ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia’s all-time leader in punt return yardage isn’t a big fan of playing it safe by relying on fair catches.
“I’m kind of gritting my teeth when I see that,” said Damian Gary, who racked up 1,253 punt return yards from 2000-03 and is now running backs coach at Charlotte. “I understand the game especially being a coach now when you have a safe opportunity, but I definitely love seeing good returns.”
Georgia – and its fans, for that matter – hopes this season brings many happy returns coming from freshman Isaiah McKenzie.
The 5-foot-8, 164-pound Miami native was brought in to breathe life into a flatlining return game.
“That’s one of the more exciting things about his high school career that made me really want to go after him,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “I thought his ability to return punts and kicks could help us a lot.”
McKenzie averaged 30.8 yards on punt returns as a senior and 47.1 yards per kickoff return.
“That dude has God-given talent, man, to field balls and scramble when he can,” Bulldogs punter Collin Barber said. “It’s just amazing how quick he is and his athletic ability.”
McKenzie made noise in Georgia’s first preseason scrimmage with a kick return for a touchdown (with no tackling) and the wide receiver also had a reception of some 30 yards, but was sidelined with an injury last week. He was back Saturday.
“He’s thick in it,” Richt said. “He’s a heavy consideration in the return game. Punt return maybe more than kickoff, but he’s a candidate for both.”
Last year, Georgia ranked second-worst in the FBS on punt returns at 2.9 yards per return and 108th in the nation in kickoff returns at 18.6.
Quarterback Hutson Mason calls McKenzie “the most athletic guy. He’s so small and jerky and quick out there that you think you can wrap him up because he’s so little, but a lot of times when he gets behind those guys you can’t even see him. His smallness is in his favor sometimes.”
Before Richt hands over the punt return duties to McKenzie, he has to trust the freshman that he can count on him to secure the ball.
“That’s why I’m telling him, every rep I’m watching,” Richt said. “There is no `I’ll do it game day mentality.’ It’s ‘I’m going to do it in practice to prove to coach I can do it.’ That’s not just him, that’s anybody back in that spot.”
Still, McKenzie offers a skill-set at the position that is intriguing.
“He’s a very elusive guy, very quick sudden,” Richt said. “What you’d like in a return man, but like I told him and the rest of them, I’m going to base the decision on who that guy is on how well he fields the ball and how well he protects the ball. If you don’t field the ball and don’t protect it, it doesn’t matter how good you can run. And that punt return especially is so much different in college than in high school. They’ll punt it out there, you’ll catch it in space in high school. College, it’s way up there, it’s hanging, you’re sitting there waiting and waiting and waiting and here they come. They’re right on top of you — 95,000 people, millions of people watching on TV. It’s just a whole different deal. That’s the thing you concern yourself with a true freshman.”
McKenzie may be too good to keep off the field. Especially for a Georgia team that didn’t have a punt return longer than 17 yards last season.
“It’s an opportunity to give the offense some extra yards,” Gary said. “It would be nice to have some good return men that could kind of help the offense back there.”