Georgia seeks solution for special-teams breakdowns

North Texas defensive back Marcus Trice blocks a Georgia punt earlier in the season. The Bulldogs have had two punts blocked for touchdowns this season. (Reuters)

North Texas defensive back Marcus Trice blocks a Georgia punt earlier in the season. The Bulldogs have had two punts blocked for touchdowns this season. (Reuters)

ATHENS — The goal for pretty much every college football team in America is to go through an entire season without allowing what is deemed a “catastrophic” special-teams play. Through five games this season, Georgia has allowed five.

Thus far, the Bulldogs have:

• Mishandled a field-goal snap (Clemson).

• Dropped a punt snap (South Carolina),

• Given up a kickoff return for a touchdown (North Texas).

• Had a punt blocked for a touchdown twice (North Texas, Tennessee).

Four of the five breakdowns either resulted directly in an opponent’s touchdown or led to one. The mishandled field-goal snap obviously figured prominently in Georgia’s 38-35 loss at Clemson to open the season. Remarkably, none of the snafus resulted directly in a loss.

Nevertheless, the Bulldogs contend that their special-teams play in 2013 has not been all bad. Asked to put a grade on the overall play of special teams, coach Mark Richt said, “not good enough.”

“There has been some catastrophic plays; you can’t have those kinds of plays,” he said. “But talking about the punts, you take the two catastrophic plays out, and we’ve been excellent. We’ve been better than good, we’ve been one of the best in America. But you can’t do that. You can’t take that out. It happened.”

Richt claims that without the two blocks Georgia ranks among the top five teams in the nation in net punting with zero return yards. Likewise, he insists other phases of special teams have been “above average,” outside of a single breakdown.

He also pointed to positive special-teams plays. The Bulldogs executed an onside kick (South Carolina), a fake punt (Clemson) and two fumble recoveries on punt returns (Clemson and LSU).

“So we’ve done a lot of really good things,” he said. “Now you could try to blow everything up and start over, or you can find out what your issue is and correct it.”

For now, the punts are the biggest concern. The Bulldogs’ breakdown against North Texas was a schematic issue in which up-back Arthur Lynch checked to the wrong protection. Against Tennessee, fullback Quayvon Hicks, one of the three up-backs — or the shield — blocked the right player, but did not sustain it. So that was an execution issue.

“People on the outside want to look at the negative things and highlight them and build them up,” Lynch said. “But there’s so many positive things that we’ve done on all special teams that I don’t think we’re in a frantic state. I think we’re in a good spot. We fixed that one kind of hiccup, per se.”

Georgia divides its special-teams coaching responsibilities among its assistants. John Lilly (tight ends) coaches the punt team, Bryan McClendon (running backs) punt return/block, Kirk Olivadotti (linebackers) kickoff coverage, Tony Ball (wide receivers) kickoff returns, Will Friend (offensive line) field-goal block and Chris Wilson (defensive line) PAT block. Richt oversees PATs, field goals and the placekickers, and Lilly coordinates all the meetings.

Richt reiterated that he still prefers that model as opposed to having one dedicated special-teams coordinator.

As for the punt team, Georgia’s situation has been exacerbated by injuries. On Saturday, safety Connor Norman, a key player on the unit, was out with a concussion, coverage man Justin Scott-Wesley went out with a knee injury and punter Collin Barber suffered a concussion on the return of the blocked punt.

“We haven’t started the same 11 guys any two games yet,” Lilly said. “It’s certainly not an excuse for a breakdown, but it’s a lot like an offensive line. The more you can have the same guys work together, the more they can communicate exactly what the guy beside them is going to do. We haven’t been able to find a rhythm yet in that regard.”

Regardless, Lilly intends to have the issue fixed before Saturday.

“You’ve got to have those guys coached up, and they’ve got to understand the sense of urgency on each play and know exactly what we’re doing and how to do it,” he said. “Then they’ve got to go out and execute it under duress.”