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Position Breakdown: The Specialists, and a Little History

You absolutely cannot neglect the “3rd phase” of the game...

Rose Bowl Game - Oklahoma v Georgia
Rodrigo and his Rose Bowl record kick.

Specialist [spesh-uh-list] -

a person who devotes himself or herself to one subject or to one particular branch of a subject or pursuit.

Admittedly, that definition doesn’t quite capture the essence of what a specialist is in a football sense, but you get the general idea. These individuals, who have a particular skill, are absolutely essential to the long-term success of a football team over the course of a year. And you’d better be ready when the spotlight is on you, because being a specialist brings a special kind of pressure to bear.

The Rose Bowl epitomized how extremely important special teams were and how, ultimately, it led directly to victory. This game was a what’s-what of special teams plays, and a veritable who’s-who of players that stepped up when the chips were down.

And sometimes, a specialist playing a “role” on an otherwise “routine” kickoff becomes an instant hero.

Not sure if it was “The Play of the Game,” but it was a helluva a play in a helluva game.

Tae Crowder, for example. His incredible snag as the up-man in special teams coverage set up Rodrigo Blankenship’s momentum changing 55 yard field goal with but a single second on the clock. Just when it appeared that Oklahoma was going into the locker room at the half in Pasadena with the entire food basket, we absolutely stole their cheese. And it was sharp and tasty and awesome. Lorenzo Carter’s big paw on Oklahoma’s 2nd field goal attempt in overtime would not have happened had Crowder and Hot Rod’s successes not happened. Yeah, it’s a big, big deal.

Why do front-line starters play on special teams? Because there is nothing that can change the momentum of a game quicker than a sudden kickoff and/or punt return or blocked kick. Just getting great field position can boost a flagging team and turn the fortunes of a game almost instantly. I personally witnessed one of the wildest special teams flip-flops ever, during the 1978 Georgia-Georgia Tech tilt in Sanford Stadium. Tech was leading 20-0 at halftime, but Georgia began to claw back and took the lead in the 3rd quarter on the great Scott Woerner’s 72-yard punt return. I cannot believe that this occurred 40 years ago...

Georgia suddenly had a very short-lived 21-20 lead. Why short lived? Because this happened:

The Golden Shower Tornado gave us a tussle that year. Dawgs on Top!

The bottom line regarding special teams is this: you have to treat it as essential and vital as any other part of the game, and sometimes more. Special teams is multi-faceted, too. You’ve got to support the entire system; something we failed to do at times in the past. So, what do we have in 2018? A lot, my friends. A lot.

When Shane Beamer left for Oklahoma, Kirby Smart promoted Scott Fountain who had a major role in last season’s special teams successes. He has a lot of weapons to work with, starting with the kickers.

Rodrigo Blankenship has been on full scholarship since the Notre Dame game (he probably deserves an extra one) and has become one of the better kickers - if not the best - in the country. His 2017 stats were excellent: 63 for 63 on PATs and 20 of 23 Field Goals (83%). He made 2 clutch kicks of 50+ in the College Football Playoffs; his last kick of the season could have/should have been the winner. Heading into his junior campagin, “Hot Rod” is on many All-American 1st team lists and his confidence, with a major boost from former great Kevin Butler, has to be sky-high heading into 2018. His goal for the new season? Simple. Make every kick. Sounds good to me.

NCAA Football: Georgia at Florida
Kicking is secondary to his dancing abilities. Try to imagine Ravel’s “Bolero”...

In 2017, graduate (walk-on) transfer Cameron Nizialek showed up and kicked himself into the hearts of Georgia fans with what can be described as a solid, consistent season. His 45 yards/avg. was 4th best in the Conference (Florida’s Johnny Townsend was #1 because his offense smelled like #2).

Kirby Smart recruited a punter for 2018 and he comes in with some accolades. Rated as the #1 overall punter in the 2018 composite, Jake Camarda has some big cleats to fill as he could be the starter against Austin Peay on Saturday. He’s been a bit inconsistent in August camp at times, but has a ton of potential and is the odds-on-favorite to win the job.

Redshirt sophomore Marshall Long has experience, and led the team in punting in 2016. He was forced to redshirt all of last season with a knee injury, necessitating the need to find the transfer (Nizialek). Whether he starts or not, it is comforting to know that there is a backup who has played significant snaps.

The kick return specialists are a murderer’s row of speed and power. Mecole Hardman led the Conference in kick returns (25.3 yards/per) and was 2nd in punt returns (11.8 yards/per) and came within a gnat’s whisker of breaking a couple of long touchdowns, so you just know it’s bound to happen sooner than later. Hopefully, more than a few.

Elijah Holyfield also lined up on kickoffs and could be expected to do the same in 2018, but the real buzz from camp is James Cook, the freshman from Miami Northwestern High who has been shakin’ and bakin’ the living daylights out of would be tacklers since camp began. This is one of the super-frosh I can’t wait to see out of many. Seriously. Don’t sleep on Ahkil Crumpton, Sr., either. I think Terry Godwin will be preserved for receiver duties only, but he is certainly capable of return duties if necessary. Demetris Robertson, Jayson Stanley and Tyler Simmons are also in the mix.

Coverage units will not lack for speed and athleticism. Contrary to some unpopular belief, you get your best players down the field to make plays. Some guys who are vying for playing time in the defensive backfield and who are really fast are going to play. Our linebacker corps is also young, deep and fast. Play ‘em.

Personally, I feel that Georgia’s special teams unit is not getting enough buzz. This might be partly due to how closely Kirby plays things to the vest, and I have no issue with that. If our punting unit can pick up where we left off last year, I think special teams - across the board - will be great. Georgia fielded one of the better overall units in the nation last season, and they are poised to improve upon this with known commodities, an infusion of youth and speed, and some depth as well. The special teams unit is set up for a lot of big plays in 2018.

We got dudes. Lots of really, really talented dudes. Kick, boom, vroom!

Good times. GO DAWGS!