We continue to countdown towards the first day of Georgia football’s spring practice on Tuesday, March 21st, and with just four days to go we are looking at the kickers and punters along with those fleet-footed, electrifying returners, the special teams in our 2017 UGA Football Spring Preview series.
VERY SPECIAL… GEORGIA SPECIAL TEAMS IN 2016
Entering last season spring practice, Head Coach Kirby Smart said he was “scared to death” in reference to Georgia’s special teams, specifically in regards to the kickers and punters. Coach Smart and Tight ends/Special Teams Coach Shane Beamer were tasked with finding a new kicker and a new punter for the 2016 season. On the roster were two kickers in Rodrigo Blankenship and William Ham who had not kicked in a college football game, and the Bulldogs’ most experienced punter was quarterback Brice Ramsey. Kirby Smart brought on legendary Georgia kicker Kevin Butler as a grad assistant to the Bulldogs’ staff in August for fall camp to help, but Smart’s fears were well placed as Georgia struggled early on in the season with both kicking and punting.
William Ham started out the season as the placekicker and in three games went 3 for 7 on field goals. Both he and Rodrigo ‘Wildthang’ Blankenship would split kickoff duties during those first three games, but Blankenship would take over both kicking disciplines for Georgia during versus Ole Miss on the road. Blankenship’s start didn’t seem to bode well for the preferred walk-on, redshirt freshman as he missed his only field goal attempt.
However, after that missed attempt, over the next five games, ‘Wildthang’ was clutch, hitting 9 straight field goals through the uprights and knocking down 14 out of 14 PATs. He would take a step back in the final 3 games of the season including the Liberty Bowl versus TCU, finish the season by connecting on 5 of 8 field goal attempts. For the year, Blankenship went a very respectable 14 of 18 for 77.8% on field goals and was perfect on PATs going 26 for 26.
Where both kickers struggled was on kickoffs. Ham and Blankenship were both inconsistent on the length and placement of their kickoffs. On 12 kickoffs, Ham averaged 59.33 yards and only 4 touchbacks. Blankenship was slightly better, averaging 62.22 yards on 55 kickoffs with 20 being touchbacks. How does that compare nationally? Georgia as a team was 47th overall with an average of 61.79 yards per kickoff. Not bad, but not great either. But it is on touchbacks that tell the tale for the Bulldogs on kickoffs. Georgia was 65th in the country with 35.82% of its kickoffs going for touchbacks.
While kicking could have used improvement, it was punting that hurt Georgia the most on special teams. The Bulldogs were just not able to flip the field. Marshall Long was the punter for Georgia’s first 9 games until going down with a dislocated knee cap. Out of 49 punts, he averaged only 38.71 yards. After Brice Ramsey came in for the injured Long, fans were hoping for some improvement, but we quickly learned why Long had been able to win the job. Ramsey struggled even more so, only averaging 34.65 yards on 20 punts. Georgia as a team averaged only 37.54 yards per punt which were 121st out of 128 teams nationally. You might need to go take a shower after reading that one.
Kick and Punt Returns
With Isaiah Mckenzie the ‘Human Joystick’ having returned a kickoff and 4 punts for touchdowns during his first two seasons at Georgia, there was hope that this area of special teams would be a lethal weapon for the Bulldogs to use and change the momentum of games during 2016. McKenzie actually placed in the top-25 nationally in average punt return yards at 14th with 10.65, but the Bulldogs punt return results were inconsistent. In 7 games, he averaged 8 yards or less a punt return and in 3 games, less than a yard. ‘Joystick’ did finally get punt return touchdown in the eleventh game of the season against Louisiana-Lafayette, an 82-yarder that was over in the blink of an eye. Still, though, it felt as if Georgia’s ability to return punts took a step back and the statistics, as well as the eye test, showed that. McKenzie’s average dropped from over 12 yards a return for 2014 and 2015 to just 10.65 his junior season.
Senior wide receiver Reggie Davis handled most of the kickoff return duties, fielding 23 of Georgia’s 29 kickoff returns and averaged 21.13 yards. That is certainly not horrible, but nationally, it ranked 86th. As a team, Georgia was 80th out of 128 teams. The 10.65 punt return average for McKenzie put the Bulldogs as a team 25th nationally.
