ATHENS — One of the more confounding things on Georgia’s special teams the past couple years was the use of Isaiah McKenzie. So now with the team under new management, the question is whether that will change.
Stay tuned, head coach Kirby Smart essentially said on Tuesday.
McKenzie, who has five return touchdowns in two years, has seen much more action on punts than kickoffs, and even then has not always been the main punt returner. Smart was asked after Tuesday’s second preseason practice if they knew how they planned on using the speedy, 5-foot-7 junior.
“I do think he’s a dynamic player, like you mentioned. But we’re having an open competition,” Smart said, adding: “I think he’s a better punt returner than he is a kickoff returner. But he’s good at both.”
McKenzie has four career punt return touchdowns, two each as a freshman and sophomore. He only has one career kick return touchdown – but has only had 15 opportunities, versus 36 on punts.
McKenzie only returned four kickoffs last year, averaging 10.5 yards per return, the longest one an 18-yarder. (Reggie Davis, by comparison, averaged 23.2 yards on 17 kickoff returns last year. But his longest return was 39 yards.)
Smart compared McKenzie’s talents to Javier Arenas, and the comparison looks apt: The 5-foot-9 Arenas broke an SEC record with seven career punt return touchdowns, and broke school records for punt return yardage. Smart said Arenas was “not a great kickoff returner,” – but he did it enough that he also left Alabama with the school’s record for kickoff return yardage.
“That’s a little bit how Isaiah is,” Smart said. “He’s taken a lot of ownership and doing things right away. The biggest thing with him – and he’s explosive – but he’s got to have ball security. And that’s the most critical factor for him, to protect the ball.”
Indeed, the previous staff was actually reluctant for a time to use McKenzie on punt returns, worried about his dependability: Not only was fumbling an issue, but so was his ability to properly call out the call sign (“Peter”) when a punted ball was loose and shouldn’t be touched. It was only after Terry Godwin had the same trouble that McKenzie was put back on punt return last year – and McKenzie promptly returned a punt against Auburn for a touchdown.
But McKenzie wasn’t the only Georgia player to return a punt for a touchdown last year: Davis did it at Tennessee, albeit after initially muffing the punt catch, then picking it up and going 70 yards. (Davis finished the season averaging 13.8 yards on eight punt returns, a better average than McKenzie.)