Special teams is the phase of football most often overlooked.
And according to Georgia coach Kirby Smart, it’s also the toughest to gauge during practices and scrimmages. With offense and defense, physicality is encouraged, even when tackling is off-limits at certain times for safety reasons. But special teams are never live. All they can do, Smart said, is simulate those game-speed situations as best they can.
One week away from the annual G-Day game in Sanford Stadium, Smart said he has seen encouraging signs from the unit.
“I am comfortable with the work we’ve gotten done,” Smart said. “Our kids really challenge each other on those drills special teams wise. When you have Sony Michel going against Lorenzo Carter in a punt return drill and they are life-or-death competing out there, I love that. But it’s really hard to measure.”
It hasn’t been nearly as difficult for Smart to evaluate returning placekicker Rodrigo Blankenship.
After William Ham struggled in the first three games last season, he was replaced in the starting lineup by Blankenship. It was a role he did not relinquish. Blankenship went 14 of 18 on field goals — which included a streak of 10 straight makes — along with converting all 26 of his point-after attempts. He became a fan favorite after his performance against Kentucky, when he went 4-for-4 on field goals and nailed the game-winning 25-yard kick as time expired. One area for improvement Smart said he’d like to see is on kickoffs, where 20 of his 55 attempts resulted in touchbacks.
And progress, Smart said, has been made.
“Rodrigo’s done a good job,” Smart said, “and a much better job on kickoffs.”
Still, despite his efforts last season and the gains Blankenship has reportedly shown this spring, he hasn’t locked the spot down. Smart said the battle will continue into the fall, where Blankenship will have to fend off David Marvin, a graduate transfer from Wofford.
The picture is every bit as murky at punter.
Marshall Long was the starter for the first nine games of the 2016 campaign until he suffered a freak injury in practice and dislocated his kneecap. Long was forced to undergo surgery, which brought his season to a close. Brice Ramsey then took over at punter for the last four games of the season; he isn’t an option for the Bulldogs this fall, however, as he decided to transfer out of the program. Long, meanwhile, has yet to practice without limitations this spring. As Long continues to heal, graduate transfer Cameron Nizialek has handled punting duties.
Smart said Nizialek has “been a little up and down” with his punts, but overall, he has been pleased with the averages for both hang time and distance.
So the battle will rage on.
“Marshall is not kicking yet. He’s coming back and slowly getting his motion back but he’s not 100 percent comfortable yet,” Smart said. “Cam is punting all these balls right now, so I expect it to be a really good battle in fall camp.”