Georgia Bulldogs: Collin Barber
There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.
The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.
Special teams position rankings
1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.
2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).
3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.
4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.
5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.
6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.
7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.
8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.
9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.
10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.
11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.
12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.
13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.
14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).
Today, we'll look at No. 4: The 2012 group that is still etching its legacy into Georgia history. We should revisit this ranking again in another couple years.
The contributors: With most of the class still having two or three years of eligibility left, the list of contributors should grow substantially. Quayvon Hicks has started to develop as a productive fullback, while offensive lineman Mark Beard and punter Collin Barber have played a larger role than many players who are still waiting to break through. Defensive lineman John Taylor and cornerback Sheldon Dawson have made minor contributions thus far, but could be names to watch for the future.
The letdowns: There has not been much attrition from the class yet, which is a good sign. Tight end Ty Flournoy-Smith was dismissed last summer and is the lone departure to this point. Otherwise, the disappointment for this class might be that some of the headliners haven't become consistent stars … yet. Jenkins, Theus and Harvey-Clemons have been good players so far, but they need to make further progress to live up to their billing as recruits.
The results: This will be a big year for this class' ultimate place in UGA history. Some members -- Gurley and Marshall in particular -- helped Georgia come within an eyelash of playing for the 2012 BCS crown. It was a disappointing 2013 for the class and program because of injuries and disciplinary issues, so they need to bounce back a bit in 2014. This might be Gurley's final season on campus, but most members of this group still have plenty of time to make sure Gurley won't be the only breakout performer to come from their class.
ATHENS, Ga. -- The last two Georgia-Georgia Tech games haven't been very competitive, with the Bulldogs winning 31-17 in 2011 and 42-10 last season. But with Georgia Tech (7-4) boasting a much-improved defense and Georgia (7-4) trotting out a first-time starting quarterback in Hutson Mason, today's meeting in Atlanta doesn't feel like a gimme for the Bulldogs.
Let's take a look at five key factors in today's game:
Defending Tech's option: The first objective for every team that faces Georgia Tech is to slow down the Yellow Jackets' vaunted option running game. The Yellow Jackets rank fifth nationally in rushing yards with 316.1 per game. Of those yards, ESPN Stats and Information reports that 200.1 come before contact with the first defender, which ranks second nationally behind Auburn's 209.5. Speaking of the Tigers, Georgia struggled against Auburn's rushing attack -- which is second nationally at 320.3 ypg -- two weeks ago, surrendering 323 yards on the ground. The Bulldogs need to do a much better job than that if they are to win today at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
How will Mason fare?: Mason played great in relief of the injured Aaron Murray last Saturday against Kentucky, but he's had a whole week to dwell on how he'll make his first career start against one of Georgia's biggest rivals. He seems to have the mentality to handle that pressure, but it would be understandable if he experiences some jitters. Nonetheless, Mason has performed extremely well in limited action this season. He led Georgia to four touchdowns and a field goal in five possessions against Kentucky, finishing 13-for-19 for 189 yards and a touchdown and also rushing for a 1-yard score. He also played the fourth quarter against Appalachian State and went 11-for-16 for 160 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Georgia Tech's pass defense ranks 82nd nationally, allowing 238.5 yards per game, so Mason should have some chances for big plays. Now we'll see if he can take advantage.
Running against the Jackets: Georgia Tech has defended the run effectively, ranking 10th nationally with an average of 104.2 yards allowed per game. Of course it helps that the Yellow Jackets faced teams that ranked 90th (North Carolina, which rushed for 101 yards against Tech), 110th (Virginia Tech, 55 yards) and 112th (Pittsburgh, minus-5 yards) nationally while attempting to run the ball, and they also held FCS opponent Elon to 89 rushing yards in a season-opening blowout and FCS Alabama A&M to 47 yards last weekend. Tech has only faced one rushing offense that ranks in the national top 40, BYU, and the Cougars ran for a healthy 189 yards and three scores against the Yellow Jackets. Georgia ranks 56th nationally with an average of 179.5 rushing yards per game, although its running game has been more productive lately since All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley (781 yards, 6.3 yards per carry) returned from a three-game absence.
Blocking blunders: Considering the number of errors Georgia has committed in the kicking game this season, the Bulldogs' coaches are likely concerned about blocked punts today. Georgia Tech is tied for the national lead with three blocked punts -- all by sophomore defensive back Chris Milton. One of the other teams with three blocked punts, North Texas, blocked a Collin Barber punt for a touchdown when the Bulldogs hosted the Mean Green earlier this season. On the flip side, Georgia was credited with blocked kicks against both Appalachian State and Auburn and deflected a punt against Kentucky that rolled forward to the Wildcats' 39-yard line.
