ATHENS — Collin Barber came to the Georgia football program expecting to be a four-year starter, and that’s what the team expected too. When you give one of those valuable scholarship spots to a punter, you don’t want them to spend most of their career competing with walk-ons.
That’s where Barber has been the past few years, however, and his spot is again up for grabs as he enters his senior year. Now it’s a precocious freshman making a run at his spot.
But the reality is Barber is competing with himself, and that’s been the case for three years. His ability has never been in question, and was what earned him a scholarship. Not showing that ability on every punt has been the issue.
That was on display last year, Barber’s most disappointing at Georgia, when he had five punts of 50-plus yards, including a 60-yarder, but his average was a career-low 39.3. It didn’t help that he had a herniated disc, but Barber admits that isn’t an excuse.
“Last year was just one of them years where you don’t even wanna look back on,” Barber said. “With my back and everything I didn’t put in the work that I needed to, and the outcome showed.”
Adam Erickson, the walk-on who shared the punting duties with Barber the past three years, has graduated. But new competition now exists in Rodrigo Blankenship, a walk-on freshman with a booming leg.
Perhaps realizing this, Barber said he had an epiphany after Georgia’s spring game this year: “I gotta work.” And he called up Marc Nolan.
Nolan, based in Roswell, has been Barber’s personal punting and kicking coach since his sophomore year at Cartersville High School. Nolan helped Barber make all-state and become a three-star prospects – about three more stars than most punters are on the recruiting ledger. It carried through to Barber’s freshman season at Georgia, when he averaged 41.6 yards per attempt, including eight punts of 50-plus yards, and pinning the opponent inside the 20-yard line 18 times, or almost one-third of the time. It wasn’t a spectacular debut season, but it was promissing.
Then the inconsistency began: While Barber averaged a career-high 44.1 yards per attempt, he had a few shanks and too many that just didn’t go where they were supposed to. Barber dealt with a concussion that season, which led to him not using Nolan as much. The same happened last year, when Barber blamed the back problems too much.
This year he was finally spurred to look at something else: His technique.
Two main problems that were pinpointed: Striking the ball at the same height every punt, and following straight through every time he kicked in. In other words, being consistent on every punt.
A particular emphasis was put on following through. Nolan noticed that Barber would punt and then sort of fall off, so they worked on falling forward. Think of it as following through on a golf swing.
“That’s added five, 10 yards to my distance,” Barber said.
Still, Barber said his emphasis isn’t on kicking it far, it’s on placing it at the right spot.
“I’ve got guys like Sony Michel, all of them studs, that are covering for me,” Barber said, alluding to the speedy tailback who apparently is working as a gunner on special teams. “I can hit a 70-yard punt with a 4.0 hang and I’ve got confidence those guys are gonna tackle them. But I’d rather not. I’d rather a guy fair-catch it 45 yards every time than me having an 80 yard punt and bringing it back 40.”
Barber has been told by coach Mark Richt that consistency will decide the punting competition, just as it would at any position. (Including quarterback.) Barber said he’s trying not to worry about it, and just look inward.
“That kind of hit home for me after the spring game: This is my last year, there is no other year,” Barber said. “Something just told me: Hey, you need to work. This summer, the workouts, I’ve just got this mentality where I just don’t want to be beat. …
“I don’t know what’s gonna happen this year, only God knows. Hopefully it’ll be good. If not, I guess I’ve been blessed to come to the University of Georgia and get an education.”