This week, punter Collin Barber and his teammates on the coverage unit are on high alert for what could happen when Auburn gets their hands on the ball.
“They can’t run if you don’t give them a chance,” Barber said. “That’s my plan, man. Put them high and far. I don’t want to give him a chance. I’m going to be shooting towards that.”
Auburn senior Chris Davis leads the nation in punt returns with a 24.1-yard average. He returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown against Tennessee last week.
“First, you’ve got to protect, obviously, and then you hope to kick the ball high enough where we can get our coverage under there and force a fair catch,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “That’s ideal. That’s what we want. If he gets started, we’re holding our breath. Everyone who has allowed him to get started has paid for it.”
Georgia has given up just 37 punt return yards this season, the fourth lowest total in the SEC and ranks 18th nationally at 4.11 yards per punt return.
“That usually comes back more on the punter than it does sometimes on the coverage team,” said assistant coach John Lilly, who oversees the unit. “It’s a combination of things — hang time and distance and how those things match up.”
It’s not just the punt returns where Auburn can produce a game-changing play on special teams.
Marshall Morgan is paying extra attention to the guys who will receive his kickoffs, something he doesn’t always concern himself with.
Auburn leads the SEC on kickoff returns with a 26.7-yard average and is tied for the nation’s lead with two kickoff returns for touchdowns, a 100-yard return from Tre Mason and a 90-yard return from Corey Grant last week against Tennessee.
“That’s my buddy, Michael Palardy, kicking at Tennessee,” Morgan said. “In high school, he ran about a 4.5 or 4.6 (40-yard dash). If he can outrun that guy, I better get him or our team better get him.”
Barber, a sophomore, is fourth in the SEC in punting at 45.0 yards per kick, which is ahead of his 41.5 mark last season. Auburn’s Steven Clark averages 42.7, but made the finalist list for the Ray Guy Award.
Even punters get worked up about topping what the opposing guy does on gameday.
Barber has scoped out the other team’s punter during pregame warmups.
“My freshman year, I’d find every punter and I’d go up to him and I’d stop one step (away) and I’d start bombing,” Barber said. “I made sure that he knew I was there that I was going to try to be the best in that game.”
Said Lilly: “If you didn’t like competing, you probably wouldn’t be playing in the SEC anyway.”
Georgia has had two punts blocked for touchdowns and a high snap that led to a touchdown.
The Bulldogs are one of four teams nationally tied for second worst in touchdowns scored against them off of punts with two. California has had five.
“We’ve had a few mistakes on the pride team, but we’re still hanging on,” Barber said. “You play with the cards you’re dealt and do the best with them.”
Barber remembers only one punt being blocked when he played for Cartersville High.
“I was kind of spoiled last year with Ty (Frix) because he would always put them perfect right there to me,” said Barber, who has had Nathan Theus and Trent Frix snapping this year. “My natural stance when I’m punting I kind of stand straight up, really calm and wait for it. Just coming off Vanderbilt, I do believe if I would have had my legs bent a little bit I could have jumped a little higher and caught it.”
Georgia is hoping to catch up quickly to Auburn’s returners.
“They’ve got some good returners and whatnot, I’m talking about some great returners,” Georgia gunner Sheldon Dawson said, “but if our guys execute our plays and what we’re supposed to do then we should get down there and make a good tackle.”