Return men still a question for Bulldogs

ATHENS, Ga. -- When Damian Swann first arrived on Georgia’s campus, he hoped to play on offense, defense and kick returner just as he had in high school.

Today, however, the junior cornerback understands the NFL possibilities ahead of him -- so much so that Swann says he has grown past wanting to do anything except excel on defense.

“That’s not something I’m real big on because I tell a lot of guys I’m a DB first and that’s what I want to be and I’ve got dreams of being a defensive back at the next level,” Swann said earlier this week at the annual Peach State Pigskin Preview in Macon. “So that’s my main focus, but at the end of the day, if Georgia needs Damian to return punts to win games, then Damian’s going to go return punts to win games.”

Swann returned five punts last season, averaging 7.4 yards per return, before giving way to Malcolm Mitchell and Rhett McGowan, who combined to return the final 20 punts of the season.

Mitchell -- also the Bulldogs’ top kickoff return man a year ago -- figures he will remain among the contenders for the job, even as he focuses more on playing receiver this fall.

“I’ll probably do some of that,” said Mitchell, who averaged 5.2 yards per return in 11 opportunities. “I don’t really know how much of it.”

Georgia averaged just 7.5 yards per return last season -- a figure that ranked 10th in the SEC -- so it’s an area where the Bulldogs could obviously improve. Decision-making was sometimes an issue within the group, which is how McGowan first got a crack at the job, so when to fair catch a punt and when to attempt a return will likely remain an area of emphasis when the Bulldogs resume special teams work during preseason practice.

Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said during the spring that he believes some of the Bulldogs’ newest signees could join the competition, as several of them were kick returners in high school. As of spring practice, however, the only players catching punts were Mitchell, McGowan and Swann.

Georgia hasn’t shied away from using freshman kick returners under Richt, as Branden Smith, Richard Samuel and Asher Allen rank among the players who handled those duties in their first seasons as Bulldogs. Additionally, Todd Gurley worked as a kickoff returner last season -- in fact, he broke a 100-yard touchdown in his first attempt last season against Buffalo -- before Richt’s staff realized how big of a role he was going to play in their offensive game plan and scaled back his special teams work.

So we can’t rule out one of the newcomers just yet. Nor can we rule out Swann, although he is no longer clamoring for the opportunity.

“As you get older and as you mature, you realize that, hey man, you’ve got to pick one or the other,” Swann said. “I feel like I can achieve more playing 80, 90 snaps of defensive back than returning three or four kicks a game. So I’ve kind of grown out of wanting to return punts. But if they ask me to do it, then I’ll be fine with it.”

Mitchell’s attitude about the job is not quite as ambivalent, although it’s clear that his No. 1 priority is improving as a wideout. He is listed as the starting flanker on Georgia’s post-spring depth chart and, while the return jobs are not included on the depth chart, he might be the Bulldogs’ top option in those jobs, too, until a teammate emerges as a superior alternative.

“We might have a different look on it because I’m not touching it as many times as he’s going to touch it,” Swann said. “So if he wants to do it, I’m pretty sure they’ll allow him to. But if he just wants to go out there and get what he wants to get on the offensive side, I’m pretty sure that’s going to be fine with him.”