ATHENS — Kirby Smart wants to make it clear that Georgia football isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel with its special teams personnel philosophy.
Far from it.
In fact, Smart revealed, the Bulldogs approach is scientific in nature with hard data to support playing the best players on special teams units.
Special teams obviously put players at more greater risk of injury, and that has raised some questions.
But Smart pointed out there’s a payoff involved with using starters on special teams units.
“We study the SEC, and we do a thing every year where we do a composite special teams ranking: punt, punt return, kickoff, kickoff return, P.A.T. [point after touchdown kick], field goal, [and] field goal block,” Smart said following Wednesday’s practice.
“You rank everybody in the SEC where they finished, and then put it together whether the average is. I think of the years I was at Bama, maybe nine years, I think we were first or second in eight of those years, and we always played the best players on that.”
Indeed, Smart indicated as much last Saturday.
The Bulldogs’ third-year head coach grew uncharacteristically defensive after being asked about freshman Zamir White suffering a torn ACL while on a punt coverage unit.
In that case, White was merely trying to “make the bus” as Smart likes to say. That is, find a way to contribute enough to warrant making the 70-man travel squad for the Sept. 8 game at South Carolina.
Still, Smart was asked if it was typical to have a running back on a special teams unit.
“Sony Michel was a first-round pick last year, he covered a punt,” Smart said. “Derrick Henry covered every punt at Alabama …. D’Andre Swift’s a starter on punt.”
Smart recognizes there’s not much of a margin for error for a team to win a championship, much less when trying to win back-to-back SEC Championships, as the No. 3-ranked Bulldogs are attempting this season.
Smart has already seen the philosophy he carried over from Alabama factor into rapid special teams improvement.
“The first year I was here, we were dead last in the composite, and that wasn’t all because of the coverage units or the players,” Smart said, “but then last year we were actually first when the rankings came out, and our kids bought into it.
“They understand, last year our punt team was Sony [Michel], Lorenzo [Carter] and Roquan [Smith], that’s like incredible to have those three lineup on your punt team, you have so much speed, so we’re trying to match that in everything we do.”
Smart said Georgia has six starters on the punt return team this season because Mecole Hardman is a “great returner” who averaged 11.8 yards per return last season.
Further, Smart said, the Bulldogs young players embrace the opportunity to get on the field via the special teams.
“Those kids love it, they buy into it,” Smart said. “It’s fun to play here at Georgia, we make it fun.”