Freshman McKenzie could breathe new life into Bulldogs’ return game

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.”

Georgia (and its fans for that matter) hope this season brings many happy returns coming from freshman Isaiah McKenzie.

The 5-foot-8, 164-pound Miami native was signed first and foremost to breathe some life into a flatlining return game.

“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.”

McKenzie averaged 30.8 yards on punt returns as a senior and 47.1 yards per kickoff return.

“That dude has God-given talent, man, to field balls and scramble when he can,” said Bulldogs punter Collin Barber, who kicked to McKenzie this summer before practices began. “It’s just amazing how quick he is and his athletic ability.”

McKenzie made noise in Georgia’s first preseason scrimmage with a kick return for a touchdown (with no tackling) and the wide receiver also had a reception of some 30 yards, but was sidelined with an undisclosed injury last week. He was set to return for a closed kicking scrimmage Saturday.

“He’s thick in it,” Richt said. “He’s a heavy consideration in the return game. Punt return maybe more than kickoff, but he’s a candidate for both.”

The Bulldogs last season ranked second worst in the FBS on punt returns at 2.9 yards per return (only Cal was worse) and 108th in the nation in kickoff returns at 18.6.

McKenzie’s high school coach insisted the day before he signed with Georgia that he didn’t know where the four-star recruit would be going.

“American Heritage WR Isiah McKenzie shockingly picks Georgia,” was the headline on the Sun-Sentinel website after he inked with the Bulldogs.

That created buzz for McKenzie this offseason. Before preseason camp started, McKenzie was a name Gary had heard about.

Quarterback Hutson Mason calls McKenzie “the most athletic guy. He’s so small and jerky and quick out there that you think you can wrap him up because he’s so little, but a lot of times when he gets behind those guys you can’t even see him. His smallness is in his favor sometimes.”

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.”

Still, McKenzie offers a skill-set at the position that is intriguing.

“He’s a very elusive guy, very quick sudden,” Richt said. “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.”

McKenzie may be too good to keep off the field. Especially for a Georgia team that didn’t have a punt return longer than 17 yards last season.

“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.”