Panthers make special tweaks prepping for Saturday

On Aug. 30, Georgia State gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown, one of several mistakes made by special teams in 31-21 loss to Samford.

On Monday, Georgia State special-teams coordinator J.D. Williams said he was looking for 11 players who wanted to run down the field and hit somebody.

On Wednesday, Williams said he thought he had found at least 11.

On Saturday, he will find out when the Panthers (0-1) host Tennessee-Chattanooga (0-1) at the Georgia Dome.

“I think the kids understand the big picture,” Williams said. “Now it’s a matter of putting together the details inside the big picture. Every day, they are growing.”

Special teams have taken on significance for the Panthers in their first season in FBS. Few teams are good enough to overcome issues in the kicking game to consistently win. That is especially true when you are a team like Georgia State that plays with a roster composed mostly of players who were recruited when the Panthers were an FCS program.

Execution in all phases, coach Trent Miles says, is key. Miles said he didn’t alter the time spent on special teams during the practices for Saturday’s games because he said they spend at least 35 minutes of every practice working on that aspect of the game. An hour of Monday’s practices are devoted to special teams.

“We work on special teams during practice as much as anybody in the nation,” Miles said.

The good news, Miles and Williams said, is everything is fixable.

Six players or players’ positions have been changed on the kickoff coverage team that allowed the 100-yard kickoff return on the game’s opening play.

Miles said a combination of factors led to the return, including players leaving their lanes and poor tackling. He said the Panthers, like many teams, don’t tackle on kick returns during practices to reduce the chances of injuries.

Williams said he is trying to put playmakers on defense, such as linebacker Joseph Peterson and cornerback Demarius Matthews, in positions to make plays on the kickoff teams.

“Those are guys have proven on the field that they enjoy playing the game,” Williams said.

That group isn’t the only one that needs to improve to increase the Panthers’ chances at victory against the Mocs and throughout the season.

The punt coverage, so reliable last season in helping Matt Hubbard to an all-conference season, almost completely broke down against Samford.

Hubbard had a punt blocked in what was an unusual occurrence that Williams said involved several breakdowns. Hubbard also shanked two punts. He said he was trying to kick the ball too hard because he said he rushed in the live situation. At least one punt was hit to the wrong side of the field, away from coverage. And the coverage unit allowed a 46-yard return.

Earlier in the week, Williams said they are trying to reduce the time from the snap to the punt to less than 2.1 seconds. He said it took around 2.3 seconds against Samford.

Will the special teams improve and hold up their end as the Panthers attempt to win their first game this season and first under Miles?

“I’ll know that on Saturday,” he said. “I think it’s pretty common across the nation that teams make improvement, especially in special teams, (in Week 2). You look across the nation that there were several teams that lost that weren’t up to par in special teams. But we will be.”