ATHENS — Isaiah McKenzie is a real enigma for Georgia when it comes to returning kicks, and punts in particular. Without question, he is one of best returners in all of college football. But ball-security and decision-making issues continue to smudge his reputation.
Case in point: Last Saturday’s performance against Nicholls State. In the same game that McKenzie had a 55-yard punt return that almost became sixth career special-teams touchdowns, he had a muffed fair-catch and fumbled a kickoff return out of bounds.
For coaches, it’s a maddening dilemma.
“I’m very concerned; I was very concerned coming into the season,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Monday. “It’s an area we’ve worked really hard on. (McKenzie had) caught more punts than I think I’ve ever seen a guy catch. He’s got to play with a little confidence. He knows he’s a good returner. He’s got to make good decisions and be confident about it and be able to do it in the clutch. I think he knows that he has to do a better job.”
McKenzie does. He’s currently third in the SEC in punt returns with and average of 9.2 yards on three attempts (46 yards total). But he also had questionable decision in one punt that he fielded and was immediately hit in the opener against North Carolina.
McKenzie also returns kickoffs occasionally and has two for 24 yards so far this season. One of his five special teams touchdowns came on a kickoff return.
“There’s still a lot of improvement I’ve got to make in the special-teams game, and at receiver as well,” said McKenzie, who leads the Bulldogs with 183 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns. “I’m not content. There are always ways to improve and that’s what I intend to do.”
Expect Sony Michel to be reintroduced to the return game this week, most likely on kickoffs.
Meanwhile, it appears that McKenzie will likely remain deep on punts. He remains third all-time in the SEC kick-return TDs. So returning is not the problem. Catching, he’ll have to keep working on that.
“We’ll attack that again the next couple of weeks and have him catch a bunch of them,” Smart said. “But the biggest thing is being confident in yourself and that you can do it when it’s on the line the team needs you the most.”