ATHENS – On the eve of Georgia’s football season, a key question about the team centers around two untested freshmen. And no, this does not concern the much-hyped rookie tailbacks.
Today’s question: How will placekicker Marshall Morgan and punter Collin Barber, each of them 18 years old and three months removed from high school, fare in roles vacated by two seniors who graduated to the NFL?
The most honest answer probably is the one Georgia coach Mark Richt offered when asked this week if Morgan is ready to kick in front of 92,000 fans Saturday against Buffalo: “I don’t know. I don’t know how ready Marshall is. … I think in time he’s going to do extremely well. What will he do the first game, what will he do his first kick, I don’t know. It’ll be interesting to see.”
Then Richt added: “And of course Collin is kind of in the same boat.”
Morgan, from Fort Lauderdale, is positioned to take over the field-goal and extra-point duties from Blair Walsh, who held both jobs the past four years and now is the Minnesota Vikings’ placekicker. And Barber, from Cartersville, is poised to succeed Drew Butler, Georgia’s punter of the past three seasons and now with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The footsteps in which Morgan and Barber follow, as well as the expectations surrounding a No. 6-ranked team, compound the pressure on the freshmen to produce.
“I’m just going to try to zone it all out, to be honest with you,” Barber said. “I’m just going to pretend I’m back home in Cartersville … me, myself and the ball.”
Said Morgan: “We’re the new guys. So everyone is going to judge us and every single kick is being watched.”
Like most kickers, Morgan and Barber began as soccer players.
Morgan started playing soccer at age 6 and discovered a new sport when he rode his skateboard to a football practice in sixth grade.
“The coaches said, ‘Who can kick the ball?’” Morgan recalled. “I told them I could.” He made a 25-yard field goal on his first try, “and ever since then, they made me the kicker.”
In high school, he was credited with a career-long field goal of 59 yards, although he insists it was 60, and was ranked the nation’s No. 5 kicking prospect by espn.com. He committed to Georgia early in the recruiting process after also receiving an offer from Florida State.
Similarly, Barber branched out from soccer after a suggestion from a friend that he try football.
Barber began kicking in ninth grade, and by 12th grade, he was ranked the nation’s No. 6 punter prospect by 247sports.com. He averaged 45 yards per punt last season for Cartersville and fondly recalls an 80-yard “bomb” in an all-star game.
He caught Richt’s eye during a camp after 11th grade. Richt offered, and Barber accepted, a scholarship on the spot.
Now Barber and Morgan are roommates, living a shared experience.
“Everybody talks about it, you know. ‘Hey, Collin, you’ve got big shoes to fill.’ Marshall, same things,” Barber said. “But I believe you can do anything you set your mind to. … Yeah, it’s probably going to be tough to fill [Butler’s shoes]. But I want to fill them and I want to outgrow them and leave bigger ones.”
Morgan and Barber expressed satisfaction with their preseason performances, although scrimmage results were mixed. Morgan made a 42-yard field goal in one scrimmage and badly missed a 57-yarder in another.
As expected, the freshmen were listed as the No. 1 placekicker and punter on the depth chart released this week. But Richt said non-scholarship players Jamie Lindley (kicker) and Adam Erickson (punter) provided competition during practice and did not rule out giving them a chance in games. On kickoffs, Richt said both Morgan and Lindley have performed “well enough to do it.”
“It’s definitely going to be mind-blowing,” Morgan said of his Sanford Stadium debut. “I may get goosebumps not because I’m nervous but because it’ll be a feeling I’ve never experienced.”
Morgan and Barber follow players who made a mark in the record book. Walsh’s 76 field goals rank third on the UGA career list; he made 55 of 68 attempts in his first three years before slipping to 21 of 35 as a senior. Butler had a career average of 45.4 yards, the UGA record, and won the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s top punter in 2009.
UGA players are intrigued about how the freshmen kickers will fare Saturday.
“It’s a little bit different when you go out there and it’s not just your teammates watching,” linebacker Christian Robinson said. “There’s people seeing if you’re going to live up to the hype, and I think they can.”
– Tim Tucker, AJC
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