ATLANTA (Nov. 21) — As Georgia Tech’s football team has maintained a place in the national rankings the last two seasons, so has its special teams, which has been a key component in its success.
The Yellow Jacket’s special team success has been fueled the contributions of walk-on players such as Ron Mabra (Fayetteville, Ga.) and Shannon Ashmon (Montezuma, Ga.). The pair made big plays in a determined effort during the Jacket’s 26-23 loss at Wake Forest last Saturday that almost rallied Tech for the win. It has been that kind of effort, however, that has put Tech into a position to win 17 games over the last two years and be in position for a third-straight bowl appearance.
“Ron Mabra and Shannon Ashmon are ‘unsung heroes’ who go out each Saturday and get the job done,” said head coach George O’Leary. “They are players who aren’t on either first or second team defense but come to mind immediately when special teams are mentioned. The both do a very good job as walk-ons who have turned into outstanding special teams players. I’m very happy to have them out there, especially when they are performing like they are.”
Tech’s special teams have been dailing up big plays ever since O’Leary’s return to the Flats. The Jackets returned a punt against Georgia for a score in 1996, blocked a punt and had a kickoff returned for scores in ’97 and saw Charlie Rogers and Dez White sparkle with punt and kickoff returns for touchdowns, respectively, and also blocked a punt for a touchdown as well, last year. Against Wake Forest, Tech recovered an on-sides kick and blocked a punt for a touchdown.
Tech (7-3) will be looking for a big effort from its special teams again as it hosts arch-rival Georgia (7-3) Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium/Grant Field in the 94th meeting of this historic game. The contest will be televised on ABC-TV at 1 p.m., with over 75 percent of the nation receiving the game. Georgia leads the overall series, 52-36-5, but the Jackets captured the most recent meeting taking a 21-19 victory last year at Sanford Stadium in Athens. Tech enters the game ranked No. 20 in the Associated Press ranking and No. 16 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll, while Georgia comes in No.16/21, respectively. Tech will have 14 seniors who will be playing in their last game at Grant Field.
“Our goal on special teams is to be very dedicated, work hard and produce big accomplishments when we can,” said Mabra, a member of the kick off, punt coverage and return teams. “Both Coach [George] O’Leary and Coach [Danny] Crossman stress how much our special teams play a big role in every game we play and that outcomes are determined by them. So as special team members its our role to be ready and be in position to make plays. The offense and defense knows how hard we work in practice every week. When we can make things happen, it gets both sides of the ball into it.
Mabra has been one of the Tech special team leaders this year with one solo tackle and six assisted stops. He made a key play in the squad’s contest at Wake Forest as he recovered an on-sides kick with 4:36 remaining to play after the Jackets had cut the score to 26-15. Tech promptly went on a six-play, 51-yard drive, which ended at the Demon Deacon four yardline. However, the Tech defense forced a punt after holding on three downs.
The ensuing punt was blocked by Ashmon, a junior who is also a key member of the special team units. The blocked punt was recovered in the end zone by freshman Jeremy Muyres (Stone Mountain, Ga.), that cut the lead to 26-23 with 2:27 remaining.
“We haven’t called ‘punt block’ much this year because we want to set up returns for Marvious Hester, but the situation warranted it,” said Ashmon, who turned down scholarship offers from Air Force, Vanderbilt and Furman to walk on at Tech. “Their center had the responsibility of blocking me, however I got a very good jump on the ball and the personal protector moved to block someone else. I saw the ball, got a read on it and dove at it.”
“We take deep pride in special teams and want to be the best in the nation in our categories,” said Ashmon, who as a solid athlete was a quarterback at Macon County High School. “No one, either the teams or the crowd, expects the special teams to score. Once there is a score or a big play, it can turn around a whole game and squarely shift the momentum.”
Tech’s special team units rank among the nation’s best as the Jackets are ranked 12th in punt returns (13.0 per return), 14th in net punting (39.2 per kick) and 31st in kick off returns (22.1 per return.).
It will take those kind of numbers and more to defeat the Bulldogs.
“The Georgia game means everything,” said Mabra. “We want to go out on top and to do that we have to bring tremendous intensity and heart to beat a good Georgia team. It is almost more than a rivalry, its ‘the game’. It means a lot to us because its the last time the seniors will play in the rivalry. The only way to describe it is that – it doesn’t get any better than this.”