ATHENS, Ga. - Georgia probably has not been known for its punt returners in at least 10 years.
According to Damien Gary, that's too long.
Chuck Carswell was a top return specialist in his three-year career, which ended in 1991. Before Carswell, Jimmy Harrell (1981-84) and Scott Woerner (1977-80) were standout return specialists for the Bulldogs.
Because it has been so long since the days of Carswell, and especially since Harrell and Woerner returned punts, the Georgia special teams have a goal of establishing a new tradition this season.
"On our grade sheet, we have a question: 'Have we built a tradition around here?' '' said Gary, a junior from Athens.
The answer, so far, is no.
"We really haven't built the tradition like we want to, but we're working hard at it and that's pretty much the biggest question,'' Gary said.
"Everything else we answer yes to, but we haven't been able to answer yes to special teams yet on punt returns.''
This week's Southeastern Conference statistics indicate that Gary is making progress. With 11 returns for 172 yards in three games, Gary leads the SEC with his average of 15.6 yards per return. The average ranks 19th in the nation.
Georgia also has Fred Gibson ranking second in the SEC and fifth in the nation with his average of 34.4 yards on five kickoff returns. Also, kicker Billy Bennett is 11 for 11 on extra points and four-for-four on field-goal attempts.
"It's tremendous,'' said Georgia coach Mark Richt of his team's special teams play. "I'm proud of them. We really work hard at it. They're doing as good or better than I hoped. They take it very seriously.''
If not for penalties, Gary also would have an 80-yard return for a touchdown and another 42-yarder negated by a penalty. The junior who also ranks third on Georgia's receiving list appears to be on track to helping the Bulldogs earn a renewed reputation for their special teams play.
Gary's strong returns this season - including five for 89 yards in last week's win over Northwestern State - are only the continuation of momentum which started last season.
Gary ranked second in the SEC with his average of 12.5 yards per punt return in 2001, and his 72-yard return for a touchdown was a big play in the Bulldogs' 26-24 win at Tennessee.
Now Gary wants to add another touchdown to his already impressive list of returns this year, perhaps in Saturday's 1 p.m. home game against New Mexico State.
"We're hungry to get in the end zone again,'' Gary said. "We experienced that last year against Tennessee and we want to experience that again.''
A holding penalty against Reggie Brown ruined Gary's 80-yard touchdown return in the second quarter last week. Gary high-stepped the final five yards into the end zone and then began a celebration dance that quickly ended when he saw the yellow flag far down the field.
"I'm hoping the penalty is not against us, but at the same time when it is way back you pretty much know it is against us,'' he said.
The punt returns have served as a means for Gary to show his impressive skills when he fights for playing time at receiver with Terrence Edwards, Gibson, Brown and others.
Some believe Gary should receiver a higher percentage of passes, and even Richt said this week he is surprised more balls have not been thrown at Gary. But no complaints have come from Gary.
"We have some talented receivers around here,'' Gary said. "I'm not a selfish person to be complaining about who gets the most balls. I felt that in being a punt returner, that's my opportunity to leave my mark and show people what I can do.''
Charles Odum is the beat writer for Dawg Post in Athens. He has over 20 years of experience covering Georgia football. He can be reached here: CEOdum@aol.com
Total Access Pass for only $79.95! (or $7.95 per month)
PLUS...Free Recruiting Yearbook
Here's what you get with the DawgPost.com Total Access Pass:
Exclusive Insider Stories by DawgPost.com DawgPost.com Members-Only Message Boards Total Access to all Expert and Recruiting Conten Total Access to Scout Player/Roster Database Total Access to all TheInsiders.com Network Content FREE Football and Basketball Recruiting Yearbook (with annual purchase while supplies last)
Click Here to Subscribe