ATHENS – Last year’s Alabama game was symbolic of many things wrong at Georgia. It was also symbolic of what has held McKenzie back:
Early in the second quarter McKenzie muffed a punt, only avoiding a turnover by jumping on the ball. Later in the quarter he re-injured his hamstring, causing him to miss the next two games.
He may be the most dynamic player on Georgia’s team not named Nick Chubb. But McKenzie has also yet to fulfill that potential, thanks to two things.
Dependability with the football.
And his pesky hamstrings.
As he enters his junior season, McKenzie knows this, and he said both problems are not the curse of being 5-foot-8. They’re correctable.
“Being a small guy doesn’t have anything to do with it,” he said. “Just keeping the ball in my hands, that’s all I’m trying to work on.”
The talent is evident: McKenzie has four career punt return touchdowns, and one kickoff return touchdowns. He has averaged 11.3 yards every time he has touched the ball on offense during his career.
So why hasn’t he gotten more touches? (He has 18 rushes and 16 catches in his career.) Why doesn’t he return almost every punt and every kickoff, rather than ceding nearly half the punt returns to others last year, and only four kickoff returns all off last year?
Head coach Kirby Smart, in his first year but keenly aware of McKenzie’s strengths and weaknesses, opined that McKenzie is a better punt returner than kick returner. But Smart also said he might return more kickoffs anyway – as long as he can exhibit better ball control.
McKenzie has heard the message, acknowledging what has kept him from being the full-time return specialist.
“Mainly ball security, and making good decisions when the ball is in the air. That’s about it.”
McKenzie has been fortunate with some fumbles, including in the Alabama game. But a couple last year cost the team: Against Georgia Southern, McKenzie lost the ball on an outside run, and it was returned 65 yards for a touchdown, leaving Georgia behind 14-7 in the third quarter. On the play, McKenzie was hit straight on by one player, albeit a lineman about 100 pounds heavier.
In the Kentucky game, another McKenzie fumble turned it over on Georgia’s own 20-yard line. The defense held Kentucky to a field goal and the Bulldogs went on to win 27-3.
Of course, for all those problems later in the season McKenzie basically won Georgia its game at Auburn by scoring both of his team’s touchdowns, including a 54-yard punt return.
“He is explosive,” Smart said.
Which is why it helps to have him on the field in the first place.
McKenzie said his hamstring never bothered him in high school. And it’s not a case of one injury being re-aggravated: First he injured the hamstring in his right left, then in his left leg. (And then in the left leg again, but six months later.)
But looking back on the past two years, he thinks he may not have put enough emphasis on preventative treatment, which includes treatment before and after practice.
“I did (it). But I didn’t take it serious,” McKenzie said.
Now he is before and after practice, and during it he’s taking ball security just as seriously. If both of those result in a dependable Isaiah McKenzie, then Georgia’s special teams, and even its offense, should be much, much better.