Deerfield-Windsor grad Tony Zenon, who has a 79-yard punt return this season, has been one of the few bright spots for Georgia Tech's special teams.
ATLANTA -- A special teams player doesn't get a lot of time on the field, so he has to make the most of it.
By contrast, when something goes wrong, everyone notices.
At Georgia Tech, the special teamers are getting a lot more attention than they want.
Shanked punts, missed field goals, fumbled returns -- the Yellow Jackets have endured all sorts of mishaps when the offense and defense are off the field.
"You're just doing one thing," kicker Justin Moore said. "When you go out there, you need to perform."
The problems have been there throughout the season, but they're more noticeable than ever with Georgia Tech mired in a two-game losing streak. The most recent defeat was a special teams debacle: the Yellow Jackets surrendered a touchdown on a fumbled punt return and gave up a 48-yard kickoff return that set up another score in a 24-7 setback to Miami.
That certainly won't do with No. 6 Clemson coming to town Saturday night.
"It definitely has a big impact," running back Roddy Jones said. "Coach always says that field possession changes the most on special teams. If we can't flip the field on special teams, it hurts us."
The woes have been so pronounced that coach Paul Johnson has found himself defending the makeup of his staff, which doesn't include an assistant dedicated solely to special teams. Secondary coach Charles Kelly runs the meetings, most other assistants have some duties, and Johnson has the final say on schemes and personnel.
Johnson notes that plenty of schools use a similar arrangement, and he's not willing to concede that having one assistant just to handle special teams would make things better.
But he knows the Yellow Jackets must improve if they're going to have any chance to finish strong in a brutal final month of the season. After Clemson, they must face No. 15 Virginia Tech and 22nd-ranked Georgia.
"It's not what we want. We're not satisfied with it. I've said that repeatedly," Johnson moaned. "We're going to keep working on it and try to get better. That's all we can do."
Punter Sean Poole has been all over the place. He might boom one over the returner's head. He's just as likely to shank one out of bounds. That's just what happened against Miami, when he followed a 52-yard effort with a pathetic 13-yarder. That inconsistency has left Poole with a mediocre 37-yard average, which doesn't even make the top 10 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"I don't care who's coaching special teams," Johnson said. "If you punt the ball 13 yards, that's not good."
Poole isn't the only one struggling. Far from it. Moore is just 4 of 8 on field goals -- last in the ACC -- and it hasn't helped that a couple of attempts were blocked. Moore used to handle kickoffs, as well, but struggled to get the ball to the end zone. David Scully took over the job, but hasn't done much better. Backup punter Chandler Anderson has chipped in, too, with even worse results. Combined, the trio has managed just four touchbacks in 54 kickoffs.
The kickoff return team has been equally abysmal. Johnson has tried six different players, including starting receiver Stephen Hill. There could be further changes this week -- Jones, a fifth-year senior and one of the team's top runners, has been getting a look in practice and could get his first special teams duty of the season. Even with a 79-yard return by former Albany Herald Player of the Year and Deerfield grad Tony Zenon thrown into the mix, the Yellow Jackets are averaging just 19.6 yards on returns, next to last in the ACC.
The Yellow Jackets are in the top half of the ACC in punt returns (averaging 7.6 yards), but Zach Laskey's huge blunder against Miami -- the freshman inexplicably tried to field a bouncing ball inside the 10-yard line and couldn't hang on -- overshadowed whatever success the team was having.
"I talked to Laskey a little bit. I told him to keep his head up, hop back on that bike and ride it again," Jones said. "Stuff like that happens. Guys have got to make better decisions, but they're young guys. There's a lot of pressure. I'm not making excuses for them, but they're learning still. They'll learn from this and bounce back."
Johnson is especially perplexed by the lack of success returning kicks. He's good friends with Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith and uses essentially the same scheme as the NFL team. But, as the Yellow Jackets have struggled to break another long one, the returners seem to be putting more pressure on themselves. They're taking chances they shouldn't be taking, and that's just making things worse.
"When you bring a ball out of the end zone from 4 or 5 yards deep," Johnson said, "good things are probably not going to happen."
In a sense, the problems seem to be snowballing with all aspects of the special teams. The kickers, in particular, feel like they are letting everyone else down.
"Those guys are practicing all these different things in practice. But as a kicker, you're just kicking field goals and kicking off all through practice," Moore said. "You kick, you kick, you kick. If I was not a kicker ... I would be thinking, 'You should've made that. That's all you do in practice.'"