published Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

Isaiah McKenzie to get early shot at Georgia returns

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    Georgia ranked last in the SEC in both kickoff and punt returns this past season, with J.J. Green’s 48-yard kickoff return against Nebraska in the Gator Bowl serving as a rare bright spot.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Isaiah McKenzie could be the first member of Georgia's 2014 football signing class to claim a starting role for the Bulldogs, though it wouldn't occur on offense or defense.

The Bulldogs finished last in the Southeastern Conference in both return categories this past season, averaging 18.6 yards on kickoff returns and 2.9 yards on punt returns. Their kickoff-return average was aided in their Gator Bowl loss to Nebraska, when J.J. Green had the team's season-high return of 48 yards.

Georgia's punt-return average was especially woeful compared to Alabama (13.4) and Auburn (13.1), but Bulldogs coach Mark Richt believes McKenzie could help in a hurry.

"Isaiah is a very dynamic return man, and that's what jumps out at you the most," Richt said earlier this month. "He has the ability to make people miss one, two or three times on the same play. He's got a lot of speed and quickness and, I don't know what you call it, swag?

"He's got some swag. He really believes in himself."

A 5-foot-8, 175-pounder from Plantation, Fla., McKenzie was overshadowed for much of his American Heritage High School career by five-star tailback Sony Michel, who also signed with the Bulldogs. McKenzie was rated the No. 23 receiver nationally by 247Sports.com and No. 35 by Rivals.com after catching 41 passes for 892 yards and seven touchdowns as a senior.

McKenzie also rushed 22 times for 251 yards and seven scores for Florida's 5A state champions, but his most memorable highlight was a winding 61-yard punt return in his final game.

"He can play tailback and receiver and can probably play a lot of things," Richt said, "but he'll definitely be at the top of my list to see what he can do as a return man."

Unsuccessful raid

Georgia's new defensive staff consists of coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and assistants Tracy Rocker, Kevin Sherrer and Mike Ekeler. Pruitt was the first to be hired after leaving the same position at Florida State, and he admitted earlier this month that he tried to lure other Seminoles assistants to Athens.

"Everybody, when they make a decision, do what they think is best for them and their families," Pruitt said. "We tried to get some coaches to come with us, and when you're out here trying to hire coaches, everybody is going to do what they think is right for their family.

"To leave Florida State was a tough decision for me, because I love Coach [Jimbo] Fisher and the staff there and the players, but I just felt it was a tremendous opportunity to come work for Coach Richt, the University of Georgia and to get back into the SEC."

Pruitt had a background with Sherrer, with the two having coached at Hoover (Ala.) High.

Too close for comfort

The Bulldogs had eight games this past season decided by a touchdown or less and two others -- the win over South Carolina and the loss to Missouri -- that were up for grabs early in the fourth quarter.

Richt doesn't want to experience so many close calls each season, but he knows he may not have a choice.

"We know we were close to being a championship team a year ago," Richt said, "and we know it's not that far between winning and losing. There were maybe seven games where you could look at one play where we could have won it or maybe even lost it.

"I would like to get to the point where there is not quite as much drama and that we could take care of business, but we're in a great league."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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