ATHENS — Is it possible that Georgia’s preseason first-team All-SEC kick return specialist won’t actually be returning kicks at the start of this season?
Isaiah McKenzie returned two punts and one kickoff for touchdowns as a freshman last year. But he’s missed time this preseason with a hamstring injury and assistant coach John Lilly, a co-special teams coordinator, answered it this way Friday when asked if McKenzie was healthy enough to return kicks.
“I don’t have punt return. But I’ll say this from a kickoff return standpoint: We don’t play for eight more days,” Lilly said, then chuckled.
McKenzie has been practicing on a limited basis with the injury, which wasn’t his first run-in with a hamstring problem: He hurt it during the G-Day game in April while scoring on a long touchdown pass.
This season McKenzie is due to take on a larger role on offense, and has been getting a lot of first-team snaps alongside Malcolm Mitchell. So it’s possible that in order to minimize the injury risk that McKenzie won’t have as big a role on special teams.
Of course McKenzie is also very valuable on special teams, so ideally he would play as many snaps there and on offense as possible. It just depends on his health, and Lilly’s comment infers that he may not be ready for kick return in the season opener.
Georgia has plenty of other options, as Lilly pointed out. Reggie Davis returned 12 punts last year for an average return of 7.9 yards, and three kickoffs for an average of 16.3 yards. Sony Michel had two kickoff returns for 37 yards, but suffered a shoulder injury and then didn’t return to special teams duties.
Freshmen such as Terry Godwin and Juwuan Briscoe also have experience doing it in high school and could be options.
“You can look at the roster and figure out the guys that have done it in the past, and then a couple new guys,” Lilly said. “You try everybody because you just never know who’s got the knack for it and can hit the home run.”
McKenzie has proven he can do that and is still likely to be the guy if he’s healthy enough. But it appears the Bulldogs are preparing in case he’s not.