No special teams coach a concern for UGA

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 — Mark Richt cannot escape it. No matter how many times he pleads his case, often persuasively, every time there is a special teams mistake it re-ignites the debate over why Georgia doesn’t employ a coordinator for all those units.

And lately, obviously, there have been plenty of mistakes.

The Vanderbilt game saw several glaring, arguably game-changing plays: The errant punt snap in the fourth quarter, leading to Vanderbilt’s go-ahead touchdown, and the punt muff by Damian Swann, leading to a field goal on the previous drive, as well as Vanderbilt’s fake field goal for a touchdown in the first half.

But to Richt, the mistakes that are happening aren’t reflective of a lack of coaching, but execution. He elaborated on that when asked Sunday if he felt the need to examine if there’s an overriding thread plaguing the special teams.

“I think again you’ve gotta look at everything in totality,” Richt said. “Everybody wants to talk about the things that go wrong. And obviously when things that go wrong, they cost you a position or whatever it is, it’s a huge deal. Or whether you have a special teams coach or don’t have a special teams coach, or whether you have a special teams coordinator or not, you’ve gotta field the punt, you’ve gotta snap the ball, you’ve gotta catch the snap.”

That was in reference to Trent Frix snapping the ball high to punter Collin Barber, and Swann not catching the punt. Individual mistakes, not schematic ones, as Richt pointed out.

“I mean,” Richt said, starting to laugh, “What does that have to do with whether you have a special teams coordinator or not. Those are just things you need to execute, the basic fundamentals of it. And those guys very capable of it. And I do have faith that they can get the job done.”

Last week on his radio show, Richt got a question about special teams, and offered a clear explanation for why he does it the way he does.

“My philosophy is it that it’s good to have a lot of coaches with some teeth into the special teams,” Richt said. “Sometimes if you give it to one guy everyone looks at him and says, Well that’s your job and I don’t have to worry about it.”

Richt then granted that there are a lot of ways to handle it, and estimated it was about “50-50” across college football. (It’s actually probably well under half of teams that don’t have a special teams coordinator. But for what it’s worth, Missouri doesn’t either, and it’s special teams this year are pretty solid.)

In addition, NCAA limits on staffing prohibit a team from carrying more than nine full-time assistant coaches. So it’s just as rare for teams to have a special teams coordinator who only handles special teams. Most teams have a tight ends coach or inside linebackers coach, for instance, who also is the special teams coordinator.

Richt also called whether or not a team has a coordinator “semantics,” arguing that some teams that have a special teams coordinator still do split up the coaching duties somewhat, with two or three other assistant coaches involved.

“I don’t think one man can coach all the special teams by himself. You’ve got 11 guys on all of those special teams. You’ve got the big four units (punt, punt return, kickoff, kickoff return). It’s too big for one man to do. So everybody splits up the responsibility,” Richt said. “Sometimes I think it’s a matter of semantics. I could easily say (tight ends coach) John Lilly is the special teams coordinator because he’s the one that does coordinate who has certain meeting times, who has certain practice times, and he makes sure we’re all on the same page. So I think it’s a matter of semantics.”

Since so many of Georgia’s special teams errors this season have come on individual mistakes — snaps, muffed punts, etc. — Richt was asked Sunday how much time those specialists spend working on their craft during practice. It’s a limited amount during competitive team drills, Richt said, because of time constraints, but there is “plenty of time” during other periods.

“The kickers, the punters, the snappers and the holders, they’ve got more than enough time to work on those things, and they do work on those things. We’ve just gotta settle down and put it on the money. That’s all there is to it,” Richt said. “We know we have guys that have capability. They’ve just gotta settle down, and do what they do. We’re not gonna give up on them. Between (Nate) Theus and Frix, both those guys are very capable. We’ve just gotta get them to settle down and put it on the money.”