Pre-spring analysis: The strength in special teams

Isaiah McKenzie has four career punt return touchdowns, including this one last year at Auburn.

ATHENS — It’s the tendency of every new coach to downgrade the roster he inherits, which Kirby Smart is doing in some areas, and no area quite as starkly special teams.

“Probably the biggest fear we have going into next year, guys, really, is the special teams,” Smart said.

Well then.

Smart, speaking Monday at the Macon Touchdown Club, went on to break things down.

“Coming in, the first thing they tell you when I get the job, I’m thinking, Georgia’s always got pretty good kickers and punters, they’ve got guys in the NFL. Kicker gone, punter gone, long snapper gone. Oh boy. Here we go.”

But notice the one area Kirby did not mention.

Isaiah McKenzie and Reggie Davis combined to return three punts for touchdowns last season. McKenzie averaged more than 12 yards per punt return last year, and also had a kick return touchdown as a freshman.

It’s strange, then, that McKenzie has been used so little as a kick returner since then, while Georgia ranked among the worst nationally in kick return average. (18 yards per return, 117th nationally and 12th in the SEC.)

Whatever the reasoning, Smart has little to fear here. Well, almost nothing to fear.

(Ominous tease. Keep reading.)

PUNT RETURNER

  • Returning starter: Isaiah McKenzie, Jr.
  • Others returning: Reggie Davis, Sr.; Terry Godwin, Soph.
  • Early enrollees: Riley Ridley, Fr.; Chad Clay, Fr.
  • On the way: Mecole Hardman, Fr.; Tyler Simmons, Fr.; Tyrique McGhee, Fr.
  • Analysis: You’ll notice we included all the freshman who conceivably could return punts. A few returning players, including safety Dominick Sanders and cornerback Juwuan Briscoe, got some looks returning punts in practice and game warmups. But the reality is that with McKenzie, Davis and Godwin you have players who combined for 27 punt returns, averaging 13.3 yards per return. That’s very good, and a big advantage for Georgia if it continues like that this season.
  • Bottom line: The one worry? McKenzie staying on the field. His hamstring has been a nagging injury, causing him to miss five games over his first two seasons, as well as big chunks of spring and preseason practice. He’s also been a bit of a live wire off the field, drawing a suspension for the bowl game in his freshman year, and the notorious Chili’s incident, which was overblown, but was still an incident. McKenzie also caused a brief stir earlier this year when he joked on Instagram about transferring to Miami. He wasn’t serious, though, so if all goes well he’ll be back there returning punts again — along with possibly Davis and Godwin, who were pretty good at it themselves.

KICKOFF RETURNER

  • Returning starter: Reggie Davis, Sr.
  • Others returning: Isaiah McKenzie, Jr.; Brendan Douglas, Sr.; Kirby Choates, Soph.; Sony Michel, Jr.
  • Early enrollees: Riley Ridley, Fr.; Chad Clay, Fr.
  • On the way: Elijah Holyfield, Fr.; Mecole Hardman, Fr.; Tyler Simmons, Fr.; Tyrique McGhee, Fr.
  • Analysis: If Georgia could harness the success of the punt return game into kick returns, it could mean the difference in a few games. Shane Beamer will have to look at what Georgia did last year and why it wasn’t as strong. Maybe it’s as simple as putting McKenzie back there: He only returned four kickoffs last year, though his longest return was just 18 yards. Davis, who returned the majority of the kickoffs (17 out of 32) wasn’t really the problem, averaging 23.2 per return. He had trouble breaking any very deep — a 39-yard return was the longest — but the blocking obviously figures into that as well. Michel, who returned two kickoffs last year, might get a long look if Nick Chubb is ready to play, making it easier to risk Michel on special teams.
  • Bottom line: There’s less emphasis on kickoff units these days, thanks to the new rules increasing the touchbacks. It would still be worth it for Beamer and Smart to improve this unit, and that means deciding whether their most dynamic players — McKenzie, Goodwin, perhaps even Hardman — should be back there.

Next: Centers.

PRE-SPRING ANALYSES

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