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Georgia’s Unsung Heroes

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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People don’t care about special teams and no one wants to talk about offensive line play, but those are the two primary reasons that an eight win Georgia team, in 2016, finds itself in the national championship just a year later.

“Rewatching the Rose Bowl, and especially the right side of the line with a true freshman in Andrew Thomas and Ben Cleveland, a redshirt sophomore, on two or three of the Sony Michel runs, I mean, I could have gotten a first down,”
~Former UGA Center Russ Tanner

People don’t care about special teams and no one wants to talk about offensive line play, but those are the two primary reasons that an eight win Georgia team, in 2016, finds itself in the national championship just a year later.

Sure the defense is better, but it was quite good last season, with much of the same personnel. Sure, Jake Fromm is a marked improvement from Jacob Eason, but he’s still a true freshman quarterback in a run-heavy offense, throwing to largely the same receiving corps. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel’s numbers have gone up, but they’re still the same world class backs that they’ve been since they stepped on campus.

From ranking 97th last season in combined special teams S&P+, the ‘Dawgs will enter Mercedes-Benz Stadium, on Monday night, at number one.

Rodrigo Blankenship, has improved his field goal percentage from 77.8% (46th in FBS) to 85%, which is just outside the national top ten, and his average field goal value per kick has jumped from 94th in the country to the top ten, as well.

His 36.4% touchback rate has almost doubled during his sophomore campaign, while Georgia’s average yards per return allowed has leapt from 115th top 37th, bringing their kickoff success rate from 60th to 2nd, overall.

Graduate transfer Cameron Nizialek has been revelatory at punter. Whereas the team ranked 121st in punting average in 2016, the former Ivy Leaguer’s average is, again, in the top ten of all punters, whilst totaling 26 fair catches and 21 balls downed inside the 20-yard line on 55 attempts. Coupled with improved coverage, the Bulldogs’ punt success rate is in the top 20, up from 124th.

Even on punt returns, while Isaiah McKenzie was good, Mecole Hardman has been an improvement. The sophomore falls just outside the top ten in yards per return and is tied for national lead in returns of 10+ yards. The team’s punt return success rate has subsequently climbed from 92nd to 26th.

The only aspect of special teams in which Georgia’s success rate has not improved is kick returning, down just ten spots, though, to 28th. This, however, as much as anything, may simply be due to the kicking prowess of their competition, as Hardman has proven to be a notably more dynamic option than their primary kick returner last year, Reggie Davis. Hardman again ranks just outside the top ten in return average -- Davis was 86th -- and has more returns of 30+ yards than his predecessor.

This third, oft forgotten, facet of the game loomed especially large in the Rose Bowl, against Oklahoma. At least three of the five, maybe ten, most important plays of that contest had to do with the kicking game.

The Sooners’ ill-fated squib kick, only seconds before halftime, allowed Blankenship to drill a career long 55-yard field goal, after a gutsy play to get him in range.

“That was huge,” legendary Georgia kicker Rex Robinson, a member of the 1980 National Championship team, told the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. “Things had not gone particularly well in the first half. That minor swing of momentum made a huge difference in the outcome.”

The ‘Dawgs took advantage of that swing and roared back to life in the second half. Still, even 60 minutes and a frame of overtime, said outcome was undecided. That is, until Lorenzo Carter blocked Oklahoma kicker Austin Seibert’s go-ahead try.

“He’s a monster,” laughed former All-SEC Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan.

Ahead of taking on Alabama, the gold standard of college football, Georgia’s most decisive advantage, on paper, will be its special teams.

Robinson recounted what it was like for him in the days before Georgia’s most recent title, “In 1978, when I was a sophomore, I had a bad game in the Bluebonnet Bowl. It was my first game ever in a dome, on turf. Then the Sugar Bowl in 1981, when we played Notre Dame, was only my second time ever being in that situation. For a kicker, all you're trying to do if you have a bad game is try to forget it. That particular week, in the lead up to the Notre Dame game, all the reporters were asking me about that game in '78. It was very difficult to keep it out of my mind when everyone was bringing it up every day. When the game was over, and we had won, it was initially more of a sense of relief, for me, than anything else. A few days later, I was actually able to celebrate.”

Blankenship did miss one in the Rose Bowl, for only the third time this season, prior to hitting before the half. Regardless, Morgan does not believe there’s anything to worry about.

“As a kicker you only get so many shots (each game) and you feel like you've got to make every single one,” he continued. “You don't really have time to think. You don't really feel that pressure in the moment. You may be nervous the night before, but once you step on that field and start warming up, all that goes away. You're just in your zone. That's what you dream about. That's why you work so hard all year -- for moments like that.”

