Of course, many fans tend to think of "Special Teams" as a squad that actually needs a full-time coach. In actuality, however, the name itself is actually quite descriptive of its makeup. "Special Teams" is a catch-all for the squads that play on kicking downs that are neither considered part of the offense nor the defense. As such, it's actually made up of several rather disparate units. And Mark Richt, in a move for which he has drawn much criticism, has chosen not to have one coach dedicated to just those roles. Instead, each assistant coach shares responsibility for one of the special teams.
The special teams squads include the following:
- Kickoff coverage - Handles kickoffs, so is mostly a defensive-oriented squad. A special twist on this unit is the onside kick unit, which would focus more on offensive skills like "hands" players and blockers to recover an onside kick.
- Kickoff return - Returns kickoffs, so is mostly offense-oriented.
- Field Goals/Extra Points - Handles all placekicking situations, so is offense-oriented.
- Field Goal defense - Defends all of the opponents' placekicking, so is defense-oriented.
- Punts - Handles all punting situations, and is a hybrid of defense and offense, since you have to block for the punter and then run downfield and tackle the receiver.
- Punt return - Defends all of the opponents' punts, and is also a hybrid of defense and offense, since you start off defending a punt and then try to set up blocking for a return.
The only specialists that pretty much only play on special teams downs are the place kicker(s) and punter(s) (and, more recently, a dedicated long snapper).
In 2011, our special teams were beyond abysmal, so there was practically nowhere to go but up in 2012. (Cue "OPPORTUNITY IS NOWHERE" joke.) And in 2012, the defensive aspects of our special teams were very good. Very good. I'll handle each unit individually below.
- Kickoffs: The kickoff unit was a very strong point in 2012, as we allowed no kickoffs to be returned for touchdowns, and over 40% of all kickoffs went for a touchback. This compares to a 27.5% touchback rate in 2011, which is a significant improvement. After all, the opponent can't return it for a touchdown if the ball never exits the endzone, right? And on non-touchbacks, just based on my "eyeball test," the tackling appeared to be much more solid overall. We rarely appeared to be "just one missed tackle away from a touchdown," which was all too common in 2011. Grade: A
Senior Jamie Lindley handled about half of the kickoffs, and was slightly statistically better than Freshman Marshall Morgan, so there is an exposure there for 2013. One would hope that Morgan would improve during the offseason, but even his 2012 performance was better than senior Blair Walsh's 2011 efforts.
- Kickoff return: As usual, we platooned the returner position, and we got a solid group that rarely saddled us with poor field position and did not turn over the ball at all in 2012. There was only one return for a touchdown (a 100-yard effort by Todd Gurley in the first quarter of the Buffalo game), but overall, they did their jobs well and put our offense in good field position. Grade: A-
The only player we used at the returner position in 2012 who was a senior is Richard the Intravenous (god I'm gonna miss him), and he only got 3 returns on the year. Also, almost all of the blockers in the unit will be back, so we should expect this unit to continue to be solid in 2013.
- Field Goals/Extra Points: This was easily our weakest special teams unit in 2012. Marshall Morgan had what was easily the worst freshman season for a place kicker in recent memory. He started the season by missing 2 PAT's in his first two games and clanking at least 3 more off the uprights that managed to bounce though. He rebounded from those early struggles, however, and managed to go 63 of 67 on extra points for the year.
Morgan's work on field goals, however, is another story. He was only 8 of 14 on field goals, and only 3 of 7 from 40+ yards. In fact, Morgan did not make any field goals longer than 40 yards after the Tennessee game, missing on 40+ yard efforts against Ole Miss, Georgia Southern, Alabama, and Nebraska. Statistically speaking, his year was similar to Blair Walsh's 2011, with a 57% completion rate compared to Walsh's 60%. He attempted only 14 kicks all year, though, compared to Walsh's 35, and one can only assume that was partially due to his struggles with range.
On the upside, our line did a great job protecting the kicker: we had no field goals blocked in 2012. Grade: C-
In 2013 (and in general), we need a kicker than can make a 40+ yard field goal without even thinking. In 2012, it undoubtedly made a difference in the flow of the Alabama game, 4-point-final-margin notwithstanding. We need Morgan to be dramatically improved in 2013. And he'll be doing it with a new long snapper, too, since longtime stalwart Ty Frix was a senior this year.
- Field Goal defense: Alec Ogletree. SEC Championship Game. 7 points vs. Alabama. And they also blocked a PAT vs. Florida Atlantic. But they came up huge in the biggest game of the year. In my book that makes for: Grade: A
As for 2013... like the rest of our defense, we're losing all the best players, so that's a concern. As long as we can stop somebody from running a fake field goal for a touchdown in a big game, though, that's about all we can realistically expect.
- Punts: Collin Barber did a very serviceable job as a Freshman this year. His average punt of 41 yards is only slightly less than Drew Butler's 2011 average. He did have some embarrassing shanks, though, and he definitely has room to improve. He never really put us in a horrible spot from a field position standpoint, but he also never boomed the crap out of the ball like Butler did, either. And we allowed one punt return for a touchdown, in that nightmare first quarter in the bad Columbia. Grade: B-
Barber has definite room for improvement in 2013, but he's only a freshman, so I'm going to assume that he will do just that. All of his blockers are returning, but like Marshall Morgan, he'll have to break in a new long snapper next year. Let's hope we can find at least one guy on the team who can reliably snap the ball 10 yards.
- Punt return: We fair-caught less balls this year than we did in 2011, which I thought was encouraging. To me, that means we blocked downfield better and actually set up a potential return more. On the other hand, no one with more than one punt return averaged more than 8 yards per return and we got no touchdowns, which means that our blocking wasn't really that much better. We had no turnovers, though, and that ain't bad. Overall, a solid, but not great, performance. Grade: B
As for 2013, none of our impact players from the punt return team are graduating, so perhaps we might even see some improvement from this squad next year. As long as our offense keeps rolling, though, I'll be satisfied with another solid performance like the one we got in 2012.
Overall, our special teams were significantly improved from 2011 to 2012. In 2011, we allowed far too many big plays, missed far too many field goals, and allowed opponents to block field goals and punts. In 2012, we only missed too many field goals, and we even helped remedy that situation by making more than 50% fewer attempts. My overall grade for special teams in 2012 is an A-.
Mark Richt has said that he's going to take over as the kickers' coach in 2013 (we had no coach for the kickers in 2012), so If we can improve that area of the game and maintain our solid performances in the other areas, we could see another great year for special teams in 2013. One of the hallmarks of championship teams is that they don't make dumb mistakes on special teams, so that's what we again need to see to achieve our goals next year.