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Interchangeable parts: Georgia still employing punt return by committee

POSTED: September 22, 2008 5:00 a.m.

It was the topic du jour during fall camp, but by the time Georgia traveled to South Carolina last Saturday, the fervor over Knowshon Moreno working as a punt returner had largely fizzled out.

When the Gamecocks' opening drive ended after just three plays, however, Moreno made a surprise appearance on special teams. He returned South Carolina's punt 32 yards, surprising even his own teammates and providing plenty of evidence to support all the preseason hype.

"I didn't know if they were going to put him out there during the game. It was a surprise to me," fellow returner Logan Gray said. "Everybody knows what Knowshon's skills are, so that wasn't a surprise."

Moreno's cameo as the Bulldogs' punt returner was indicative of how the position has been filled all season. The only thing Georgia — or its opponents — can expect is the unexpected.

During preseason practice, coach Jon Fabris tried out 12 different players in the role. He didn't decide on who would return the first punt of the season until pregame warmups. Through three games in the regular season, four Bulldogs have returned punts. For all Fabris knows, that number could grow again this week against Arizona State.

"We're just going to have to wait and see how things go," Fabris said. "It all depends on not only the kicking part of it, but also the offensive and defensive part of it. Sometimes guys are injured or fatigued, and you just have to do what you have to do."

Gray serves as the team's third-string quarterback, so he's usually well rested when his number is called for return duty. The other three players the Bulldogs have employed, however, are starters at other positions, too.

Asher Allen, Georgia's top cornerback, was the team's leading kick returner a season ago, but was switched to punt duty during camp.

Reshad Jones starts at safety for the Bulldogs, but he has looked sharp in a handful of chances returning punts, as well.

And then there's Moreno, who clearly has the skills for the job, but also might be Georgia's most vital offensive weapon.

"I think Coach (Fabris) does a great job of preparing us all equally so we all can be the punt returner," Allen said. "You never really know, but going into the game, everybody's prepared."

Head coach Mark Richt said Moreno would almost certainly make another appearance as a returner, a job the running back is happy to have.

In high school, he returned punts, too, until opponents stopped kicking to him.

"I wouldn't mind being back there catching a few more punts," Moreno said. "I was back there one time this week, and it brought back some old memories."

While Moreno's return provided the most excitement among the group so far this season, Fabris said no one has distinguished himself at the job, which means the rotation will continue for the foreseeable future.

While some consistency would be nice, Gray said, there might be an upside to the confusion. After all, if Georgia's players don't know who will be returning the next punt, it's even more of a mystery to the opposition.

"It might be an advantage to us because the other team doesn't know what they're going to get back there," Gray said. "We've got a lot of different type guys catching punts."

Eventually, Gray figures one of those players will take a step forward and end the competition. It probably won't be Moreno, who appears to be designated for the role of secret weapon, but everything else remains a mystery.

"It definitely keeps you on your toes," Gray said. "You've got to be ready because you don't know if you're going in there or not."



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