Dawgs get their kicks

Huge plays in special teams often prove decisive when Georgia and Tennessee collide. Since Mark Richt took the reins in Athens, it's usually the Bulldogs that make them, as a quick history lesson reveals:

2001: Damien Gary scored on a 72-yard punt return for Georgia and Alex Walls missed a 34-yard field goal for Tennessee as the unranked Dawgs upset the seventh-ranked Vols 26-24.

2002: Georgia blocked a UT punt for a safety and got field goals of 27, 44 and 47 yards from Billy Bennett in an 18-13 victory.

2004: Dustin Colquitt punted for a 48-yard average and James Wilhoit nailed a 51-yard field goal as the Vols upset the third-ranked Bulldogs 19-14 in Athens.

2005: With Georgia leading just 13-7 in the fourth quarter, Thomas Flowers returned a Vol punt 54 yards for a game-breaking touchdown as the Dawgs won 27-14.

Clearly, the kicking game has been a key in recent Vol-Bulldog clashes. No doubt it will be again this Saturday night in Athens. The Dawgs already have returned two punts for touchdowns this fall. They lead the SEC in punt-return average (18.6) and rank second in kickoff-return average (25.4).

"Their return game is just outstanding," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. "It's going to be a huge challenge for our kicker and punter and our coverage teams. We have to work like heck to match that with our return game, which has not been nearly up to par. "

Tennessee has allowed a punt return for touchdown in two of its last five meetings with Georgia. Obviously, the Dawgs do a great job returning punts and the Vols do a poor job covering them.

"We've really worked at the punt coverage," Fulmer said. "We're going to have to do our best job of the year. We've worked on it the last two weeks and haven't had any catastrophes happen to us (vs. Mashall and Memphis) but last year was huge. It was 13-7, then they returned a punt and put it away."

The Dawgs excel at more than punt and kickoff returns. Their entire special-teams operation is first-rate. Brandon Coutu has hit 63 consecutive PATs, including 15 straight this fall. He is 7 of 8 on field goal tries this season, with the miss coming from beyond 50 yards. Gordon Ely-Kelso is averaging 43.1 yards per punt.

Meanwhile, Tennessee's special-teams play has been spotty. Britton Colquitt is averaging 47.1 yards per punt and James Wilhoit has made 6 of 7 on field-goal attempts, with 18 touchbacks among his 30 kickoffs.

Now for the BAD news: Tennessee allowed three Memphis punts to roll dead inside the Vol 5-yard line last weekend. And the Vols rank dead last among the 119 NCAA Div. 1 teams in kickoff-return average at 14.0 yards per runback.

Fulmer conceded that letting three punts hit the ground last weekend was awful.

"We don't like that. That shouldn't happen," he said. "But two of the kicks were great kicks that were kicked away from our guy over on the sidelines."

As for UT's dismal performance on kick returns, Fulmer is trying to remain positive.

"The average is horrible," he conceded. "We're not trying to put our head in the sand but we were better this past weekend than we have been."

Lucas Taylor is likely to return kickoffs this weekend. Big-play receiver Robert Meachem, who is averaging 21.4 yards per catch, may get some return work, as well.

"Lucas does an OK job; I'd like to keep working Meachem back there," Fulmer said. "It's another opportunity for him to get his hands on the ball."

Austin Rogers will return punts this weekend. Jonathan Hefney is more experienced in the role but expends an awful lot of energy as UT's starting free safety.

"I like Hefney as a punt-return guy," Fulmer said. "The problem we have is depth at his position (safety). He makes a lot of plays, tackles a lot of people. He gets banged up and worn out, and that (return duty) is just another time he's going to get hit."

Rogers returned two punts for 13 yards before suffering a hamstring injury that sidelined him the past two weeks. He isn't the shiftiest guy in the world but he has good hands and excellent speed.

"He's going to catch the ball and get some yards," Fulmer said. "He's capable of breaking one but he's solid catching it. Austin's healthy and ready, so that's where we are."

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