|Blair Walsh endured a forgettable 2011|
The one aspect of the 2012 season that isn’t getting much rotation is the fact that Georgia will enter the year with an unproven punter, kicker, or return specialist.
Some (myself included) have already factored in guys like Branden Smith—as well as other players like Malcolm Mitchell and Damian Swann—as possibilities for the return game, but the fact remains that special teams took a serious hit with the departures of key veterans like Blair Walsh, Drew Butler, and Branden Boykin.
While it’s true that Blair Walsh (pictured left) had a disastrous 2011, there can be little debate as to how much his play meant to Georgia’s successes over the years. He gave Georgia a decided edge whenever he walked onto a field to line it up and, even with all the troubles this past season, many still had faith that he was their best option at kicker.
Drew Butler’s punting helped keep SEC offenses honest as he often left them with unenviable field position giving the defense plenty of room to make the 3-4 work like a charm. And, we needn’t even discuss the impact Branden Boykin’s returns had on changing the momentum of the game as the mere mention of him still inspires visions of end-to-end returns that would make Devin Hester give up some props.
But now the Dawgs will need to find a way to both replace that production as well as improve upon the dismal coverage units that often kept the door open for the opposition to come back and, in some cases, beat Georgia.
Where former linebackers coach, Warren Belin’s philosophy of using the best players and letting the kicker do his job sparked a turnaround from 2009 to 2010, the lack of such a luxury in 2012 meant a different set of results in 2011.
Numerous injuries and depth issues relegated walk-ons and reserves to the coverage units and that repeatedly left Georgia’s coverage units susceptible to the best return men the SEC had to offer. Consequently, the Bulldogs finished the season ranked last in the conference in both punt and kickoff coverage as horrific outings against better units often allowed teams to stay in the game (Florida), keep things interesting (Vanderbilt), or just outright win (South Carolina) based on their special team’s play—and, FYI, each one of the above-mentioned schools has a dedicated ‘special teams coordinator’ on staff.
That said, with the heart of their special teams not gone, who will Georgia turn to, personnel wise, 2012 to get back on track?
Collin Barber will look to step into the role Drew Butler once occupied almost immediately. Barber will be a true freshman and he has a ton of potential coming in with such a big leg (click link for video), but a period of adjustment will certainly be necessary and there could be some missteps early as he gets acclimated to life in the SEC. Hopefully he will also stay out of trouble as some off-the-field tomfoolery netted him a suspension early last season.
Marshall Morgan will bring the advantage of him being considered a clutch performer into his true freshman season, but he will still have to prove his worth before he’s considered a capable replacement for the departed Walsh.
Finally, as much as it’s easy to point the finger at a guy like John Lilly for everything that went wrong with special teams last year, we have to remember that it’s not a one-man job. Richt assigned each of his coaches a special team’s responsibility so that each can both be a part of the success/failure of the whole product.
That means if you’re going to throw Lilly under the bus for the poor punt coverage, then you need to be willing to do the same to Kirk Olivadotti whose been the lead guy on kick coverage, and then be willing to ask how Will Friend (point after/field goals) oversaw the biggest decline of an All-American kicker that I’ve personally ever witnessed.
They all had their hand in this mess and each will be responsible for helping clean it up since it doesn’t appear that Richt is changing his stance on assigning one guy to coordinate the whole shebang.
A successful season can begin and end with special teams, in my opinion, and if Georgia expects to continue their upward trend, then they have some serious work to do.