April 8, 2016
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
The “Golden Days” of returns are over at Georgia Tech,
They ended last Nov. 28, when redshirt senior Jamal Golden played his final game for Georgia Tech.
Golden finished his career with 467 punt return yards, two shy of cracking the school’s top 10 career, and 9.9 yards per return, 10th all-time 1/10th of a point shy of tying his predecessor Jerrard Tarrant for ninth. He didn’t return a kickoff — Marcus Marshall handled all three of those — but still finished as the school’s second-leading kickoff returner (1,860 yards), third-best in yards per return average (24.5), with two touchdowns, tying the school record.
So now that Golden is no longer returning, who will?
That’s to be decided and there is a deep pool of candidates from which Paul Johnson gets to choose. It’s a competition that will take shape over the coming weeks of Spring ball then intensify come the fall.
“We haven’t come close to deciding who it’s going to be but there are four or five guys at punt return and the same at kickoff return,” said Johnson, following Wednesday’s practice. “Qua Searcy is a guy on punts and Brad Stewart caught some punts. We looked at Dedrick [Mills] on kickoffs. There are some different guys. We’ll determine that. We’re repping it but we’re not doing any of it live.”
Stewart certainly is eager to take his shot.
“If [Johnson] puts me back there I’d love it,” said the 6-1, 197-pound sophomore from Savannah. “I do enjoy catching punts so we’ll see what happens.”
Last season Stewart was one of five players not named Jamal Golden to go back and field a punt — one of only four to actually return one — and his seven-yard return was the longest of any returning player (the longest came from Chris Milton, who took one back for 17).
He’s stronger and more experienced heading into this spring.
“It’s been good so far knowing what I’m doing and being a little bit of a veteran. It’s been a lot of fun for me,” he said. “I hit the weight room pretty hard. We worked, Coach Sisk had us working really hard in the off-season. I think as a team we got a lot stronger and faster as a whole. So it’s going to be fun to see what comes.”
Stewart saw the field in all 12 games last season and saw his share of footballs, as he was fourth on the team in receiving (seven catches for 93 yards, including a season-long 36-yarder in the upset of Florida State). Returning punts wouldn’t surprise him, as he feels that he’s ready to ready for anything — the expected and, more important, the unexpected.
“Not only is the game a lot faster but you have to think on your feet,” he said. “Everything is constantly changing. We might call something this way but it’s going to turn out to be another way. Knowing that I did what I did last year I feel like I can do a lot more this year and benefit the team a lot more.”
The Jackets know they can do a lot more on special teams. They finished fifth in the ACC in punt return average (9.4 ypr), but were ninth in punt return yards (189). On kickoffs, they were 12th in returns (19.0) and return yards (590).
On kickoffs, freshman Marcus Marshall’s 10 returns were second to Golden, while redshirt junior Antonio Messick and sophomore Mikell Lands-Davis each had one (linebacker Brant Mitchell also had a return).
The competition for return spots promises to be spirited, but as with so many aspects of Spring Football, it’s not something upon which Johnson is spending a lot of time on. Any such work will likely serve as little more than an appetizer for what’s to come in the fall.
“We might do it one day but that’s a lot of colliding from a long distance in the spring,” he said. “I’m not sure how much carryover you’re going to get going into fall camp with it.”