FLORIDA SPECIAL TEAMS IN-DEPTH
By Mark McLeod
Senior punter Eric Wilbur dropped a ball snapped right to him, which was recovered by Auburn's Tre Smith for a touchdown. Adding insult to injury is the fact that Smith wanted to play for the Gators after coming out of Venice High School. Tristan Davis abused the Florida kick return coverage unit for 124 yards on five returns, providing Auburn with good field position.
All of this, six days after the Gators caused a turnover, recovered a turnover, downed a punt inside the ten, recorded a safety, blocked a punt, and had a sixty yard change of field position against LSU.
Wilbur had earned the Southeastern Conference Special Teams Player of the Week honors for his play against LSU having arguably the finest day in his Florida career after he ripped four punts for 51 yard average. While it certainly wasn't Wilbur's fault the Gators lost the game, the mental error proved very costly for the team.
On the season, Wilbur has punted 21 times for a 43.6 yard average. Florida is outstanding in punt coverage. Only 10 of his kicks have been returned and they have gone for a combined 34 yards. Wilbur has hit Eleven of his punts have hit inside the opponents 20 yard line.
Georgia is fifth in the nation in punt returns with a 17.44 yard return average. It really doesn't seem to matter who they put back there either. Mikey Henderson has returned 19 332 yards and a league high two touchdowns. Four other Bulldogs have returned eight punts for a 15.9 yard average.
Prior to the Auburn game, the Gators kickoff coverage had been very good. Florida has faced two of the Southeastern Conference's top kick returners in Kentucky's Keenan Burton (2) and Alabama's Javier Arenas (7). Burton was held nearly 15 yards below his average. Arenas returned two kicks for 38 yards, 2.4 yards below his average.
The loss of Thomas Brown has to be a bitter pill for the Georgia crowd. He is an explosive talent in the open field and one the Gators would have had difficulty preparing for.
Florida has found a gem in return specialist Brandon James (5-7 180). However, there seems to be a problem getting him repetitions. The true freshman from St. Augustine High School burst onto the scene against arch-rival Tennessee with an electrifying 89 yard punt return for a touchdown that was called back for a bogus block in the back penalty. James has returned 10 punts for an average of 8.4 yards. He is currently averaging 19 yards per kick return.
Senior Chris Hetland punched a 22 yard field goal through the night air at Auburn. That has to be a positive going to Jacksonville since it was the first field goal for the Gators this season. It's hard to imagine any team connecting on their first field goal during week seven. Hetland is 1 of 5 on the season.
Analysis: Special teams play always plays a factor in rivalry games. Florida had several problems to address this week. Correcting their kickoff coverage woes, making certain they're aware of the Bulldogs punt return prowess, and keeping Wilbur focused. The Gators spend a lot of time and effort on special teams. Last week was very frustrating for Meyer, who believes in their strong play.
Georgia has lost two special teams playmakers in Brandon Coutu and Thomas Brown. Andy Bailey has stepped in admirably and hit five of six field goals. They have all been within 34 yards though. Asher Allen is the Bulldogs primary kick return specialist. Allen is averaging 21.9 yards per return.
Punter Gordon Ely-Kelso is averaging 41.6 yards per kick. Only twelve of his 29 kicks have been returned. Opponents are averaging 6.8 yards per return and have scored one touchdown. Mississippi State's Derek Pegues returned a punt 37 yards last week.
The Gators simply must make plays on special teams. They've demonstrated the ability under Meyer in certain games, but have yet to demonstrate consistency.
GEORGIA SPECIAL TEAMS IN-DEPTH
Georgia's special teams are not what they once were. The Bulldogs have been stung in two games – Tennessee and Ole Miss – with punt blocks, and have struggled on kickoff returns since losing Thomas Brown.
Brown had a kickoff return for a touchdown against Tennessee, and Mikey Henderson added a punt return for a touchdown against the Vols. Henderson is the Dawgs' top special teams weapon with Gordon Ely-Kelso right behind him. Henderson can make a game-changing play on any punt, and Ely-Kelso has a history of pinning teams deep.
But when Brown and top place kicker Brandon Coutu were lost for the season earlier this year, Georgia's special teams took a big step backwards. Andy Bailey is not the answer at kicker – he's missed two extra points (one was re-kicked and made after a penalty) and missed a critical kick against Vanderbilt. It's gotten so dire with Bailey that Ely-Kelso actually out-kicked him earlier this week in practice. Field goals are no gimmie for the Dawgs any more.
Allen has the speed to break a long kick, but his blockers have been hurting his returns with holds and other penalties. Allen and the kick return need to get it together after the halftime break, too. That's been a costly time for Georgia mistakes, and it's usually started with this group.
Analysis: These guys have to win their fights with Florida for the Dawgs to win. Breaking even is not going to work this season. Bailey is going to have to step up and connect with the pressure on – and that's never happened before. Henderson and Ely-Kelso may be Georgia's only hope in this segment of the game.