Alyssa Pointer/AJC
Georgia should be set up for another strong year in special teams, especially with the return of kicker Rodrigo Blankenship.

Coaching turnover aside, Georgia’s special teams should be strong again in 2018

Chip Towers

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In regards to special teams coaching, as a casual observer, it appears that we lost the special teams coordinator coach (Shane) Beamer, and we lost a special teams assistant, then hired him back with new responsibilities, and I’m unaware if Kevin Butler will return as a graduate assistant. I’m not sure if there are other coaches assisting with special teams. With that paradigm (right or wrong) my question is: With such great progress in special teams performance in 2017, do we anticipate any fall-off due to the caliber/experience/abilities of the new grouping of special teams coaches? Hopefully, the newly signed punter recruit, along with Rodrigo Blankenship, would equal the talent level of the 2017 skill positions in 2018.

Bonus question: Will Zamir (Zeus) perform at 100% in 2018 after his late high school season injury? Have you heard how his rehab is progressing?

Thanks for considering my questions,
Scott Strickland, Chicago (but native of Brunswick)

Great question, or questions, Scott. Of course, the truthful answer is none of us can answer in complete confidence about what might happen with special teams. I remember when Blair Walsh and Drew Butler were here and there were absolutely no changes on the coaching front and special teams went from great to poor without warning. So the bottom line is you never know. Special teams, more than any other discipline in football, tend to go the way of golf. That is, one can have a great swing one minute, then all of the sudden it disappears for some unknown reason.

All that said, I believe Georgia’s special teams are set up for success again in 2018. Keep in mind, the Bulldogs had one of the best special teams seasons I can ever remember from an overall performance standpoint. Whether that was a direct result of coaching or merely the stars aligning as pretty much everything else did for Georgia in 2017, I don’t know. But you’re right to be concerned because there have been a lot of changes on the coaching side, and there is some key turnover in player personnel as well.

First, on the coaching side, yes, Shane Beamer, who carried the title of special teams coordinator in addition to tight ends coach, has left Georgia. Oklahoma hired him as assistant head coach, tight ends coach and co-special teams coordinator. Technically, he was in charge and the man ultimately held responsible for Georgia’s special teams performance last season. Obviously, the Bulldogs did a great job in that respect. In my opinion, they edged their opponents in overall special teams play in all but one game (the regular-season contest at Auburn). But that’s just me. ESPN has some measure it calls “Team Efficiencies” and it ranked Georgia only 44th in special teams in 2017. Maybe it’s because they didn’t have any return TDs. I don’t know, but I don’t buy that. I have a hard time thinking there were 43 teams better than UGA in special teams play last season. Generally, Georgia was strong in field goals, strong in kickoffs, strong in punting, strong in punt returns, decent in kickoff returns and had 2 blocked field goals (and a significant blocked punt that should’ve counted but didn’t).

And, yes, Kevin Butler has moved on as well. The Hall of Fame kicker worked with Georgia’s kickers the last two years as a student assistant coach, a role that is limited to two years by NCAA rule. I get conflicting reports as to how much credit he deserves for the improvements Blankenship made from 2016 to 2017. At the very least, he was the one in Blankenship’s ear before and after he made kicks, and Blankenship made some significant kicks.

Scott Fountain (Auburn Athletics/courtesy)

But behind the scenes, it is Scott Fountain who gets the majority of credit for Georgia’s overall special teams excellence in 2017. Fountain joined the Bulldogs last year in a support role as a well-compensated special teams analyst. He had been tight ends coach and special teams coordinator the previous four years at Auburn. Obviously, coach Kirby Smart thinks a lot of Fountain because he quickly brought him from Mississippi State, where he had accepted a full-time assistant’s position shortly after the National Championship Game. Smart has yet to detail what roles his new coaches will fill, but it’s assumed Fountain will step into the role recently abandoned by Beamer.

So, again, yes, with all that turnover, there is the risk that special teams could experience a fall-off. But there’s an equal chance it could stay the same or improve. As ever, football comes down to personnel more than coaching, and Georgia should have some good personnel to work with. First and foremost, Blankenship returns as a redshirt junior, so the expectation is his kicking should continue to be a strength. The biggest question surrounds punting, where the Bulldogs have the considerable task of replacing Cameron Nizialek, who had an All-America caliber season (45-yard average). Georgia will look to Marshall Long, who redshirted while recovering from an injury, and freshman signee Jake Camarda, who comes in from Norcross as the nation’s No. 1-rated punting prospect. The Bulldogs also will need to break in a new snapper with the graduation of Trent Frix, and a new holder.

The rest of the units should be in good hands. Mecole Hardman will be back as primary returns specialists, and Georgia has several other exciting options besides. And special teams coverage and return units are usually as good as the overall depth of talent that is on the team. Based on recruiting the past few years, the Bulldogs should loaded in that regard. So I would predict them to be at least as good as a year ago, and I would be shocked if Hardman doesn’t bust at least one or two returns for touchdowns in 2018.

As for your question about Zamir White, the word is his recovery is going quite well. It’s thought that his was a general, uncomplicated ACL tear. He was able to come to Athens in December and have UGA doctors perform the surgery, and as an early enrollee he’s able to have Ron Courson and UGA trainers supervise his rehab. Still, it generally takes a full year for a skilled athlete to fully recover from an ACL reconstruction. There are many instances of players coming back in eight to 10 months, a schedule that would have White ready by the beginning of the season. But with D’Andre Swift, Elijah Holyfield, Brian Herrien and James Cook already in the fold, there shouldn’t be any reason for Georgia to rush the process. Look for the Bulldogs to err on the side of caution with an eye on White’s long-term future rather than trying to have him available to play by Game 1.

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