ATHENS, Ga.—Two seasons ago, Georgia’s overall special teams play was near inept; however, the Bulldogs’ not-so-special unit nearly did a complete turnaround in 2014, particularly on their kickoff/punt offensive and defensive units. Yet, at Vanderbilt last Saturday, Georgia committed a familiar special-teams snafu which transformed what had seemed like a comfortable victory to an instant nail-biter.
After the Commodores cut their 24-6 deficit to 10 points with 4:33 remaining, they elected to attempt an onside kick against Georgia’s “hands team.” However, instead of the ball getting kicked short towards the team, it was looped over their heads, bouncing to the left of returner Reggie Davis, who was situated at his 25-yard line. Davis had little chance of gathering the ball, which Vanderbilt recovered inside Georgia’s 20-yard line.
Notably, for the Bulldogs dating back to last season, it was the third opposing pooch kickoff they’ve misplayed in their last seven games.
“If everybody did what they’re supposed to do [on the kickoff], there would have been a lot more time [for Davis to field the kick], and for him to get on it safely with a lot less drama,” head coach Mark Richt said following the Vanderbilt game. “But, it was absolutely one of the things that could have cost us.”
Before special teams play would continue to cost the Bulldogs games in 2014, Richt attempted to improve the overall unit by having it coordinated by two assistants: John Lilly (offense) and Mike Ekeler (defense). And, ever since then, the new system has helped to vastly improve the kickoff/punt units—for the most part.
For kick coverage: After allowing a combined three touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns in 2013, and a combined eight from 2011 through 2013, the Bulldogs since have yielded kickoff and punt return averages of only 19.2 and 4.4, respectively, and, what’s more, no touchdowns.
For kickoff/punt returns: After averaging a lowly 2.9 yards per punt return in 2013—the all-time program low—Georgia has averaged 12.2 yards per return ever since. A 18.6 yards per kickoff return average two seasons ago has improved by nearly two yards to 20.5. And, after returning no kicks for touchdowns in 2013, the Bulldogs have toted five back for scores (three punt returns, two kickoff returns) in the 15 games since, including four by sophomore Isaiah McKenzie (three punt returns, one kickoff return). Coming on a punt return, McKenzie’s fourth return for a touchdown was the first score of Georgia’s 31-14 win Saturday at Vanderbilt.
But, as indicated, when it comes to fielding pooch kickoffs, the Bulldogs’ recent opposition has found a way to retain possession, and deep in Georgia territory. At Kentucky last year, Georgia’s Quayvon Hicks fumbled a pooch kickoff, which was recovered by the Wildcats at the Bulldogs’ 23-yard line. Just three games later against Georgia Tech, a Yellow Jacket kick simply wasn’t fielded and was recovered at Georgia’s 27-yard line. And, finally, there was the recent muffed pooch kickoff at Vanderbilt. All three kickoffs were kicked to the right side of the field, descending between the Bulldogs’ 25 and 30-yard lines.
Coach Lilly, who is in charge of the kickoff return team, said that the scenario which unfolded against the Commodores was, first of all, “the worst time to have a kickoff return.” There were more than four minutes remaining, and Vanderbilt had two timeouts left; therefore, it wasn’t even a certainty they’d attempt an onside kick to begin with. Secondly, even if speculated correctly that an onside kick is coming, there are a number of type of kicks, and their lengths, which could result. Regardless, Lilly takes full blame for the misplayed pooch kick.
“That was my fault,” Lilly declared. “If things don’t happen right [on kickoff returns], I’m going to be the one…who says, ‘what have I said, or not said, done, or not done, that made it happen the way that it did?’”
Following the game, Richt claimed he was going to spend some time to “see what everyone else does in the country” if they think it’s obvious, or at least the good possibility of an onside kick being attempted. By Tuesday, he had concluded “most everybody lines up just the way we did.”
“So, we’ve got to learn to anticipate better…to learn to teach our return men to read [the kicker] a little bit better and get a jump on it, so to speak,” Richt added. “Alignment was a little bit of an issue that we didn’t align just quite the way we should have. But yeah, we looked around a good bit and we feel like it was more of an execution issue.”
And, as for the man who is mostly responsible for the players’ execution on kickoff returns, a valuable lesson was learned in Nashville.
“We had more than one guy not do the right thing which, to me, is on me,” Lilly said. “I’m glad it’s a lesson we learned in a game…that didn’t cost us a victory.”