When Georgia’s Malcolm Mitchell muffed a punt near the end zone against Vanderbilt last Saturday, the punt returner had one thing on his mind.
“When he kicks it that far, of course you’re going after it,” said Mitchell, who recovered the ball at the 4-yard line, setting the stage for a 96-yard Georgia touchdown drive. “With all that space, that’s a shot to take.”
On this particular punt — a booming 62-yarder — Mitchell was unaware of where he was on the field.
“When he outkicked the coverage, I wasn’t lined up at the 10, where I would know where I’m at on the field,” Mitchell said. “I just went to the spot coaches told me to go to. I didn’t really know how far back I really was.”
In retrospect, the sophomore admitted he should have let the punt bounce, as it likely would’ve resulted in a touchback, but with just seconds to judge and a gang of defenders headed in his direction, making a decision can be tough.
“You have eleven players on the field that don’t want you to fair catch it and are right there if you don’t,” Mitchell said. “And they’re right there if you mess around and drop it. You have to keep your composure.”
Georgia coach Mark Richt expressed concern about the position Wednesday and alluded to a possible competition between Mitchell and Rhett McGowan for the punt return duties.
“We’ve just had, overall, too many bad decisions,” Richt said. “We’ve caught the ball inside the 10 when we shouldn’t. We’ve let the ball bounce and not field it when we should’ve. These aren’t all Malcolm’s issues. This has been the last couple of years.
“It may end up being Rhett McGowan before it’s over if he can communicate the best, secure the ball the best and field the ball the best. We’re trying to find an answer there.”
McGowan has only returned two punts this season. He returned a punt 19 yards against Vanderbilt, just a week after his 23-yard punt return against Florida Atlantic. Mitchell has five returns for 35 yards to his credit this season.
Branden Smith served as Georgia’s punt returner in 2010, before Brandon Boykin overtook the job in 2011. Now a senior, Smith knows how challenging the position can be.
“You have to be focused,” Smith said. “You have everybody coming at you full speed, so it’s a pretty hard position.”
Smith’s head coach agreed.
“It’s just not an easy job but we’re trying to get it settled down and do the best we can,” Richt said.
Often times, the hardest part of returning a punt is knowing whether to return it or call for a fair catch.
“It’s something you get used to,” Mitchell said. “Of course, when you have an opportunity to make a play happen, you want to take it regardless of what the situation is. You either take it home and get as many yards as you can, or you fair catch it and get the offense on the field.”
Judging whether or not to return was also difficult for Smith.
“It’s hard because you want to make a play,” Smith said. “If you back there at punt returner, you’re back there for a reason. You’re back there because you can make plays. You want to help our team get good field position, but it’s hard to judge it. You want to make a big play for the team.”
Richt said Georgia will continue to give McGowan and Mitchell looks at the position.
Regardless of who Richt sends in to return punts, Mitchell has a piece of advice: “Every punt [return] doesn’t have to be a touchdown.”