Applying pressure: Georgia Tech's offense is not built for comebacks, so building an early lead would be extremely beneficial for Georgia. The Yellow Jackets are a subpar passing team -- they rank 119th nationally with 119.6 ypg -- so making them do something they don't want to do, and are not very good at doing, is a recipe for success. That would allow Bulldogs pass rushers such as Leonard Floyd (tied for sixth in the SEC with 6.5 sacks and tied for third with 23 quarterback pressures), Ray Drew (six sacks) and Garrison Smith (six sacks) to make life difficult for Tech quarterback Vad Lee. Lee ranks 93rd nationally with a 47.7 opponent-adjusted Total QBR. A score of 50 is considered average on the zero-to-100 rating scale. In comparison, Murray's QBR this season is 85.5 (sixth nationally among qualified QBs) and Mason's is 92.4.
It capped a day where the sophomore claimed the SEC's special teams player of the week award for the second straight week after booting the longest field goal in Neyland Stadium history, a 56-yarder in the first quarter, and the game-winner in OT. But it wasn't much fun to be in Morgan's position at the time.
Otherwise, the Bulldogs' special-teams effort was memorable for the wrong reasons, continuing what has been a season-long trend. Collin Barber had a punt blocked for a touchdown -- the second time that has happened this season -- and Blake Sailors received a five-yard penalty for defensive delay of game after Georgia forced a third-quarter punt, giving Tennessee a fourth-and-1 that prompted the Volunteers to instead go for a first down.
Vols running back Rajion Neal then broke a 43-yard run that set up his game-tying touchdown run when Georgia's defense could have been off the field if not for the rarely-seen penalty.
“If you make a movement that it looks like you're trying to get somebody to jump offsides, if they jump offsides, it's on the defense. It's on us in that case,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “I've never really seen that happen before and it was pretty crucial, obviously. We had a great stop and they were in a position to punt. I think it was a fourth-and-1 or less and they get the long run. A lot of bad plays happened after that point, and we learned a lesson. Can't do it.”
Quayvon Hicks -- one of three protectors in Georgia's punt shield lineup along with Arthur Lynch and Josh Dawson -- said there was a miscommunication on the play and accepted blame for the Tennessee block.
“I put that all on me,” Hicks said. “I would say it was a miscommunication, but it was something that could have been prevented. It will be something that we're really working on, especially me as a player, to make sure that it doesn't happen in the future.”
Hicks could have saved the day if he had blocked Jalen Reeves-Maybin before he darted through to deflect Barber's punt, but front-line blocker Leonard Floyd also barely got a hand on Reeves-Maybin.
Their collective whiff allowed the Tennessee rusher to break through, and Lynch said the decibel level in Neyland Stadium played a direct role in the miscommunication.
“It's so much easier going out and practicing and doing it, even if it's full-speed practice because you kind of have that communication barrier and it really was a lot louder than I think a lot of people thought,” Lynch said. “Lucas Redd looked at me and was like, 'I had to read your lips.' That was one of the things that you just can't have those types of setbacks. I think we've cleaned it up.”
A skeptic might point out that Georgia has vowed to clean up its special-teams errors several times recently, only to see another mistake lead to an opponent touchdown. Asked what he thinks the team needs to do to remedy those miscues, Hicks was direct in his response.
“It's really not what we think, it's what we're going to do,” Hicks said. “Thinking, that's a part of football that really doesn't matter. I think Coach can only do so much. I know we're a very close team, so we're going to do what we have to do this week to make sure that not only in the Missouri game, but here on out, that that doesn't happen anymore. It's just something that could have been prevented. It could have cost us the game.”
That seems to be the message that Richt is imparting to his club, as well. Georgia's errors in the kicking game are simply a quality-control issue, where a lack of attention to detail has allowed opponents to steal easy points.
A shaky snap might have cost Georgia the game in its lone loss. The Bulldogs are fortunate that their ensuing mistakes weren't so costly, but they know their luck will likely run out if they don't fix the problems -- and keep them fixed.
“Us as coaches, we've got to do a better job of simulating what's going to happen in the game and coaching and teaching properly where these guys can be more dependable,” Richt said. “So it's a two-way street. Coaches gotta coach better, for sure, and the players have got to take on their responsibilities and take care of business.
