ATHENS, Ga. -- One of Georgia’s greatest areas of emphasis during the offseason was improving its atrocious results on special teams -- particularly in covering kicks.
So how did the Bulldogs fare in their first time out after inserting more starters and key players on the special teams units? Pretty well, actually.
The highlight of Saturday’s 45-23 win against Buffalo was freshman Todd Gurley’s 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, but it was not the only special play in the kicking game. Chris Conley blocked a punt, setting up a field goal, and all four kickers performed solidly while the coverage units mostly held their own.
Gurley stole the show by hitting a wide gap to reach the Buffalo sideline and outrunning everyone to the pylon for the 43rd 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in SEC history.
“I was talking to Malcolm Mitchell, and he was telling me how to hit it,” Gurley said. “As soon as I got the ball, I did exactly what he said, and he gave me good advice, and I took it back for the touchdown.”
While Gurley went the distance with his first college kickoff return, sophomore Damian Swann almost followed suit with his first career punt return. He returned only one punt against Buffalo, but he advanced it 30 yards to the Buffalo 39-yard line, nearly breaking into the open field for a touchdown of his own.
“I saw a hole and I hit it,” Swann said. “One or two more moves and I probably would have been gone, but it was a good opportunity.”
By and large, Georgia’s problems a season ago were not in the return game, however. The Bulldogs had issues with inconsistent play from place-kicker Blair Walsh and from the coverage teams, so those were the biggest areas of concern entering Saturday’s game.
Walsh’s replacement, freshman kicker Marshall Morgan, was a bit shaky at first -- he missed his first field-goal try from 45 yards and banked his first converted PAT off the inside of the left upright -- but gave an overall strong debut.
“Coming out of the tunnel and just seeing the fans, there were a few nerves, but once I got ready for that first kickoff, my teammates really boosted up my confidence, and honestly I felt like back in high school,” said Morgan, who hit his other field goal, from 35 yards, and was 6-for-6 on PATs. “I just zoned out and did my thing.”
Morgan kicked five of his seven kickoffs for touchbacks and Jamie Lindley also booted his only kickoff for a touchback. And on Buffalo’s two kickoff returns the Bulls averaged only 21 yards per attempt -- all of which was a pleasant surprise for Bulldogs coach Mark Richt, who was somewhat concerned about the kickoff specialist before the game.
“Marshall, I thought, kicked off extremely well,” Richt said. “And I will say he kicked off better in the game than he had in the practices. He’s shown signs of being able to do what he did, but it wasn’t consistent enough. There was some question as to whether we were going to kick him or Lindley on kickoffs. But he started out hot, and we just kept going with him.”
Morgan’s kicking counterpart, freshman Collin Barber, also shared duties with another player. Barber handled the punts in normal scenarios, booming punts of 57 and 45 yards for a 51-yard average, while Adam Erickson handled pooch punts when the Bulldogs were closer to Buffalo’s end zone. Erickson kicked three times, and Georgia downed all three inside Buffalo’s 20-yard line.
“He’s just got a really good knack for it,” Richt said of Erickson. “He catches the ball well. He’s our holder, so we feel comfortable with him catching it, and he does a very good job of getting the ball out with a kick, as well.”
The biggest problem of the day came on Barber’s 57-yard punt, when Buffalo’s Cordero Dixon returned the punt 30 yards to Georgia’s 48, setting up a field goal drive just before halftime. Buffalo’s Adam Redden got away with blocking Georgia’s Michael Bennett in the back at the Buffalo 35, but Richt said Barber also kicked it too far, giving Dixon too much room to operate.
“I’d rather it be maybe not quite as long. You don’t want to out-kick your coverage,” Richt said. “You don’t want to have great players with a lot of space like they had on that play, and I’ve got to see, did we cover well or did he just out-kick anybody’s coverage?
“A little bit higher and a little bit shorter would be fine with me. Drop it in about 45 yards, and I’ll be happy with that kind of hangtime.”
The Buffalo game was otherwise a step in the right direction for Georgia’s special-team units, which for the first time since 1985 -- when Steve Crumley and Cris Carpenter were kicker and punter -- opened the season with rookies in both kicking positions.
With conference play -- and a key SEC East visit to Missouri -- arriving in a week, Morgan was happy to work out his initial jitters in a relatively low-pressure game.
“I’m fairly happy with what I did,” he said. “I would have preferred to make that first [field goal], but I made the second one, and I’m pretty pleased. I feel like this whole week I’m just going to improve and get ready for Missouri.”