Road to Atlanta: Tyler Simmons was onsides, and Georgia still has a special teams edge over Alabama
This is the first in a series of stories that will break down the matchups between Georgia and Alabama as last year’s College Football Playoff finalists prepare for a rematch on Dec. 1 in the SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
TODAY: SPECIAL TEAMS
ATHENS — Tyler Simmons was onsides, and Georgia did a lot of other things right on special teams against Alabama in the National Championship Game last January.
In fact, the Bulldogs won the special teams battle against the Crimson Tide in that 26-23 overtime loss, and that’s an area in which Georgia appears to hold a significant advantage this season as the teams get set for a rematch in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 1.
No. 1 Alabama (10-0, 7-0 SEC) and the No. 5-ranked Bulldogs (9-1, 7-1) still have regular-season games to play before meeting in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the second time in 11 months for conference bragging rights and the College Football Playoff berth that will come with it. But, to this point, there isn’t a college football analyst anywhere who is giving Georgia a chance in that game.
That’s based on a Tua Tagovailoa offense that ranks third nationally in points (48.6 ppg) and fourth in yards (539.5 ypg) and a defense that’s No. 1 in points allowed (12.7 pg).
What’s not discussed much, if at all, is that Georgia is pretty good on those fronts as well (23rd, 18th and 9th, respectively). And the Bulldogs happen to be far superior to Alabama in that third area of the game of football — special teams.
That Georgia is good at it is no accident.
“We work really hard on it,” coach Kirby Smart said Monday. “I think (special teams coordinator) Coach (Scott) Fountain and his staff of guys that help him with special teams have done a tremendous job. Our kids are committed to special teams. I try to make it the most important thing of the game … and they’ve bought into that.”
Heading into the 12th week of the season and 11th game for both teams, statistics indicate that Georgia is better at almost every aspect of special teams player. Nowhere is the contrast more stark than the area of kicking.
The Bulldogs, of course, feature Lou Groza Award semifinalist Rodrigo Blankenship, who has proven to be one of the most consistent and clutch kickers in the country going back to last season. The junior from Marietta currently leads the SEC in scoring at 9.4 points per game and touchbacks with 64 on 72 kickoffs. Blankenship is 17-of-19 on field goals this season, with a long of 53 yards, and continues to build on his school record of consecutive extra points without a miss, which stands at 132 in a row now.
Compare that to Alabama, which has utilized two players on placement kicks this season. Between Josh Bulovas and Austin Jones, they’ve missed five of 16 field-goal attempts and, incredibly, six PATs on the season. Bulovas, a freshman, has recorded just 36 touchbacks on 85 kickoffs.
Similarly, the Crimson Tide’s punting has been subpar. Their net average of 34.7 yards ranks 13th in the 14-team SEC. That, too, has come off the feet of two different punters, freshman Skyler DeLong and senior Mike Bernier.
Georgia hasn’t been much better. Freshman Jake Camarda is ninth in the league with a 42.2-yard average and the Bulldogs are 10th in net average at 38.1 yards. But Camarda has displayed a power leg in practice and at times in games.
Meanwhile, Georgia junior Mecole Hardman should have some return possibilities. His punt return average of 24.3 yards leads the SEC and is nearly double that of the league’s No. 2 player, which is Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle. Hardman also averages 27.6 yards on kickoff returns with a long of 41 yards against Auburn last week.
Crimson Tide junior Josh Jacobs is also one of the nation’s top kickoff returners with 31.5-yard average. That won’t be an issue if Blankenship continues to boot the ball deep at his current rate. However, the Bulldogs need to shore up their kick coverage when he doesn’t kick it out of the end zone.
“We’re not really where we need to be … on kickoff coverage, but it’s very misleading because of Rod’s leg strength and his ability to get touchbacks, and it’s the same way with punt coverage,” Smart said. “We haven’t hit a lot of great punts, but we haven’t had a lot of return yards against us because our gunners are good. We’re good in both return units, and that’s thanks to Mecole as well as some guys that are committed to it.”
Junior Tyler Simmons is one of those Georgia players that has committed himself to excellence on special teams. He occupies a starting position on virtually every one of the Bulldogs’ special teams units. That includes their punt-return and punt-block units.
It looks like Tyler Simmons was onside on this blocked punt…. pic.twitter.com/7EkFmnnXOS
— DawgNation (@DawgNation) January 9, 2018
Simmons was the Georgia player who came flying in on Alabama’s right flank to block a punt early in the third quarter of the championship game last season. He was incorrectly ruled offsides on the play, which would have given the Bulldogs the ball inside the Crimson Tide’s 20-yard line leading 13-0. Instead, Alabama — which actually had two players move before the snap on the play — was awarded five yards and got to punt again. Hardman returned the 54-yard punt 19 yards, but the Bulldogs failed to capitalize and had to punt the ball back.
Asked how often he is asked or reminded of that play, Simmons said, “pretty much every day.”
But even before that play, Simmons had become dedicated to trying to make an impact on Georgia’s special teams.
“It didn’t take me long to (buy in) if I wanted to get onto the field,” said Simmons, who came to UGA from Powder Springs’ McEachern High as a wide receiver. “That’s something that was definitely different for me. Growing up, I was always the return man and everything, so that’s a little different. But that’s definitely something that has really helped me get on the field.”
Georgia edged Bama in most phases of special teams that day last January. Blankenship was perfect on three field-goal attempts — including a 51-yarder in overtime — while Alabama missed two of their four field-goal tries. The Bulldogs also averaged 17 yards on two punt returns to Bama’s 7.6 and forged pushes with the Tide on kickoff returns and in other areas.
Nowadays, Georgia enters virtually every game with an air of superiority that they’re going to win the special teams battle.
“With the amount of talent and ability that we have on all of our special teams, we feel we have an advantage no matter who we play,” Blankenship said. “But that only comes with hard work. Week in and week out we have to grind. We have to give as much focus and attention to detail as we can to every phase of special teams. As long as we do that Monday through Friday, we’re going to have a chance to win that phase of the game on Saturday.”