One of Georgia’s biggest areas of emphasis this offseason wasn’t on display when spring practices wrapped up last Saturday with the G-Day game: shoring up its special teams coverage units.
“To put the urgency on it as a team and the players grabbing a hold of that is a big step in the spring,” said assistant coach Kirk Olivadotti, who oversees the kickoff-coverage unit. “As a team and as players, we’ve put urgency on every play because special teams is a one-play series. There is no second down, there is no third down. It’s a one-play series to go out there to play it right.”
Too often last season, things didn’t go right for Georgia on special teams.
Georgia gave up two punt-return touchdowns and ranked 116th nationally in punt coverage, allowing 14.9 yards per return.
The Bulldogs also surrendered two kickoff-return touchdowns and ranked 88th in the country, giving up an average of 23.1 yards per return.
“We were bad statistically, but within games we actually played good,” Olivadotti said. “What bad teams always say or I always say this to the players, ‘Whenever you’re talking about one or two plays that you want to take out, you didn’t play good.’ As a whole, you’ve got to look at that we obviously let two touchdowns get on you and we can’t have that.”
Georgia’s kicking and punting competition will crank up in the preseason when signees Marshall Morgan and Collin Barber are practicing, but Georgia spent time sorting through players for its coverage units.
Kickoffs are moving to the 35-yard line from the 30 under a new NCAA rule designed to increase touchbacks and cut down on concussions.
“The goal in the spring for the special teams was to get a lot of guys involved and do a lot of drill work that will help us. First of all, evaluate, ‘Can a guy do what we’re going to ask him to do. Can he get off a block. Can he tackle in space? Can he protect a kick?’ ” coach Mark Richt said. “We were just wanting everybody to understand that everybody and anybody could end up on a special team — a starter, a second-teamer, whatever it is.”
Richt couldn’t yet name frontline players that he expected would play on the coverage units, but said there’s plenty of film to examine in the weeks ahead.
Alec Ogletree, Blake Sailors and Connor Norman played on both the kickoff- and punt-coverage units last season. Sanders Commings, T.J. Stripling and Amarlo Herrera were among those on kickoffs.
“My guess is, we will have more live kicking reps in the fall than we’ve had in a while,” Richt said. “Some of that is because we’re going to be breaking in a new punter and a new kicker. They need to be under pressure as much as possible, and it’s hard to create that pressure unless you’re doing some live situations.”
Georgia consulted with college and pro coaches this offseason.
Olivadotti indicated that the kickoff-coverage team will have changes in personnel “just because guys will have different roles. We talked to some different people and brought some different ideas in, but it wasn’t a wholesale change about what we did. Sometimes you bring people in and you realize that you’re kind of doing stuff the right way. You can pick up little things that help you.”
Both Olivadotti and Richt said that can be something as simple as different terminology for a technique being used.
“They might use a catchphrase that makes sense and you use that,” Richt said. “A lot of time, it just confirms something you already knew and gives you confidence that you’re doing the right thing as well.”