ATHENS — Branden Smith knows he’s going to be on the field a lot for Georgia this fall. He’s going to be the starting field cornerback and he’s likely to get an occasional snap on offense, as he has the past couple of seasons.
But there’s one time in particular Smith really wants to be in the game — on punt returns.
“I want it bad,” Smith said of winning the job as No. 1 return man. “A punt return or a kick return can make or break a game. You need a key player back there. I want to be back there.”
Smith started last season as the Bulldogs’ No. 1 punt returner but eventually lost the job to Brandon Boykin, who went on to win the Paul Hornung Award. With Boykin now in the NFL, Smith would seem the logical choice to handle it his senior season. But he’s not leaving it to chance.
“We’re still competing for the job right now,” Smith said Tuesday. “[Coaches haven’t] told me who’s going to be back there. Whoever’s back there is going to do good no matter what because all of us have looked good doing it. Whoever’s back there is going to make plays.”
Smith is competing with sophomores Malcolm Mitchell and Damian Swann and freshman Sheldon Dawson for the job. All four were dynamic kick returners in high school.
“We’re having fun,” Smith said. “Everybody can make plays. All of us are offensive and defensive players and, with the ball in our hands, we can do things.”
Smith had nine of the Bulldogs’ 26 returns for a 7.8-yard average a year ago. But his career average on 19 returns is 11.3 average. That would have ranked fifth in the SEC this past season
“Obviously Branden Smith is the most seasoned guy we have back there and he’s probably the most comfortable being back there,” said Bryan McClendon, who coaches punt returns.
Smith is also competing for the kickoff return job with Mitchell, Swann and Dawson and freshmen tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. More than anything else Smith hopes to “take one to the house.” He thought he had done that on a punt return last season but his 74-yard TD against Coastal Carolina was called back for a block in the back.
Smith certainly has the speed to take it the distance. He had a 61-yard TD run against South Carolina in 2009 and a 56-yarder against New Mexico State last year. Both those came on offensive runs, however.
Smith indicated he hasn’t gotten much work with the offense this preseason and couldn’t say whether he was in offensive coordinator Mike Bobo’s plans. But he seemed unconcerned about it.
“Right now I’m just letting everything flow,” he said. “I’m just focusing on defense right now.”
Sheldon Dawson turning heads
Sheldon Dawson is behind Smith right now at field corner and punt returner. But by all accounts his college career is headed down a similar path. Georgia coach Mark Richt this week lauded the freshman from Memphis for his athleticism and his ability to contribute both offensively and defensively.
“Sheldon has made a bunch of plays out there,” Richt said. “He’s already proved to me that physically he has the tools to play [cornerback]. He’s still learning and he’ll get better at what he does. But the bottom line is you have to have the physical ability to play that position and stick with the receivers and that type of thing and he has that… And he’s got a history of having the ability to play offense, too.”
The Bulldogs had a short, non-padded practice — their 20th of 28 in the preseason. The practice was basically to prepare for Wednesday’s “practice game” scrimmage at Sanford Stadium.
“Today’s practice was fine,” Richt said. “We got accomplished what we meant to get accomplished, which was getting our scouts teams for Buffalo ready to play the ‘game’ tomorrow. We were in shorts and it was only 12 periods which wasn’t too physically taxing. It was mostly mental preparation for our getting ready for Buffalo and our scout teams getting ready to be Buffalo.”
Senior noseguard John Jenkins liked the change of pace after three weeks of intense intrasquad competition.
“We’re not worried about ourselves, we’re preparing for an opponent for once,” Jenkins said. “We’re not hitting each other. I’m pretty sure it’s the same way for Buffalo. They’re tired of hitting one another and they want to hit somebody else. I’m sure we’re both ready. It’s kind of nice to get to this point.”
This and that …
A day after expressing frustration over reports that tailback Keith Marshall had gotten injured during practice, Richt closed practices to media for the rest of this week. Designated periods will be re-opened on Monday… . There were three new names on the injury list on Tuesday, and none of them were Marshall: offensive lineman Mark Beard (knee sprain), wide receiver Chris Conley (shoulder bruise) and tight end Jay Rome (hamstring). Wide receiver Tavarres King remained on the list with a lowewr leg strain but is practicing. Center David Andrews was back after missing one day with illness. . . . Tickets are still available for the Sept. 1 opener against Buffalo and the Florida Atlantic on Sept. 15. They can be purchases online at http://gado.gs/4a or by calling the UGA ticket office at 1-877-542-1231.
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