Special teams are special again at the University of Georgia. Inside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler is also responsible for the defensive special teams unit, while tight ends coach John Lilly coaches up the offensive guys.
RETURN OF THE RETURNERS
The most obvious improvement in 2014 was the addition of one Isaiah McKenzie from American Heritage School in Plantation, Florida. An 11th hour signee at the end of the 2014 recruiting cycle, McKenzie turned out to be one of the most significant freshman contributors among many talented frosh. Provided he can stay healthy (read: stretch those hammies, son), he will continue to cause nightmares for opposing defensive special teams units all season long.
McKenzie by the numbers
McKenzie averaged 28 yards per kickoff return (11 returns, 1 touchdown) and 12 yards (19 returns, 2 touchdowns) on punt returns. He is quicker than fast, but certainly fast enough. He's also small - which is a beautiful thing. He's easily lost in a group and it does not take much for him to pop through a scrum while defenders are still screened off.
Certainly the most meaningful kickoff return of the 2014 season was Todd Gurley's 105 yard touchdown vs. Clemson, but if ever there was a niche player on Georgia's roster and an example of must-see-TV every time he gets an opportunity, Isaiah McKenzie gets my vote. His opening kick return vs. Kentucky set the tone in a route and firmly established this kid as a consistent home-run threat every time he touches the ball. In my mind, he's the kind of fearless return man that I haven't seen since - okay, I'm dating myself here - Scott Woerner. McKenzie to be sure is a different kind of runner, but he still achieves the desired results: Positive return yards and a scoring threat.
Godwin the returner? Why not...
Terry Godwin has been receiving rave reviews thus far in August camp for his ability to catch about everything thrown his way and could get a few looks in the return game. He's a playmaker, and is a fast-twitch, explosive runner in the open field with plenty of speed. The punt return game is an opportunity to make things happen in space. Playmakers in Space. Coming to a stadium near you.
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About the 2:10 mark. Pretty nifty, shifty....
With speed to burn, do not discount Reggie Davis' ability to contribute as well. Reggie returned 19 punts for about an 8 yard average and no touchdowns in 2014, but is experienced and reliable.
KICKING IT, OR "THE COMEBACK KID AND AN INTERESTING NEW GUY...."
Collin Barber got his bell rung at Tennessee in 2013 on a blocked punt that was returned for a Vol touchdown. Who didn't get hurt in that game? A Pyrrhic victory if ever there was one. Despite contributing to the lion's share of punting duties last season, Barber still had residual effects from getting his bell rung up in Knoxville the season before. His numbers weren't horrible: 34 punts for roughly a 39 yard average. They just weren't up to his standards This season, Barber is feeling good and having a solid August camp. His performance should improve.
Rodrigo Blankenship out of Marietta (Sprayberry) might already have the best leg on the team. In high school, Blankenship consistently kicked the ball out of the back of the end zone - albeit kicking off from the 40 yard line - but put enough distance and air to suggest he shouldn't have an issue in big-time SEC venues as well. He is a legitimate long-distance field goal threat and punts the ball quickly with a quick step, plant and swing style that decreases the odds of getting a kick blocked.
I am just working on different types of rugby punting, there is two types, there is modified, where it is a shorter run kick, then there is full out rugby style punting...I have been working a lot on the rugby style punting a lot. It is full on with a moving shield in front of you. - via Rusty Mansell, Dawgs247.com
His 2014 highlight reel is very impressive.
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Kicking it through the back of the end zone should be a law, IMO.
Marshall Morgan will enter his senior season with the following career numbers:
FIeld Goal Attempts/Made: 59 / 46 78%, (with a season long of 53 yards vs. Charleston Southern).
Extra Point Attempts/Made: 182 / 177 93%
Total Points: 315
He touchback rate on kickoffs in 2014 was right around 32%.
Defensively, no one got down the field (when healthy) quicker on special teams than Sony Michel. He was consistently the first to arrive to the ball carrier and make contact. Georgia's coverage philosophy, according to new linebacker via UAB hardship transfer Jake Ganus, is beautiful in its simplicity - and horse sense:
I think what makes a special teams unit great is when your best players want to be on it...I think our philosophy is the best 11 on special teams. I think that competition on kickoff, punt and kickoff return, all that stuff is really making us better in that phase." - h/t Bob Miller, Bulldawg Illustrated
The best 11 guys on every phase of special teams. We saw the evolution of this last season, and it only burned us one time due to a poor coaching decision (Tech).
Georgia has a tremendous amount of speed on defense this year with some young guys out to prove a point. I have no worries seeing these guys on coverage. Gone are the days of directional kicking, hoping for the best yet expecting the worst. We've got guys who want to hit; want to make a name for themselves and many of them are regular starters on either side of the ball.
Gone are the days of a fair catch and a cloud of dust. We've got the Human Joystick waiting to juke, jib and jive for net yards and potentially a score each and every time he touches the ball.
The biggest question mark heading into 2015 is the punting game, but with a healthy Collin Barber and some new faces with real talent, this question mark might just be a strength.
What do you think? Where do we see the biggest improvement in 2015?