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Mecole Hardman had a long punt return in the Rose Bowl. Hardman ranks 11th nationally this season in punt returns.

The underrated factor in a special season for Georgia

PASADENA, Calif. – There was Mecole Hardman, running a punt back to midfield. There was Rodrigo Blankenship booming a field goal, and Cameron Nizialek booming punts. There was Lorenzo Carter blocking a field goal in overtime. And of course there was Tae Crowder, the formerly anonymous reserve, making a quick and heady step on a squib kick.

Georgia’s special teams were the underrated heroes in the Bulldogs’ Rose Bowl victory, just as they had been throughout magical season. For all the deserved attention on UGA’s defense and improved offense, the special teams had been a huge part of the success.

And that’s something else that was hard to see after the 2016 season.

“We got a prideful team, first of all. So they know that last year wasn’t good enough,” said Shane Beamer, Georgia’s special teams coordinator. “Now we did some decent things last year, but when you look statistically, and we do a composite of every team in the SEC, overall special teams rankings, and we were dead last. And that’s inexcusable.”

So Georgia set about changing things: Scott Fountain, let go by Auburn after a fairly successful run as its special teams coordinator, was scooped up in an analyst role. Nizialek was allowed to transfer in as a graduate transfer and walk-on. Blankenship was given competition. And there was simply an overall effort on getting better.

The results have been remarkable:

  • Punting: Georgia went from 121st nationally in punting last season to eighth this season, improving its punting average by more than 7 yards.
  • Kickoff returns: Georgia went from 80th nationally last season to ninth this season, improving its return average by 4.7 yards.
  • Kickoff coverage: Georgia went from 115th nationally last season to 37th this season, holding opponents to 4.4 fewer yards per return.
  • Punt coverage: A more modest improvement, but still an improvement: Opponents are averaging just 5.3 yards per return this season after averaging 6.1 yards last season.

Football Outsiders, an analytics site, ranks Georgia 45th this season in special teams. In 2016, the Bulldogs ranked 95th.

Much of this has to do with some improved personal performances:

  • Nizialek ranks ninth nationally in punting average (44.9 yards per punt.)
  • Blankenship took kickoffs to another level, and Georgia has the fourth-most touchbacks in the country this year – 64. That’s almost three times as many as last year, when the Bulldogs had 24. It also helps that Georgia’s offense is scoring so many more points this year, giving Blankenship more opportunities.
  • Hardman ranks 10th nationally in punt-return average, at 11.3 yards per return. Pretty good for a sophomore; the 10 players in front of him are all juniors or seniors.

But it’s not all just the specialists, Beamer pointed out.

“If you’re going to be good statistically, you better have good kickers and punters. And Rod and Cam obviously had great years. And I think [all] the kids just bought into it,” Beamer said. “Let’s face it; nobody comes to Georgia to be the starting right guard on the punt team. I get it. So you’ve got to motivate them. They’ve got to buy into it. And they have. Guys that people don’t talk about from a special teams standpoint that have great years …”

He pointed to Roquan Smith, who for all his stardom at linebacker is also on punt team. Lorenzo Carter not only blocked field goals in the Rose Bowl and SEC Championship Game, but he also does a great job covering kickoffs.

“If somebody had said to me a year ago, ‘Hey Lorenzo’s going to be a starter on your kickoff team, I probably would’ve said there’s no way,’” Beamer said. “And he has been.”

Other players have used special teams to stand out: Jayson Stanley, before his suspension for the Rose Bowl, had an outstanding year as a gunner on punt and kickoff coverage. Tyler Simmons, another receiver, downed one of Nizialek’s punts at the 2-yard line in Pasadena.

“People talk about Mecole and the work that he does as a returner. He’s great. But the 10 guys up front are as good as anybody I’ve ever been around,” Beamer said in the locker room Monday night. “They’ve bought into it this year. They’ve practiced the right way. We knew special teams, we felt like we had an advantage there. And it was good to see those two plays, the way we covered kickoffs, the way we punted. It was a great night from that standpoint.”

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