ATHENS - After the other night, if there is still a debate over whether Todd Gurley should be returning kickoffs, Georgia co-special teams coordinator John Lilly used his trump card on Tuesday.
"I was a little younger, but I remember watching Herschel Walker running back kickoffs on television," Lilly said. “So you see that kind of thing, with a dominant player, or a dominant back."
Yes, around these parts "Herschel did it" is usually a winning argument. So are 100-yard touchdown returns that galvanize the home stadium on the way to an impressive victory.
Walker returned 14 kickoffs in his three years at Georgia – six each as a freshman and sophomore, and two as a junior. He never reached the end zone, averaging 17.6 yards per return. When Walker got to the NFL he had 198 career kickoff returns, returning two for touchdowns.
Gurley has now eight career kickoff returns for an average of 42.9 yards. One-quarter of those returns have been for touchdowns, each a 100-yarder. He only got one chance on Saturday night; the first two were touchbacks, the next was the touchdown, and then Clemson booted it short to open the second half, having seen enough.
"He’s obviously hungry to do it," Lilly said of Gurley. "And he did a good job of being patient the other day, because I think he would’ve liked to have brought them all out. I think the second one if you look he would’ve liked to have brought that one out too. But it wasn’t the right time.”
The third one was also in the end zone, but within "the guidelines" for a return, as Lilly put it, as set by Tony Ball, the receivers coach who runs the kickoff return unit.
“We got a hanging curveball there later on and kind of hit it out of the park,” Lilly said.
The sterling performance of Georgia's special teams has been overshadowed by Gurley's all-around game and how the defense played in the second half. But a closer examination shows that the special teams, so maligned the past few years, basically had a perfect game:
- Collin Barber averaged 45.5 yards on his five punts, with three downed inside the 20. Adam Erickson also had a 37-yard punt downed inside the 20. - The highlight of the night, other than Gurley's run, was a 60-yard Barber punt which, combined Sony Michel's open-field tackle for a 9-yard loss, resulted in a flip of the field in the first quarter: Georgia at its own 21 to Clemson at its own 10. - Marshall Morgan made his only field goal attempt, a 27-yarder in the third quarter, which was his 18th straight. - Reggie Davis had seven punt returns for 37 yards, which may not seem like much, but along with Isaiah McKenzie's 24-yard return in the second half, Georgia averaged 7.6 yards per return. Last year Georgia averaged a meager 2.9 yards per return.
It was just one game, but a very encouraging sign that the offseason changes were working. The big move, mostly for aesthetic reasons, was naming Lilly and Mike Ekeler as co-special teams coordinators. There were also small changes to practices and drills, as well as a renewed emphasis on starters and top reserves appearing on special teams.
“We did play more guys that are starters," head coach Mark Richt said this week, before adding that there was still room for guys "who kinda live and die by that," as in walk-ons such as Kosta Vavlas.
Still, on Saturday you saw Amarlo Herrera and Keith Marshall on kickoff coverage, for instance,
“It’s being encouraged by position coaches, by coordinators,” Lilly said. “All hands on deck, let’s go. And again, it wasn’t a deal where we just said: Here this is your job. There’s been some pretty fierce competition.”
The very fact Gurley was put on kick return may have had a galvanizing effect on the team, showing that if the team's best player would risk further injury, that it truly was important. But Lilly admitted that putting Gurley back there wasn't a no-brainer.
“There’s been a lot of discussion amongst all of us about that," Lilly said. "Depending on which day you asked everybody, somedays it was like: Yeah. Somedays it was: No. I think the great thing is he’s hungry to be back there, which certainly helps it.”