- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
Editor’s note: Georgia’s football season is halfway over and the Bulldogs will take this weekend off before resuming SEC play next Saturday at Kentucky. We’ll take a look at a different position group each day this week and evaluate how it performed in the first half of the season in our DawgNation midseason report cards.
ATHENS, Ga. -- A year after special teams play was a glaring weakness for Georgia, it was more of a mixed bag for the Bulldogs in the first half of this season.
Todd Gurley returned Georgia's first kickoff of the season for a 100-yard touchdown against Buffalo, but South Carolina’s Ace Sanders returned a punt for a touchdown last week that all but eliminated Georgia’s chances for victory.
Freshman kicker Marshall Morgan has struggled to convert PAT kicks at times, but he has hit his last four field goals -- including kicks of 50 and 52 yards.
The Bulldogs have made a few mistakes while returning punts, but they have also blocked two punts, and Richard Samuel snuffed out a fake punt try at a crucial juncture in the win against Missouri.
While Georgia’s special teams issues are far from solved, the Bulldogs were better in almost every way in the first half -- even if that’s something of a backhanded compliment, after one of the worst seasons for special teams in Mark Richt’s tenure as Georgia’s coach.
Let’s examine the first half for Georgia’s special teams:
SPECIAL TEAMS REPORT CARD
STARTERS (stats): K Marshall Morgan (4-5 FG, 28-31 PAT), P Collin Barber (27-1,086, 40.2 ypp), KOR Todd Gurley (7-243, 34.7 ypr, 1 TD), KOR Malcolm Mitchell (4-99, 24.8 ypr), PR Rhett McGowan (2-42, 21 ypr)
HIGHLIGHT: Morgan hadn’t attempted a field goal in three games, but the Bulldogs desperately needed a lift when he nailed a 50-yard kick at the halftime buzzer against Tennessee to tie the score at 30-all. The Bulldogs had led 27-10 before allowing the Volunteers to mount a 20-0 run, but Morgan’s kick shifted the momentum back to Georgia and the Bulldogs held on to win.
LOWLIGHT: Georgia kick returners made a couple of costly errors during Tennessee’s second-quarter rally, but the Bulldogs’ biggest miscue was allowing Sanders’ punt return for a touchdown last weekend against South Carolina. That 70-yard return put the Gamecocks up 21-0 just 10 minutes into the game.
OVERALL EVALUATION: After Georgia’s horrendous kick coverage a season ago, it has been simply pedestrian this season. The Bulldogs’ work on PATs was never a problem last year, but Blair Walsh struggled on field goals -- a problem Morgan has not experienced to this point.
Aside from Sanders’ big return last week, perhaps Georgia’s biggest area of concern thus far is the inconsistent performances by its punt returners. McGowan is now the starter, and he has made a couple of nice returns in limited opportunities.
The Bulldogs are using more regulars on the kicking teams, and it has helped turn things in the right direction. But it’s safe to say special teams are still a work in progress at the season’s midway point.