The Bulldogs’ coverage units didn’t fair much better, especially their kickoff coverage. Kick off coverage units for Georgia struggled, allowing 23.83 yards per return which were a little worse than 2015′ 21.20. That put the Bulldogs 115 out of 128 teams. Ouch! Georgia’s punt coverage units weren’t as bad off and allowed teams 6.10 yards per punt return last season, an improvement over 2015’s 8.44, which put them 43rd in the country.
But I didn’t have to regale you with all those ‘wonderful’ stats for anyone who watched Georgia’s football games last year to tell you that special teams weren’t very special. The silver lining here is that the Bulldogs have room to improve, which would help the team tremendously in 2017. The question is, can they do so? Let’s look at who Shane Beamer and the coaching staff have to work with this spring on special teams.
Name | Number | Class | Height and Weight | Hometown
Rodrigo Blankenship (PWO) – No. 98 – FR | 6 foot 1, and 191 lbs | Marietta, GA
Mitchell Wasson (PWO) – No. 99 – RS FR | 5 foot 11, and 179 lbs | Roswell, GA
Name | Number | Class | Height and Weight | Hometown
Will Cowart (WO) – No. 97 – RS SO | 6 foot 3, and 194 lbs | Warner Robins, GA
Marshall Long (SHIP) – No. 95 – FR | 6 foot 2 and 217 lbs | China Grove, NC
Name | Number | Class | Height and Weight | Hometown
John Courson (WO) – No. 56 – RS SO | 5 foot 11, and 215 lbs | Athens, GA
Trent Frix (SHIP) – No. 69 – JR | 6 foot 0, and 215 lbs | Calhoun, GA
Matthew Herzwurm (WO) – No. 59 – JR | 6 foot 0, and 233 lbs | Augusta, GA
Koby Pyrz (WO) – No. 49 – FR | 6 foot 2, and 280 lbs | Cairo, GA
Hudson Reynolds (WO) – No. 96 – RS FR | 6 foot 4 and 215 lbs | Bainbridge, GA
LET THE COMPETITION BEGIN
Then there were three…
If Kirby Smart was scared to death of his punting situation headed into spring practice last year, he might need a defibrillator this spring. There are only three healthy kickers and punters headed into spring barring Georgia holding open tryouts from the UGA student population.
You’ll notice that William Ham’s name doesn’t appear on the list of returning kickers. At the first of the year, Ham decided to transfer and take his leg elsewhere. That leaves Rodrigo Blankenship and Mitchell Wasson competing this spring. There has been a lot of news and frankly not good news over Rodrigo’s dad saying his son deserves a full athletic scholarship promised to him by Mark Richt and the previous coaching staff. And to his credit, Rodrigo has apologized for his dad’s remarks on social media and in the media. But one has to wonder has it affected the young man’s head any. Kickers can be a funny bunch you know. Regardless, I don’t doubt Blankenship’s ability. Barring injury, I expect him to go through spring practice as the No. 1 placekicker headed into fall.
Brice Ramsey announced he would be transferring in May at the end of the semester when he graduates. Add to that, Marshall Long is still recovering from having surgery to repair his dislocated kneecap he suffered in November before the Auburn game. No idea when he will be cleared to practice and play yet either. That leaves rising junior, walk-on Will Cowart for the spring to battle with two newcomers – 2017 preferred walk-on, graduate transfer Cameron Nizialek from Columbia University and walk-on, junior transfer Michael D’Angola out of Georgia Perimeter College.
Replacing Reggie Davis and Isaiah McKenzie
Both Davis and McKenzie are gone from last year’s unit. While Davis may not have been a fan favorite on kick returns, he was Mr. Dependable and would get the Bulldogs 20 to 21 yards a return. McKenzie’s production is tougher to replace on punt returns. This will be a wide open competition to find both punt returners and kick returners. At the top of the list for punt returns has to be rising junior WR Terry Godwin. Although he did not field any punts last season, as a freshman in 2015, Godwin averaged 14.50 yards on 4 returns. Another strong candidate to return punts could be defensive back Mecole Hardman, Jr., and the rising sophomore will also get a look at returning kickoffs. Fans were hoping to see him take over for Reggie Davis last season, but it never transpired with the exception of one kickoff return for 17 yards. Another rising sophomore that Shane Beamer is going to see on both kick and punt returns this spring will be defensive back Tyrique McGee. Wide receiver Tyler Simmons should also be in the mix with his speed and athletic ability. Phenomenal athlete and early enrollee Richard LeCounte could also get a look as a punt or kick returner on special teams.
