Georgia Tech special teams will get some needed attention this spring

The Yellow Jackets managed a number of big special-teams plays in 2019 among them was Pressley Harvin’s fake-punt touchdown pass to Nathan Cottrell against Miami. (Clips courtesy ACC)

This is the first installment in a nine-part series that will preview Georgia Tech’s spring football practice, which begins March 3. Today: Special teams | Tomorrow: Defensive line

SPECIAL TEAMS
Who's gone: None
Who's back: LS Jack Coco, P Pressley Harvin, K Brenton King, LS Cade Long, K Wesley Wells 
Who's new: K/P Steven Verdisco
Projected starters: Harvin, King/Wells

Georgia Tech’s 2019 season left plenty of areas needing improvement. The Yellow Jackets’ play in special teams can certainly be included.

Tech ranked 85th nationally in special-teams efficiency, according to Football Outsiders, which ranked eighth in the ACC.

Certainly, coach Geoff Collins’ attention will be directed to the kicking game as he begins his second spring practice, starting March 3.

One area in particular where Tech can get better is in placekicking, where the Jackets were 3-for-8 on field-goal tries, putting them at the bottom of FBS in accuracy (37.5%). Kickers Brenton King and Wesley Wells had critical misses against The Citadel and Virginia, respectively, that were among mistakes in both games that led to defeat. For the season, King was 3-for-7 and Wells missed his only attempt.

It was a marked drop from the previous season, when Wells was 9-for-9 on field-goal tries and 38-for-38 on point-after kicks. During the season, Collins said that King had earned the placekicking job by outcompeting Wells in practice.

On kickoffs, Tech was 11th in the ACC in kickoff net, and the Jackets’ touchback rate (8.1%) was the lowest in FBS. Eight teams in the ACC were at 50% or higher.

Tech's kicking game will get attention this spring, with early enrollee Steven Verdisco joining Brenton King (37) and Wesley Wells. Also, Jude Kelley, considered the nation's No. 5 kicker, is expected to join the Jackets this fall.

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Both Wells and King have demonstrated the capacity to perform better than they did this past season. Confidence may have been an obstacle. Given the likelihood that the Jackets won’t be winning games going away next season, helping both regain their form would seem to be a high priority of the spring.

One way that Collins intends do that is by turning up the competition with the addition of preferred walk-on Steven Verdisco (Tampa, Fla.), an early enrollee freshman who can take part in spring practice. Collins has the commitment of at least one more preferred walk-on, Jude Kelley (Allatoona High in Cobb County).

Kelley was ranked the No. 5 kicker in the country (Chris Sailer Kicking), and Verdisco was ranked the No. 51 kicker by Kohl’s kicking camps. Both can also punt.

The expectation is that Tech should have a capable kicker emerge from that group.

After a stellar 2018 season by punter Pressley Harvin and his unit, the Jackets took a step back in 2019. While punt net was virtually unchanged — 38.3 yards in 2019 and 38.5 yards in 2018, which includes a disastrous bowl-game performance that dropped the average by three yards — the Jackets permitted six returns of 20 yards or more after giving up one such return in 2018.

None of the return or coverage units were strengths. The punt coverage and return and kickoff coverage and return units ranked between 66th (punt return) and 118th (kickoff return) in efficiency (Football Outsiders). The primary returners — Tobias Oliver, Juanyeh Thomas and Dontae Smith on kickoffs and Ahmarean Brown on punts — will be back.

Tech did manage a number of big special-teams plays — most notably Harvin's fake-punt touchdown pass and Antwan Owens' blocked field-goal attempt against Miami, Jerry Howard's two blocked punts and a successful onside kick by King against Georgia. But there was room for improvement.

Tech’s kicking game could get better simply with a roster that is older and stronger. The Jackets were a freshman- and sophomore-heavy team last season, which could have limited special-teams production in at least a couple of ways. One, players were lacking in experience. Two, they weren’t as physically developed as many of their opponents.

Collins set a goal after the season of having the roster average a per-player weight gain of 10 pounds, and one way that could impact play is on special teams. It’s also not hard to imagine that the freshman class, ranked 26th nationally by 247Sports Composite, will yield a few special-teams contributors.

THE SERIES

• Today: Special teams
• Tuesday: Defensive line
• Wednesday: Linebackers
• Thursday: Defensive backs
• Friday: Offensive line
• Saturday: Tight ends
• Sunday: Quarterbacks
• Monday: Wide receivers
• Tuesday: Running backs

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