The most recent kickoff that Georgia Tech returned was one that will linger in the memory. Juanyeh Thomas fumbled inside the Yellow Jackets’ 10-yard line to give Duke the ball at the 6-yard line to set up the Blue Devils’ final score in their 28-14 win over Tech two Saturdays ago.
The two kickoff returns prior to that in the game weren’t much better.
On Thomas’ first return of the game, at least two Blue Devils were virtually unblocked and he was stopped on the 19-yard line. On his second, to start the second half when the score was tied at 7-7 and the Jackets offense could have used some field-position assistance against Duke’s stout defense, another Blue Devil flew past a block attempt to drop Thomas at the 17-yard line before a holding penalty brought the ball back to Tech’s 8.
“The field-position game was a killer,” coach Paul Johnson said.
With a new rule in place in which teams can call for a fair catch inside their 25 and start the possession on the 25, the Jackets have often done themselves a disservice by attempting returns. Of 17 total returns, eight (including Thomas’ fumbled return) have not reached the 25.
It isn’t only that many of the returns have been short. The explosive plays have been lacking, too. Of the 17 returns, only three have reached the Tech 35 and none have crossed midfield. Further, of those three, one was after a pooched kickoff and the other was abetted by a penalty that set the kickoff spot at the opposition 20-yard line. Thomas did have a return against Bowling Green that he took back 94 yards for a touchdown, but it was called back by a holding penalty.
During its open date, as the Jackets prepared for their Thursday night matchup at Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech changed up personnel on both the punt-return and kick-return units.
“But we’ve just got to do a better job coaching it and a better job of executing it when they get out there,” Johnson said.
Johnson speaks often of the team’s small margin for error. The Jackets could give themselves a greater opportunity with a stronger return game, but, once again, those units are not providing much. The Jackets are one of two ACC teams who have not had a punt return of 30 yards or more. In fact, Tech hasn’t had a return that long since 2015.
The Jackets haven’t had a kickoff return of 40 yards, and only had one all of last season, and that was Lamont Simmons’ 42-yard return of Miami’s botched onside kick try.
On kickoff returns, Tech players have often gotten overpowered or simply missed blocks. Sometimes, two players have blocked one player, letting another player run free.
In hopes of creating big plays this season, Johnson gave kickoff return responsibilities this season to the freshman Thomas, but he acknowledged that “we need to be more specific” in instructions. Johnson took responsibility for the fumbled return against Duke.
Johnson said that, on the kickoff after Duke took a 14-7 lead, he instructed Thomas to signal for a fair catch to give Tech the ball at the 25-yard line, but Duke kicked the ball out of bounds, setting up the Jackets at the 35-yard line. After Tech fumbled on the first play from scrimmage to lead to another Duke touchdown and a 21-7 lead, coaches asked Johnson what he wanted to do.
“I’m like, I don’t care,” Johnson said. “Now you’re down 14 and it’s like, Hey, maybe we can hit a play and so I didn’t tell him to fair catch it and, sure enough, damn if he doesn’t fumble it.”
Johnson said that personnel changes will be made on both return teams. For punt return, Johnson said that “we may look at other people (to return). We may put two guys back there. We may do some different stuff.” Johnson went out of his way to not assign blame for the shortcomings in the return game on returner Brad Stewart, saying that a change would be “just to shake some stuff up.”
Stewart has been a sure-handed returner, which has been the priority, but has not been an explosive return man, in part because the blocking has not always cooperated.
“One, we’ve got to look at the scheme and how we’re doing it,” Johnson said. “Two, you’ve got to look at how you’re teaching it. When you haven’t had success, you’ve got to look at all that stuff. And maybe we need to turn into a punt-block team as opposed to a punt-return team. There’s all those facets that you can look at.”
The last time Tech returned a punt for a touchdown was against Clemson in 2009 (Jerrard Tarrant). Of teams that have been in FBS all of that time, only two schools have gone longer without a punt return for a score. Moreover, in Johnson’s 10 seasons, Tech has finished in the top 50 in punt-return average three times.
It may not matter much against the Hokies. Only seven of Virginia Tech punter Oscar Bradburn’s 33 punts have been returned, and kicker Jordan Stout has recorded touchbacks on 35 of 37 kickoffs.
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