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Georgia punter Cameron Nizialek (92) has averaged 44.3 yards per punt this season.

Georgia football: Bulldogs’ special teams among the best in college football

Cy Brown

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Georgia is good at special teams now

Poor special teams was one of Georgia’s greatest flaws lasts season. The Bulldogs ranked 97th nationally in special teams S&P+, a stat that measures special teams efficiency. Fast forward to now, and special teams has become one of the team’s greatest strengths. The Dawgs rank 14th nationally in special teams S&P+.

So what gives? The return game has cooled off without Isaiah McKenzie fielding kicks, and Rodrigo Blankenship is 3 for 4 on field goals. What is Georgia doing now that makes it so much better? The answer is simple: Georgia is winning the field position game, and it’s giving the Dawgs a major advantage.

Field goals and returns are the more visible and exciting facets of special teams, but how Georgia performed on kickoffs and punts had a much more drastic affect on the 2016 season. Think back to the Vanderbilt game. Remember that opening kickoff? Blankenship failed to get the ball in the end zone and the Commodores rattled off a 95-yard return and scored a few plays later. Considering how anemic Vanderbilt’s offense was that game, chances are good that if that ball goes through the back of the end zone, Vanderbilt doesn’t score on the opening drive, and Georgia’s chances of winning the game increase significantly.

That’s an extreme example, but it illustrates the point. It’s better to boot the ball into the end zone and give the opponent the ball on the 25 than risk a return that could possibly go to the house. And when you extrapolate that out to the dozens of kickoffs a team has in a season, it makes a big difference as far as giving the opponent a chance for easy points.

The Dawgs have improved dramatically on kickoffs since last season. More specifically, Blankenship has improved dramatically. In 2016, Blankenship kicked 20 touchbacks with a 36.7 touchback percentage on all kicks. This season, he already has 13 touchbacks and is getting a touchback on 72.2 percent of his kickoffs. That’s good enough for third in the SEC in total touchbacks and fourth is the SEC in touchback percentage.

The necessity of a strong punting game is a bit more self-explanatory. The farther you punt the ball, the farther the other team has to go to score. Graduate transfer Cameron Nizialek has done a fantastic job giving the Georgia defense a longer field to work with than it typically got last season.

Georgia punters averaged 37.5 yards per punt in 2016. Nizialek has averaged 44.3 yards per punt in his first season in Athens. But it’s not just about sheer yardage. Nizialek also puts hangtime on his balls, allowing the gunners to get down the field and get in the return man’s face. Return men have called for fair catches on 11 of Nizialek’s 15 punts. The other four were returned for a total of -4 yards, putting Georgia second in college football in punt return yards allowed and 10th in net punting.

A good special teams unit can make a game-changing — possibly season-changing — difference, so it’s obviously fantastic to see the kicking and punting games improve. But beyond that, it breeds some more confidence in Kirby Smart. Before the season, Smart said he was putting an emphasis on special teams. Lo and behold, special teams have improved drastically. We’ve been asking for if Smart can coach ’em up as well as he can recruit. The improved performance of the special teams is the best evidence yet he can.

Mixing up the line

Through three games, it’s safe to say Georgia’s offensive line has improved since last season. Or, at least, part of it has. Left tackle Isaiah Wynn is Georgia’s best lineman, and freshman right tackle Andrew Thomas has been a revelation. But Georgia has had trouble this season running off-center and off-guard. The interior line is still a work in progress, and Smart is experimenting with personnel at guard to see if he can build a more effective unit. From Seth Emerson of DawgNation’s Tuesday practice report:

Ben Cleveland was working at left guard with the second team. Cleveland has been primarily a right tackle, and backing up starter Andrew Thomas. But the interior line has been a concern for the offensive line.

Kendall Baker has started the past couple games at left guard and remained the first-team left guard on Tuesday. Solomon Kindley, after dealing with a minor ankle injury, took every first-team snap at right guard in the Samford game and remained there on Tuesday.

Your obligatory Jacob Eason injury update

Jacob Eason is still practicing and throwing against air, but it doesn’t seem as if he’ll be ready to go for Mississippi State. According to Emerson, the pecking order at QB in practice Tuesday was Jake Fromm, Brice Ramsey, then Eason and the walk-ons.

But the elephant in the room is still what happens when Eason is healthy enough to play. Does he return as starter or does Fromm keep the gig? Smart was asked that question in his Tuesday presser and gave no hints either way. From Emerson:

“I don’t know that that’s a fair question,” Smart said. “I think the question is No. 1, what is cleared to play? Is that 100 percent healthy, or is that emergency backup? I think a lot of that is determined by how Fromm is playing.

“We’ll make that decision when the time comes. It’s not like we’re going to sit here and make an ultimatum. It’s going to come as his health improves.”

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