Georgia Football: Can New Coaching Staff Finally Fix Dawgs' Special Teams?

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Georgia Football: Can New Coaching Staff Finally Fix Dawgs' Special Teams?
Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Even the best-laid plans of a tenured coach like Georgia's Mark Richt can fall apart during the offseason. 

For a coach who stressed the importance of "continuity" in December, per David Paschall of the Chattanooga Times Press, Richt has endured an inordinate amount of turnover within his coaching staff.  Fortunately for the Georgia Bulldogs, most view these staff changes as an unanticipated step in the right direction.

But now, with recruiting season and the coaching scramble complete, Richt's true planning begins as he works with his new assistants to fix the problems that plagued the Dawgs in 2013.  

One question transcends all other concerns, however: Can the new Georgia Bulldogs coaching staff fix the special teams?

 

Problems Abound

Last year, Georgia opened the season with a three-point loss at Clemson.  A botched field-goal snap from the 2-yard line kept three points off the board for the Bulldogs.  The Dawgs' 2013 season concluded with a 24-19 loss to Nebraska in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.  The Cornhuskers pulled ahead in the second quarter thanks to a 14-yard drive following a Georgia fumble during a punt return; that lead was never relinquished.

Unfortunately, these were not isolated incidents.  Rather, these two special teams disasters were representative bookends of a season of shortcomings for the Bulldogs.  

Notable Georgia Special Teams Shortcomings in 2014
Opponent Special Teams Mistake
Clemson Georgia botches snap on chip-shot field goal.
South Carolina Georgia fumbles snap on punt, Gamecocks recover on 18-yard line and score touchdown.
North Texas North Texas blocks a punt for a touchdown and returns a kick for a touchdown.
Tennessee Volunteers return a blocked punt for a touchdown.
Vanderbilt Vandy scores on two shortened drives following Georgia fumble on punt return and mishandled Bulldog snap on a punt.
Nebraska Cornhuskers score on short drive following Georgia fumble on punt return.

sports-reference.com

Georgia's special teams struggles were not limited to big plays.  Over the course of the season, the Bulldogs consistently ranked among the SEC's worst in returns and special teams coverage.

Georgia Special Teams: Worst of the Worst
Category Average SEC Rank
Kickoff Returns 18.6 14
Punt Returns 2.9 14
Kickoff Coverage Net Average 38.8 13

SEC Digital Network

 

The Plan for Improvement

Mark Richt famously does not employ a dedicated special teams coordinator.  Last October, Richt defended his approach to Seth Emerson of the Ledger-Enquirer:

It doesn't matter whether you split it up or give it to one guy. The bottom line is you’ve gotta get the job done. Everybody knows who’s had issues that can’t happen anymore. Everybody takes that personally, and everybody’s working hard at it. 

In the most literal sense, Georgia's newly restructured staff does not have a special teams coordinator.  It actually has two.

Moving forward, the Dawgs will divide special teams units into offense and defense.  While this plan may sound all too familiar to Bulldog fans accustomed to split special teams duties and collectively mediocre results, there is a new degree of accountability under the reorganization of the special teams units.

Will the co-coordinator system improve Georgia's special teams play?

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According to an announcement made on GeorgiaDogs.com, tight ends coach John Lilly will coordinate the offensive side of special teams (kick and punt returns, field goals and extra points), while new inside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler will lead the defensive special teams units (kick and punt coverage, field goal and extra-point blocking).

According to the GeorgiaDogs.com release, Richt is confident in this transition as well as the appointment of Bryan McClendon as recruiting coordinator (an announcement made in congruence with the special teams co-coordinators appointment).  Per the release, Richt offered the following assessment:

"This restructuring I believe will give us the best chance to win from a recruiting and special teams standpoint. Our recruiting effort will be strengthened and our special teams will be improved as well."

 

Will the Plan Work?

The appointment of co-coordinators adds a tremendous degree of accountability for Georgia's special teams unit.  While the efforts will remain collective and continue to involve multiple coaches, the onus of improvement now falls on two capable assistants in Lilly and Ekeler.

Wade Payne/Associated Press
Marshall Morgan, an all-SEC kicker, was a rare bright spot for Georgia's special teams in 2013.

Lilly, who's coached Georgia's tight ends since 2008, has developed some of the SEC's best tight ends and sent numerous pupils to the NFL.  With an equally impressive arsenal of talent at his disposal and a shift in responsibilities, Lilly will be able to turn around Georgia's offensive special teams by emphasizing ball security during returns and consistent execution on long snaps and holds.

Ekeler may be an unknown quantity to Georgia fans, but his experience at national powers like LSU, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Southern Cal qualify him for the gig.  His primary point of emphasis on the defensive side of the special teams unit will be coverage.  Fortunately, these duties will directly coincide with the lane discipline he will coach when working with Georgia's inside linebackers.

While Lilly and Ekeler may feel the pressure of their new assignments, they can take solace in knowing that special teams play couldn't get much worse than it was in 2013.  Last year's efforts were so poor that they inspired a popular parody Twitter account for Georgia's phantom special teams coach.

In that regard, Lilly and Ekeler are set up to succeed.  If they do, the 2014 edition of Georgia special teams will be defined by discipline, not disaster.  And that bodes well for the entire team.

Improvements within special teams will take the pressure off Hutson Mason as he moves into his role as Georgia's full-time starting quarterback.  Improvements within special teams will give Jeremy Pruitt and the Bulldog defense a thicker cushion while adjusting to a new scheme.  Improvements within special teams will put Georgia back in the hunt for an SEC Championship.  And wasn't that Mark Richt's plan all along?

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