“That's the way it is in life, so we're learning the hard way, and just by the grace of God the two times we had blocked punts, we still won the game. But the margin for error is just getting slimmer and slimmer.”
ATHENS, Ga. -- Arthur Lynch refused to let snapper Nathan Theus remain the only scapegoat after North Texas blocked a Georgia punt for a touchdown, the fourth huge special teams error by the Bulldogs in three games.
Although Theus' snap was high -- an error that led Georgia's coaching staff to replace him with Trent Frix later in the game -- senior punt protector Lynch said he misdiagnosed what the Mean Green's rushers were preparing to do and shifted the Bulldogs' coverage.
“That was my fault,” Lynch said. “I should have shifted the protection to the left. The snap and the punter had nothing to do with that. If I would have just gotten the protection corrected I'll put that on me. We'll correct that.
“It's unfortunate, I knew what was going on and I should have called timeout so we could have shifted it. And that's inexcusable, especially for the fact that I've been doing it for three years.”
No. 9 Georgia (2-1) thoroughly dominated Saturday's game statistically, but two special teams touchdowns by North Texas -- the Mean Green also returned a kickoff for a 99-yard score -- helped make it 21-all early in the third quarter.
It continued a string of early mishaps in the kicking game -- Theus' high snap late in the third quarter against Clemson prevented the Bulldogs from attempting a potential game-tying 20-yard field goal, plus punter Collin Barber dropped a snap in the second quarter against South Carolina, setting up a short touchdown drive – that form an alarming trend.
The timing of those errors might be useful for Georgia's coaches, however, considering the opponent preparing to visit on Saturday. Traditionally dangerous on special teams, players from No. 6 LSU (4-0) are no doubt excited over the possibility of making a game-changing play off a return or fake kick against the Bulldogs.
That's a convenient reminder where Richt's coaching staff can reinforce the importance of special teams in this week's practices.
“It's OK to be on high alert this week, so maybe it will help us,” Richt said.
The older players on Georgia's roster probably don't need the reminder on how LSU's return teams can shift the course of a game. The last time these teams played, in the 2011 SEC championship game, LSU punt returner Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu helped swing a game that Georgia controlled early with a 62-yard touchdown return and helped turn it into a rout with a 47-yard runback later in the game.
Mathieu is now in the NFL, but the Tigers' current return specialist, Odell Beckham Jr., is nearly as explosive.
“Unfortunately for us, we've seen what their return teams can do: The Honey Badger,” Lynch said.
Auburn didn't give Beckham many opportunities to break a long return on Saturday night. He was able to return just one kickoff and one punt thanks to Auburn's deep and high kicks, neutralizing an explosive player who returned a missed UAB field goal 109 yards for a touchdown earlier this season.
There were still a couple of big special teams plays on Saturday, however -- one that helped LSU and one that hurt. Auburn punter Steven Clark dropped a snap and dove on the ball for a 16-yard loss at his own 10 early in the game, setting up an LSU touchdown on the next play that helped the Tigers go up 14-0.
Leading 28-7 in the third quarter, LSU coach Les Miles elected to fake a field goal at Auburn's 14. Seth Fruge ran 8 yards on the fake, but was stopped short of a first down. Auburn then drove 94 yards for a touchdown that made it a more competitive game, although LSU still won 35-21.
That aggressiveness is part of the reason the Bulldogs know they can't afford to keep making sloppy errors in the kicking game.
“We've just had a couple of off calls. I'm not worried about it,” said Barber, who averaged 49.8 yards per punt against North Texas. “I trust my protection, pride team. We're going to be the best. There's no doubt in my mind that we can't fix it and get it better by LSU.”
That could mean using different personnel on the coverage units, Richt said, beyond simply using Frix as the punt snapper -- although he said it's likely that change will remain in place this week.
“Your center can't afford to be spraying one a game. You can't afford it,” Richt said. “It's got to be on the money. It's got to be where it's supposed to be when it's supposed to be there.”
The coaches will make those decisions this week after reviewing what went wrong -- as well as what went right -- against the Mean Green. And Richt made the point on his Sunday teleconference that there has been more right than wrong.
“We'd been really covering kicks extremely well all year long and then you get one like that [touchdown],” he said. “You might think it's broken, but it's really not broken. We've just got to go back to doing what we've been doing all year long and that's placing the ball where we want it and getting guys down there covering it, being in the right spots and making the play when they get there.”
