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#TGW: Early Special Teams Returns

Aug. 23, 2015

By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

For all that went right last season for Georgia Tech, special teams did not always live up to their label so perhaps Saturday’s scrimmage in Bobby Dodd Stadium drew more than standard attention from head coach Paul Johnson.

To be sure, 2014 would have felt different if kicker Harrison Butker did not nail that 24-yard game-winning field goal as time expired at Virginia Tech. And, if not for his 53-yarder to drag Georgia into overtime, the Yellow Jackets would not have bused back from Athens with winning smiles.

The kickoff and punt return units were pedestrian, however, and special teams coach Ray Rychleski and the Jackets seek to make game changers out of the units.

Early returns were mixed after Saturday’s scrum wrapped around special teams.

Johnson did not seem moved, summarizing: “The return game wasn’t real good. There wasn’t anything that stood out, but that’s why you do it.”

Fifth-year senior safety Jamal Golden, Tech’s most likely return man, offered a less gray account of a scrimmage closed to the public and media.

“I felt like I ran pretty good, caught the ball. That’s the number one deal – catch the ball, don’t fumble,” he said. “Thanks to the other 10 guys on the field, we had some pretty good returns.”

Tech returned just 12 punts last season, and Golden was the man for 11. He averaged a modest 4.1 yards, well below his numbers in 2012, when he returned 17 at 14.6 yards a pop.

Likewise, the kickoff return numbers slipped. Out of 41 returns, Golden was the man on 30, for an average of 23.7 yards – again well below his 2012 numbers (28.3-yard average, two touchdowns) when he ranked No. 3 in the ACC in both kickoff and punt return average. Golden averaged 27.8 in 2013.

Broderick Snoddy returned five kickoffs for an average of 22.4.

One thing seems certain: freshman A.J. Gray is going to play.

Both Johnson and Golden singled out the former quarterback/defensive back from Washington County High.

He was abundantly productive in high school, rushing for 2,358 yards and 39 touchdowns last season and passing for another 1,810 and 21. On defense, he added 10 interceptions, and returned four for scores.

Clearly, the 6-foot-1, 196-pound athlete knows his way around a football field. His Tech debut is most likely to come on coverage teams.

On this point, Johnson and Golden saw eye-to-eye.

“A.J. Gray made a couple nice plays in the open field,” the head coach said. “He’s probably going to play.”

Golden reported, “I saw A.J. Gray make a few tackles. He’s one of the guys people should look out for; he’s had a pretty good camp.”

The Jackets have a right to feel good about the kicking game, at least its kickers.

Butker led the Jackets with 98 points, second most in a season in Tech history, made 65-of-66 PATs and 52 of his 87 kickoffs were touchbacks.

He didn’t have the overall field goal season that he, Johnson, Rychleski and the Jackets would have liked while making 11 of 18, but his potential is evident.

Junior punter Ryan Rodwell wasn’t often deployed, kicking just 32 times for a 40.2-yard average. Seven of his kicks were fair caught, and coaches would prefer a higher ratio, but he did send 13 boots inside the 20-yard-line.

“Ryan put his foot on the ball today,” Golden said. “He put one or two down inside the 10. He had a pretty good day.”

Again, Johnson seemed to carry a different view.

“We didn’t kick the ball particularly well,” he said. “It’s good there were a lot of errors and a lot of things we can work on; that’s why we do it.”

Johnson said coaches will set the special teams depth charts soon, and Golden feels good about what’s coming.

“Come Monday, we’ll know who’s back there,” he said. “Once you learn something, and you’ve been through it for four years, the game kind of slows down. I feel like we’ll be a little bit faster this year on special teams.”

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