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Reviewing Georgia Tech’s special teams under Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson is 61 years old, has been a football coach since 1979, has been married since 1980 and has been a father since 1993.

He took over a Navy team that was 1-20 in its previous two seasons. He had difficulty with a previous boss at Georgia Tech. He once essentially alleged that the ACC was conspiring against his team in its scheduling.

He has had ample opportunity to be frustrated. But No. 1 on the list (or at least tied)? The Yellow Jackets’ kickoff coverage.

“I’m as frustrated with that as I’ve ever been with anything in my life,” Johnson said on his radio show Monday. “We’ve had different coaches taking charge of it and different guys doing it, and we’re getting the same results. When you watch the thing, guys aren’t doing what they’re told to do, and they’ve got to get them off that team. You can’t continue to let guys play who won’t do what they’re supposed to do.”

On back-to-back first-quarter kickoffs, Tech surrendered returns for touchdowns in its 49-38 loss to South Florida on Saturday. It brought back to light the challenges that Tech has often faced in the kicking game during Johnson’s tenure, now in its 11th season.

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Over the course of his first 10 seasons at Tech, the Jackets’ special teams have been largely a mediocre lot. In averages for kickoff returns, opponent kickoff returns, punt returns and opponent punt returns over 10 seasons – 40 statistical data points – Tech has finished in the top half of the ACC 15 times.

“It’s not like we haven’t worked on it,” Johnson said. “But the bottom line is, ultimately it hasn’t been as good.”

The 15-for-40 number doesn’t reflect everything. For instance, in 2015, when Tech ranked last in the conference in opponent kickoff return, the Jackets also ranked second in touchback percentage thanks to Harrison Butker.

In 2011, the Jackets led the ACC in opponent punt-return average in part because they were 11th in punting.

But overall, it paints the picture.

In the same stretch, Tech’s offense has met the grade, finishing in the top half in yards per play nine times and in the top four six times, including last season. Defense has been another story – two top-half finishes in defensive yards-per-play.

Johnson’s record in one-possession games at Tech is 23-29. Consider how differently his tenure might be if the Jackets had consistent special teams (and defense) to rely on the past decade.

“If you’re going over a span, one thing that’s probably been consistent is (the offense),” Johnson said. “And when we’re really good over there, it’s carried the load. And when we’re not really good over there, or turning the ball over, they can’t carry the load. I mean, that’s just the truth.”

This isn’t to say that Tech’s special teams has been a nonstop disaster. With special-teams ace Chris Milton on the roster, Tech tied for the most blocked kicks in 2014 with six. The Jackets were spoiled by four years of kicker Harrison Butker. Return specialist Jamal Golden ranks tied for third all-time in school history in kickoff-return average. Punter Pressley Harvin was third-team All-ACC last season as a freshman, and it won’t be a surprise if he is named an All-American before his career is up. Perhaps the most memorable win of the Johnson era – the “Miracle on Techwood Drive” win over Florida State – was won on a blocked kick.

But, what occupies Johnson’s mind as Tech prepares for Pittsburgh probably isn’t reverie about Lance Austin racing down the west sideline at Bobby Dodd Stadium under an ink-black sky. Tech gave up eight kickoff returns of 30 yards or more last season, tied for 106th in FBS. The Jackets managed only two such returns, and one of them was on a botched onside-kick try by Miami.

After last season, Johnson took special-teams coordinator duties away from A-backs coach Lamar Owens (Johnson declined to identify his replacement) and reassigned responsibilities to the assistant coaches for overseeing the various special-teams units. It was the latest attempt to fix an ongoing problem. In 2012, he broke with his longstanding approach toward the makeup of his staff by hiring a coach for only special teams, Dave Walkosky, and replaced him with Ray Rychleski in 2014 before not bringing him back after the 2015 season.

“We’ve got to do a better job coaching it,” Johnson said. “We can’t spend any more time on it than we spend in practice.”

He called the kickoff coverage that led to USF’s two returns for touchdowns “just ridiculous.” He said it was his fault that Tech put five freshmen on the field for the first return for a touchdown, along with one starter.

“I should have stopped that,” he said. “I know better than that.”

Johnson said that he’ll change personnel for the Pittsburgh game. He said he has reiterated his policy to his staff that the two most important units are the kickoff and punt teams.

“If you want to save a snap from somebody, you take him off offense or you take him off defense,” he said. “You don’t take him off the kickoff team or the punt team because that’s the best way I know to lose a game.”

Tech learned that lesson again Saturday.

“It’s frustrating, but I’m in charge of it,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to get it fixed.”

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