As Georgia has endured glaring breakdowns and subpar showings on special teams in recent weeks, many are wondering why Mark Richt doesn’t have a coach in charge of special teams.
“We’ve done it the same way for however long I’ve been here and before that,” said kick returner/punt returner Brandon Boykin. “Just because we’re having problems, people kind of want to raise questions, but we’ve always done a good job and I think we’ll pick it up.”
Georgia is in the minority of programs that don’t employ a special teams coordinator.
Of the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision programs, 89 have an assistant on staff with that title, according to staff listings in the Football Writers Association of America directory.
Richt gives assistant coaches responsibilities to oversee specific special team units like he’s done throughout his 11 seasons as Georgia’s head coach. That’s the way he was accustomed to when he was a Florida State assistant.
“When you have just one special teams guy, it tends to be where they’re like, ‘Well, that’s his issue, it’s not my issue,’ ” Richt said. “Sometimes even though another coach may assist a guy, they really don’t have the responsibility of it. I think it’s good to spread out the responsibility throughout the staff. I think if a guy did special teams only full time, it’s a whale of a job.”
Most schools go in a different direction.
At third-ranked Oklahoma State, Joe DeForrest, the safeties coach, has been the special teams coach for 11 seasons under Mike Gundy and Les Miles.
“He’s very thorough, enjoys it and puts time in it, as well as spending the extra hours during the week,” Gundy said. “He’s always handled our special teams. For that reason, I’m comfortable with him.”
In 2010, Oklahoma State kicker Dan Bailey won the Lou Groza Award and punter Quinn Sharp was a first-team All-American.
“Joe knows all four phases inside and out,” Gundy said.
“In having him on our staff, it’s an advantage to letting him do all four.”
Mississippi State is the only other SEC school that does not have a position coach in charge of special teams. Head coach Dan Mullen oversees them, but his assistants have specific assignments.
Among schools that also don’t list a special teams coordinator are Georgia Tech, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Texas, Virginia Tech and Texas Tech.
Former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, now coach at Texas Tech, said he has a coach that “pretty much puts everything together.” That’s Ty Linder, an offensive graduate assistant.
“He does the gameplanning,” Tuberville said. “What he does, along with myself, is we pick one or two other coaches to help on each special teams.”
At Auburn, Tuberville’s special teams coach was running backs coach Eddie Gran, now Florida State’s special teams coordinator.
“I just believe one guy’s got to be over it to understand what he wants to do,” Tuberville said. “They usually go out in the summer and the spring to learn what to do on each special team. It’s just hard to divide it up four or five different ways. You don’t have as much continuity in terms of a guy really understanding what’s going on and how to make it better.”
Richt divides special teams staff responsibility this way: John Lilly (punt coverage), Bryan McClendon (punt returns/block), Tony Ball (kickoff returns), Kirk Olivadotti (kickoff coverage), Rodney Garner (point after/field goal block) and Will Friend (point after/field goals).
Splitting up duties wasn’t a point of contention when kicker Blair Walsh and punter Drew Butler looked All-American caliber prior to this season, but now Walsh is 13 of 23 on field goals this year; the Bulldogs are last in the SEC in net punting; and the kickoff-coverage unit ranks 109th and has given up touchdowns the past two games.
When Richt fired three defensive assistants two years ago, including Jon Fabris who had a large role in special teams, he considered adding a special teams coach when he had one defensive opening left.
“I looked at it,” he said. “What happens is, if you have a guy and all he does is special teams, then all of a sudden you’re robbing that position from either the offense or the defense, and our offensive staff was already intact.
Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe this year moved defensive assistant Keith Henry to special teams coordinator. He spends practice time with kickers, punters, snappers and holders.
“I think the advantage is you’ve got somebody keeping an eye on those guys all throughout practice and kind of planning their day,” Grobe said. “And then you’ve got somebody each day, when everybody else is breaking down offensive and defensive film, you’ve got somebody that’s focusing on the special teams. We’ve never done it before, but I kind of like what we’re doing now.”
Grobe felt like he could get by with four assistants on each side of the ball and have a dedicated special teams coach.
“Really, it’s the head coach’s decision.” Butler said. “Obviously we’ve done really well in special teams while coach Richt’s been here. Things aren’t going exactly the way we want this year, but I think we have great coaches who have great schemes and coach our players up well.”
Most special teams coordinators coach a position, commonly tight ends, defensive backs or running backs.
“We definitely have coaches that are talented enough to be a special teams coordinator,” Butler said. “I guess we’ll see if that change will come sometime down the road.”