Injuries Hurting Dawgs' Special Teams

ATHENS – Georgia assistant coach Jon Fabris compares coaching special teams to being a baseball manager in the minor leagues. As soon as you get a guy ready to play, someone else takes him off your hands. The stars don't stick around long.

This season, however, Fabris isn't asking for stars. He would settle for a handful of healthy bodies.

The Bulldogs have suffered through a season mired with injuries, and no unit has been affected more than the special teams.

"It's a chain reaction," Fabris said. "Every time anyone is injured or suspended or someone flunks out or is kicked off the team, the first thing that's affected are the kicking teams."

In the past two weeks, Fabris said he has been forced to use more than a half dozen freshmen on kicking teams. (He calls them "kicking teams" because, he said, "frankly, none of them have been too special.")

Players Fabris had counted on to be special-teams mainstays like Darius Dewberry, Charles White and Quintin Banks have missed significant portions of the season due to injuries, and last week, Justin Fields hurt his knee and is done for the year.

"All the reps that he's gotten, just flush them down the toilet," Fabris said of Fields' injury. "Now you're working with someone who's had no reps. It's not like offense and defense where you have a first team and second team in practice and guys are always getting reps. If two guys get hurt, it's a chain reaction on that sideline that you can't even imagine."

It's not just the back-ups destined for special teams work that have been lost. When starting fullback Brannan Southerland suffered a foot injury over the summer that kept him out of the first five games of the season, sophomore Shaun Chapas became the new starter on offense. That, however, meant he wouldn't be playing for Fabris anymore.

"It trickles down that way," Fabris said. "And it happens not only in the summer time, but every time a guy gets hurt, you're just constantly being wilted away." Stars like Mohamed Massaquoi, CJ Byrd and Rennie Curran have been forced into significant special-teams duties, while the rest of the units are filled with walk-ons and rookies.

It's not that Fabris minds having younger or less physically gifted players on his units, but last week against Kentucky, the inexperience showed.

The Bulldogs had a punt blocked and another shanked, setting Kentucky up with stellar field position.

The Wildcats added some big return yardage on kicks, too, including a 96-yarder by Winston Guy that set up a touchdown. Meanwhile, Georgia's return teams had trouble picking up yards and making good decisions about which kicks should be returned at all.

Freshman kicker Blair Walsh has had difficulties on kickoffs all season, booting one out of bounds against Kentucky. He has also missed five of his past eight field-goal tries, and head coach Mark Richt chose to go for it on fourth-and-6 from the Kentucky 33 last week rather than have Walsh attempt a 50-yard kick.

"We have had muffed punts," Richt said, "a muffed punt return, we have had kickoff return to the 4, we have had a 20-yard punt after muffed punt situation, have had turnovers that have put the defense in a bad way."

In fact, while Kentucky posted 38 points on the Georgia defense last week, only two of its drives were 50 yards or longer. The majority of the scores were set up by poort special teams play by the Bulldogs.

Similar mistakes this week against Auburn could be killer.

The Tigers rank third in the nation in kick returns and are the top team in the SEC in punting. While Auburn's offense has struggled and its defense has been riddled by injuries, the Bulldogs could easily lose the game by losing too many field-position battles.

Still, that threat hasn't meant more practice time for the special teams this week. Richt said he believes the unit has been good most of the season, and last week's problems were an aberration. Fabris, however, said that's just the way things go on special teams. Opportunities are rare, which makes each one even more crucial.

That's the mind-set he has emphasized with his players this week – some of whom haven't played a snap on special teams yet this season. Make the most of the chances you have, he tells his players, because your one chance may be a lot more important to the game than the 40 snaps the offense or defense gets.

"You must play with a one play-and-out mentality," Fabris said. "Because after those plays are over, one side is running off the field high-fiving each other, and the other side is coming off the field with their heads down, and there's no guarantee you're going to get another chance."

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