Greetings from iced-in Decatur! Hope you’re staying safe and warm during this winter storm, and along those lines I thought a topic that tends to get a lot of UGA fans “hot” might be a good one for today: special teams.
There were no classes in Athens yesterday, but the folks at Butts-Mehre stayed busy announcing a slight restructuring of the football coaching staff. The headline item was Mark Richt making Bryan McClendon the official “recruiting coordinator,” a post that had been vacant since Rodney Garner decamped to Auburn. But since McClendon was named national recruiter of the year by 247sports and Scout.com, had a hand in landing Georgia’s biggest signing day names, and is likely due for a hefty raise, that was one a lot of folks probably saw coming.
Besides, it likely won’t change much in the way UGA recruits, with Daryl Jones continuing in his current role as director of on-campus recruiting.
Potentially much more important in relation to wins and losses was the secondary announcement that the restructuring also includes special teams, the area where the Dogs frankly have stunk the past couple of seasons, which is why fans have been calling for a full-time special teams coach or coordinator since Richt’s approach of having the special teams coaching divided up among several staffers obviously wasn’t working.
Richt still isn’t willing to go with the full-time approach, but he is dividing special teams into offensive special teams and defensive special teams, and he named a coordinator for each. The offensive special teams (which includes kickoff returns, punt returns and extra points and field goals) will be coordinated by tight ends coach John Lilly. Defensive special teams (kickoffs, punt coverage and punt blocks and defending extra points and field goals) will be headed by new inside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler.
OK, superficially you’d figure that consolidating the responsibility for special teams with just two assistant coaches has got to be a step up over Richt’s previous committee method, and I applaud the fact that he recognized that he couldn’t continue to ignore the problem. The fact is that his program had become notorious as one of the worst in the country for special teams thanks to numerous dropped punts, blocked punts and other so-called “catastrophe” plays that give the other team the ball, great field position or even points.
As Chip Towers detailed, most teams would be upset to have one of those type plays in a season; the Bulldogs had nine last year: giving up a touchdown on a kickoff return, two blocked punts, two muffed punts, a touchdown given up on a fake field goal, two mishandled punt snaps and one mishandled field goal hold.
Of course, the fact that Richt’s boss, Greg McGarity, recently conceded “right now our special teams are a deficiency” and said, “It’s up to Mark to fix it” might have had something to with Georgia’s head coach coming around.
Still, as Richt pointed out repeatedly over the past couple of seasons, simply naming a special teams “coordinator” doesn’t really mean that much. It’s just a title.
And that’s what still concerns me. If this restructuring and the naming of not just one but two coordinators ends up being largely lip service and isn’t accompanied by a wholesale rethinking of how UGA coaches special teams, then it’s not likely to make much of a difference.
Richt and Georgia players have also said repeatedly in recent years that they spend just as much time practicing special teams as any other program. But that raises the question of whether that practice time is being well spent. Have the players been taught the right special teams skills and strategies?
Too many times over the past couple of years, talented young players put back to receive punts or kickoffs looked unsure and uncoached and tended to make poor choices. Georgia signed what potentially could be a game-breaking return man last week in Isaiah McKenzie, and Mike Bobo said kickoff and punt returns will be McKenzie’s main job, which he noted “could be the difference in a ballgame for us.”
But McKenzie will be a true freshman, and if he’s not coached sufficiently about when to fair catch it, when to attempt a return, when to let it roll and even how best to get in position to catch the ball, the Dogs still could end up with those killer fumbles that hurt so badly during the 2013 season.
Likewise, Georgia’s “punt safe” approach in reaction to being burned by fakes to many times has largely negated the punt return as an offensive weapon. Signing one talented player won’t make much of a difference there if Georgia still is afraid to set up a return.
So, yes, naming two special teams coordinators is a step forward, but that alone won’t fix the problem.
CONTRIBUTION DEADLINE IS FIRM
You’d think that what with businesses and schools closed (including UGA) and folks urged to stay off the roads thanks to the winter storm that the UGA Athletic Association and Georgia Bulldog Club might cut Bulldog backers some slack on the looming Feb. 15 postmark deadline for getting those contributions in so they can buy renewable season tickets.
But, no, another announcement made this week is that weather-related closings will not impact the Hartman Fund deadline. The thinking seems to be that since you can donate online, a bit of ice on the roads isn’t enough to prompt an extension. Of course, if the ice on the trees and power lines makes you lose electricity, you might not be able to make that donation online, but the athletic association’s “weather operations policy” doesn’t seem to take that into account.
However, the Bulldog Club office in Athens will have special hours of 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. this Saturday to accept your money. That’s big of them.
UGA HOCKEY IN DOWNTOWN ATHENS!
Tickets for the first UGA club ice hockey game at the Classic Center in Athens will go on sale Friday. The Ice Dawgs will make their debut in their new home April 9 when they host Georgia Tech. There’ll be a pregame Meet the Ice Dogs autographing event the day of the game, too.
Tickets will be available beginning at noon Friday at the Classic Center and cost $10 for reserved seating and $15 for premium seating.
They also can be purchased online at ClassicCenter.com, via phone at 706-357-4444 or by visiting the venue’s box office at 300 N. Thomas St. in downtown Athens.
It’s a bit off-topic, but this past Sunday night’s CBS special celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ U.S. debut, featuring an onstage reunion of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, will be repeated by the network Wednesday from 8:30 to 11 p.m.
Among the highlights of the special, which features a wide range of acts performing Beatles music, is Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters and Jeff Lynne of ELO and the Traveling Wilburys bashing out a great version of “Hey Bulldog,” which would be one of my favorite Fab Four tunes even if it didn’t include the UGA mascot in the title.
Anyway, it’s a fun special so if you missed it last weekend, check it out.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg