ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia will have a notable change on special teams Saturday night when the No. 5 Bulldogs visit No. 6 South Carolina.
Redshirt junior receiver Rhett McGowan is taking over returning punts from Malcolm Mitchell, who fielded a punt inside his 5-yard line against Vanderbilt and let a punt roll to the 1 last week against Tennessee. Mitchell also fumbled a punt at Missouri.
McGowan, a former walk-on from Calhoun, Ga., has two punt returns for 42 yards this season and had been used to handle pooch kicks.
"He's had a couple of reps out there in the middle of the field," Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said Tuesday, "and we're going to allow him to be the primary punt return man in this game and see how it goes."
Richt said Mitchell and freshman tailback Todd Gurley will continue to share duties on kickoff returns.
Receiver A.J. Green, defensive end Marcus Howard and defensive backs Tim Jennings, CJ Byrd and Prince Miller are notable Bulldogs players from South Carolina in recent years, but Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier is keeping more elite players at home. South Carolina junior tailback Marcus Lattimore was coveted by everyone in 2010, and Gamecocks sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was the No. 1 prospect nationally in 2011.
"I think Lattimore might have been the first in the string of them getting Mr. Football in South Carolina," Richt said. "Once he hit one, he hit two or three in a row, and I think that really made a statement."
The lone Palmetto State player of note for Georgia this season is junior noseguard Kwame Geathers.
"Going back to South Carolina is pretty special," he said. "There is a lot riding on this."
Defense of defense
Georgia is 10th in the SEC in total defense, allowing 370.2 yards a game. That's not the top-10 defense the Bulldogs had in mind with so many returning starters, but Richt was anything but critical Tuesday.
"What I am the most concerned about is when the game is on the line, are we going to be able to make the play at the moment of truth?" he said. "You can have great defensive stats, but if you don't make that one stop at the end of the game, you might have good stats at the end of the game but you lost because you didn't stop them when you needed to.
"We were able to stop them at the end of the Missouri game and at the end of the Tennessee game, so I'm pleased with that."
Last Saturday was the first in which the defense was at full strength due to the return of safety Bacarri Rambo and inside linebacker Alec Ogletree from four-game suspensions.
"We've got that first game together under our belt," senior cornerback Sanders Commings said, "and it's only going to get better from here."
Going five wide
Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray thought offensive coordinator Mike Bobo was providing the receiver depth chart on a board last week when he wrote the jersey numbers of Marlon Brown, Rantavious Wooten, Tavarres King, Michael Bennett and Mitchell. Instead, Bobo was listing a new five-receiver formation that Georgia used five or six times against the Volunteers.
"That's why we wanted Malcolm to come back over [from defense], to spread things out even more," a smiling Murray said. "I don't really know a team that can cover all five of those guys at once, especially with the way they're playing right now."
Murray said a five-man protection was successful last season when running backs released down the field, and he added that one of the top instances was against South Carolina.
Odds and ends
South Carolina was nine games under .500 all-time when Spurrier became coach in 2005, and the Gamecocks now are 16 games over at 559-543-44. ... Georgia is just 3-9 in games when ESPN's "GameDay" is on site, last winning at Alabama in overtime in 2007. ... This is the 65th meeting between Georgia and South Carolina, and the only school the Gamecocks have played more is Clemson (109 meetings).
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...