UGA kicker Morgan determined to have a better sophomore campaign

Marshall Morgan found himself on the bottom of a dog pile on Neyland Stadium’s field.

He wanted to celebrate the Bulldogs’ win over Tennessee, but was pinned down by offensive linemen who tip the scales way beyond his 200-pound frame.

So, first things first.

“I was trying to get them off me. That’s a lot of weight. I’ve got asthma,” Morgan quipped.

It was Morgan’s overtime, game-winning 42-yard field goal that landed the sophomore kicker underneath a gaggle of his teammates. It was Morgan’s first pressure-cooker situation, and it helped change what he’s been hearing this season.

“After the LSU game, I really noticed that just the teammates, they would compliment me more,” said Morgan, who hit on 24-, 55- and 38-yard attempts against LSU. “They have a lot more faith in me. Before the game, they are a lot more positive towards me. … After the Tennessee kick, now I think they really have gained a lot more confidence.”

It took Morgan a while before he could firmly declare that he is comfortable in his role as a starting kicker for a Division I program. The Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., native struggled mightily last year in his first season, converting just 57.1 percent of his field goal attempts (8 of 14). He also missed four extra point attempts.

There were some growing pains as he transitioned from high school to college — no more kicking from tees, an entire new team around him, significantly larger crowds with a full arsenal of phrases to shout.

“I didn’t want to give myself credit,” Morgan said of his freshman year. “I didn’t want to try to tell myself I had a great season because I didn’t.”

Georgia coach Mark Richt said he didn’t know why Morgan struggled during his freshman season. He added that Morgan’s high school film was a reminder that he could boot it consistently and on long attempts.

So Morgan set out to have a good spring and an even better preseason camp, both of which Richt said he did.

But a self-constructed speed bump slowed Morgan — a boating-under-the-influence arrest over the summer led to a skid-stop.

“Obviously, he couldn’t kick the first two games, which was sad,” Richt said.

Morgan was suited up and stuck on the sidelines of Georgia’s first two games this season — a three-point loss at Clemson and an 11-point win at home over South Carolina.

Punter Collin Barber took over kickoff duties in Morgan’s stead and walk-on Patrick Beless handled field goals, making two against South Carolina, and extra points.

“That really made me realize that my job is special, and I can’t take it for granted,” he said.

Morgan served his two-game suspension, calling it tough to sit out. He said he wanted his 2013 debut and season to eventually overshadow his offseason arrest and trump the tribulations of last season.

“I saw all the things I did wrong,” Morgan said of his kicking game. “They were easily fixable. It’s just a few things here and there.”

There was more focus on extra-point precision and refining his kickoff repertoire — allowing his special teams tacklers a chance to pin the returner inside the 20-yard line or gunning for a touchback.

A North Texas 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown made coaches more inclined to side with the latter in Georgia’s two games since.

“The guy was kicking 4.1-, 4.2-(second) hang time, which is a long time to hang a kickoff,” Richt said. “Most of our tackles were inside the 20 with that unit. Of course, you get the one that goes to the house and then you start saying, ‘Let’s just try to knock it out.’ That’s been more on me than anything else, and I think he’s doing a lot better job with that.”

Richt’s ultimate vote of confidence in Morgan came moments before the kicker took the field during overtime in Neyland Stadium.

“He said something referring to me being his guy, his kicker,” recalled Morgan, who has established a mentor-mentee relationship with former Georgia kicker Kevin Butler. “… He said, ‘You got this.’”

Then Morgan had to turn the screams of 102,000 people into comforting white noise, become deaf to the things Tennessee’s sideline yelled his way and stay warm through the Volunteers’ attempt to ice him.

In Morgan’s zone, it’s just him, holder Adam Erickson and long snapper Nathan Theus going through the regular motions.

“You just got to picture yourself in practice, kicking down on the bottom field,” he said.

Morgan survived his first overtime test, something he called a dream of his, and now has to push through kickers’ “hero or zero” circumstance. The cliche says a kicker is noticed only in clutch moments, good or bad, makes or misses.

“I can’t let it get to my head,” Morgan said. “… I just got to keep doing, keep working hard and hopefully this keeps happening.”

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