Georgia football coach Kirby Smart wasted no time Monday afternoon in establishing the top priority for his second preseason with the Bulldogs.
"We certainly have some goals for this camp with areas of concern and areas of improvement, and special teams would be number one," Smart said during a news conference in Athens. "We're going to try and change some things up special-teams wise, because we have to improve in that area. We had around 250 snaps on special teams played by true freshmen last year, and the question becomes, 'Can the true freshmen this year unseat some of those guys or create a competitive environment to make each one of those better?'
"We've got to improve our kicking units, and that's punting and kickoff coverage, our return game — everything. We plan to do that, and we plan to do that in camp."
The Bulldogs were mediocre to poor in most special-teams categories last season, and that was before standout return specialist Isaiah McKenzie elected to bypass his final year and was drafted in the fifth round this spring by the Denver Broncos. McKenzie had six career special-teams returns for touchdowns — five punts and one kickoff — to break the program mark of five set by Brandon Boykin in 2011.facebook
Georgia ranked sixth among Southeastern Conference schools in punt returns last season, but the Bulldogs were ninth in kickoff returns and a woeful 13th in both net punting and kickoff coverage.
Smart in May hired Scott Fountain as a special-teams analyst. Fountain spent the past eight seasons at Auburn, including the last four as an on-field assistant, where he worked with two-time Lou Groza Award finalist Daniel Carlson.
On Monday, Smart announced the additions of receiver and return specialist Ahkil Crumpton and graduate transfer kicker David Marvin to the roster. The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crumpton was a junior college All-American last season at Los Angeles Valley College and compiled more than 1,400 all-purpose yards.
"We combed the country looking for an elite returner," Smart said. "We didn't feel like we had an elite returner, and we really don't have any experienced returners. Isaiah had done it for so long, and we weren't really expecting to lose him. I certainly think that Terry Godwin is very capable and has some of the best hands in terms of judgment that I've ever seen on a receiver.
"I have no concerns about Terry as a possession guy catching the ball, and it's still to be determined whether he's an elite returner. We're going to give him an opportunity, and we're probably going to give these guys live returns to find out about them. We can't test them Sept. 2."
Crumpton, according to Smart, could not attain eligibility in the SEC until recently passing a math course at Los Angeles Valley. He will have three years to play two seasons with the Bulldogs.
"We think he upgrades our roster and helps us," Smart said. "He's from Philly, where we have (freshman tailback) D'Andre Swift and (freshman receiver) Mark Webb, and both of those guys knew him."
Marvin graduated from Wofford and made 17 of 23 field-goal attempts last season, including two from 57 yards out. He also averaged 46.2 yards on 46 punts.
Rodrigo Blankenship and Marshall Long were Georgia's top kicker and punter last year, and both of them are back.
Smart also listed throwing the ball more efficiently and red-zone improvement both offensively and defensively as objectives in the upcoming days, but he and his players certainly sounded happy to get things going. The Bulldogs practiced in shorts Monday and will do so again today.
"This is when the details matter," senior tight end Jeb Blazevich said. "This is when we need to get more creative. We just need to put the pressure on ourselves when we're out there to perform well, and that will carry over into the games."
Said Smart: "I'm thrilled for this day to get here, and I'm excited to find out how a lot of these new guys learn. These practices are not easy, and the idea is to create adversity for your team and find out who your leaders are."
Odds and ends
Junior defensive tackle Trenton Thompson (shoulder surgery) and junior inside linebacker Roquan Smith (torn pectoral muscle) were cleared for Monday's opening practice. ... Smart did not have any eligibility updates on freshman linebacker Robert Beal and freshman defensive lineman Devonte Wyatt, adding that it's still an ongoing process. ... Senior receiver Shakenneth Williams has applied for a medical disqualification with the NCAA, but Smart said the school has not heard back. ... Former Bulldogs middle linebacker Odell Thurman, who was an All-SEC selection in 2003 and 2004, has joined Georgia's strength staff as an intern.
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.