While the defense appears to be loaded and the offense has potential, the special teams seem to be the unknown. As we found out in every loss, a breakdown in special teams can either change the momentum (see LSU), directly lead to a loss (see South Carolina & Michigan State), or keep games close (see Florida & Vanderbilt). With a couple of tough road games in the front end of the schedule and the traditional rivalries on the back end, special teams must move from liability to neutral for the season to turn out in the way the Bulldog Nation expects.
Kicking Specialists (Outlook – Negative Until Proven Otherwise)
The bottom line is we’re breaking in two true freshmen at kicker (Marshall Morgan) and punter (Collin Barber). While both were highly regarded at their specialties in high school, it’s relatively easy to kick in front of 2,000 people on a Friday night, but it’s a whole different ball game to do it front of 92,000 people and a national TV audience with a game on the line. Hopefully, we don’t see Barber until some time late in the Buffalo game when the scout team offense is on the field. I assume we’ll see Morgan as early as the opening kick-off or sometime in the 1st quarter for either a field goal attempt or a PAT. We have been spoiled with a punter with a big leg for the last 3 years with Drew Butler (probably the best punter to pull on the silver britches) and with a kicker who was almost automatic until last year in Blair Walsh. Until proven otherwise, I’ll be holding my breath every time these guys are on the field while a game remains in doubt.
Coverage Teams (Outlook – Negative)
Last year was an absolute house of horrors for the kick coverage teams with multiple kick-off and punt returns for touchdowns and others that put the defense on short fields. If we don’t cover kicks better than we did last year, look for more of the same where we set up teams for scores. Needless to say, our scoring defense statistics will look a ton better with more solid execution and tackling on coverage teams. Hopefully, the kick-off rule change to move kick-offs up to the 35-yard line will enable Morgan to kick the ball deep into the end zone regularly. While the coaching staff has made it clear they plan to use more two-deep players on coverage teams, off-season attrition may make it difficult to deploy this plan.
Return Teams (Outlook – Positive)
The return teams have the potential to be stellar even with the loss of Brandon Boykin to the NFL. While Georgia will miss his explosiveness and ability to hit seams at exactly the right time, the Dawgs have plenty of skill players that will have the opportunity to return kicks. All indications are that Brandon Smith will likely be back to return kicks with the freshman running backs or a couple of last year’s Dream Team defensive backs as alternatives. I personally would like to see Justin Scott-Wesley at 210+ pounds with world-class sprinter speed with an opportunity to run back a kick-off at some point this year.
Coaching (Outlook – Neutral)
I’m not sure if our coaching philosophy around special teams works because we don’t have anyone that is responsible for coordinating all of the units. Our coverage teams seemed to take major steps backward in 2011. Blair Walsh had problems with consistency that the Vikings identified immediately and set him up as their kicker soon after drafting him. While I understand spreading out the responsibility for special teams due to NCAA regulations regarding the number of coaches on staff, this situation seems to be since everyone’s responsible, no one’s responsible.
Overall (Outlook – Negative)
I thought our special teams were going to be the nation’s best last year due to experience and on-field success. I don’t see at this point entering the season how special teams will be better in 2012 given that freshman kickers are replacing seniors. While I hope to see more contributors on the two-deep depth chart on coverage teams, I just don’t see how the coaching staff can risk injuries with the razor-thin margin we have with scholarship players. The only bright spot on special teams appear to be the return teams if we can get our skill players the ball in space with good blocking. Hopefully, at season’s end, I’ll be more than happy to admit I got this wrong.
Tell me your thoughts in the comments.