Georgia depth chart analysis: Who replaces Isaiah McKenzie?

Mecole Hardman returned just one kickoff last year, but got a lot of practice fielding them in warm-ups and practice.

Georgia needs to replace a speedy kick returner who hails from Florida. It also needs to replace Isaiah McKenzie.

Lest anyone forget, Reggie Davis was Georgia’s main kickoff returner for the past two seasons, and dabbled in it his first two seasons as well. He wasn’t as prolific as McKenzie – who broke the school record for career punt return touchdowns in just three years on campus – but Davis could occasionally break into the open field. He ranked eighth in the SEC in kickoff return yardage in both his junior and senior seasons. Not great, not bad.

McKenzie, of course, is the bigger loss. He was second in the SEC in punt return yardage last year, and third in his sophomore and freshman seasons. His only limitation was injuries his first two seasons – and when he was out in 2015, his substitute had a punt return touchdown: Reggie Davis.

So they leave a void. But it’s an experience void, as a program like Georgia is never short on players with speed and dynamic return ability, especially the way recruiting has been going.

The depth chart series began on defense, with the safeties.

Then we had the cornerbacks.

We moved on to the outside linebackers.

And then of course the inside linebackers.

The very talented defensive line.

Done with defense, we went to the place-kicking and kickoff spots.

Then it was the punters.

And now we wrap up the special teams main spots, beginning with …

KICKOFF RETURNER

Returning starter: None.

Others returning: CB Mecole Hardman, Soph.; WR Terry Godwin, Jr.

Early enrollees: WR Jeremiah Holloman, Fr.; DB Deangelo Gibbs, Fr.; S Richard LeCounte, Fr.

On the way: RB D’Andre Swift, Fr.; DB Tray Bishop, Fr.; WR Trey Blount, Fr.; DB William Poole, Fr.; CB Ameer Speed, Fr.; CB Eric Stokes, Fr.; WR Mark Webb, Fr.

Analysis: Yes, practically every newcomer is listed as a candidate, but the one to watch early is aptly named. Swift has the speed to be a factor right away on special teams, and given the tailback depth he won’t be immediately needed on offense. As for returning players, Hardman is the obvious candidate, given that he was back on kickoff returns late in the season, when Davis was out. (His only return was for 17 yards.) Godwin also had a 43-yard return, and also offers speed and elusiveness. So does rising sophomore Tyler Simmons, a receiver who didn’t see much action last year, but could also be an option. Also don’t rule a wild card, such as Sony Michel, who returned two kickoffs apiece as a freshman and sophomore.

Bottom line: Hardman will get a head start by being here in the spring, though that’s not as big a deal on special teams, which don’t get as much attention as they do come the preseason. (Although who knows, given last year’s struggles that will change.) Whoever wins the job, Georgia has a good chance to be as good or better than it has been returning kickoffs. Davis was solid, but for whatever reason wasn’t able to have the same breakaway ability as McKenzie.

PUNT RETURNER

Returning starter: None.

Others returning: None.

Early enrollees: Holloman, Gibbs, LeCounte.

On the way: Swift, Bishop, Blount, Poole, Speed, Stokes, Webb .

Analysis: While five different players returned a kickoff last year, McKenzie was the only Bulldog to return any punts. Plenty of others got reps, including Hardman, Godwin, safety Dominick Sanders and Michel. (They tend to rep a lot of punt returners, just in case, but also because players just like to shag punts.) What will be interesting to see is whether the coaches elect to split the kick and punt return duties again, or whether someone – most likely Hardman or Swift – is so good they get both those duties. That’s unlikely, given that even McKenzie, as great as he was, didn’t do both.

Bottom line: It’s really anybody’s guess who will be returning punts. Hardman seems most likely to be the kickoff returner, but even that’s far from certain. Maybe Kirby Smart will shed light on the plans before or during spring practice. Or perhaps this will take into the summer for it to be decided, or even seriously debated.

LONG SNAPPER

Returning starter: Trent Frix, Sr.

Others returning: Glenn Welch, Sr.

Early enrollees: None.

On the way: None (on scholarship.)

Analysis: Frix, a former walk-on, was one of those awarded a scholarship prior to last year. When he was injured for a game the man to step in was Welch, a fullback who also snapped in high school. (His quarterback at Wayne County High School was Greyson Lambert.) The team also has a host of walk-ons snappers, including John Courson, son of longtime athletic trainer Ron Courson.

Bottom line: This is a position of underrated importance. It appears in good hands (literally) for at least one more season.

Next: Offensive tackles.

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