Georgia has different handle on special teams

semerson@macon.comApril 9, 2014 

JOHN KELLEY/UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIAInside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler, second from left, has been given co-special teams coordinator duties alongside John Lilly.

JOHN KELLEY — John Kelley / UGA Sports Communications

ATHENS -- It’s a spring football practice at Georgia, and Kevin Sherrer is hunched over, pointing and yelling. So are fellow assistant coaches Tracy Rocker and Will Friend, each a few feet away. And standing a few yards back, overseeing it closely, is yet another assistant, John Lilly.

This is a field goal drill, but whether place-kicker Marshall Morgan makes each field goal is immaterial. What matters to the assistant coaches is whether players -- on offense and defense -- are in position. And four different coaches are involved.

“You know what, it’s all of us,” said Mike Ekeler, the team’s new co-special teams coordinator.

This is one of the more subtle changes for the Bulldogs staff this year. The team is hoping it ends up being one of the most important.

Special teams has been a sore point for this program for several years, and head coach Mark Richt finally answered critics this offseason by changing the way he handles the coaching duties. Instead of spreading them out across seven assistants, he named Lilly and Ekeler as co-special teams coordinators. Lilly handles the “offensive” special teams, and Ekeler the “defensive” ones.

So for the first time in Richt’s 14-year tenure, specific assistant coaches will be held accountable for overall special teams.

“If it doesn’t go well, it’s on me, quite frankly,” Lilly said. “At the end of the day, I know it’s my responsibility to get things done. So in that regard I think it is a change.”

But a huge change? Perhaps not.

Yes, Lilly and Ekeler are the coordinators, but on each unit – punt, punt return, kickoff, kick return, field goal/extra point, field goal/extra point block -- multiple coaches will help.

So on the previously mentioned field goal drill, Sherrer (who coaches mostly the linebackers) and Rocker (who coaches defensive line) worked with the block team, and Friend (the offensive line coach) worked with the field goal team. But Lilly oversees it.

In previous seasons, the field goal team would have basically just been Friend’s unit and the field goal block team would have been Rocker’s. Other assistants were supposed to help, but it often didn’t work out that way, Lilly admitted.

“I think there was a tendency at times -- and I’m just saying this being brutally honest, because I know I fell into it sometimes on the punt team -- to where you ended up coaching the whole team,” Lilly said. “You had help, you had guys, but you didn’t use them as well. You know how that is. Guys are all of a sudden (like), ‘Well, he doesn’t need my help.’

“It helps you zero in on more specific things when you know that hey, this guy’s got these specific three guys, this guy’s got those specific three guys. So it’s always been set up that way. But I think everybody trusts their help a lot more now.”

The new coaching system also doesn’t mean a change in how much attention special teams gets in practice. And the man-hours devoted to special teams isn’t drastically changing.

“I don’t know that you can spend more than what we did already,” Lilly said.

The change might be that it’s being done a different way.

“We’ve got two segments (of special teams practice) every single day and have a walk-through, and Coach (Richt) has devoted a lot of time for special teams,” Ekeler said. “Coach Sherrer has been heavily involved over there. It’s been good.”

But Lilly and Richt still defend how things worked under the former system. Georgia did have some good overall years on special teams, and there were other years when isolated units did well, even as others struggled.

“It’s all about results, and we were doing it the same way in 2010 when we were pretty darn good in every phase that year,” Lilly said. “We were doing it the same way last year when we had so many, quote-unquote, disasters happen.

“I don’t know, time will tell.”

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