Georgia Tech working on special-teams answers

Coach Mike Norvell of Florida State talks with coach Geoff Collins of Georgia Tech before the game at Doak Campbell Stadium on September 12, 2020 in Tallahassee, Florida. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Character Lines)

Credit: Don Juan Moore

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Coach Mike Norvell of Florida State talks with coach Geoff Collins of Georgia Tech before the game at Doak Campbell Stadium on September 12, 2020 in Tallahassee, Florida. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Character Lines)

Credit: Don Juan Moore

As it turned out, Georgia Tech didn’t need much in the way of special-teams help to beat Florida State on Saturday. The Yellow Jackets' kickoff return team wasn’t at its best, nor was its kickoff coverage team.

Tech also had three kicks blocked – two field-goal attempts and an extra-point try – in what might have been a first in team history. (In a remarkable coincidence, the last time that the Jackets had two kicks blocked, Geoff Collins was a freshman on the other team – playing for Western Carolina in 1989 in a 34-7 Tech win.) Still, Tech left Tallahassee, Fla., with a 16-13 upset win.

However, when the Jackets play No. 14 Central Florida on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium, it’s likely that they can’t afford such lapses. The Knights weren’t special-teams titans last year, either, but they’re 35-4 over the past three years. Tech has a chance to make a statement on national television Saturday against a Top 25 opponent. Improved play in the kicking game, a trouble spot last year, would facilitate the attempt.

“We’re looking to improve every single week in every phase of our program,” Collins said in his weekly videoconference with media Tuesday.

Collins said that the kickoff return team, which managed to bring the ball out to its 10-, 16-, 21- and 28-yard lines on its four returns against Florida State, was impacted by not knowing how the Seminoles would cover the kickoffs. Tech had to prep for two coverage schemes, Collins said, one belonging to special-teams coordinator John Papuchis (who was at Maryland last year) and the other used by Memphis by new FSU coach Mike Norvell.

On the first three kickoffs, as it turned out, the Jackets would have been better off simply signaling for a fair catch, which would have enabled them to start the drive on their 25-yard line without any risk of injury.

“On the kickoff return, (the Seminoles) were doing some different things because we didn’t know whether to base it on Memphis stuff or base it on Maryland stuff,” Collins said. “We watched both, didn’t really know what they were going to be doing special teams-wise. So those kind of things. You’ve just got to clean up the self-scout, the opponent-scout piece of it.”

New Tech kicker Austin Kent, a UCLA transfer, did record a touchback on his first kickoff, a win for a team that ranked last in FBS in touchback percentage last season. (“Our sideline went nuts,” Collins said.) The other three kicks were returned to the Seminoles' 32-, 34- and 18-yard lines, the first two abetted by missed tackles.

“The coverage was really good,” Collins said. “Just a couple of things (happened) with the leverage on the ball. A couple of them squirted out about six or seven yards further than they should have. But I thought all in all, the coverage team was really good.”

The best coverage followed Jude Kelley’s game-winning field goal with 8:56 left in the fourth quarter. In his only kickoff, freshman Gavin Stewart lofted a kick that landed at the 5, giving Dontae Smith the time to slow returner Travis Jay at the 15-yard line, after which Josh Blancato, PeJé Harris and Jerry Howard finished him off at the 18.

On the whole, FSU made out eight yards better than Tech in kickoff coverage on average, not an insignificant difference. In punt net, the Jackets edged the Seminoles, 36.3 yards to 34.7, thanks in part to a 14-yard return by Marquez Ezzard and an exceptional 46-yard punt by Pressley Harvin with no return that flipped the field late in the fourth quarter.

But the advantage isn’t what the Jackets might want with a talent such as Harvin on its side.

The field-goal unit perhaps needs Collins' most attention. The Jackets gave away seven points on the blocked kicks, largesse that they can’t continue to afford. Collins accepted accountability for the misses after the game and again Tuesday, saying that he chose to limit field-goals drills in the preseason. Practicing field goals against a rush require a large number of players to line up in close proximity for an extended period of time, a potential health risk that Collins didn’t want to take.

On two of the blocks, Florida State was able to penetrate Tech’s line to bat down Kelley’s attempts. The third appeared low. Collins said the team had two good periods of field-goal drills Sunday and Tuesday.

In the opener, Tech fans saw improvement from both the offense and defense compared with the units' play in 2019. After finishing last season as the least accurate field-goal team in FBS, improvement is imperative, Collins said, “because when you’re going to score points, and that play is specifically designed to score points, you’ve got to make those things count.”

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