The question in the wake of another issue for a Georgia running back on special teams from some fans is: Are you sure guys like Zamir White and James Cook should be covering kicks? The answer from me is a loud yes.
The backstory is familiar to most, but a quick reminder nonetheless: White, the nation’s No. 1 running back from the 2018 class tore his ACL in August while covering a punt in practice. Cook, the Bulldogs other touted freshman running back was called for targeting last Saturday vs. Austin Peay. The aftermath for UGA means Cook is suspended for the first half Saturday vs. South Carolina, and White is out for the season. For some fans, special teams roles are best left to players who are less likely to become star playmakers.
Hey @DawgNationDaily I know you fully supported Zeus being on punt coverage. He was injured while doing it. Cook was thrown out of the game while doing it. Do you still want to see georgia RB’s cover punts?
— Trey Young (@tyoung594) September 6, 2018
Kirby Smart srongly disagrees.
“Sony Michel was a first-round pick last year. He covered punts,” Smart said when questioned after White’s injury. “[2015 Heisman winner] Derrick Henry covered every punt at Alabama. D’Andre Swift’s a starter on punt. So is that unusual for our running backs to play?… If you watch football it’s probably not a fair question.”
When Cook was whistled for the targeting penalty last Saturday, Smart once again showed no signs of second-guessing his decision to have him on the punt coverage unit in the fourth quarter of a game that’s outcome was already decided. Instead he viewed it as a learning experience for Cook.
“Just a poor decision,” Smart said after the game. “The kid’s playing tough — lot of effort… Just not a good decision, kind of a rookie mistake, and it’s really unfortunate because he’s a good player and he’ll be missed the first half of next week.”
The strategy of using top athletes — including running backs — on kick coverage worked well for UGA in 2017 — when it ranked third in the country in special teams efficiency according to Football Study Hall after finishing 97th in that category in 2016.
According to Smart, the improvement is due to better players on those special teams units and a commitment from the team’s top stars to treat tackling kick returners as a job just as important as any other.
“Our kids bought into it,” Smart said. “They understand that last year our punt team was Sony [Michel, Lorenzo [Carter] and Roquan [Smith]. That’s — like — incredible to have that three line up on your punt team because we had so much speed. So we’re trying to match that in everything we do.”
Count me on Smart’s side in this argument — especially this Saturday.
South Carolina’s most dangerous weapon is Deebo Samuel — a potential first-round pick as both a wide receiver and kick returner. Much attention has been paid this week to UGA’s attempt to limit his receptions, but just as crucial will be how the Bulldogs limit Samuel’s kick returns.
Samuel doesn’t have much of a history of returning punts, but he fielded two kickoffs in 2017 before an injury ended his season in the third game. Both those returns went for 97-yard touchdowns.
Road games in the SEC against ranked opponents get much harder to win if the home team also gets a special teams score. UGA fans should be glad this week that Smart’s using a lot of his most talented players to make sure that doesn’t happen.