- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- It's hardly a secret that Georgia's kick coverage was horrendous last season.
More to the point, the Bulldogs have never been worse at defending against long returns since Mark Richt became Georgia's coach in 2001.
To combat the problem, Richt promises to make special teams more of a focus this preseason than perhaps ever before in his tenure -- particularly with freshman signees Marshall Morgan and Collin Barber expected to take over at kicker and punter.
"My guess is we'll have more live kicking reps in the fall than we've had in a while," Richt predicted of the Bulldogs' open preseason camp in August. "Some of that is because we're going to be breaking in a new punter and a new kicker. They need to be under pressure as much as possible and it's hard to create that pressure unless you're doing some live situations.
"But we also just need to see for our own eyes can a guy make a tackle out in the open. Drills are great, but when it gets down to it, you have to have that sensation of being able to corral a guy out there when you're covering a punt or covering a kick. You need to have your punts rushed full speed to make sure there's no problems."
Georgia ranked 116th out of 120 FBS teams at covering punts last year, allowing 14.92 yards per return -- including two returns for touchdowns. That nearly tripled the average return (5.13 yards) the Bulldogs had allowed the year before. And in Richt's first 10 years on the job, the Bulldogs had allowed a total of two punt return touchdowns (one in 2001 and one in 2006).
The lowlights were probably Tyrann Mathieu's two long punt returns that sparked LSU's comeback win in the SEC championship game. The first, a 62-yard touchdown in the second quarter, cut Georgia's lead to 10-7 when the Bulldogs' defense had surrendered only 8 yards of total offense in the first half. The second, an ankle-breaking 47-yard return to Georgia's 17-yard line, led to the Tigers' touchdown that made it 21-10 LSU.
Georgia's unsightly return defense average doesn't even include other disasters for the punt team. South Carolina defensive lineman Melvin Ingram rumbled 68 yards for a touchdown on a fake punt, providing points that made a huge difference in the Gamecocks' 45-42 win. And Vanderbilt nearly pulled off a massive upset a few weeks later when the Commodores blocked a Drew Butler punt in the closing seconds, with Butler's touchdown-saving tackle being all that preserved the Bulldogs' 33-28 win.
"We're going to do a lot more good-on-good [in camp] because you need to find out if you've got an issue in camp rather than the first or second game of the year," Richt said, "so we'll do a lot more live kicking situations than we have, maybe since I've been here."
The Bulldogs were nearly as bad at covering kickoffs, ranking 88th nationally by allowing 23.05 yards per return. Again, Georgia surrendered two kickoff return touchdowns last season after allowing only one in Richt's first 10 seasons in Athens.
Georgia led Vanderbilt 23-7 when Andre Hal returned a kickoff 96 yards for a score to spark the Commodores' comeback. And two long runbacks by Florida return men -- a 99-yard return by Jeff Demps that put the Gators up 14-3 and a 63-yard return by Andre Debose to the Georgia 26 that led to a field goal and a 20-17 Florida lead -- exposed Georgia's coverage team once again as a train wreck.
The consistent problems led some Bulldogs fans to howl for Richt to dedicate an assistant coach entirely to special teams. While Richt did not heed those requests, he insists that the coaching staff made coverage schemes a priority during the offseason and will make sure they have the right personnel in place before the Sept. 1 opener against Buffalo.
"We were just wanting everybody to understand that everybody and anybody could end up on special teams -- a starter, a second-teamer, whatever it is. We need all hands on deck like I've been saying," Richt said at the end of spring practice.
"So the drill work that we worked on we think will give us an idea to understand who to start out on these units, who's second team on these units and then also hopefully it gave them some experience doing the things that they'll have to do to get the job done."
In 2011, return coverage and play on special teams in general were at their worst in the Mark Richt era. Now, Richt and Co. plan to intensify their focus on improving on those issues.