Georgia exploring options at punter

There are a lot of areas of the game that Georgia’s football team needs to improve despite its 4-0 record and No. 3 national ranking. Coach Kirby Smart has emphasized that ad nauseum. Put punting at the top of that list.

The Bulldogs’ numbers — and those of sophomore punter Jake Camarda, specifically — won’t shock anybody. They’re averaging 44.64 yards per punt, which is decent and ranks eighth among SEC teams. Georgia’s net-punting average of 39.5 is not awful either, including an opponents’ return average of 8.5 yards.

But it's in less statistically evident areas where Camarda has struggled. Like, "punts when field position really matters." Camarda, a sophomore, struggled in that category against Notre Dame on Saturday.

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With the Bulldogs needing Camarda to get them out of a hole with two minutes remaining in a one-score game, he shanked his punt right and out of bounds — only traveling 27 yards. The Fighting Irish took over at their own 48, but Georgia was able to get them to turn the ball over on downs after they’d reached 38.

That was the second time Camarda failed to come through for his team in a time of need. With Georgia at its own 15 in the first quarter, Camarda unleashed his first shank of the day. This one went for 25 yards, and Notre Dame took over at the Bulldogs’ 40.

Again, UGA’s defense came through as an Irish pass fell incomplete on fourth-and-two at Georgia’s 32.

Coach Kirby Smart defended his punter after the game. He said Camarda “just had a couple bad punts” and assured all that the Bulldogs “had his back.”

But Smart confirmed this week that a competition for punting duties is being waged. Georgia is off until its trip to Tennessee on Oct. 5.

“We’ve got two or three guys out there (competing),” Smart said. “… They haven’t out-punted (Camarda) in practice, and they haven’t out-punted him in games or scrimmages. Up until Saturday, he was really hitting a lot of bombs. He didn’t hit two good punts (against Notre Dame). He knows it.”

It hasn’t just been ill-timed shanks for Camarda, however. While he clearly has a powerful leg, he has struggled with the punts requiring more touch. With a chance to pin Notre Dame early in the third quarter Saturday, his punt from the 48-yard line rolled into the end zone for a touchback. It was his third touchback in 11 punts this season. So far, opponents have only three fair catches, which is the desired result.

That was an issue for Camarda last season as well, when he had eight touchbacks and 16 fair catches in 43 punts. He averaged 42.6 yards.

Georgia doesn’t haven’t a lot of options beyond Camarda, who came out of Norcross High as 3-star-rated recruit and the No. 2 punter in the country, according to 247Sports. The Bulldogs have two walk-ons in sophomore Bill Rubright (pronounced ROOB-right) of Atlanta and freshman Noah Chumley of Savannah, who was invited to join the team this fall.

“The young man from Savannah does a great job,” Smart said.

Place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship also could be an option. He averaged 46 yards a punt in high school and has proven to be one of Georgia’s most reliable players in the clutch.

The preferred outcome for the Bulldogs and special-teams coordinator Scott Fountain would be to help Camarda work out the kinks. Meanwhile, his teammates wholeheartedly believe in him.

“Jake’s a great punter,” said senior tight end Charlie Woerner, who’s a member of the punt team. “Honestly, we’ve been telling him to ‘just be the guy we know you are in practice.’ Because, man, that dude kicks some bombs. No one’s mad at him; no one’s doing anything bad. He just needs to get back out there and get back into rhythm and keep kicking because he’s a really good kicker.”

Smart has been critical of other areas of special teams, as well. Senior Tyler Simmons was benched as punt returner Saturday after muffing a punt inside the 10-yard line. Notre Dame recovered at the 8 and scored its first touchdown of the game four plays later.

Simmons was replaced by freshman Dominick Blaylock, who caught one for a fair catch and let another go, which rolled for another 15 yards.

“So, he was 50-50, and you can’t be 50-50 in this league,” Smart said.

Redshirt freshman receiver Kearis Jackson opened the season as Georgia’s punt returner, but suffered a broken hand in the opener against Vanderbilt and has been sidelined since. Junior Demetris Robertson fields punts in pregame warm-ups, as do running back James Cook and safety Richard LeCounte. So, there are many options there.

Smart made it clear all options are being considered during the Bulldogs’ bye week.

“We’ll continue the competition, just like we will at every position,” he said.