Special teams surprisingly struggling

ATHENS, Ga. -- Before the season, Georgia's area of least concern was special teams.

The Bulldogs have a Ray Guy Award winner in senior punter Drew Butler, a two-time Lou Groza Award semifinalist in senior kicker Blair Walsh, explosive return men in Brandon Boykin and Branden Smith, and a veteran long snapper in Ty Frix.

Despite their experience at the specialist positions, however, Walsh is slumping, and the Bulldogs (2-2) have made rookie mistakes that directly contributed to one loss and easily could have led to another.

"We regressed in the special teams. We've got to shore it up," Georgia coach Mark Richt said after Saturday's 27-13 win at Ole Miss. "I've said it from the beginning, we have a very veteran bunch of specialists -- the kicker, the punter, the snapper, the holder, even the return men are very veteran -- but we do have a lot of young guys playing on the rest of the positions on the special teams.

"We're learning, but it's a big price to pay to learn with some of the things that happened today. Thankfully it didn't cost us the game."

Thank Georgia's defense for that.

The Bulldogs surrendered an 81-yard punt return for a Rebels touchdown, getting caught flat-footed when Ole Miss return man Jeff Scott pitched the ball to Nikolas Brassell, who reversed field and outran Georgia's coverage team to the end zone.

Georgia thoroughly dominated the half statistically, outgaining the Rebels 289 yards to 134 and building a 17-point lead in the second quarter. But the punt return touchdown with 49 seconds left before halftime -- minutes after Ole Miss successfully recovered an onside kick but failed to cash in on the opportunity -- sent the Rebels to the locker room believing they could win the game.

"The punt return hurt us, obviously, right there before the half," Richt said. "It was a big swing of momentum their way and brought the game a little bit closer than it should have been at halftime."

Georgia's punt coverage numbers easily could have been uglier, as Scott appeared to return a punt for a 67-yard touchdown in the game's final minute, but the officials waved off the Rebels' score with a penalty for a block in the back.

Special teams mistakes didn't cost the Bulldogs in Oxford, but they were a direct contributor two weeks ago in the 45-42 loss to South Carolina.

As they did against Ole Miss, the Bulldogs controlled most of the first half against the Gamecocks. That changed when South Carolina defensive end Melvin Ingram took a direct snap on a fake punt and rumbled past the Bulldogs' stunned punt coverage team for a touchdown that put South Carolina ahead 14-13 at halftime.

Walsh also missed a 33-yard field goal try in the second quarter -- the fourth-shortest miss of his career in 78 attempts.

Perhaps the most unexpected special teams issue is that Walsh -- who hit 89 percent of his field goals between 2009 and 2010 -- continues to slump.

One of the most prolific scorers in school history, Walsh missed three of five field goal tries against Ole Miss, dropping him to 5-for-10 this season. Of the misses, Walsh sprayed two wide right and one wide left.

"When you don't hit it clean and you know you didn't make it, that's a bad feeling," Walsh said. "But when you hit it clean and you didn't make it, that's even worse."

Asked which one was the issue Saturday, Walsh replied, "A little of both."

The Bulldogs' offense continually drove into Ole Miss territory in the second half, but bogged down without reaching the end zone. Walsh has cleaned up such messes for most of his career, but he missed three consecutive kicks in the second half and failed to put the game out of reach.

After the third miss in a row, it seemed reasonable to wonder whether Richt would turn to backup kicker Brandon Bogotay, but Richt said he never gave that option serious thought.

Walsh repaid his coach for the confidence by finally converting his last attempt of the day, a 43-yarder, to put the Bulldogs ahead by two touchdowns with 4:16 to play.

"I'm glad that we were able to kick another one and he did make it, but if we never had another attempt the rest of the game, it's not going to shake my confidence in him," Richt said. "He's a great player. He's one of the best in America. He went through a rough spell, but he doesn't have to worry about how I feel about him. He's a special player and he's our guy, so that's a solid answer on that."

Walsh clearly appreciated his coach's gesture, but he was disappointed that his struggles compelled his coach to offer a public vote of confidence.

As a player closing in on the school's all-time scoring record, Walsh is unaccustomed to failure and vowed that he won't allow the recent misses to affect him mentally.

"I'm so grateful to Coach Richt, I really am," Walsh said. "It means the world to me that he let me go out there and hit it and try to put the game away at that point. It definitely helps, but when you look back on it, it's not good no matter what."

David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at davidchingespn@gmail.com.