Despite highlights, Georgia Tech’s special teams lacking

Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins reacts on the sideline in the first half of an NCAA college football game against the Pittsburgh Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: John Bazemore

Credit: John Bazemore

In a game decided by one possession, Virginia helped create separation by making a fistful of plays on special teams Saturday while Georgia Tech could muster only a few. In the Yellow Jackets’ 33-28 loss, the Cavaliers made field goals of 24 and 34 yards, while Tech missed from 30.

Virginia netted 39.3 yards per punt while Tech’s net was 35.5 yards. The Cavaliers bombed six touchbacks on seven kickoffs. The Jackets had none in five kickoffs, opening the door for three returns that advanced past the Tech 30-yard line. And, in two defining plays of the game, the Cavaliers came out way ahead.

Virginia’s Tavares Kelly returned a squib kick 40 yards to midfield, setting up the Cavaliers’ go-ahead touchdown late in the second quarter. Coach Geoff Collins called it the play he most wanted back. In the third quarter, Tech’s Juanyeh Thomas mistakenly called for a fair catch at the Jackets’ 2-yard line, pinning the Jackets deep in their own end.

The Jackets came close to an upset at Scott Stadium, a result that would have been well-earned given their all-in effort. No one play decided the game, but special teams largely hindered the bid.

It is no surprise that in the most recent ratings of special-teams units by the analytics website Football Outsiders, Virginia ranked No. 1 in FBS and Tech lagged at No. 99.

Collins has repeated often that his team has little margin for error in its attempts to add to the win column. Tech’s special-teams play, an area that Collins prioritizes, has helped in some instances, but the numbers strongly suggest that the overall effect has not been positive.

The struggles have been evident across the board. Punter Pressley Harvin is a returning All-ACC honoree, but the Jackets rank 105th nationally in net punting, having given up four returns of 20 yards or more. He had a punt blocked against Duke, the first of his career.

Kickers Brenton King and Wesley Wells have had difficulty on kickoffs and field goals. Tech has three touchbacks in 31 kickoffs, a 9.7 touchback rate that is second lowest in FBS. The combined touchback rate of the other 13 ACC teams is 54.2 percent.

They’re a combined 3-for-7 on field-goal tries. King was 3-for-6 before Collins switched to Wells for the Virginia game. Wells, who was 9-for-9 last season, made all four point-after kicks but missed his first try of the season, from 30 yards.

On Tuesday, Collins was asked about how he could restore the two players’ confidence. Collins responded, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that it was his own confidence in them that needed to be addressed.

“(I) challenged them, had a long conversation with them (Monday),” Collins said. “They both have strong legs, both tremendous competitors and just need to execute at a high level, and we expect them to and they can and I think they will.”

Since a standout kickoff-return game against The Citadel, notably from Tobias Oliver, Tech has had 16 kickoff returns. Of the 16, seven have been stopped short of Tech’s 25-yard line and none have gone past the 32.

The punt team’s delivery of two blocks, against Duke and Pittsburgh, can’t be minimized. However, Tech ranks 112th in punt return average at 4.64 yards per return. Thomas’ mistake against Virginia was caused, Collins said, when the Cavaliers sent out their punt team late. Tech called for a “punt safe” scheme, keeping the defense on the field to protect against a fake.

Not the usual returner, Thomas’ responsibility was to stand on the 10-yard line and not catch anything over his head in hopes of a touchback. On Saturday, Collins took the blame when Thomas called for a fair catch at the 2.

“Supposed to be toes on the 10, and he just drifted too far back,” Collins said Tuesday. “That’s all that happened.”

Before the season, Tech players spoke of how Collins had changed the approach to special teams, incentivizing participation by requiring players to make a special-teams unit in order to play offense or defense.

This season, in particular, with both the offense and defense having their own shortcomings, the kicking game figured to be a place where Tech could win hidden yards or extra possessions.

Tech would have lost to Miami if not for special teams, particularly Antwan Owens’ blocked field goal and Harvin’s fake-punt touchdown pass. Against Pitt, Tech created a short field (for a King field goal) with a blocked punt. However, King missed a field-goal try from 34 yards, and three drives initiated by kickoff returns began behind their 20 (two because of penalties).

With three games remaining, starting with Saturday’s home game against Virginia Tech, there’s time for the Jackets to show the improvement that has been evident in other phases. To convert their effort and preparation into desperately sought-after wins, it may be necessary.

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