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Dogs relying on special teams to beat Tech

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ATLANTA -- Georgia and Georgia Tech could have left their punters home one year ago.

In an oddity, neither team punted in the Bulldogs' 30-24 win in Atlanta last year.

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson might not mind if the punters remain on the sidelines again in Saturday night's game in Athens. That would be one way to negate Georgia's apparent advantage in some special teams matchups.

Georgia punter Drew Butler, the 2009 Ray Guy Award winner as the nation's top punter, is having another standout season as part of the Bulldogs' overall strong special teams. Blair Walsh again ranks among the nation's top kickers.

Georgia Tech also boasts a strong kicker, Scott Blair, but has dealt with season-long issues on other areas of its special teams.

Blair is having an all-star caliber season. He has made 15 of 17 field goals and took over punting duties for the Yellow Jackets in last week's home win over Duke.

The Yellow Jackets have struggled in other areas. They rank 91st in the nation on punt returns and 115th in net punting.

Johnson attempted to compensate for the poor average of only 6.2 yards on punt returns last week against Duke. The attempt to devote more blockers to the return only opened the door for Blue Devils punter Alex King to run 16 yards for a first down.

"That was our fault," Johnson said of the scheme installed by coaches. "We were trying to borrow from Peter to pay Paul. We haven't had very good punt returns. ... That was a scheme thing all the way."

Georgia Tech's good news on special teams was Blair. In his first game punting since 2008, the senior averaged 46 yards on two punts.

"I didn't worry about Scott being the punter," Johnson said after the 30-20 win over Duke. "He has punted in games, and he is a senior. He has made some big kicks for us, so it wasn't a big deal."

The circumstances which led to Blair having to serve double duty on punts and as the place-kicker left Johnson shaking his head.

Chandler Anderson, the team's starting punter, hurt himself in practice on Tuesday before the Duke game. On the same day, Sean Poole, the team's other punter, suffered a knee injury in a freak accident.

"He slipped on the curb getting a slurpee at 7-Eleven and had knee surgery, all in the same day," Johnson said. "So we lost both punters. That is just kind of the way this year has gone."

With Butler and Walsh the leaders, special teams have been a strength for Georgia that extends into the coverage teams.

Georgia linebacker Christian Robinson said momentum shifts from big plays on special teams "can ultimately change the game."

"We really take it seriously," Robinson said. "That's the first thing we start off with every day, meetings or on the field. I think coach Richt and other coaches do a great job making us take it seriously. And it means a lot to us. Especially having great kickers and punters like we do. They take it seriously and you want to do well for them."

Robinson said the battle to win the edge on special teams "will be huge."

"If we don't do what we're supposed to do, they can get the momentum," Robinson said. "Momentum's huge. If we're at home and our fans aren't cheering for us, they get up. We definitely don't want that on Saturday."

Walsh has made 18 of 21 field goals, including successful kicks of 52 and 53 yards. Walsh is a semifinalist for the Groza Award given to the nation's top kicker.

Butler is averaging 45 yards on his 43 punts this season. Georgia is third in the nation in net punting while Georgia Tech is 115th, almost 10 yards per punt below the Bulldogs' average of 42 yards after returns on punts.

With Branden Smith returning punts and Brandon Boykin the school's all-time leader in kickoff returns, Georgia also boasts strong threats on returns.

Boykin, a junior cornerback, has returned four kickoffs for touchdowns. He tied a Southeastern Conference record with a 100-yard return for a touchdown against Kentucky this season and has passed Gene Washington's mark of 1,637 yards on kickoff returns in the mid-1970s.

"It's huge," said Georgia receiver Kris Durham. "We've got two of our best (kickers) in the country. Then turn around, our returners are some of the best in the country. We're definitely been blessed and privileged to have such great athletes at those positions.

"It's going to be huge in the game. It can swing momentum. It can change the field. It's going to play a huge role in our offense and defense just from momentum's sake."