ATHENS – For just a bit of context on how much Georgia improved its special teams, think back to this time last year, and the justified fretting over the state of things.
What will the team do at kicker with Rodrigo Blankenship surely out the door because of his lack of a scholarship? How can Georgia improve at punter, because surely this walk-on transfer from Columbia, Cameron Nizialek, isn’t the answer? How do you replace Isaiah McKenzie, the all-time school leader in punt return touchdowns? Not to mention, the fundamentals on special teams weren’t good. How will they improve?
Well, they did. Pretty much everything did. Let’s go to the metrics.
ESPN’s special teams efficiency ranking pegged Georgia at 44th nationally, at 55.8 on its complicated formula. Not great, but way up from 113th the year before, at 35.0.
Football Outsiders, an analytics-based web site, ranked Georgia 21st in special teams efficiency, up from 95th the year before.
Georgia blocked 4 kicks, which was four more than in 2016, while not having any of its kicks blocked. The blocking for punt and kickoff returns was better. The downfield coverage was better, so no Georgia opponent had a kickoff return longer than 47 yards, and the longest punt return was 26 yards.
But the most quantifiable improvement came from the specialists:
- Blankenship, awarded a scholarship the week of the Notre Dame win, had a fabulous season, setting a school record for touchbacks and making two 50-yard-plus field goals in the College Football Playoff. (No other kicker had made a field goal of at least 50 yards in the short history of the CFP.)
- Nizialek did prove to be the answer at punter, and spectacularly so, averaging nearly 45 yards a punt, an improvement of about 6 yards over Georgia’s team average in 2016.
- Mecole Hardman, handling most of the punt and kickoff returns, was first in the SEC in punt return yardage and second in kickoff yardage. He didn’t have a return touchdown, but seemed close to breaking one on seemingly a dozen occasions.
Nizialek is gone, his eligibility expired, but the other two return. The coaches, however, will not. Special teams coordinator Shane Beamer left for Oklahoma, special teams analyst Scott Fountain became the coordinator at Mississippi State, and it’s not clear yet how Kirby Smart plans to fill their roles. It’s also not clear whether Kevin Butler, the student assistant and kicking coach, still has classes and a role on the team.
Many questions, but fewer than this time last year.
As we transition into Georgia’s offseason, we take a look at the changes at each position group and the incoming players, and analyze how it could play out in 2018. This series now wraps up with the specialists.
Leaving: David Marvin (eligibility)
Top returners: Rodrigo Blankenship, Jr.
Newcomer: Jake Camarda, Fr.
Analysis: Hey, remember David Marvin? He was the graduate transfer from Wofford who turned down offers from North Carolina and N.C. State to come to Georgia, where many thought he would be the kicker in 2017, thanks to Rodrigo Blankenship’s uncertain scholarship status. At minimum, Marvin seemed likely to be the kickoff specialist, thanks to Blankenship’s rough freshman season kicking off. Well, whether it was competition or just natural improvement, Blankenship earned the starting jobs at kicker and kickoff specialist, relegating Marvin to 1 field-goal attempt and 1 extra point in mop-up duty. Don’t cry for him, though. Marvin did get a year on scholarship and the experience that went with being part of a team that won the SEC Championship Game and the Rose Bowl. And Blankenship had a lot to do with Georgia getting those championships.
One guarantee: Blankenship more than earned his scholarship last year, and if competition for his job had anything to do with it, then Marvin earned his too.
Key losses: Cameron Nizialek (eligibility), Brice Ramsey (eligibility)
Top returner: Marshall Long, R-Soph.
Newcomer: Jake Camarda, Fr.
Analysis: This spot could get interesting. Marshall Long was the team’s punter in 2016 before his kneecap injury. He didn’t take the field in the 2017 season so he’s eligible for a redshirt. Smart said he didn’t think Long was fully back yet from the injury, whether it was physical or mental. It wasn’t a great freshman season for Long, who averaged 38.7 yards per attempt. But he was only a freshman, so after a year off, will he be better? Perhaps, but Camarda is being given a scholarship, and it doesn’t look like there’s an opening at kicker or kickoff specialist.
One guarantee: Long’s performance and status this spring bears close watching to see what the competition shapes up like this summer and fall.
Key loss: None
Top returners: Mecole Hardman, Jr.; Terry Godwin, Sr.; Ahkil Crumpton, Sr.; Elijah Holyfield, Jr.
Newcomers: James Cook, Fr.
Analysis: Mecole Hardman showed this year that he could handle being the main punt and kick returner while also being a starting receiver. His offensive role should increase in 2018, so perhaps the coaching staff will try to lighten the load on special teams – but why would they? Hardman looked good doing it as a sophomore and is a breakout possibility as a junior. Ahkil Crumpton could get a look, and Terry Godwin is capable of returning punts in a pinch too.
One guarantee: If the blocking is as good as it was last season, Hardman will break a return for a touchdown in 2018. It’s bound to happen.