UGA special teams not 'up to par' so far

UGA special teams not 'up to par' so far

December 20th, 2011 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Branden Smith had a 32-yard punt return in the second game against South Carolina, but Georgia's other 24 punt returns this season have netted an average of 5.63 yards.

Photo by Jim Hipple

ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia had questions to answer offensively and defensively entering the 2011 football season, but the special teams figured to be an unquestioned strength.

It easily has been the worst phase of the three.

Senior punter Drew Butler suffered the first block of his career. Senior kicker Blair Walsh missed 12 field-goal attempts after missing 13 combined his first three seasons, and Georgia's coverage units allowed two kickoff returns and two punt returns for touchdowns.

"A lot of things didn't go our way on special teams this year," senior cornerback and kickoff-return specialist Brandon Boykin said. "We made a lot of plays, but they weren't the explosive ones that we needed to change games. We were kind of just mediocre in a lot of games from that standpoint.

"It hasn't been up to par to what we wanted."

Boykin has not returned a kickoff for a touchdown this season after tallying three scores as a sophomore and one last year, but Georgia's chief woes have been on kickoff coverage, punt coverage and punt returns.

The Bulldogs are basically giving up 10 yards every time they exchange punts, ranking 82nd nationally with 6.68 yards a return and 119th by allowing 16.09 yards a return. Georgia gave up an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown to Nick Brassell at Ole Miss and a 62-yard score to LSU's Tyrann Mathieu in the Southeastern Conference championship game.

Georgia is 96th in net punting (34.8 yards) nearly a year after finishing fourth (40.6).

It's been a similar story on kickoff returns, where Georgia is allowing 23.5 yards after yielding 19.5 last season. The Bulldogs allowed kickoff returns for touchdowns in consecutive games against Vanderbilt and Florida, which is more than they had given up in Mark Richt's first 10 seasons combined.

"We know we have got to get better," Richt said. "It's two things in my opinion that it could be -- either it's what we are doing schematically or it's who do we have on those teams. I guess it could be a third thing: Are they actually doing what we are asking them to do? In all those areas we must improve."

The Bulldogs will enter next year having to replace Boykin, Butler and Walsh, but it's the guts of each unit that Richt is ready to address.

"We'll probably do more special-teams work in the spring than we've done in the past," Richt said. "We knew we had a great punter, great kicker, holder, snapper and that kind of thing, but we also knew we had some youth on some of those teams. We lost [Akeem] Dent, [Darryl] Gamble, [Demarcus] Dobbs -- they were guys that could protect, escape and run and tackle a guy in the open field. We lost a batch of those guys, and we were a little shy on linebacker depth, so we just have to keep recruiting those kinds of guys.

"If we've got to put a bunch of starters on defense on some specials or starters at wide receiver or whatever you've got to do -- tailback -- I don't care what position. We've got to get the best guys out there and understand how crucial it is."

Odds and ends

The Bulldogs worked out Monday for two hours in full pads and will practice again this morning before breaking for Christmas. ... Redshirt junior outside linebacker Cornelius Washington, who has 16 tackles and five sacks this season, submitted paperwork to the NFL's Draft Advisory Board.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.