Georgia’s all-time leader in punt return yardage isn’t a big fan of playing it safe by relying too often on fair catches.
“I’m kind of gritting my teeth when I see that,” said Damien Gary, who racked up 1,253 punt return yards from 2000 to 2003 and is now running backs coach at Charlotte. “I understand the game especially being a coach now when you have a safe opportunity, but I definitely love seeing good returns.”
The article, as you might guess, is written about the potential of Isaiah McKenzie to bring life back to Georgia’s moribund punt return game – the Dawgs didn’t have a punt return longer than 17 yards last season – but it’s really about the struggle going on inside Mark Richt’s head.
Richt’s intentions were good when he signed McKenzie, who had some crazy stats as a returner in his senior high school season.
“That’s one of the more exciting things about his high school career that made me really want to go after him,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said Friday. “I thought his ability to return punts and kicks could help us a lot.”
But there’s still some Logan Gray haunting Richt’s soul.
Before Richt hands over the punt return duties to McKenzie, he has to trust the freshman that he can count on him to secure the ball.
“That’s why I’m telling him, every rep I’m watching,” Richt said. “There is no `I’ll do it game day mentality.’ It’s ‘I’m going to do it in practice to prove to coach I can do it.’ That’s not just him, that’s anybody back in that spot.”
Or maybe he’s just channeling his inner Vince Dooley.
“What you’d like in a return man, but like I told him and the rest of them, I’m going to base the decision on who that guy is on how well he fields the ball and how well he protects the ball. If you don’t field the ball and don’t protect it, it doesn’t matter how good you can run. And that punt return especially is so much different in college than in high school. They’ll punt it out there, you’ll catch it in space in high school. College, it’s way up there, it’s hanging, you’re sitting there waiting and waiting and waiting and here they come. They’re right on top of you — 95,000 people, millions of people watching on TV. It’s just a whole different deal. That’s the thing you concern yourself with a true freshman.”
Hey, don’t stop with true freshmen. Damian Swann managed to turn the Vanderbilt game around all by his lonesome with a botched catch. (And that was on punt safe!)
There are times when I wonder why Richt doesn’t just say “screw it, I’m not sending anyone back to field this punt”. But maybe he should listen to Damien Gary a little bit.
“It’s an opportunity to give the offense some extra yards,” Gary said. “It would be nice to have some good return men that could kind of help the offense back there.”
As the saying goes, no guts, no glory.