ATHENS – Next to the competition that’s going on among the offensive linemen, the most intense one in Georgia’s fall camp might be the one being waged at kicker. In fact, at his preseason news conference on Monday, coach Kirby Smart listed overall special teams play as the No. 1 area of needed improvement in 2017.
“Special teams will be at the forefront,” Smart reiterated following the Bulldogs’ second practice of preseason camp on Tuesday.
That obviously starts with the men kicking the football. As for kickers, redshirt sophomore Rodrigo Blankenship walked into camp with a leg up after a freshman All-SEC and All-America debut. But Smart brought in a graduate transfer on scholarship and added another walk-on kicker to compete for the job this fall.
The competition is on already, Smart said Tuesday. He said Blankenship and David Marvin, a graduate transfer from Wofford, will be competing head-to-head every day for the kicking duties.
“It will be charted,” Smart said. “It will be everyday competition. That’s why we started kicking and punting early. We always start punting early but we started kicking early this time. We did that, (a), because we wanted to start working on our protection scheme. But we also wanted to do some two-minute situations where the guy had to make a kick to win the game. So those guys are kind of going head-to-head kicking and the two guys who are punting are going head-to-head.”
Smart did not mention Brooks Buce, a freshman walk-on kicker who comes to UGA from Greater Atlanta Christian.
Georgia has a similar situation at punter, with incumbent Marshall Long coming back after an injury-plagued freshman campaign and competing with Cameron Nizialek, a graduate transfer from Columbia.
The Bulldogs were ninth overall in the SEC in net punting at 37.54 yards. But individually, Long, and his replacement Brice Ramsey, were 13th and 15th among league punters. Ramsey, the third-string quarterback now, is not expected to punt this season.
Georgia also was deficient in the area of kickoff returns (10th) and kickoff coverage (11th).
That was one of the reasons Smart went after Scott Fountain after he was let go at Auburn. Fountain, who coached tight ends and was special teams coordinator with the Tigers, joined the Bulldogs this year in a consultant’s role as a special teams analyst. UGA is paying him $140,000, a high salary for an analyst.
“I think he did a tremendous job at Auburn, always has,” Smart said. “He has brought a lot of insight to our coaches. He’s going to help us be better [at] special teams and just in practice and organization and things we do. We have to improve in that area.”
All of this adds up to the Bulldogs devoting more practice time to special teams. Smart said they’ve added one minute per period of special teams work. They’re also devoting some time to it in morning walk-throughs, which they didn’t do before.
“When you do that every day for 27 days, that’s a lot more time,” Smart said.
Blankenship did an excellent job on placekicks in 2016. He was 14 of 18 overall, with three of his four misses coming from beyond 40 yards, including a 53-yard attempt. Where he was deficient was on kickoffs. Georgia ranked 11th among SEC teams in that area, with 20 touchbacks in 55 kicks.
Obviously, kickoffs have been an area of focus for Blankenship, a 6-foot-1, 191-pound third-year sophomore from Marietta. Kickoffs are supposed to be a strength for Marvin, a 6-2, 210-pound native of Charlotte, N.C. He set several long-range records at Wofford. He kicked seven of the 10 longest field goal in school history, including a pair from 57 yards.
Though Marvin came in via the NCAA’s obscure “blueshirt” rule, which means he counts toward the next year’s signing totals, he came to Athens this summer at his own expense to work out with his new UGA teammates.
“He was legal to come in the summer and be around the players and do some stuff,” Smart said. “I’ve only seen him two days because I wasn’t able to work with him over the summer. He did conditioning drills but I never saw toe meet leather. He’s doing a good job.
“So is Rodrigo. The two guys from the first two days have both kicked good. One kicked better the first day and other one kicked better the second day. But they’ll both keep competing.”
As for when he might be ready to make a call on one or the other – or utilizing both in different roles – Smart said it will be a while.
“We’ll see how those situations come out over time,” Smart said. “It’s not going to be a one-day, two-day cumulative effect. We won’t kick every day. That will wear them down. But we’re going to go like three days on and three days off. Then we’ll just put all those stats together and try to make the best decision.”