The Bulldogs would do themselves an enormous favor if they get back to doing that on Saturday. Beckham is one of the nation's most dangerous all-purpose performers and he will absolutely exploit any crack in Georgia's kick coverage schemes.
Cleaning up those mistakes was one of the first objectives when the Bulldogs began preparing for LSU on Sunday afternoon.
“Trust me, we know what kind of guys they've got,” Lynch said. “ Special teams will be a deciding factor in this game, I think.”
Special teams need work: The Bulldogs have had at least one major special teams blunder in each of the first three games. A high snap prevented the Bulldogs from attempting a potential game-tying 20-yard field goal against Clemson. Against South Carolina, punter Collin Barber dropped a snap, setting up a short touchdown drive. And then came Saturday's implosion against North Texas, where the Bulldogs both surrendered a 99-yard kickoff return touchdown and had a Barber punt blocked for a touchdown. With LSU's traditionally exceptional special teams coming to Athens next Saturday, it's time for some urgency in cleaning up the kicking game.
Speed isn't a problem: For the second straight game, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray hit a track-star receiver who turned on the afterburners on the way to the end zone for a long touchdown. Against South Carolina, it was Justin Scott-Wesley running away from the Gamecocks' secondary for an 85-yard touchdown. On Saturday, it was freshman Reggie Davis -- formerly a high school track star in Florida -- who hauled in a Murray pass and raced 98 yards for the longest reception in UGA history.
Defense making strides: After facing a pair of stellar opponents in the first two games, Georgia's defense used North Texas as its get-well game. The Bulldogs surrendered just 7 rushing yards -- which tied for the fewest in an FBS game this season -- and 245 total yards after allowing 460.5 in the first two games. There were still some plays where a more talented opponent might have broken away for a big gain, so Georgia's defensive issues are far from solved. But this was a big step for Todd Grantham's young defense, which needed to gain some confidence with the bulk of the SEC schedule approaching.
It was over when: Facing third-and-goal from Georgia’s 9-yard line, Stanton Seckinger caught a touchdown pass to put Clemson up 38-28 with 7:40 to play. The Tigers drove 87 yards in 12 plays -- none bigger than a highlight-reel 36-yard run by Roderick McDowell to Georgia’s 6 -- on the game-clinching drive.
Game ball goes to: Clemson’s defensive front. Although Georgia gained 545 yards, Clemson’s front made huge plays after the Bulldogs built early momentum. In particular, Stephone Anthony forced an Aaron Murray fumble at Georgia’s 20, leading to a touchdown, and Corey Crawford halted Georgia’s next drive with an interception at Clemson’s 17.
Stat of the game: 1,012. Clemson-Georgia was billed as a meeting of explosive offenses and they didn’t disappoint. They combined for 73 points and 1,012 yards (467 by Clemson and 545 by Georgia).
Best call: Georgia was in jeopardy of letting Clemson run away with the game in the third quarter when the Bulldogs faked a punt on fourth-and-1 from their own 34. Collin Barber's 5-yard run kept the drive alive and Todd Gurley later tied it at 28 with a tackle-breaking 12-yard touchdown run.
What it means for Clemson: Clemson keeps its BCS championship hopes alive with a résumé-building win against one of the nation’s top programs of 2012.
What it means for Georgia: The Bulldogs don’t have long to regroup. Georgia will host South Carolina -- which hammed the Bulldogs 35-7 last year -- next Saturday.
Although Georgia coach Mark Richt refused throughout the preseason to announce whether kicker Marshall Morgan would face a suspension following a June arrest for boating under the influence, the sophomore did not handle the opening kickoff.
That honor went to Collin Barber, who kicked the ball into the end zone and Clemson’s Sammy Watkins returned it to the Tigers’ 24-yard line.
Morgan was one of five kicking specialists who made the trip to South Carolina, however, and did participate in pregame warmups to a limited degree. Walk-ons Adam Erickson and Patrick Beless handled the bulk of the field-goal tries during warmups. Walk-on kicker Thomas Pritchard and punter Barber are also on the Bulldogs’ travel roster.
The Bulldogs are breaking in a new long snapper, Nathan Theus, following four-year starter Ty Frix’s graduation. And if Erickson handles field goal and PAT duties, their holder will also be new against Clemson since Erickson was last season’s holder.
Walk-on defensive back Lucas Redd held for Erickson during pregame warmups.
