This is the first installment in a nine-part series that will preview Georgia’s spring football practice, which begins March 17. Today: Special teams | Tomorrow: Defensive line
Who’s gone: PK Rodrigo Blankenship, SN Steven Nixon, PR Tyler Simmons, KR Brian Herrien, coach Scott Fountain
Who’s back: P/PK Jake Camarda, PK Brooks Buce, PK Jack Podlesny, SN Payne Walker, SN William Mote, SN J.C. Vega, PR Kearis Jackson, PR Dominick Blaylock, KR James Cook, KR Demetris Robertson, KR Zamir White
Who’s new: Coach Scott Cochran
Projected starters: PK Jared Zirkel (summer enrollee), P Camarda, Walker, Jackson, Cook
ATHENS — There already was going to be a lot of focus on Georgia’s special teams in 2020, what with the graduation of revered place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship and the departure of special-teams coordinator Scott Fountain.
Then Kirby Smart hired Scott Cochran as the new coordinator. Now the intrigue factor is through the roof.
The mystery factor is pretty high, too. The fact is, nobody — Smart and Cochran included — can be sure how well this will work out. Cochran not only has never coached special teams, he’s never been an assistant football coach of any kind.
Certainly, Cochran’s vast experience as a strength-and-conditioning coordinator at Alabama for the past 13 years counts for something. It could be argued that it counts for a lot. Those who have followed the Crimson Tide closely under Nick Saban contend that Cochran is the person second-most responsible for the five national championships won there and the one at LSU, where Cochran also ran Saban’s strength program. He is, all agree, one of the master motivators of all time.
But how might that translate to coaching kickers, snappers and returners? When a place-kicker lines up for a 45-yard potential game-winning field goal with five seconds to play, is he more apt to make it because Cochran has him fired up?
The reality is, Cochran will have much support at Georgia. Smart and all the other assistants will be as involved as they’ve always been, if not more. And they need to be, for there is much work to be done in the area of special teams between now and the season opener versus Virginia.
The public focus will be on the considerable task of replacing Blankenship. The 2019 Lou Groza Award winner leaves not only as one of the Georgia’s more productive place-kickers in history, but one of its all-time beloved players. But Blankenship is not the only special-teams loss the Bulldogs are going to have to account for.
With the exception of punter Jake Camarda, it’s pretty much a total rebuild for Georgia on special teams. And it’s not like UGA blew special teams out of the water last season. Even the dependable Blankenship had some wobbles. Overall, taking into account kicks, coverage and returns, Georgia’s special-teams play was relatively ordinary last season.
As for place-kicking, the Bulldogs are in as good a position as they could be to find Blankenship’s successor. They signed one of the top kickers in America in 6-foot-3, 190-pound freshman Jared Zirkel of Kerrville, Texas. A 3-star recruit, he’s both a punter and place-kicker, making a 57-yard field goal in high school and averaging 41.2 yards per punt.
Georgia can also turn to Camarda for place-kicking. The rising junior came out of Norcross rated as one of the nation’s top kickers, in addition to punting. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs also have walk-ons Brooks Buce and Jack Podlesny to compete for the job. Those duties also could be broken down between kickoffs and placement kicks as well.
Camarda surely will retain the punting duties. He averaged 46.84 yards a punt last season, but was inconsistent and continued to have way too many touchbacks (9). Zirkel and walk-on Bill Rubright will be among those to compete with him.
Equally important is the snapping duties. Georgia must replace Steven Nixon, who came as a graduate transfer last year from Mercer and did flawless work. Sophomore Payne Walker is the heir apparent, but he’ll compete with freshmen William Mote and JC Vega for long-snap and short-snap duties.
Dominick Blaylock’s knee injury at the end of last season means the Bulldogs will go through spring practice — and likely start the season — without their primary punt returner. But the job belonged to rising junior Kearis Jackson last season before he broke his hand in the season opener at Vanderbilt. Look for Jackson to take over here.
James Cook, Demetris Robertson and Zamir White will be among the contingent trying to succeed Brian Herrien on kickoff returns.
Putting all these pieces together will be Cochran, who is, of course, completely unproven. The debate will rage on as to whether Smart simply was trying to damage the Alabama football empire with the hire or if he sincerely believes Cochran deserves a change to alter his career. With all the aforementioned changes afoot, if Georgia’s special teams performs at an elite level this season, Cochran will have earned his $550,000 salary.
Today: Special teams
Tuesday: Defensive line
Thursday: Defensive backs
Friday: Offensive line
Saturday: Tight ends
Monday: Wide receivers
Tuesday: Running backs
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