Special teams play a point of emphasis for Bulldogs, Gators

Georgia’s special teams have taken fans on a sometimes bumpy ride this season.

AJ Reynolds/Staff
Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan (right) gives a high five to offensive lineman John Theus.

The Bulldogs know that now would be a good time for a steady showing against Florida on Saturday in Jacksonville because the Gators’ special teams are thriving.

“They’ve been fantastic in that area,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “That’s certainly going to be a big challenge for us. We’ve had some successes here and there, but we’ve got to have a big day in the special team area or it’s going to hurt us. There’s no doubt about it.”

Florida has founds successes this season in its special teams all over the place.

Linebackers coach D.J. Durkin is in third season as the Gators’ special teams coordinator.

Richt doesn’t designate one assistant to oversee all the special teams. Instead the duties are split up among several coaches.

Richt signaled Tuesday that he may take on a more active role after this season. He is considering coaching the kickers and punters next year.

“One thing I can do as head coach, I think I can at least spend time learning the kicking and punting fundamentals well enough to be their coach,” Richt said. “Right this minute, I wouldn’t say I have enough expertise to do that, but I think this offseason it would be wise for me to do something like that. I am freed up enough to do that. If that’s my contribution to special teams in the future, I think that would be valuable.”

Florida sophomore punter Kyle Christy leads the nation with a 47.9-yard average, and the Gators lead the nation in net punting at 44.2. Georgia has a freshman punter in Collin Barber and is last in the SEC in net punting at 33.8.

Gators kicker Caleb Strugis is 12 of 14 on field goals.

“When you play like we do, you better be good in special teams and you better have good specialists,” said Florida coach Will Muschamp, whose team is 11th in the SEC in total offense. “You better have a punter who can flip the field and coverage units that can handle that. And you better have a field-goal kicker who can take points.”

It’s not just the specialists standing out.

Florida’s Trey Burton stripped South Carolina’s Ace Sanders on a punt return in Saturday’s 44-11 Gators win, setting up a touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff, Solomon Patton stripped another ball loose for a fumble that the Gators recovered and returned to the 1-yard line, leading to another touchdown.

“I have noticed how they like to punch the ball out,” Georgia punt returner Rhett McGowan said.

Georgia’s Malcom Mitchell fumbled the Bulldogs’ first kickoff return against Kentucky and fumbled a punt against Missouri.

“We’ve just got to make sure we take care of that,” Mitchell said. “Ball security is a key.”

Florida is sixth in the nation in punt coverage and 23rd in kickoff coverage

“We definitely need to show up and show out,” Barber said. “Special teams, we’ve got to be on point. We can’t be messing up, missing field goals. I can’t be shanking a punt.”

Georgia’s special teams have had shining moments, like Todd Gurley’s 100-yard kickoff return in the opener, Richard Samuel snuffing out a fake punt against Missouri and Connor Norman recovering an onside kick against Kentucky.

Freshman Marshall Morgan is 5 of 6 on field goals but has missed four extra-point attempts this season, including one against Kentucky before he made a 27-yard field goal that caromed off an upright.

“If I didn’t get that field goal before half, I may have lost a little bit (of confidence), but I was glad I got that,” Morgan said. “Of course, I want them all down the middle and a clean hit, but I’ll take a make over a miss any day of the week.”

Florida’s Durkin coached special teams for Jim Harbaugh at Stanford and was a holdover from Urban Meyer’s Florida staff.

Muschamp said his team is “a very vested group in our special teams. As far as our staff is concerned, what you emphasize is what’s important and we spend a lot of time on it.”

Richt could be spending more time on it starting this offseason.

Barber would welcome that.

“We have coach (John) Lilly who does Pride — the punt team — but it would be nice to have …a guy that knows about punting and kicking and not just coverage in what we’re doing,” said Barber, who still at times turns to personal kicking coach Marc Nolan in Roswell. “It would be great to have a specific coach to do the basic drills of kicking and punting.”

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@Claypoulnott Not certain. Believe after this season. Try UGA ticket office on Monday.

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