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So what can we expect from our guys when we're taking a break from scoring touchdowns at will or holding our opponents to four-and-outs? Nothing stellar, according to the media's preseason All-SEC Team, which includes zero Bulldogs in the special teams three-deep. I expect a lot from them, however, given how strong we were in some areas last year, but others need improvement.
We famously do not have a dedicated special teams coach. Various assistants cover different aspects: kicking, coverage, and return. Coach Richt has taken over responsibility for coaching the kickers and got "pointers" from some coaches who are good with kickers. That's not a lot of detail, but it's what we've got. He's spent practice time with the kickers and is reviewing film with them after a videographer follows them throughout practice. I haven't seen any visual evidence of Richt using his new hip for some demo field goals, though.
Collin Barber returns for his sophomore effort as punter. He wrapped up his 2012-13 campaign with a respectable 41.47 yards per punt, but distance isn't everything. Nobody wants a 55 yard punt from your opponent's 45. While Barber made a couple of mistakes in his freshman year, he did well enough to justify optimism for improvement in 2013 now that he has a season under his belt.
Like Barber, Marshall Morgan also returns as a sophomore. He gave us a decent enough showing in 2012, but shared kickoff duties with Jamie Lindley, who graduated. Only about one of three of Morgan's kickoffs resulted in touchbacks, and his average placed the ball around the 15.
As for our punt coverage, we had only one returned for a touchdown last year, in the South Carolina nightmare. No kickoffs were returned for TDs. Let's hope we can keep a lid on that kind of thing in 2013. I expect aggressive punt and kickoff coverage in 2013, and I especially expect big things from senior and former walk-on Blake Sailors, who notched 8 special teams tackles last year. He strikes me as a bit of a hothead, but that can be useful when racing down the field to knock down a ball carrier might be your only chance to shine on the field.
Extra Points and Field Goals
Morgan set a school record for most PATs in a season, but that's because our offense was a TD machine. Call me a half-empty guy for dwelling on the four he missed. He made a 52-yard field goal against Mizzou last year, but that indeed was a highlight. He was 8-14 and only 3-7 in attempts of 40 or more yards. I don't want to be down on the kid, but it just seems like we've always had stellar kickers in my lifetime. And with his alcohol-related boating misadventure, he almost certainly will not be available for the opening game against Clemson (no official word yet), an opponent against whom field goals have been important in the past. The most optimistic I can be about field goals is that I hope we score touchdowns.
It seems the days of the fair catch as permanent punt return strategy are gone. Richt and staff recently have seen the merit in letting O and D starters take return duties, and it's paid off. I expect the likes of Todd Gurley and Malcolm Mitchell to continue fielding kickoffs and punts, and for Mitchell's part, he at least says he understands better now that he doesn't have to make The Big Play with every return. I mean, it would be exciting to see a 100-yard return for a touchdown, but sometimes you gotta take a knee in the end zone, son.
Over all, I expect special teams to be more of a strength than a weakness with the caveat that field goals will make me nervous all year. And it wouldn't surprise me at all in 2013 to see a new star or two break out -- or to see a star or two get brighter -- with some exciting returns.
What's got you worried about special teams this year? Who will step up to give us those blocked field goals and returns for TDs this year?