ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia's 17-16 home loss to Vanderbilt last October didn't just mark the low point of Kirby Smart's debut season as coach of the Bulldogs. It also served as the biggest disaster of a disappointing year on special teams.
How disastrous? The Bulldogs fell to the Commodores despite racking up 421 yards and allowing just 171.
"Last year is last year, and none of those games has any bearing on what goes on this season," Georgia redshirt sophomore kicker Rodrigo Blankenship said this week.
The No. 5 Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) will enter Saturday's game at Vanderbilt Stadium vastly improved in football's third phase. Blankenship built a streak of 18 consecutive kickoffs resulting in touchbacks until the fourth quarter of last Saturday's 41-0 win at Tennessee, while graduate transfer Cameron Nizialek has led the Bulldogs to a second-place standing among SEC teams in net punting (42.8 yards) after last season's 13th-place finish (34.9).
Georgia is averaging 25.2 yards per kickoff return after averaging 20.2 a year ago, and the only two punts returned against the Bulldogs have netted minus-4 yards.
"I can't say that we've put more time in. We've just tried to emphasize it," Smart said. "We've gotten a little better at kicking the ball. We've gotten a little better at punting the ball, and we've gotten better on those units executing. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we've put a huge emphasis and premium on playing the best players.
"I don't think that we didn't do that last year. I just think we had a lot of guys who played a lot of snaps, and it seems a little more spread out now as far the number of snaps guys are having to play and using that total 70 as opposed to 55 or 50 — whatever the number was last year."
Last year's Vanderbilt-Georgia game will be remembered for Commodores inside linebacker Zach Cunningham stuffing Bulldogs receiver Isaiah McKenzie on fourth-and-1 at Vandy's 41-yard line with 56 seconds remaining. Yet the game opened with Vandy's Darrius Sims taking the kickoff 95 yards to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Ralph Webb, and Georgia botched the second-half kickoff when returner Reggie Davis stepped out of bounds at his own 3-yard line.
The Bulldogs went three-and-out after the Davis gaffe, and a 17-yard Kalija Lipscomb punt return set up Tommy Openshaw's 38-yard field goal that gave the Commodores a 10-6 lead.
"Georgia's always had athletes and good coaching," Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. "Last year those opportunities went our way. I thought we worked hard to execute in practice, and it showed up in the game. This year, when you look at Georgia, they've changed who they are punt-wise. They were more pro-style last year, and now it's more of a college-cut protection, and that's what you do after your first year: You re-evaluate.
"I think they're strong in all three phases, but their special teams has definitely improved. They've got great returners, and they're playing hard."
The surging Bulldogs obviously are looking for a very different outcome this season against the Commodores (3-2, 0-2), beginning with the very first kick.
"It's one of the phases of the game that we've been working the most hard at, and it's coming along really good this season," Georgia junior receiver Terry Godwin said. "We were working hard last year, but there were some nicks and knacks that we had to fix, and I feel like we're fixing them more and more this year as the weeks go by."
Said sophomore safety J.R. Reed: "We just started taking it a little bit more seriously as a team. We started harping on special teams. We preach it every day that special teams are going to win us the game."
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