Big plays by Georgia's special teams

Damien Gary

Instead of having one assistant in charge of special teams, Coach Mark Richt prefers to spread the responsibilities among his staff.

ATHENS, Ga. - Don't call Jon Fabris a special teams coach.

For that matter, don't tell Fabris that Georgia's special teams are special.

Fabris, Georgia's defensive ends coach, carries the heaviest load of the special teams assignments that are distributed among Georgia's assistants.

Instead of having one assistant in charge of special teams, Coach Mark Richt prefers to spread the responsibilities among his staff.

Because he has a long and successful history with special teams, Fabris is still at times referred to as special teams coach. That mistake usually is enough to earn a glare - or worse - from the most vocal and animated member of the Georgia staff.

On or off the field, Fabris sets a demanding standard. Mistakes are not tolerated. Only on rarely successful occasions will Fabris even allow what he calls "the kicking game'' to be called special teams.

Fabris had nationally ranked punt return and kickoff coverage teams at Kansas State (1997-98) and Iowa State (1987-94). His 1998 Kansas State team led the nation with five punt returns for touchdowns.

"(Fabris) demands a lot,'' said Georgia receiver and punt returner Damien Gary. "That's what helps a lot. He's built tradition at other schools.''

This Saturday's visit from Tennessee recalls the most complete effort by Georgia's special teams in recent memory. In last year's 26-24 win over the Vols in Knoxville, Tenn., Gary returned a punt 72 yards for a touchdown. The Bulldogs finished with a 179-24 advantage in kickoff and punt return yards while dominating that part of the game.

This year, special teams have played a key role in every game during No. 6 Georgia's 5-0 start, yet the demanding Fabris is far from satisfied.

"Overall, we're not very good,'' Fabris said. "There are too many things that are not being done properly.''

Not very good?

Fabris coaches punt returns and kickoff coverage. Georgia ranks second in the Southeastern Conference in kickoff coverage, as the average kickoff return for opponents is only 19.2 yards.

Thanks to Gary's continued strong efforts, Georgia ranks second in the conference and ninth in the nation in punt returns, averaging 17.6 yards per return. In a match of strength against strength, Tennessee is third in the nation in net punting.

More evidence of Georgia's strong special teams: Billy Bennett, named Monday as this week's Southeastern Conference Special Teams Player of the Week, leads the conference in field goal percentage (six of seven, 85.7 percent). Fred Gibson ranks 17th in the nation in kickoff returns."There are always opportunities to be better,'' Fabris said. "I know what my standard is, and my standard is not tied into rankings. I look for guys playing the best they can, getting everything they can out of themselves.''

Added Fabris, quoting the former legendary UCLA basketball coach: "It's like John Wooden says, you're not competing with your opponent, you're competing with yourself. Are you doing just enough to barely win that particular battle or are you trying to really be as good as you can be?''

From the season-opening win over Clemson, when Gibson returned a kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown, through last week's win at Alabama, when Bennett capped a perfect kicking day by drilling the game-winning field goal with 38 seconds left to play, Georgia has leaned heavily on its special teams each week.

The special teams have scored three touchdowns: A 71-yard punt return by Gary against New Mexico State, a blocked punt by Sean Jones that was returned 12 yards for a touchdown against Northwestern State, and Gibson's return against Clemson.

Special teams also set up the Bulldogs' most memorable big play of the season. At South Carolina, Jonathan Kilgo had three punts downed inside the Gamecocks' 15, including one at the 4. Two plays later, David Pollack intercepted a Corey Jenkins pass in the end zone for Georgia's only touchdown in a 13-7 win.

"We've had some big plays, but the big plays have not been on a consistent basis,'' Fabris insisted.

"If you only knew how many big plays there could have been with a certain individual or individuals doing their job. That's something the public never knows.''

Fabris does not even like to take credit for the special teams triumph last year against Tennessee, saying "That's last year and it doesn't have anything to do with this year.''

Only in a back-handed manner will Fabris acknowledge the role special teams played in last year's win at Tennessee.

Asked if Georgia had enjoyed such a well-rounded effort from its special teams since the 2001 Tennessee game, Fabris said simply "No.''

Said Gary: "Without a doubt, it was the most well-rounded special teams effort I think we've had to this point. Special teams played a big role in the win last year. We just hope to do the same thing this year. We know it's going to be a war.''

Added Gary: "If it comes down to the kicking game, we feel like we have an advantage.''

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