A defense that lost 12 significant players will be a focal point well into the fall, and it was in our post-spring recaps. Let’s take a look at the defensive positions first:
Returning players/stats: K Marshall Morgan, So. (8-14 FG, 63-67 PAT, 87 points); P Collin Barber, So. (60 punts, 2,488 yards, 41.5 yards per punt), P Adam Erickson, Jr. (8-296, 37.0 ypp); KOR Malcolm Mitchell, Jr. (16 returns, 360 yards, 22.5 yards per return); KOR Todd Gurley, So. (7-243, 34.7 ypr, 1 TD); PR Mitchell (11-57, 5.2); PR Rhett McGowan, Sr. (9-75, 8.3); PR Damian Swann, Jr. (5-37, 7.4) S Nathan Theus, So.
Newcomers: Tramel Terry, Fr. (ESPN's No. 89 overall prospect of 2013. No. 9 athlete. Enrolled in January); Reggie Davis, Fr. (No. 45 wide receiver. Expected to enroll this summer); J.J. Green, Fr. (No. 58 CB. Enrolled in January); Rico Johnson, Fr. (No. 122 WR. Expected to enroll this summer)
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Mark Richt’s critics might once have had a point when they observed that his coaching staff gave veterans too much of a benefit of the doubt when it came to playing them over talented young players. The last two seasons have neutralized those criticisms, as it’s hard to imagine Georgia having won the last two SEC East titles without extensive contributions from brand new Bulldogs.
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No. 32 Collin Barber
57 punts for 2,371 yards, 41.6 avg., 60 long
Role in 2012: Barber arrived on campus during the summer and won the punting job by the time the regular-season opened and did a fine job in his first season as a college player.
The good: Barber and pooch punter Adam Erickson rarely had a huge swath of green space to punt into thanks to Georgia’s offensive efficiency this season. That probably affected their yards-per-punt averages, as most of the time they punted it high to prevent a return or tried to drop it inside the opponent’s 20-yard line to give them poor field position. Both players were effective in that endeavor, with 27 of Barber’s 57 punts resulting in a fair catch and 18 leaving the opponent inside its 20.
The bad: Georgia finished in the middle of the pack in net punting -- 59th nationally at 36.78 yards per punt -- but Barber and Erickson limited opponents’ chances to even attempt a return. Opponents returned only 14 kicks all season for a total of 156 yards -- 70 of which came on South Carolina star Ace Sanders’ return for the only touchdown against Georgia’s punt team this season. Still, the Bulldogs could use a little more distance on the punts in the future in addition to the height.
Crystal ball: Barber is just the second freshman punter to start under Richt (the first was Gordon Ely-Kelso, who averaged 39 yards per punt as a freshman in 2003). Barber’s numbers were OK and figure only to improve over time. He and Erickson definitely helped their coverage team prevent big plays. After the South Carolina game, when Sanders broke the long return, the Bulldogs punted 32 times in seven games, but opponents totaled only 35 punt return yards.
The following year Richt and his staff rededicated themselves to the recruiting trail and landed what he called the “Dream Team.” The Class of 2011 was ranked No. 6 in the nation and had an instant impact as Georgia won the SEC East and played in the SEC title game. The two year turnaround from the losing season to being the division champions removed the hot seat talk that had hounded Richt and in 2011 he signed the No. 5 recruiting class in the country.
Much of the staff’s success in 2011 was due to their work in landing the Dream Team. Many of the 2011 recruits were identified earlier and recruited more heavily than in years past. Many of the recruits in the Class of 2011 saw the Dream Team being put together and liked the idea for their class as well. Although they never adopted the “Dream Team II” moniker, the idea was the same.
Todd Gurley, Jordan Jenkins, John Theus, Marshall Morgan and Collin Barber are all staring for Georgia as freshmen. The win against Auburn gave Georgia its second SEC East title in a row. Just as meaningful to some Georgia fans is the fact that the Dream Team is 2-0 against Florida – something that no recruiting class has been able to say in over 20 years.
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Georgia had just allowed Kentucky to tiptoe back into the game with a 75-yard touchdown drive and was clinging to a 5-point lead when Wildcats kicker Joseph Mansour tapped an onside kick that had nearly trickled the necessary 10 yards when he crouched to dive on the loose ball. Only Norman raced to dive on the ball a split second before him, preventing Kentucky from attempting a potential game-winning drive that could have devastated the Georgia program and its fans.
“Connor was heads up to go in there and snatch it and be strong enough to convince the officials that it was his. So it was a huge play,” a relieved Georgia coach Mark Richt said after the game. “It was a lot of huge plays in the game, but Connor did a great job.”
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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.
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Top five SEC football players in 2015
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