Even after Jaylen Waddle injury, Kirby Smart still firmly believes in playing his best players on special teams
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Even after Jaylen Waddle injury, Kirby Smart will continue to play his best players on special teams
Georgia coach Kirby Smart truly hated to see Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle fracture his ankle on the opening kickoff of the Alabama-Tennessee game.
In part, Smart hates the injury because of how much excitement Waddle brings to the game, even if it has been at the expense of his own team.
“It’s very unfortunate, and I’m sick for that young man [Jaylen Waddle], because he’s as electric of any football player I’ve ever seen,” Smart said. “He’s a great football player. He’s a great kid, and he’s fun to watch.”
A week prior to the injury, Waddle torched the Georgia secondary for 161 yards on six catches. Now with Waddle done for the season, Georgia won’t have to worry about what he might do should the Bulldogs get a second crack at the Crimson Tide.
But there’s another reason Smart likely hates the injury. It’s because it has once again called into question the philosophy of playing your best players on special teams. Waddle was clearly that for Crimson Tide.
Smart employs the same philosophy with his own team. It’s why Kearis Jackson, Georgia’s leadering receiver, returns punts. And Zamir White, the team’s leading running back, works on punt and kick return. Even the team’s top pass-rusher, Azeez Ojulari, plays on Georgia’s punt team.
While the Waddle injury opens the door for critics of this line of thinking, Smart strongly defended the stance when asked about it.
“It’s obvious to me. It helps the team win games,” Smart said. “Isn’t that the objective—to win the game? I don’t know when it became that special teams are higher risk to get injured. If special teams is higher risk, then I don’t want my son on it, then let’s take it out of the game.”
Waddle helped Alabama do just that, as he had a kick return for a touchdown against Auburn and a punt return for a touchdown against LSU in 2019. Because of that, Georgia would spend extra time game-planning for him in that element.
The Crimson Tide were better when Waddle was on the field, whether that be on offense or special teams. The same can be said for the likes of White, Jackson and Ojulari, even if their roles aren’t as prominent and front facing as Waddle’s.
“He created all kinds of problems for us in terms of special teams, so if you’re not going to let him play on it, then what’s the point in it at all,” Smart rhetorically asked. “Let’s just put it on the 25-yard line. That doesn’t make sense.”
Special teams is a huge part of Georgia playing the way it does. Jake Camarda this year as helped Georgia find those hidden yards that help turn games because of his improved punting ability.
But it helps when you have a cornerback as talented as Tyson Campbell racing downfield to make a tackle. Running back Kenny McIntosh has averaged 36 yards per kick return. While he’s showed some explosive ability on those plays, he’s been sprung by the blocking of White.
Those hidden yards that help improve field position or pin back an opposing unit help win football games. Having your best athletes out there gives you a better chance of making up those yards and this helping you win games, which is what Smart is paid to do.
There’s also the fact that most of these players want to play on special teams.
“Coach Smart really believes in special teams,” tight end John FitzPatrick said. “I think the people that are working their butt off on special teams show the kind of character we have on the team. They’re hard-working and precise in what they do and we need players like that.”
Perhaps no one understands the risk of playing special teams better than White. He famously tore his ACL during a preseason practice in 2018 while working on Georgia’s punt unit. He entered college as a 5-star prospect and the No. 1 running back in the 2018 cycle.
But that special teams injury meant he wouldn’t see the field during his much hyped freshman year.
But two years removed from the injury, White is once again working on special teams. And he’s excelling at it. The Georgia running back, who is now Georgia’s top rusher, has constantly earned praise from Smart for his work on special teams.
“You look across our games — some of our best special teams plays have come about because of Zamir. No. 1 — he is the off-returner on kick-off return,” Smart said. “He does a tremendous job of selecting who to block to spring Kenny [McIntosh] and Kearis [Jackson] on a lot of their returns.”
And White, like his head coach, sees the value in playing on various special teams units.
“It helps for the league,” White said. “Most guys that go to the NFL, and running backs of course you got to play some kind of kick return, punt return or punt, so why not play it now? Get used to it and get my craft better at it.”
White isn’t the lone former 5-star prospect that Georgia places on its special teams units. With so much depth and talent on the team already, special teams is a way to put some of Georgia’s best athletes on the field, even if they’re not ready yet to contribute on the offensive or defensive side of the ball.
That was the case last season for defensive lineman Travon Walker. The defensive line is a notoriously tricky position to earn early playing time on. But given Walker’s other-worldly athleticism, the Bulldogs found a spot for the 6-foot-5, 290 pound speciman on Georgia’s kickoff team.
Getting Walker on the field kept him happy and helped him adjust to the speed of the college game. That way when Georgia needed him, like at the end of the Auburn game, he was ready to go.
Like White, Walker feels that being on various special teams units will also help prepare him for the NFL.
“I have more options playing special teams. That’s one of the main ways you can help yourself get to the league,” Walker said. “Not by playing just d-line but also playing special teams if things don’t work how I want them to at the end.”
Having elite players on special teams helps gives the likes of Alabama and Georgia an edge. It’s part of the reason those two teams have had as much success as they have.
Smart acknowledges that injuries are an unfortunate fact of the game. Sometimes, in the case of Waddle or White, they happen on special teams.
But the risk of those freak plays is far outweighed in the eyes of Smart and Nick Saban by the value of having your best players make game-changing plays on special teams. And so long as those plays help Georgia or Alabama win games, it is going to stay that way.
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