- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
ATHENS, Ga. -- Malcolm Mitchell is essentially a rookie punt returner -- and the Georgia sophomore admits he has made some rookie mistakes that could have proven costly.
Mitchell says the trick to his new responsibility is to quickly determine when to rein in his natural aggressiveness and when the smart move is to play it safe with a fair catch and hand the ball off to Aaron Murray and the offense.
“It’s just something to get used to,” said Mitchell, who is averaging 7 yards per return -- including a long of 22 yards on his first opportunity last week against Vanderbilt. “Of course when you’ve got an opportunity to make a play happen, you want to take it, regardless of what the situation is. What you’ve just got to know, punt return is a job that’s either you take it home or get as much yardage as you can or you fair catch it and get the offense on the field so they can do that.”
The Bulldogs have had communication issues on punt returns for the last couple of seasons, Georgia coach Mark Richt said, and correcting those is as important as the return man actually deciding whether to field a punt.
Branden Smith had issues in that department in previous seasons, which is why he doesn’t return punts anymore. And Richt expects Mitchell to improve in that area as he gains experience.
“We’ve just had overall too many bad decisions, obviously, not good enough communication,” Richt said. “We’ve caught the ball inside the 10 when we shouldn’t. We let the ball bounce and not field it when we should’ve. We’ve had a not-very-good-looking fair catch issue -- and these aren’t all Malcolm’s issues. We’ve had very poor communication at times.”
The Bulldogs are fortunate that neither of Mitchell’s poor decisions wound up costing them points.
He ran into a crowd to field a punt in the second quarter against Missouri and wound up losing a fumble at Georgia’s 32-yard line. He was surprised by a booming 62-yard punt by Vanderbilt’s Richard Kent last week and caught the ball over his shoulder at the Georgia 1 before returning it only 3 yards to the 4. Murray and the offense drove 96 yards for a touchdown that put Georgia up 27-0, however.
Nonetheless, Richt does not want his punt returner to put his team in bad positions -- and if the coaches determine Mitchell can’t handle that responsibility, backup Rhett McGowan might inherit the job.
“It may end up being Rhett McGowan before it’s over if he can communicate the best and secure the ball the best and field the ball the best,” Richt said. “So we’re trying to find an answer there. But what happens is once you try the next guy, the next guy is a rookie and he tends to make a mistake.
“And I will say this, it’s not an easy job. It’s a tough job. People flying down the field, your eyes are up in the air, you’re trying to decide what to do and you know somebody’s possibly getting ready to hit you in the mouth. It’s just not an easy job and we’re trying to get it settled down the best we can, but we’re going to continue to work Malcolm and Rhett.”
Kicking troubles: Richt addressed Georgia’s issues in the kicking game -- particularly on extra points -- after Wednesday’s practice, as well.
Freshman Marshall Morgan is 23-for-24 on PATS, but has also banked three attempts off the inside of the left upright before it cleared the crossbar, prompting Richt to crack that Morgan “must have played pinball as a kid.”
But Richt quickly turned serious on the subject, saying, “Especially extra points, you would think he would get it a little closer to the center post. I’m smiling now, but it could cost us. I’m trying to be patient.”
Morgan said he kicked two of the balls while holder Adam Erickson was still spinning the ball, forcing it to shoot left. But he added that Monday’s and Tuesday’s practices marked big improvements for the kickers -- and that Tuesday was the best kicking practice since he joined the Bulldogs.
He believes the team has ironed out some of the issues that have plagued them thus far.
“There’s nice people out there that are still like, ‘Come on, you’re making my heart race. Stop bumping them off the upright.’ I don’t want to give them a heart attack, so I’m going to help them out this game,” Morgan said.
Injury update: Senior Abry Jones practiced Wednesday -- although he was held out of contact according to Georgia’s official injury report -- after a sprained left ankle limited his involvement earlier in the week.
Richt credited Jones, who will serve as a captain for the third time this season on Saturday against Tennessee, for his overall contribution to the team.
“Abry has been a very steady, consistent, reliable performer and he’s gotten consistently better, as well,” Richt said. “He’s become a leader for us, he’s been named a captain on more than one occasion and certainly helped our offseason as much as anybody.”
Offensive lineman Watts Dantzler (ankle sprain) was limited in Wednesday’s practice and offensive lineman Hunter Long (foot fracture) was held out of contact and worked with a trainer on the side during the early portion of practice that was open to the media. Tailback Brandon Harton was out with a thumb sprain.