Georgia says it can improve on strong special teams

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ATHENS, Ga. --- If college football held its own draft, Georgia's punter, kicker and kickoff returner would be among the first snatched up at their positions.

Bulldogs kicker and Lou Groza Award finalist Blair Walsh is an All-SEC preseason first-team pick. Georgia's special teams have received praise, but players and coaches see room to improve.  Associated Press
Associated Press
Bulldogs kicker and Lou Groza Award finalist Blair Walsh is an All-SEC preseason first-team pick. Georgia's special teams have received praise, but players and coaches see room to improve.

Drew Butler is the returning Ray Guy Award winner as the nation's top punter. Blair Walsh was one of three finalists last season for the Lou Groza Award for top kicker. Brandon Boykin tied a Southeastern Conference single-season record with three kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2009.

It's a big reason why The Sporting New s tabbed Georgia as the nation's No. 1 special teams and College Football News said the Bulldogs have "the best kicking game in college football."

"It's sort of nice being the strong point of the team, but we've just got to continue to do it," Walsh said. "We can't let go of that."

Georgia isn't standing pat. The Bulldogs' specialists were elite last season, but their special teams units weren't always so special.

"I think because we had some success last year, people view us as coming back and having it as a good area now," Boykin said. "A lot more goes into it than having two great kickers and a good returner. Without those blockers, we can't do anything, and without the gunners, Drew can't do anything. We really got to step it up more than we did last year to be just as good as last year."

Georgia ranked 117th in the nation in kickoff coverage (25.71), 82nd in punt return yardage defense (10.52) and 54th in kickoff returns (22.12) last season.

"We did have some spectacular kickoff returns," coach Mark Richt said, "but on average we still need to be more consistent where every kickoff return may not be spectacular but we get it out past the 24- or 25-yard line."

New assistant Warren Belin oversees the kickoff coverage unit, where the departed Jon Fabris was previously in charge.

"I think it's a lot more aggressive this year," said linebacker Marcus Dowtin, who is on several special teams units, including the kickoff coverage team. "I think coach Belin is really giving those guys a chance to kick the ball deep and allow our athletes to be athletes."

The Bulldogs aren't entirely abandoning directional kicking, but Walsh -- who had 17 touchbacks last year -- should have even more of a chance to boot it deep.

Richt said 53 yards -- about the width of a football field -- is "a lot of field to cover, so you've got to have some type of direction."

But he added: "We are going to let these guys kick away at it and see if they can get it out of the end zone as much as possible. That's where it starts. I think what's going to free up Walsh is the spot we were giving him last year was small. Now it's broadened."

Some of Georgia's most athletic players are pitching in on special teams.

Boykin and Dowtin are on multiple special teams units. Freshman safety Alec Ogletree, from Newnan, the top-rated recruit in the Bulldogs' 2010 signing class, says he is on all special teams except the field goal unit.

"Right now, if things continue to go the way they are with our health, we just have more healthy bodies on our football team," Richt said. "Just about every hand is on deck, and that allows you to have more runners and hitters."

The Bulldogs led the nation in net punting (42.0) and were fourth in the SEC in punt returns (11.1) last year, but they will have a new returner replacing Prince Miller and a new return/block scheme.

The headliners -- Butler, Walsh and Boykin -- are all back.

Butler (nation's best 48.1-yard average) and Walsh (20 of 22 field goals) were first-team preseason All-SEC picks, and Boykin landed on the second team at returner.

"It's sort of nice being the strong point of the team, but we've just got to continue to do it," Walsh said. "We can't let go of that."

Said Butler: "We want to win the special teams portion of the game every single game, so the offense and defense can take care of their business and we can hopefully have a win."

Boykin's three big returns last season leave him one shy of tying Willie Gault (Tennessee) and Felix Jones (Arkansas) for the SEC record for most career kickoff returns for touchdowns.

"We should have a good season in the special teams," Richt said.


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