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.
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.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg