2012
12:36 pm

Bill, Up till this past year, there WAS a special team co-ordinator, so how was that a stubborn adherance to anything. I doubt there is any colelge team where several coaches don’t assist in running the various aspects of the ST, but some do appoint a guy to head it up. Isn’t that the norm , rather than the exception. here and everywhere else? . It’s really more a matter of how far it gets spread out. Obviously this past season, Richt didnt think any One coach would be well served by “co-ordinating” as was Fabris, or Berin. Do we know that not to be true?

I’ve asked before, who did we want to fire in the offseason when Berin left on pretty short notice, so that we could hire a ST coach?

Ace

June 26th, 2012
12:37 pm

Bill,

I figured out how many points special teams cost us last year.

We missed 15 field goals = 45 points
We gave up 3 td’s on punt return = 21 points
We gave up 3 td’s on kickoffs = 21 points

That’s 87 points over a 14 game season = 6.2 points per game

Richt is a stubborn man.

We need a special teams coach.

Skokie Dog

June 26th, 2012
12:37 pm

If you want to brag about our placekickers setting records for points scored, please remember that their achievement means we kicked lots of field goals rather than scoring touchdowns. But that is a problem to discuss another day.

Dawg Haus

June 26th, 2012
12:39 pm

Right on, Bill. Scary is being generous. With the exception of Andy Bailey missing what seemed like 50% of his attempts and Walsh’s strange unraveling last season, Richt’s kicking squads are usually pretty solid. I’m hoping Morgan and Barber come in focused and ready to go. As far as coverage goes, I don’t know what the coaches have planned for preseason practice, but there’s some serious work to be done.

Dawgustus

June 26th, 2012
12:40 pm

Wish Richt would simply be more proactive. He seems to ignore problems until they become huge issues. The article notes the Vandy game last year among other examples of ST embarassments. Vandy returned a KO for a TD, converted a fake punt to set up another TD and blocked a punt to give them a chance to win at the end. Miserable ST play did wind up costing us the Carolina game and maybe even the SECC game. I can’t think of an excuse for this continued problem and the only explanation I can think of is that the coaches, particularly Richt, just weren’t doing their jobs.

AltamahaDawg

June 26th, 2012
12:40 pm

I agree old dog. We need all hands on deck. That does sound like a welcome commitment for the coverage teams. As I recall we started the season with depth issues at LB, some said we couldn’t afford to lose even one, but we seem to be a lot better shape at this time.

Ace

June 26th, 2012
12:42 pm

Richt’s plan to fix this?

Spend 2 hours on the phone with some other coaches
Allow SOME contact to prepare team for ALL contact
Stick different players on there, but use the same scheme

Special teams is 1/3 of what you do.

At Georgia, it’s given 1/10th respect.

KappaDawg

June 26th, 2012
12:44 pm

I agree totally. The one common theme that I am seeing here lately is that there is a lack of adjustment on the fly for our team. Bobo and the offense will stubbornly run lackluster plays even when there is a defense clearly lined up to stop it, or us not going to a squib kick during the SECCG. The defense seems to be the only thing capable of recognizing the need for an adjustment and making the proper read. Coaches, don’t just ask your players to read defenses and situations…you must do so as well.

DawginLex

June 26th, 2012
12:47 pm

tide roll

how did Barrett jones win the Outland Trophy since he played for a private Christian high school and he is white?

SSIgator

June 26th, 2012
12:52 pm

“Fixing the Dawgs’ ‘scary’ special teams”

Instead of signing up for the “Cutting Edge Football” class a couple of years ago, maybe Mark “I can win games – just not the big games” Richt should have signed up for the “Basic Football and Techniques” class. You know, the one that he skipped over when he was daydreaming about being a football coach while working his job as a bartender in Miami.