If the Hail Mary that ended last year’s Tennessee game was the most scarring moment of 2016 for Georgia, you could argue that special teams play against Vanderbilt was right up there.
The mistakes that proved to be most influential on the game’s outcome came at the opening of each half. Vanderbilt’s Darrius Sims returned the opening kickoff from Rodrigo Blankenship 95 yards, putting the Commodores in position for an easy score.
When Georgia got its chance to answer after halftime, Georgia returner Reggie Davis caught a corner kick at the 3-yard line and stepped out of bounds.
“There were a lot of errors in that game,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. “They caused them by what they did on their kickoff return. We had two returners backs and tried to field some rugby punts, which are really tough the way the kid was kicking the ball. There were 200 yards of field position that were — give or take — lost, and we have to do a better job in regards to that.”
Now there’s an understatement.
If the pain of that loss is what’s driven Smart and the team to revamp special teams play, though, you could say it’s been worth it so far this season. Derek Mason has an interesting observation about that:
“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.”
I confess that I’m not exactly sure what the difference is between pro-style and college-cut in the punt return game — feel free to chime in if you have some insight — but I’m guessing it has something to do with this:
Below we will explore the basic protection schemes of the standard spread punt used in the NFL and a decreasing number of teams in the college ranks (due to different men downfield/coverage rules mentioned below – many college teams have transitioned to a Shield Punt – as there are no limits as to who can be downfield before the ball is kicked).
Maybe that’s something that was imported with Scott Fountain. Anyway, tinkering with scheme is fine, but I think Smart hits on the bigger reason for the improvement.
“… 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.”
He brought in a punter who’s taken the starting job and run with it. He brought in competition for place kicker and spurred Blankenship’s improvement. And he’s used the better depth that’s come from improved roster management to upgrade the speed and athleticism of the coverage and return teams.
When you’ve got the talent and depth advantage over a program like Vanderbilt, special teams play should never be the reason for a loss. Quite the opposite; it should be a weapon used to grind down a team that can’t match you in the numbers game. Georgia may lose tomorrow, but I don’t think it’ll be because the Dawgs get owned on special teams again.