ATHENS — There’s always competition at Georgia, whether it’s for starting spots, repetitions, targets or handoffs.
That bleeds over to special teams, where the No 3-ranked Bulldogs’ punter — and a shaky return game — have been scrutinized in the wake of a 23-17 win over Notre Dame.
“Taking a hard look at it? Sure, we’ve got two or three guys out there,” Smart said last week, asked about Jake Camarda’s struggles punting against Notre Dame.
“(Bill) Rubright’s out there competing. We’ve (also) got the young man from Savannah that does a great job, (Noah) Chumley, that’s competing with him.”
Camarda, a sophomore from Norcross, shanked two punts in a tight game where every yard seemed contested.
The first punt traveled only 25 yards, giving the Irish prime field position at the Bulldogs’ 40-yard line. UGA held firm with a fourth down stop, escaping trouble.
But poor punting happened again in the fourth quarter, and this time with the game on the line.
Georgia punted the ball away from its own 25, clinging to a 6-point lead, and Camarda’s kick traveled just 27 yards.
Smart defended Camarda after the game
“The kid didn’t hit a great punt, but we picked him up, we’ve got his back,” Smart said. “He’s an unbelievable punter, he just didn’t hit great punts tonight, and he’ll go back to the drawing board and we’ll get him better.”
Smart made it clear that Camarda has not done anything in practice to lose the job to Rubright or Chumley.
“They haven’t out-punted him in practice, and they haven’t out-punted him in games or scrimmages up until Saturday,” Smart said.
“He was really hitting a lot of bombs and he didn’t hit two good punts. He knows it. We had other guys punting today. We’ll continue the competition just like we will at every position.”
It would seem the punt return and kick return duties would be more closely scrutinized, too.
But again, the Georgia head coach seemed defensive when asked about using freshman Dominick Blaylock more on punt returns.
“Well, (Blaylock) caught one and he didn’t catch one, so he was 50-50,” Smart said, “and you can’t be 50-50 in this league. You’ve got to be batting 90 (percent).”
Senior Tyler Simmons, who is wearing a shoulder brace after suffering an injury against Arkansas State, fumbled a punt at the UGA 8-yard line to set up Notre Dame’s first touchdown.
Simmons has spent much of his career as a back-up wide receiver, blocking effectively and playing special teams with fervor.
The trend against Notre Dame leaned toward conservatism, both from an offensive play-calling standpoint and with personnel decisions.
The bye week, however, enabled Smart to open up things more for competition in practice, giving some of the younger players and backups a chance to show how much they progressed.
Smart has said he wants QB Jake Fromm to go downfield more, and that could mean putting the young talent on the field ahead of less explosive, but more experienced, players.
“We’re focused on the ones getting 60 to 70 percent of the work during the game week and the twos getting 30 to 40 (percent),” Smart said on his radio show on Thursday.
“Well now (bye week) we might say it’s 33-33-33, because we want to develop our roster. There’s some places that we have threes that need a lot of work, and some positions where threes don’t need as much work.”
Smart acknowledged after the win over Notre Dame, “we got whipped on special teams.” There’s a good chance most of the personnel are being evaluated.
The Bulldogs rank 115th in the nation in kick returns, averaging just 16.3 yards per return.
Cook, perhaps frustrated by his lack of touches and inclusion in the game plan, ran the opening kick of the second half out of the end zone for just 16 yards against Notre Dame.
Smart did not address it, but Cook is averaging 19 yards per return and Brian Herrien is at 18.5.
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