Georgia's special teams have struggled

ATHENS - The impact of Georgia's special teams hasn't diminished this year, kicker Billy Bennett insisted this week.

"But I don't know if it's been positive or negative," he said. "I think this year really shows the importance of special teams, but in a lot of areas we've let down."

Last season, Georgia scored three special teams touchdowns and blocked four field goals and five punts. So far this year, Georgia has two blocked field goals, one blocked punt and one special teams touchdown.

"We've been solid but not spectacular," Coach Mark Richt said. "Special teams hasn't killed us, but they haven't been the difference either. They were the difference a lot in our first two years here."

The No. 7 Bulldogs (7-2, 4-2 SEC) are still waiting for a difference-making special teams performance heading into Saturday's game against Auburn (6-4, 4-2). It's not a good sign that this week's game will mark the first time in Richt's three-year tenure that Georgia hasn't had a special teams captain.

Georgia's coaching staff picks captains for each week's game based on performance in the previous game. Normally, there is one each from offense, defense and special teams. However, no special teams player made enough impact to earn the honor this week, Richt said.

It's been that kind of year for the Bulldogs.

 Billy Bennett is second in the nation in field goals per game (2.22) and his 74.1 percent success ratio is third in the SEC. However, his most vivid memories of the season are missing three field goals in a seven-point loss to LSU and another one in a three-point loss to Florida.

"I think a lot of it falls on the kickers," he said.

First-year punter Gordon Ely-Kelso is not in the top 10 among SEC punters due to a 38.2-yard per kick average. That's more than 5 fewer yards than the departed Jonathan Kilgo averaged last year, but Ely-Kelso's numbers are skewed by the number of short kicks he's had.

Forty-two percent of his kicks have been downed inside the 20-yard line, which is the highest percentage in the SEC.

The kickers can't take all the heat, though. Georgia's returners and coverage teams haven't been any flashier.

The Bulldogs are 11th in the SEC and 88th in the nation in kickoff returns (18.7 ypr). Due to injuries and ineffectiveness, seven different players have returned kickoffs this year for Georgia.

Fred Gibson, who was fifth in the league last year with 24.2 yards per return, has returned only two kicks this year. He pulled his hamstring late in the Middle Tennessee State game on a kickoff return and has been plagued by injuries since. Bryan McClendon and Kregg Lumpkin are now returning kicks for the Bulldogs, and Gibson isn't expected to return to that role even though he's healthy now.

Even Damien Gary, who holds Georgia's career punt returns record, has yet to make a big splash. Gary is fourth in the league in average (11 ypr) but hasn't taken one back further than 23 yards this year.

The Bulldogs coverage teams aren't any better. Georgia is sixth in the SEC in kickoff coverage, allowing 20.8 yards per return, and eighth in net punting, which factors in return yards. The product of all this is that only two teams in the conference have allowed their opponents a better average starting field position than the Bulldogs.

The special teams have slipped for the same reason the offensive line has struggled this year, Richt said.

"I think personnel had a lot to do with it," he said. "There are enough young guys ... that it has been relatively inconsistent. Last year guys on special teams were in their second year of getting real good at it."

This year's guys are still working on it.

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