Bulldogs’ focus shifts to improving special teams

The offseason ushered in significant changes for Georgia football with an overhauled strength and conditioning staff, an emphasis on avoiding off-field missteps and plenty of roster attrition.

Coach Mark Richt will have less heavy lifting ahead in 2012 after a trip to the SEC championship game and a 10-win season, but he has identified a top priority in the coming months: Fixing what ails the Bulldogs’ underperforming special teams.

“I’ve been kind of putting my list together,” Richt said. “Certainly we’ve got to get some better answers in our special teams. It doesn’t necessarily mean changing any coaches on what they do or all that kind of thing, but I’m going to make that a point of emphasis for myself and for our staff and give them carte blanche to take trips or we may be bringing people in to really solidify what we’re doing and be certain that we’re doing the right things schematically and technically.”

The book on this season won‚Äôt be closed until a week from today in the Outback Bowl against Michigan State (players report to Tampa today and resume bowl practices Tuesday morning), but the special teams’¬† numbers this season tell the story.

Georgia ranks in the bottom half of the Southeastern Conference in nearly every special teams category. Georgia is 11th in net punting (34.8 avg.), 11th in field goal percentage (60.6), ninth in punt returns (6.7 avg.), eighth in kickoff coverage (44.1 net avg) and seventh in kickoff returns (22.4 avg.).

“A lot of things didn’t go our way on special teams this year,” kick and punt returner Brandon Boykin said. “It hasn’t been up to par with what we wanted, but we won games and that’s all that matters.”

Georgia has given up two kickoff return touchdowns and two punt return touchdowns.

The rest of the SEC has given up a total of nine kickoff and punt return touchdowns.

The best thing that could be said about special teams this year?

Maybe that the Bulldogs made all 50 of their extra points. Drew Butler was second in the SEC in punt average, but the Bulldogs rank 119th out of 120 FBS teams in punt return defense (16.1 avg) and net punting went from fourth in the nation to 96th.

Boykin ranked 10th in kickoff returns (22.9 abg.) and ninth in punt returns (6.8 avg). Blair Walsh made 19 of 31 field goal attempts, a 61.3 percent clip, after missing only five field goals in 45 attempts the previous two seasons.

The dropoff would have been hard to fathom considering the Bulldogs returned what arguably was the best kicker-punter combo entering the season and a record setter on kickoff returns.

Walsh was a Lou Groza Award finalist in 2009. Butler was a Ray Guy Award finalist last year after winning the award two years ago, and Boykin entered the season with an SEC-tying four career kickoff returns for touchdowns but doesn’t have one this year.

Georgia had at least four current or former walk-ons on coverage against LSU when Tyrann Mathieu had 62-yard punt return for touchdown and returned another 47 yards. Defensive starters Bacarri Rambo and Alec Ogletree were also on the field.

“I’m going to have a bigger push to use the best personnel regardless of if he’s a starter or not or receiver or running back,” Richt said. “I don’t care what he is. We’ve got to get the best guys.”

Snapper Ty Frix said the punt team in particular was hurt by the departure of several players who now are in the NFL. Richt mentioned Akeem Dent, Darryl Gamble and Demarcus Dobbs as athletes who could run down a player to make the tackle in the open the field. Georgia also gave up a fake punt for a touchdown against South Carolina in a 45-42 loss.

“For the most part it’s just guys kind of doing their own thing, not doing it the right way,” Ogletree said.

“I think there’s going to be a high sense of urgency on our special teams to become more than just decent,” Richt said. “We need to become really good. That’s one of the biggest things is that we try to become one of the top teams in the league and the country in special teams play. There will be some very heavy discussions about it. We’ll probably do more special teams work in the spring than we’ve done in the past.”

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Georgia’s odds to win the national championship are now 8/1, according to Bovada. They were 14/1 a week ago.

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