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May 29, 2014

Finally, Got It Covered?

Coach Richt looks to his defenders, and their 
coaches, to finally get some coverage on a long-
time team strength that has turned dismal.
I recently interviewed Mark Richt and asked him what seemingly everyone else who has had the chance to speak to the UGA head coach has inquired about: the Bulldogs' recent not-so-special special teams. 
 
Beginning in 2011, Georgia's special teams unit went from subpar overall to downright dreadful a year ago.  However, during the three-season stretch, there was actually just one facet of special teams play, albeit a mighty important one, which remained horrific all along: I'll call it ST coverage, representing coverage on opposing kickoff returns and coverage on punt returns, which includes keeping the opposition from blocking punts.  Yet, I soon discovered what was originally believed to be only a three-year terrible trend had actually been going on for eight seasons at Georgia.
 
In 2006, or ironically the season Richt stop calling the offensive plays to evidently start concentrating more on other coaching duties, the Bulldogs' ST coverage began to show signs of decline, and has remained unsatisfactory ever since, especially the last three seasons.  Starting in 1970 through 2013, I gathered Georgia's ST coverage statistics, discovering the program actually allowed the same number of, or even more blocked punts, punt returns for touchdowns, and kickoff returns for touchdowns in just the last eight seasons (2006-2013) or less compared to the 36-season period before (1970-2005).  The staggering details regarding the Bulldogs' ST coverage:
  • Had SEVEN punts blocked the last eight seasons; just 6 punts blocked from 1970-2005 (4½ times the number of punts during 1970-2005 than 2006-2013) 
  • Allowed SIX touchdowns via a punt return or a blocked punt the last eight seasons, including FIVE the last three seasons; just 5 touchdowns from punt returns/punts blocked from 1970-2005 (plus, yielded a 9.1 punt return average from 2006-2013; 7.0 average from 1970-2005)
  • Allowed FOUR touchdowns via kickoff return the last eight seasons, including THREE the last three seasons; just 4 touchdowns from kickoff returns from 1970-2005 
When interviewing Richt, I asked besides the addition of co-coordinatorsJohn Lilly (offensive special teams) and Mike Ekeler (defensive)what else was being done to improve the special teams, specifically the coverage units?
 
"...When your defensive coordinator (Jeremy Pruitt) is excited about coaching the special teams, it usually means that there is going to be a bunch of defensive starters that are going to start on the special teams, as well.  That in itself, is a good sign and something new..."Coach Richt
 
Yes, having "a bunch" of starters on ST coverage would indeed be something new at Georgia.  From what I recall, the Bulldogs' recent coverage teams have consisted of primarily reserve players and players who otherwise likely wouldn't see the field, plus maybe a defensive starter or two sprinkled in here and there.  
 
Going way back, according to a Georgia player from the 1970s I contacted who played on coverage teams during the decade, "[ST coverage] was a mixture of backups and starters back then, but primarily backups."
 
Led by special teamers like Will Muschamp, UGA's
coverage units excelled, comparatively speaking,
until the mid-2000s.  From 1991-1994, the Bulldog-
now-Gator Muschamp, who was primarily a reserve 
safety, tallied an unofficial school-record 36 career
special teams tackles while playing on units which 
never allowed a kickoff or punt returned for a TD.
Starting in 1982 and for nearly the next two decades, Georgia annually featured separate individual special teams tackles statistics instead of including them as part of the normal defensive statistics, or what has been customary beginning in the 2000s.  Notably, from 1982 through 1999, of the 97 instances a Bulldog recorded five or more tackles on special teams in a seasona player  I'd consider a major contributor on ST coverageonly four (of 97!) standout special teamers were starting offensive or defensive players, as well:
 
Carlo Butler: starting OLB and seven ST tkls in '91
Randall Godfrey: starting WLB and five ST tkls in '92
Larry Brown: starting TE and five ST tkls in '95
Champ Bailey: starting CB and five ST tkls in '97
 
Therefore, from what I can determine, Georgia's ST coverage unit, like probably most major-college teams', has had more or less the same type of player "arrangement" for at least four decades: mostly backups and some players who otherwise would hardly play, if at all, mixed in with an occasional starter, maybe two.  Accordingly, if this type of arrangement solidly performed for 36 years as the Bulldogs' ST coverage did from 1970 through 2005, why has the same arrangement struggled beginning in 2006?
 
I'm not sure if playing "a bunch" of starters on ST coverage in 2014 is  necessarily "a good sign," as the head coach said.  I do know that a bad sign is when a particular system works for so long, like for at least 36 years, but it then suddenly begins to fail and steadily worsen.  The system's problem lies not in its player arrangement, but what individual(s) oversaw those players beginning in 2006, led their direction and execution, or lack thereof, and implemented their schemes.  However, that's where Coach Ekeler, who now will oversee the ST coverage, can make a difference in 2014.

Coach Richt confidently concluded his answer to my special teams question with "...we’ll be better on special teams than we were a year ago."  As far as the ST coverage being better this season, there's really nowhere for Ekeler's covering crew to go but up.  But ultimately, regardless of its player arrangement, it'd be nice to see Georgia's ST coverage return to back when it consistently shined, and not steadily declined.  

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