Plenty to fix in Georgia Tech’s special teams in 2021

December 10, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's head coach Geoff Collins instructs during the first half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Thursday, December 10, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
December 10, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's head coach Geoff Collins instructs during the first half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Thursday, December 10, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia Tech’s special-teams situation going into 2021 can be summed up like this. There was a lot of uneven play for the Yellow Jackets in the 2020 season, and the undisputed part of Tech’s kicking game was punter Pressley Harvin and the punt team. And the Jackets are losing Harvin, who is turning professional.

In short, as coach Geoff Collins goes into his third season, for the kicking game to be an advantage for the Jackets in the 2021 season, there’s a lot of work to do.

First off, Harvin must be given his due for an excellent career and singular senior season, capped Thursday by his winning the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s top punter and becoming Tech’s third unanimous All-American, joining greats Ken Swilling (1990) and Calvin Johnson (2006). Harvin’s consistency in distance, direction and hang time were evident in his leading FBS in punting average (48.0 yards per punt) and the Jackets ranking second in FBS in net punting average (44.6 yards per punt).

A fan favorite, he will be missed, much like kicker Harrison Butker before him.

The job of following him could fall to a most unlikely incoming freshman. David Shanahan is from Ireland and, intrigued by football and showing skill at punting, spent several months in Australia in 2019 learning to become a punter. He’s believed to be the first native of Ireland to earn a full scholarship to play college football in the U.S. Before Harvin, six of the previous seven Ray Guy Award winners had trained at ProKick Australia, where Shanahan received his instruction.

As for the remainder of the special-teams answers, the play was about on par with the offense and defense – in dire need of improvement. More was hoped for from the kicking game, as Collins has stressed it and believed that players’ offseason weight gains would particularly help the coverage and return teams.

Starting with the placekicking, while the early-season panic subsided as the season grew to a close, it remains a question mark. While Jude Kelley and Gavin Stewart’s started out 1-for-6 on field-goal tries, Stewart made his last 11 point-after tries and both of his field-goal tries in the finale against N.C. State, from 26 and 22 yards.

Going into the offseason, competition likely will open up. Austin Kent, who took 41 of the team’s 45 kickoffs and also acquitted himself well as a sub for Harvin in the Duke game, can compete at punter, kickoff specialist and placekicking.

Freshman Steven Verdisco, an early enrollee last January, recently tweeted a video of himself making a series long-distance field goals with the message “couldn’t even run a year ago.”

All were successful at the high-school level; there wouldn’t seem to be a reason why one (or more) can’t emerge as a trustworthy kicker. But, after kickers Wesley Wells and Brenton King also struggled in 2019 before leaving the team, a two-year pattern needs to be changed.

The kick-return team did have one significant play, a 75-yard return by freshman standout Jahmyr Gibbs against Central Florida on his first career touch. After that, though, the Jackets’ longest returns were 30 yards (one by Gibbs and one by Dontae Smith), although the 30-yarder by Gibbs would have been a 97-yard return for a touchdown if not for a holding penalty.

On the rare opportunities they had to bring back kickoffs, the Jackets often struggled with getting returns blocked properly, which enabled coverage teams to bring down returners behind the 25-yard line. Penalties also were a problem. Often, calling for a fair catch to ensure a start at the 25-yard line seemed the wisest approach. In the Jackets’ final five games, they had eight returns on kickoffs taken from the opponents’ 35. Because of poor execution, penalties and misplays, the average starting spot for the eight returns was the 16, with only one return making it past the 25.

Going into 2021, getting more opportunities for Gibbs would figure to be a priority, given his acceleration and vision, but better play from the other 10 will be necessary, too.

Punt returns were mediocre. Besides the limited gains on returns, Tech’s returners sometimes had trouble fielding the ball cleanly or deciding whether to catch the ball. Just as the Jackets’ punt team took pride in getting gunners downfield to force fair catches or limit returns, so did Tech opponents. The Jackets often couldn’t keep gunners from sprinting unencumbered at returners. Marquez Ezzard was the best of the returners, showing an ability to make the first would-be tackler miss, but his opportunities were reduced at the end of the season.

If Tech’s opponents were a single team, they would have finished 16th in FBS in punt net at 41.4 yards. (The Jackets did face a number of excellent punters.)

For the kickoff team, Kent recorded 11 touchbacks on 41 kickoffs and generally gave his unit a chance to defend returns. On 15 returns of kickoffs taken from the 35 in the final five games, the average starting point for Tech’s opposition was the 23-yard line. Three of the returns reached the 30, with none advancing past the opponent’s 42. It helps Tech’s cause that Juanyeh Thomas, who might have been the most effective member of the coverage team, will be back. It probably was Tech’s second-best special-teams unit after the punt team.

As was the case with the offense and defense, Tech committed needless penalties on special teams and other mistakes that will have to be addressed. For instance, the Jackets were called for at least three pre-snap penalties on opponent extra-point or field-goal tries. The opponents declined the three flags after successful tries, but Tech would do well to be more mindful of such details. Giving an opponent a second try on a missed kick because of an unforced penalty would be a particularly brutal way to lose a game.

Tech played only one one-possession game this season, its 16-13 season-opening win over Florida State, when special-teams play nearly cost the Jackets the game. Of the seven losses, only two were even by two possessions, meaning that better performance by the kicking game likely wouldn’t have made a difference. But, if Tech is indeed improving as a team, perhaps the 2021 season will place the Jackets in situations where sharper special-teams play can make the difference in the outcome of games.

If that’s the case, Collins has plenty of ways to improve his team.

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