Even with the dramatic improvement, however, there were at least some bright spots on special teams, last year. For the offensive line, those were very few and far between.

“Last year, that offensive line was berated, almost on a weekly basis,” recalled Jon Stinchcomb, a former All-SEC offensive lineman for Georgia.

That was, perhaps, with good reason.

In 2016, the Bulldogs’ blockers allowed stuffs on 20.7% of runs (94th), moved the chains on just 59.1% of third and fourth down rushes with two or fewer yards to go (113th), and ranked 101st in adjusted line yards (an S&P+ metric that attempts to separate what an offensive line does from what the ball carriers do, inasmuch as that’s possible), with 3.02 line yards per carry on standard downs (63rd) and 3.39 on passing downs (54th). And that was with what is now the most productive rushing duo in FBS history in their backfield.

“We had a lot of young guys last year,” explained Brandon Kublanow, the starting center on the ‘16 team. “I think Isaiah (Wynn) and Lamont (Gaillard) and those guys on the inside have come a long way. I think they've formed a special bond up front. This team goes where those five guys go. When they're playing good, everyone's playing good.”

Going into the title game, Georgia has allowed stuffs on 17.5% of runs (35th), converted 70.8% of those short yardage attempts (44th), and ranks 12th in adjusted line yards, creating 3.31 line yards per carry on standard downs (17th) and 3.85 on passing downs (8th).

“They're making us look like we were a bunch of slobs out there,” joked former Georgia tackle Kolton Houston.

“It's a thing of beauty,” Stinchcomb agreed. “For them to come out and play the way they have this year has been a treat for all of us to watch. There are a lot of times where Sony Michel is running 50 yards untouched. That's to the credit of the offensive line. It's quite the group and Coach Pittman deserves a lot of praise, too. They're leading the way.”

The aforementioned Wynn and Gaillard, in particular, have been especially integral as the group’s only two returning starters. Both changed positions during the offseason, and while it took the latter a little while to find his footing, before ultimately getting back to upper echelon form, the undersized tackle, Wynn, has thrived from jump street.

“Everyone has complained for years about how he's not the picture perfect size, and the guy has been dominate,” Stinchcomb beamed.

With at experience at left tackle and center, and at least more maturity at left guard, with Kendall Baker, youth has ruled the day on the right side of the line. From Solomon Kindley, initially at right guard, and now Ben Cleveland alongside right tackle Andrew Thomas, it has been an all underclassmen affair.

“Rewatching the Rose Bowl, and especially the right side of the line with a true freshman in Andrew Thomas and Ben Cleveland, a redshirt sophomore, on two or three of the Sony Michel runs, I mean, I could have gotten a first down,” said another former UGA center, Russ Tanner.

Tanner, more impressed with how Georgia’s offensive line id dominating than the fact that they simply are, continued, “That's what you take the most pride in. You're taking their lunch money. It's that bully mentality. You're bigger, you're stronger, you're in better shape, and it doesn't matter what they do, you're going to run through them. It hasn't been just getting in position and trying to turn a guy here or there. They're knocking people off the ball. I saw a picture on Twitter of one play where they wanted to see how many Sony Michels could fit in a hole and they had nine Sony Michels in there. That's how wide it was.”

Granted, Alabama has the best run defense in college football. Georgia has played a fairly grueling schedule, in that respect, but none like this.

“When you have a game like this, against Alabama, you have to win in the trenches,” offered Houston. “For Sony and Nick to have a good day, the offensive line has to come to play. Whoever wins in the trenches, come Monday night, I can almost guarantee will win the game. Football is football. It's all about contact and winning at the point of attack. You can still spread it out, Auburn does it, Clemson does it, but eventually you have to be physical to have consistent success.”

Kublanow concurred, stating, “This is the kind of game where it's played in the trenches. There's nowhere to hide. It's just about lining up and seeing who wins. It'll be a game where you've got to chop wood. You might get five yards here and then lose a couple on the next play. They've just got to keep chopping. Alabama has a strong defensive front. You've just got to go ground and pound, and that's what they'll do.”

Although, Stinchcomb probably summed it up best. Simply put, “It's going to be grown man football.”

Special teams is, decidedly, Kirby Smart’s squad’s most significant advantage over the Crimson Tide, in Monday’s game. Meanwhile, their most improved unit will face its toughest test to date.

They might not be the sexiest topics of conversation, but make no mistake -- these unsung heroes are why the Georgia Bulldogs have a shot at the ultimate prize.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP