ATHENS — Heading into Saturday’s matchup, Georgia looks to have an edge on Tennessee offensively and defensively. But the Volunteers appear poised to dominate in the other area of play—special teams.
It was the first thing mentioned by Georgia coach Mark Richt when he previewed the Vols earlier this week.
“When you look at statistics on them, the thing that jumps out the most is what they’re doing on special teams,” Richt said. “Just a dynamic return game especially. But they’re punt team has done great as well.”
Turns out, Tennessee does a lot well on special teams:
- It leads the country in kickoff return, averaging 37.92 yards per return.
- Sophomore defensive back Evan Berry — from Fairburn’s Creekside High School — is the No. 1 kickoff returner in college football, with 447 return yards total and two kickoffs returned for touchdowns. Berry’s older brother, Eric, also played at Tennessee and is now a Pro Bowl safety for the Kansas City Chiefs.
- Cornerback Cameron Sutton — from Jonesboro — is No. 7 in college football with 153 yards on 10 punt returns. Teammate Alvin Kamara — a running back from Norcross — is fourth in the SEC with a 16.8-yard punt-return average and has a 50-yard TD return.
Conversely, Georgia has had some struggles on special teams. And that was before this week’s news that Isaiah McKenzie, who leads the team in punt returns and is second in kick returning, is out for the game with a hamstring injury.
Last week, the Bulldogs gave up a game-turning blocked punt for a touchdown. This week they made some personnel changes.
“But I’m not going to announce any of them,” Richt said. “I don’t want to give anybody a clue.”
It’s not unusual for Georgia to be out-classed by Tennessee in the return game. In the past 11 years, the Bulldogs have finished the season with a higher kick return average than Tennessee only twice, 2006 and 2011. In that span, Georgia has been in the bottom three kick return teams in the SEC three times and no higher than seventh in the conference.
Georgia currently is last in Division I college football in kickoff returns, averaging only 14.00 yards per return.
And while there is the option to stop the return instead of match it, Georgia is tied for 85th in the NCAA in kick return defense, allowing 22.00 yards per return on average.
The outcome of a game can often hinge on one special teams play. Meanwhile, the past two games between the Bulldogs and Volunteers were decided by the margin of a field goal.
“Special teams is a big part of the game,” junior receiver and kick returner Reggie Davis said. “You have to win two phases of the game in order to win, whether it’s offense-defense, defense-special teams, one or the other. You have to win two of them in order to win the game. Special teams is always a big key and we take that very seriously.”