A deep dive into Georgia’s special teams: A struggle, with some asterisks

Georgia football-Marshall Long gives up football, creates roster space-Georgia Bulldogs
Marshall Long, who is having an up-and-down freshman year, punts under the watchful eye of student assistant coach Kevin Butler.

ATHENS – This subject isn’t as simple as just field goals going wide right, or kickoffs not going through the end zone. This subject deals with the seemingly mundane, from whether a walk-on is healthy, to if a ball was kicked right.

“A lot of people don’t understand it’s more than goes into it, and sometimes it’s not the kicker’s fault,” said Sony Michel, who besides being a Georgia tailback has also been on special teams. “You’ve got the snapper, the holder, everything’s got to be a timing thing. If the timing’s not right it’ll knock off the kicker, the snapper, the holder. Things just have to be in the right place. Sometimes maybe the kicker had kicked the laces, and the people and the fans won’t know that.”

The Georgia football team has discovered this year that hiring a special teams coordinator – and one with a last name synonymous with special teams – isn’t a quick fix. Nor is having the best place-kicker in program history serve as tutor to the current place-kickers.

According to ESPN’s special teams efficiency rankings, Georgia ranks 126th nationally – ahead of only Louisiana-Monroe and East Carolina. The next-worst SEC team is South Carolina, which is 100th.

For what it’s worth Miami, where Mark Richt brought over Todd Hartley as special teams coordinator, ranks 20th nationally.

ESPN’s efficiency rating is a complicated formula that it says is “based on the point contributions of each unit to the team’s scoring margin, on a per-play basis.” When it comes to the more traditional and understandable stats, based on yardage gained and given up by each unit, Georgia fares better:

Punt returns: 46th nationally, at 9.64 yards per return.

Kickoff returns: 39th nationally, at 23.31 yards per return.

Punt coverage: 55th nationally, opponents averaging 6.64 per return.

Kickoff coverage: 99th nationally, opponents averaging 23 yards per return.

That’s all still not much to crow about. There are some mitigating factors, however, and it’s more than just the struggles of the place-kickers.

The punts by Marshall Long, a freshman, have been inconsistent, and have lacked hang time. That puts the punt coverage team in bad position. Long is averaging 39.5 yards per punt, which is 12th in the SEC, but retains the confidence of his head coach, especially after pinning South Carolina several times on Sunday.

“He’s getting more and more confidence as he goes out there,” Kirby Smart said. “He had the three times that we got them pinned in in the last game, and some of them were lucky with rolls. But I think it’s a situation where I think when he’s in rhythm he kicks well. If he gets out of rhythm he struggles some. A lot of that is being a freshman.”

(Long isn’t available for interviews, per Smart’s policy, and nor is special teams coordinator Shane Beamer.)

Rodrigo Blankenship hasn’t kicked many touchbacks, but that may not be the real problem. (PERRY McINTYRE/AJC)

While fans obsess over whether a kickoff is a touchback or not, the more worrisome thing for Georgia coaches is that Blankenship’s kickoffs have been aimed correctly. The coverage is set beforehand for the kick going a certain way; too many times, Blankenship’s kick went too far off target, which makes the coverage look worse than it actually is.

“Our biggest problem so far has been kick placement, meaning the ball hasn’t been kicked where we’ve wanted it kicked,” Smart said. “Sometimes it has hang, sometimes it doesn’t have hang, sometimes it’s not where it’s supposed to be. You design a coverage a certain way, you expect the ball to be kicked there. That’s the number one thing we’ve got to improve.”

And while Georgia’s injury situation has been pretty good, the few there have been impacted special teams. Nick Chubb and Michel, for instance, would have been on the punt coverage team, but Chubb had the ankle problem and Michel had the July ATV accident. Two lesser-known players, Shattle Fenteng and Tim Hill, are good coverage players on punt and kickoff but have also been hurt.

Still, it’s the individual kicking struggles that have gotten the most attention.

Georgia’s place-kickers – despite Kevin Butler serving as a very famous student assistant – are just 4-for-9 on field goals this year, a percentage that is the worst in the SEC and better than only five other FBS teams. The lack of confidence in the kicking game has bled into other decisions, such as going for it on fourth down when most other teams would without hesitation try a field goal.

Georgia’s kickoffs, mostly handled by Rodrigo Blankenship, are averaging 61.13 yards in the air, which ranks 78th nationally. There have only been eight touchbacks, out of 31, a percentage that ranks 93rd nationally. (The median touchback percentage, for point of reference, is 37 percent. Only eight teams have a touchback percentage better than 75 percent, so it’s by no means automatic. Still, Georgia’s rate this year isn’t good.)

“It’s just a process,” Michel said. “Sometimes you have some good kicks, and sometimes you have some bad kicks. But I have faith we’ll get it right. …

“I think they’ve been getting better and better each week. That’s kind of how it is: When you’re struggling you get better and better. And I think the guys have been doing a great job of focusing on what’s important. Special teams is a very important part of this team and I think guys have been taking it very seriously, lately.”

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