Jones, veterans join special teams units

ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia’s ugly kick-coverage results from last season are old news by now, but the Bulldogs continue to work to make sure that won’t be a continuing storyline in 2012.

The Bulldogs ranked 116th out of 120 FBS teams in punt-return defense (they allowed 14.9 yards per return and two touchdowns) and 88th in kickoff-return defense (they allowed 23.1 yards per return and two more scores), so Mark Richt’s coaching staff has placed a much greater emphasis on solving those issues during spring and preseason practices.

“Just like I said back in the spring, we feel like it’s a situation where we need all hands on deck," Richt said. "In the past, you’d say, ‘Hey, if your heart’s not in it, don’t get on the team. We want guys whose heart’s in it.’ But this year, we’re saying, ‘You change your heart. If you don’t want to be on special teams, you change your heart and you get it in your heart to where you want to be on special teams.'

"That’s been more of the demand here that we need for these guys to all join in and chip in and get us back to playing the type of special teams that a championship team would play."

Becoming more fundamentally sound might be a bit easier this season, because Richt’s staff intends to use more starters and veteran players on special teams units. The culprits in many of last season’s busted plays were freshmen, walk-ons and less talented reserves.

All-American outside linebacker Jarvis Jones said after Tuesday morning’s special teams practice at Sanford Stadium that the new philosophy even includes him. Jones said he is practicing as a member of the punt team.

“That’s what we need,” Jones said. “We need the older guys to show the ropes -- to show the younger guys that special teams are a big part of football, not just offense and defense. I think that’s what we’re doing.”

The Bulldogs have plenty of holes to fill on special teams, as punter Drew Butler, kickers Blair Walsh and Brandon Bogotay and primary kick return man Brandon Boykin were all seniors.

Freshman kicker Marshall Morgan and punter Collin Barber got plenty of work in the special teams practice and got a positive review from Jones.

“I definitely think they’re stepping into the role and they’re doing real well,” he said.

Meanwhile, the battle to replace Boykin -- the only player in SEC history with three 100-yard returns on his resume -- continues with a host of players competing.

Cornerback Branden Smith is the only Bulldog with substantial return experience in college, but he said he is not necessarily the starting return man just yet.

“It wouldn’t be no fun if they just gave the job away to somebody,” Smith said. “We’re just having fun competing and also just getting work in. We just can’t make any mistakes because if I make a mistake, we’ve got the next person behind me who’s doing really good.”

Cornerback Damian Swann named Smith, receiver Justin Scott-Wesley, receiver/cornerback Malcolm Mitchell, receiver Tavarres King, safety Bacarri Rambo and cornerback Sheldon Dawson as players who are also competing for one of the kick-return jobs.

But like Smith, Swann also said the competition is ongoing -- even if he has the confidence to say he believes he can win the job.

“I feel like I can be at the top,” he said. I’m just trying to master it and give the best effort I can give every time. We’ve got plenty of guys that can do it, so I don’t think we’ll go wrong with anybody being back there.”