Dawgs continue struggling on kickoff return

ATHENS - There's a reason Tyson Browning is always bouncing around before kickoffs.

"When it comes up, I'm trying to get everybody else out there pumped up because I know this might be my only opportunity to come out there and make a play, to make a difference in the game," Georgia's senior running back said.

Tyson Browning, who grew up minutes from the Georgia campus in Watkinsville, gets limited touches in the No. 9 Bulldogs' offense because of the team's glut of running backs and his slight stature. At 5-foot-8, 170 pounds, his offensive role is limited mainly to the occasional screen pass.

But he's the perfect option to give a jolt to a struggling kickoff return team, which is why Georgia (7-1, 5-1 SEC) moved him to that team three weeks ago. Browning may be Georgia's most dangerous player in the open field. He certainly thinks so.

"Oh, definitely," he said. "That's not taking away from anybody we've got on this team, but you can ask any guy out there, if they had to play any guy in space, who wouldn't they want to play on this team, and they'll tell you me."

That elusiveness has helped drag the Bulldogs' abysmal kickoff return unit to within shouting distance of merely being bad. Before Browning took over as the chief kick returner, Georgia was 110th in the nation in average return (16.1 yards). The Bulldogs bottomed out at 112th the week before Browning was inserted in place of Bryan McClendon.

With nine kickoff returns for 210 yards in the last three games, Browning has gotten Georgia to 83rd in the country and ninth in the SEC (19.5 per return).

"We're moving up," Coach Mark Richt said with a painful laugh. "We're getting better."

Still, only in the Arkansas game have the Bulldogs reached their team goal. That's the only game Georgia has had a return of longer than 26 yards and the only time it has averaged more than 21 yards per return.

Georgia's struggles are highlighted when held next to No. 15 Auburn's success in the area. The Tigers (7-2, 5-1) are No. 1 in the nation, averaging 33.1 yards per return. In other words, the Bulldogs have just one return this season longer than Auburn's average.

"We haven't done what Georgia is capable of," said running backs coach Kirby Smart, who coordinates the kick return team.

The frustrating part for Georgia's coaches is the Bulldogs' kick returns are almost identical to what Auburn uses. The three main return designs and the blocking strategies are exactly the same.

"It just goes to show you, it's more about who's doing it," Smart said, "and maybe they're making the right call."

Georgia's struggles can't be blamed on Smart. He took over responsibility for the unit from former assistant Ken Rucker, under whom the Bulldogs finished 2004 112th in the country (16.5 per return).

"I think we're getting better each and every week," said Thomas Brown, who pairs with Browning to return kicks. "We just have to keep working on it."

Some of Georgia's statistics can be misleading because of the way they are measured, Smart said, but he doesn't dispute that his team isn't getting the job done.

"The big thing is we've started inside the 20-yard line three times out of 17 returns which we don't ever want to happen," he said.

The Bulldogs have been hurt by juggling personnel. Starting fullback Brannan Southerland and tight end Martrez Milner, both of whom are among the strongest players on the team, have had to come off the unit due to minor injuries. In their place are true freshmen Tripp Chandler and Marcus Washington.

"I'd love to think we could be better at it, but we have to continue to recruit those linebacker-, tight end-type bodies, guys that can run and have some size to them," Richt said. "We've got guys who can run, but we're not as big as some peple."

There's also the matter of limited game experience. Only Alabama and LSU have returned fewer kicks than the Bulldogs.

"We just have to learn," Browning said, "to take advantage of that one or two opportunities we have a game."

He's not just speaking for himself on that one.


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