ATHENS – The great mistake that we make is assuming that every problem boils down to a simple error, and thus has a simple solution. Georgia fans discovered last year that hiring a special teams coach wasn’t such a simple solution to fixing the problems.
Therefore, it also would be a mistake to assume that the problems with special teams will be fixed this year just because Georgia:
- Has dedicated more time in practice to special teams.
- Hired another special teams coach, former Auburn special teams coordinator Scott Fountain, as an analyst.
- Brought in immediate contributors, or at least competition, at kicker, punter and return specialist.
- Has a full allotment of 85 scholarship players, including a stellar freshman class — many of whom are slated for starting spots — thus meaning more pure talent on special teams.
And yet, that’s a lot of action taken toward getting better on special teams after Georgia finished 80th or worse nationally in kickoff returns, punting and kickoff coverage. And the strength of the Bulldogs special teams in 2016, punt returns, was because of the work of one player —Isaiah McKenzie — now doing that job for the Denver Broncos.
Kirby Smart hired Shane Beamer as special teams coach on his first staff at Georgia last year. He became the whipping boy for upset fans, which was one of the reasons Mark Richt resisted hiring one special teams coordinator all those years. One coach either gets the credit, but usually the blame, even though special-teams coaching is almost always a collective effort at the college level.
Yes, Beamer oversaw the special teams, but the dirty little secret is that nearly every coach, from Smart to the position coaches, was involved. Remember, when it’s time for special teams practice, the position coach needs to draw from every unit, so nearly every coach drops what he’s doing and gets involved. The offensive line coach works with his players who are blocking on the field goal unit. The linebackers coach works with his players who are part of special teams. And so on.
Despite the subpar year by special teams, Beamer didn’t go anywhere this offseason. But help was brought in.
Fountain, whose units at Auburn were generally pretty good, has been singled out for praise several times by Smart.
“He did a tremendous job at Auburn, always has. Has brought a lot of insight to our coaches. He’s going to help us be better [on] special teams and just in practice and organization and things we do. We have to improve in that area.”
Fountain is not an on-field coach, so by NCAA rule he can’t physically help and oversee during practice. But he can watch tape and make points to Beamer, Smart and the other coaches.
One player estimated that in this preseason, the Bulldogs have averaged about a minute or two more on special teams every practice. It doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up and could pay dividends down the road.
As far as the players themselves, we’ll see how things go with the specialists. McKenzie will be hard to replace, but maybe improved blocking will help Ahkil Crumpton, or whoever returns punts, to spring free a few times. Student-assistant coach, and former NFL kicker, Kevin Butler seems confident the punting will be better with graduate transfer Cameron Nizialek, but no one knows for sure until the former Columbia punter gets rushed by big and fast SEC gunners. Field goals and kickoffs also will be fascinating to watch, with sophomore Rodrigo Blankenship or graduate transfer David Marvin, or both, depending on how that’s handled.
Then there’s the depth issue. Smart said that last year, the staff counted 250 snaps on special teams by freshmen. That’s a lot. But this year the talented freshman class should mean even better talent on special teams. Think of someone such as Nate McBride, the quick and big (6-foot-2 and 223 pounds) inside linebacker who won’t crack the two-deep unless there are injuries, but can offer up his skills flying down the field on coverage units.
Mark Webb, the freshman receiver from Philadelphia, was mentioned by senior Jeb Blazevich as someone who is flashing on special teams. It might be hard for Webb to crack the two-deep at receiver, but he can run downfield and cover.
“He’s been getting in there and just doing a phenomenal job on special teams,” Blazevich said “That’s what we’ve been harping all offseason. We were not very good last year in special teams. I think that led to a couple losses that should have been wins. And we need to get that under control.
“That’s the main thing we’re doing. We’re focusing on it. We’re emphasizing it. And guys are stepping up.”
Or at least that’s the preseason happy talk. Georgia’s coaches knew it was a problem last year and set about to fix it. Did they? We’re about to find out.