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UGA head coach Kirby Smart plans on continued special teams emphasis
Georgia place kicker Rodrigo Blankenship (98) kicks off in the first half of a game against Middle Tennessee in Athens. (AP Photo/John Bazemore) - photo by Associated Press

For most NCAA football coaches, Georgia punter Jake Camarda’s 47.4 yard net punting average — 12th best among FBS programs — would be a commendable number. Kirby Smart is not like most coaches.

Although Smart did say Camarda was “kicking the ball well” he stopped well short of labeling the freshman punter a polished product just yet in a Monday press conference.

“I think Jake would be the first to tell you he’s got to get more hang on some of his kicks … It’s just sometimes he out-kicks his coverage, and we want his distance and hang to match,” Smart said.

A demand for special teams excellence is nothing new for the third-year head coach of the second-ranked Bulldogs. In fact, it’s something he’s emphasized since arriving in Athens, and the results have shown through three games this year. 

Outside of Camarda’s top-end punting average, kicker Rodrigo Blankenship is a perfect 3 for 3 on field goals and 18 for 18 on extra points. His two made field goals and five made extra points in a Week 2 win against South Carolina were good enough to earn him SEC Special Teams Player of the Week honors. 

Punt returner Mecole Hardman has returned three punts so far for an average of 31.7 yards each, including a 70-yard score Saturday against Middle Tennessee State. 

“Mecole’s always been an explosive player with the ball, and I was very pleased to see him get his first opportunity to return one all the way back,” Smart said of the play.

Wide receiver Jeremiah Holloman, who played almost entirely special teams last season as a freshman before breaking out against the Blue Raiders Saturday for three catches and his first career touchdown, said standing out on special teams is one of the best ways to work your way up Georgia’s depth chart.

“Kirby has said all the time, just being out there on special teams and learning things like that over and over again, being able to translate that over to offense and defense, it builds confidence in yourself,” Holloman said. “That’s where a lot of people are going to find that they have the ability to be able to come out here and make plays on Saturdays.”

Nearly every player on Smart’s rosters for the last three years has been asked to make special teams contributions. Even star running back Sony Michel got some work in punt coverage last season as a senior. 

Holloman — a four-star wide receiver coming out of high school according to 247Sports — said the expectation that all members of the team contribute on special teams leads to a bit of an adjustment period for many of the highly touted prep prospects who are used to being the best players on their high school offenses. 

“It’s new to everybody, honestly. Because first coming into college, you just think you’re going to automatically be that guy,” he said. “But you’ve got to put in the work elsewhere before you can be able to get it on your respective unit.” 

And while Holloman admitted he wasn’t thrilled initially about running down the field on punt plays as a gunner or blocking in the return game, he’s come to enjoy every facet of the game. 

“[Special teams] is really fun actually, once you get a hold of it,” he said. “It builds your confidence.”

For Camarda, Smart recommended trying to put more air under his deeper kicks and taking a little off of the shorter ones, joking that “he’s probably got to use his pitching wedge instead of his 8-iron sometimes.” 

And for the other members of every special teams unit, Smart expects the same level of hard work and preparation that has made well-executed kicking plays a staple of his tenure as head coach at Georgia.

“We always demand excellence in special teams,” Smart said. “We work really hard on it. And we’ll continue to do that to try to create advantages in the kicking game.”

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