Before Mike Ekeler interviewed with Georgia coach Mark Richt for an opening on his staff, he watched every snap last season of the Bulldogs’ often underperforming special teams.
That included punt returns.
“I told Coach Richt on my interview, ‘Coach, you set an NCAA record for being in punt-safe,” Ekeler said Thursday. “He laughed, too.”
“I did chuckle because I know I did call punt-safe a bunch,” Richt said of not setting up a return to try to ensure getting the offense the ball.
Ekeler got the gig as inside linebackers coach and co-special teams coordinator with tight ends coach John Lilly.
Ekeler will oversee the defensive staff on kickoff coverage, punt return/block and field goal/PAT block. Lilly will oversee the offensive staff on kickoff returns, punting and field goal/PATs.
Richt said every coach except for offensive coordinator Mike Bobo will have some special teams responsibility.
“It’s a collective responsibility,” said Ekeler, who said he has been a part of coaching every aspect of special teams and headed up a couple of units during a coaching career that included stops at Southern California, Indiana and Nebraska. “We’re all going to be involved. I’m going to be coaching on every single unit and Coach (Kevin) Sherrer is going to be coaching on every single unit, a lot of us are. We may be heading it up and pointing it in the right direction, but we’re all going to have our hands on it and we’ll play well.”
Ekeler walked on at Kansas State in the early 1990s, where he made a name for himself first as a special teams standout. Georgia linebacker Ryne Rankin tweeted a YouTube clip of Ekeler flipping through the air while racing downfield to cover a kick.
“It’s something as a player that I loved,” Ekeler said. “I think it’s a little bit easier to coach it if you actually did it.”
Said Richt: “Our players are all going to understand that special teams is something that everybody is going to be involved in. You’re either going to be on a team or a look team or something, but you’re going to be involved.”
There had been a drumbeat in recent seasons by some for Richt to have a special teams coordinator.
He had split up those responsibilities without someone having that title. Now he has co-coordinators.
“I think that’s incredible for Georgia football and really any college program that decides to really attack special teams and put a point of emphasis,” said former tight end Arthur Lynch, who was on the punt, kickoff return and point after/field goal teams last season. “It’s an important part of football. It’s one-third of the game essentially. … I think it was a great move by Coach Richt.”
Nearly 80 percent of FBS teams last year had a special teams coordinator, but having co-special teams coordinators is rare. NC State and Buffalo are two that did.
Last season, Georgia had two punts blocked for touchdowns, a kickoff returned for touchdown and issues with snaps that were high or mishandled.
When Richt was asked before last season about Georgia lacking an ability to get much on returns, he stressed the importance of making sure the offense got the ball and ensuring the opponent didn’t successfully get off a fake punt.
“The goal at the end of the play is to have the ball,” Richt said again Thursday.
Ekeler said the punt return, which Georgia ranked second worst in the nation last season in with a 2.92-yard average, can be another offensive play.
“In doing that, you’ve got to attack,” he said. “We’re not just going to be standing up and showing return every time and letting those guys just release and pin their ears back. We’re going to come and we’re going to block some punts and we’re also going to make them account for us and use their protection against us to set up our returns.”
Ekeler, who met with reporters Thursday for the first time since being hired, spoke passionately about other topics:
— On recruiting: “We’re going to kill it in the state of Georgia.”
— On his new players: “To me, if we don’t develop into the best linebacking corps in the country, I’ve failed. That’s how I look at it. I’ll throw it out there. That’s just how I’m wired.”
— On already buying a home in Oconee County: “They’re going to have to take me out of here at gunpoint.”
— On players getting on special teams to make them more attractive as NFL players: “If you don’t want to play on special teams, you’re crazy.”
Notes: Georgia has hired former Penn State offensive lineman Gus Felder as an assistant strength and conditioning coach. Felder was director of strength and conditioning at Clark Atlanta and is expected to also work with players with mixed martial arts. … Quarterback Jacob Park, the early enrollee from Goose Creek, S.C., said Thursday that he hasn’t thrown recently because of tightness in his shoulder. He expects to begin throwing again next week.
… Georgia is scheduled to open spring practices on Tuesday March 18.
Follow Marc online at twitter.com/marcweiszer.