Georgia Tech return game flourishing

J.J. Green of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets returns a kick 96 yards for a touchdown during the game against the Pittsburgh Panthers on October 8, 2016 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Georgia Tech is one of two teams in FBS that are ranked in the top 10 in both kickoff and punt return average.

Thanks to J.J. Green’s 96-yard return for a touchdown against Pittsburgh, the Yellow Jackets rank ninth in kickoff return average at 28.0 yards per return. They are also 10th in punt return average at 15.0 yards per return. Brad Stewart has taken all seven punt returns and has a long of 26 yards. He also ranks 10th individually while Green is 17th at 28.0 yards per runback.

Last year, Tech was 107th in kickoff return average and 52nd in punt return average, results that led to special-teams coordinator Ray Rychleski’s mutual-decision departure after two seasons and coach Paul Johnson’s return to his long-used system of spreading out special teams coaching among the staff. A-backs coach Lamar Owens supervises special teams while various assistants are responsible for each of the units.

“Just very, very happy for those guys that we were able to take the coaching to the field and make a huge play for the team and really jumpstart us and give us some confidence throughout the game,” Owens said.

The Jackets are benefiting from solid special-teams play nearly across the board. Kicker Harrison Butker is seventh nationally in touchback percentage at 76.7 percent and has made all four of his field-goal tries. Tech is tied for seventh nationally with two blocked kicks. The only area where Tech lags is punting, where the Jackets are 90th in net punting.

Asked about dimensions of his team that he feels good about going into each game, the first thing Johnson mentioned was Butker. With the kicking game doing well, Johnson took the opportunity to poke a hole in conventional wisdom.

“I’ve found that when you have a good kicker, that helps (overall special teams),” he said. “But they’ve been pretty solid, which is a good thing, because for years, we’ve heard the reason they weren’t any good was because we didn’t have a special-teams coach, and we went through that for four or five years. Now see that good kicker trumps special-teams coach.”

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