We'll revisit these looks over the spring and summer when position battles warm up and that date with the Clemson Tigers gets a little closer, and we've given you a look at the entire side of the ball offensively, and the entire side of the defense. So let's conclude the series by focusing in on the "how many ways can you mean special" teams units. I'm using the current roster from georgiadogs.com, and including the 2014 signing class commitments as of the time of writing (since that can change).
Possible return men: RBs Keith Marshall, JJ Green, Sony Michel, and Nick Chubb. WRs Malcolm Mitchell, Reggie Davis, Justin Scott-Wesley, Rico Johnson. DBs Tramel Terry, Malkom Parrish, Damian Swann, Sheldon Dawson, Tristan Askew*.
* = walked on
Ah, special teams. So much excellence and so much incompetence all rolled into one, and it's been that way almost without exception under Mark Richt since 2003 or 2004 it seems. 2014 will be an interesting season for special teams units in Athens. The new coaching blood could lead to some fundamental changes in how the staff handles the various special teams responsibilities, and how we do things in the various return and coverage units. There will be position battles for seemingly everything but place kicker. So right now, we've got a lot of unknown and at least one, we hope, known in the group.
The known (again, we hope remembering Blair Walsh's senior season) is Marshall Morgan. After struggles as a freshman, the Floridian came back from a BUI suspension to be near perfect in 2013. Morgan is somewhat similar to his fellow Sunshine state native Walsh in that both have booming legs and had struggles as freshman that got cleaned up before excelling as sophomores. Provided he doesn't get a technique flaw as Walsh did, we can expect Morgan to continue being one of the best, if not the best, kickers in the country.
Punter and long snapper were another story, as we struggled with bad snaps and blocked punts all season. So both jobs will be up for grabs this spring and summer as a current (or maybe former) walk-on battles a recruited scholarship player for action. Clarke Central product Erickson took over from Barber to end last season, and did nothing to lose the job. But Erickson's leg isn't as strong as Barber's, so the kid from Cartersville could certainly win the job back if he irons out some kinks. And even if he doesn't regain the punter role, Barber's got enough boom in his foot to possibly handle kickoffs full time (a situation Georgia has done in the past when a walk-on Billy Bennett beat out a strong legged recruit Brett Kirouac).
Frix, younger brother of the man who the elder Theus took over snapping duties from going into last season, shared snapping duties last year as it seemed like both Trent and Nate had more bad snaps than you ever want to see in a season. The tell-tale sign they did poorly last year was that we actually learned both their names (a good snapper, like a good OL, goes unnoticed as they allow others to do their job and get the attention). I wouldn't be surprised if another walk-on joins the fray this spring and summer, but both of them have the pedigree and ability to get the job done. They just need to fix whatever technique issues were causing problems last year, and that can be done with outside consultants coming in to help.
So, provided we can fix the long snapping and punting issues, we still have significant issues in coverage and return units to clear up. We had a pair of punts wind up as touchdowns (Cal allowed 5, so it could have been worse but we were worst in the SEC there), allowed a kickoff to get taken to the house, and had the worst punt return average (under 3 yards) and worst kickoff return average in the SEC. And that doesn't get into botched returns and fumbles. In fact, our punt return average was only better than Cal in the entire nation last season, and was 110th in kickoff returns. Where have you gone Damien Gary/Thomas Flowers/Mikey Henderson/Fred Gibson?!?! And as you can tell, whatever Georgia was doing in all facets of their return and coverage units, it was wrong and needs to be done differently.
And to answer that penultimate question, we're looking at an abundance of candidates, though some are likely just my imagination as possibilities. For punt return, you tend to look for guys that can make someone miss more than anything, so shimmy is more important than speed (though you want both, and hands and good sense). For kick returns, it's more catch the ball and go since you won't have cover men in your face as soon as you field the ball, so it's more speed and strength than shimmy. Damian Swann and Sheldon Dawson have both handled punts some in the past, and have the athleticism to do so. That neither has locked up the job, despite the problems there, likely means they shouldn't be relied on for punt returns this year. Keith Marshall and Justin Scott-Wesley (as well as maybe the freshman Chubb) have the raw speed and power to be effective kick return men, and that may be a good way to get Marshall (or Chubb) touches in a crowded backfield that Gurley could be occupying. Sony Michel is another elusive, explosive back that could possibly get a look here to use his playmaking skills. Same goes for CB Malkom Parrish. And walk-on Tristan Askew returned kicks when he was at Eastern Oregon, so he might be another candidate for the job if he shows the sense and sure handedness Richt wants. Malcolm Mitchell has returned both kicks and punts before, with some good and some bad. I'm not sure we'll want to push him coming off the knee injury, but he's definitely an option here. Reggie Davis showed the speed to return kicks, but the hands were a problem. JJ Green has the ability to make plays there also, and is said to be one of those getting a long look for both jobs this spring and summer. Tramel Terry will join him in a long look there, and he has the speed/strength to excel at KR and the shimy to make the first man miss as a PR. Freshman Rico Johnson has already announced his intentions for the job, and his speed is elite for it. I'd expect most of our returns to be handled by him, Green, or Terry if forced to answer now. But as you can see, there is no shortage of candidates and Georgia will give them all a look to see if we can find a solution to this continually worsening problem.
Those differences are going to be a point of focus for Richt, and the new coaches along with John Lily and whoever else handles the respective units of XP/FG kick, XP/FG block, kickoff return, kickoff cover, punt return, and punt cover. And before we get into a special teams coach, those are all very different units doing different things with different needs. Oh, and we don't have the room without sacrificing elsewhere. So for anyone who's wondering, WE DO NOT NEED A SPECIAL TEAMS COACH! So until they take the field, we'll just have to keep our fingers crossed that things improve across the boards in special teams. They can hardly get any worse.