But it could be one of the incoming freshmen who has yet to enroll at UGA that could end up being Georgia’s punt and kick returners for 2017. Running back signee D’Andre Swift not only gave opponents fit from his tailback position but was also dynamic on special teams as a returner. With his speed and athleticism, he will certainly get a look at both punt and kick returns this fall. Another incoming freshman that should make an impact on special teams before he plays on defense is Eric Stokes, Jr.. The 2017 defensive back signee has speed to burn and then some, and it would be the one reason he would not be redshirted.
MEET THE NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK
As I mentioned earlier, even though Georgia is thin at the kicking and punting positions going into spring practice, there is help on the way this summer and fall. The coaching staff did a good job of targeting some kickers to come in, add depth and compete.
UGA’s 2017 Signees at Kicker and Punter
Name | Position | Height and Weight | High School, Hometown
Brooks Buce (PWO) – K | 6 foot 0, and 175 lbs | GAC, Norcross, GA
Michael D’Angola (WO) – P | 6 foot 2, and 196 lbs | junior transfer Georgia Perimeter College
David Marvin (SHIP) – K/P | 6 foot 2, and 210 lbs | Graduate transfer from Wofford
Cameron Nizialek (WO) P, 6 foot 2, and 215 lbs | Graduate transfer from Columbia University
David Marvin will likely compete at kicker with Blankenship and Wasson this fall, but he also is a very good punter. Both Marvin and another graduate transfer, Cameron Nizialek from Columbia University, could bolster Georgia’s depth at punter. The junior transfer I mentioned earlier, Michael D’Angola, is a wild card here. Brooks Buce is a preferred walk-on signee from Greater Atlanta Christian will add depth at kicker. Depending on how the competition goes this fall and whether or not Long is cleared to play, it is possible that the Bulldogs could see either Marvin or Nizialek beat out Cowart for the punting duties. And Marvin could give Blankenship a run for his money at kicker. Nizialek will get a chance to show what he can do this spring, but we won’t get to see Marvin till spring.
TO BE DETERMINED…
I’m not sure how much will be determined at punter this spring. Will Cowart is the only healthy veteran leg unless Wasson gets a crack at booting it. Can Michael D’Angola or Cameron Nizialek show enough consistency and earn the trust of Coaches Beamer and Smart this spring to head into fall as the front runners to start? And at kicker, Blankenship really doesn’t have any competition… at least till fall. So I don’t really expect kicker or punter to be settled until the new faces get on campus and competition heats up in August. The biggest story out of spring as far as special teams are concerned will be who emerges as the punt returner and also kick returner. The competition here is wide open. Regardless of which players win the start at kicker, punter, returning kicks, or returning punts, the special teams units for Georgia have to improve to help this team win games, especially the close contest. It doesn’t need to be a part of the game that causes Dawg fans to pull out their hair, grind their teeth, and watch with one eye open as to the outcome when the ball is kicked. At the very least, special teams should become a position group that doesn’t cost the Bulldogs any games.
PROJECTED SPRING DEPTH CHART
PLACE KICKER: 1. Rodrigo Blankenship | 2. Mitchell Wasson
PUNTER: 1. Cameron Nizialek | 2. Will Cowart
SNAPPER: 1. Trent Frix | 2. John Courson
KICK RETURNER: 1. Mecole Hardman, Jr. | 2. Tyrique McGee
PUNT RETURNER: 1. Terry Godwin | 2. Tyler Simmons
Catch up on the other position groups in the 2017 UGA Football Spring Preview series from Bulldawg Illustrated:
2017 UGA Football Spring Preview: Defensive Backs – CLICK HERE
2017 UGA Football Spring Preview: Defensive Line – CLICK HERE
2017 UGA Football Spring Preview: Linebackers – CLICK HERE
2017 UGA Football Spring Preview: Offensive Line – CLICK HERE
2017 UGA Football Spring Preview: Quarterbacks – CLICK HERE
2017 UGA Football Spring Preview: Running Backs – CLICK HERE
2017 UGA Football Spring Preview: Tight Ends – CLICK HERE
2017 UGA Football Spring Preview: Wide Receivers – CLICK HERE
Recent Articles by Bob Miller