Georgia Bulldogs have work to do on special teams

Credit: UGA Athletics

Credit: UGA Athletics

SPRING PREVIEW 2022: SPECIALISTS

ATHENS — Georgia punter Jake Camarda ran a 4.56-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine last weekend. That was fastest of all the specialists who participated, and by a good bit.

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Which makes one wonder why Kirby Smart never took advantage of Camarda’s athletic ability during his four seasons with the Bulldogs. As everyone knows, Smart had a penchant for special-team fakes and trick plays early in his tenure as Georgia’s coach. With all due respect to the beloved Rodrigo Blankenship, Camarda’s combine performance indicates he might’ve made the corner on a fake.

The truth is, Smart and the Bulldogs were well aware of Camarda’s athletic prowess from the outset. Like Blankenship, Kevin Butler and many others before him, Camarda was a soccer player, first and foremost, as he grew up in Norcross. But Georgia was quite satisfied to let Camarda do what he does best, which is to boot the football, whether it be a punt or on a kickoff.

Camarda ended up handling both duties for the Bulldogs his final two seasons in Athens. And his expertise in both disciplines is what garnered him All-American and All-SEC honors at Georgia. It’s a wonder he never nailed down the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s best punter. Then again, the Bulldogs didn’t punt enough for Camarda to achieve NCAA minimums (3.6 per game).

As it was, Camarda finished as UGA’s career leader in punting average, with a mark of 45.78, surpassing 2009 Ray Guy Award winner Drew Butler (45.4). He punted 47 times in 2021 for an average of 46.7 yards, with a long of 68 yards vs. Alabama. He also kicked off 102 times, with 71 touchbacks and 16 others resulting in a fair catch. Accordingly, the Bulldogs led the SEC and ranked third nationally in kickoff return defense (13.0 avg.).

Now Camarda will be able to take that to the bank as an NFL player. But that leaves the Bulldogs with a tremendous void to fill. They’ve been preparing for it.

Here’s how it breaks down this spring:

  • Returning starters: PK Jack Podlesny (6-1, 180, Sr.), LS William Mote (6-2, 230, Jr.), PS Payne Walker (6-2, 249, Sr.), KR Kenny McIntosh (6-1, 210, Sr.), PR Kearis Jackson (6-0, 200, Sr.)
  • All eyes on: PK Jared Zirkel, P Brett Thorson
  • Outlook: Georgia’s proficiency in overall special teams last season is something the Bulldogs can’t take for granted and certainly won’t. But Camarda’s stardom aside, there is room for improvement. According to FootballOutsiders.com, Georgia’s overall special-teams efficiency rating ranked 28th in the nation (third among SEC teams). According to that breakdown, it’s in the efficiency area of kickoff returns (60th), punt returns (62nd) and field goals (56th) where the Bulldogs need to improve most. Georgia has starters returning in all those areas (see above), but that doesn’t mean the same men will do those jobs in 2022. Cortez Hankton, who has left for LSU, oversaw the returns game. New receivers coach Bryan McClendon may have some new ideas in that department. While the former walk-on Podlesny has made some huge field goals in his career (see the 49-yarder in the national championship game), his accuracy was down with five misses last season, two of them coming from inside 40 yards. Zirkel, the nation’s No. 4-rated place-kicker when he signed in 2020, has yet to earn a full-time job. He’ll be competing to handle placement kicks and kickoffs. Most of the intrigue, though, will surround the competition to succeed Camarda. Redshirt freshman Noah Jones of Cairo came in as an invited walk-on last year and backed up Camarda, but never attempted a punt. Meanwhile, Georgia has waited two years for Brett Thorson to arrive from Melbourne, Australia. He’s bringing the Australian rules style to Athens. Also, with Camarda out of the picture now, the Bulldogs will be searching for a new holder for placement kicks.
  • Up next: Defensive line

PREVIOUSLY

Spring Preview 2022 is a 10-part series that will take a look at each of Georgia’s position groups daily until the Bulldogs open spring practice March 15.