ATHENS — Some of the most fierce competitions in Georgia’s preseason camp have come on special teams. And while the starters for many of those jobs may have been settled for the Bulldogs’ season opener on Saturday, the battles will be carried on into the season.
Coach Kirby Smart stopped short of anointing Jake Camarda as the starter at punter after Tuesday’s practice, but he did give the freshman from Norcross the edge over graduate transfer Landon Stratton in a race that has changed almost daily.
“I couldn’t tell you,” Smart said at first when asked who will handle punts Saturday against Austin Peay. “Today, Jake Camarda hit some bombs, so I feel like he’s earned the right. But I wouldn’t say it’s a final decision yet. We’ve still got another day left.”
Camarda was signed to a scholarship for this purpose. The 6-foot-2, 180-pound kicker/punter was an Under Armour All-American and ranked the No. 2 punter in the nation by Kohl’s, which specializes in specialists ratings. He averaged 46.2 yards a punt as a senior at Norcross High.
Camarda has displayed an extremely strong leg in camp, at times punting the ball “too far” and out-punting his coverage, according to Smart. But he said he also has been somewhat inconsistent with an occasional shank.
Stratton, who transferred to UGA from Murray State over the summer, averaged 40.4 yards per punt for the Racers last season, which was third in the Ohio Valley Conference. He averaged 41.2 yards over the last three seasons as Murray State’s starting punter.
Whoever takes over will have a tough act to follow. Cameron Nizalek won the job as a graduate transfer from Columbia of the Ivy League and averaged 45.0 yards on 61 punts. Oddly enough, Nizalek hasn’t been able to catch on with an NFL. Currently he’s helping out the Bulldogs’ punters in a volunteer role.
As for returners, Georgia has some intense competition featuring a bunch of options. Junior Mecole Hardman is back after flourishing on both punts and kickoffs last season. He’ll start out as the primary punt returner, but there’s no guarantee he’ll be solo in that role, and kickoff returns remain unsettled heading into the first game.
“Mecole and Ahkil (Crumpton) will both do some punts,” Smart said. “Mecole, Tyler Simmons, (Elijah) Holyfield, Jayson Stanley and D-Rob (Demetris robertson) have all been back on kickoff return. So, we’re kind of sharing it by committee at kickoff return. Punt return will be Ahkil and Mecole until Terry (Godwin) comes back.”
Godwin, a senior, is currently sidelined with a calf strain.
Georgia will be breaking in starters in several other areas of special teams as well. Senior fullback Nick Moore is taking over as snapper and Camarda is expected to handle holds for Rodrigo Blankenship’s placement kicks.