Coutu's return big for Dawgs

ATHENS – The return of Georgia kicker Brandon Coutu isn't a big deal everywhere in the SEC, but for the Bulldogs, there could hardly be a bigger addition.

"It gives you some peace that you've got a guy who can make any kick," head coach Mark Richt said. "If it's 55 yards, we are sitting there believing he's going to make it. If it got to 62 yards, we'd sit there and go, ‘You know, this guy has got a chance to make it.'

"All the kicks in between you almost take for granted with a guy like Brandon."

Who knows how the Bulldogs' disappointing 2006 campaign might have been different had Coutu not suffered a freak leg injury attempting an onsides kick prior to the Tennessee game? Backup Andy Bailey missed three of seven attempts in place of Coutu, including one in a two-point loss to Vanderbilt and two in a four-point loss to Kentucky.

Having Coutu back in the lineup will change the look of Georgia's offense as much as the maturation of Matthew Stafford or the change in play callers. Without Coutu, Richt had fewer decisions to make about when to attempt a field goal and when to try to convert a fourth down.

"In some ways, he adds pressure because if you're sitting at a 52-yard attempt, and it's fourth-and-one-and-a-half, it's not a no-brainer anymore," Richt said. "You say, Well, we can go for it, but the kid can probably make it.' More than likely, I'd kick it with him, but when he wasn't there, we knew for sure we were going for it. We didn't have to sit there and have that moment of, ‘What are we going to do?'"

What Georgia probably will do is win more games. It was 6-0 last year when Coutu was in the lineup, 3-4 when he was on the sideline.

Richt is so comfortable with his kicker that he will discuss his decisions about when to kick with Coutu on the sideline during games.

"Sometimes the wind is different or my leg doesn't feel as strong. I've always been pretty honest with them so far," Coutu said. "I don't want to tell them something and come up short, but so far it has worked out pretty well."

So far, though, Coutu has never told Richt he couldn't make a kick. Richt has overruled Coutu at least twice, Coutu said, including on what would have been a 55-yard attempt during a 27-14 win over Tennessee in 2005.

"I told him I definitely thought I could make it from there, and he called a timeout and thought about it," Coutu said. "We were about to kick it, and then he decided against it and we punted and downed it on the 1, so I think he made the right choice."

Usually, though, the right choice is to let Coutu bomb away. He is 35-for-43 in his career with only two misses from fewer than 40 yards, and he is 16-for-22 from beyond 40 yards. His 58-yarder against Louisiana-Monroe in 2005 is the longest kick in school history without a tee, and he has hit from 55 and 56 yards as well.

The strength of his leg hasn't been a question since the bowl game, when he returned to hit three field goals, including a 51-yarder, against Virginia Tech.

"I really honestly haven't felt any kind of pain since well before the bowl game," he said. "It has definitely healed. It's not a question. I feel as strong as I ever have, and I feel like I'm getting stronger. I've done everything on my leg that I could possibly do, and I have never said one time, ‘I need to back up or stop doing this.' I've had an MRI. I‘ve checked it out. It's 100 percent healed, if not 105 percent healed."

Coutu is less concerned about range than about accuracy, he said.

"The most important thing to me is making field goals from 45 yards and in," he said. "Some people tell me that I have a big leg. I don't feel I have a big leg by any means. Probably half the kickers in the nation kick it as far as I can, but I just feel as long as I keep it between the goal posts, everything else will work out."

Although he enters the season a leading candidate for the Lou Groza Award and is listed by ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. as the country's top NFL prospect at the position, Coutu wasn't voted to the preseason All-SEC first team last month at Media Days. That went to South Carolina's Ryan Succop.

"I don't look at the preseason stuff or that type of thing," Coutu said. "Really the only thing I control is how hard I work. In my position, I don't know how many attempts I'll get. I might have one all year. All I can do is work on the things that I can control and put myself in position to help the team win. Everything else will take care of itself."

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