Florida Gators 2014 Positional Preview: Special Teams

We conclude our positional preview series today with a look at special teams – an area that was anything but special in 2013.

After the glory years of guaranteed PATs and field goals with Caleb Sturgis, the placekicking unit was left with a void large enough to dwarf the Grand Canyon. Kyle Christy, who astounded everyone with his ability to pin opponents deep in their own territory in 2012, faded into obscurity (and was even benched) in 2013. And the return game was decimated before a ball was ever lobbed into the air. I harken back to an Elton John favorite to express my feelings about this unit last year…

Field Goal Kickers

This is the unit I am most worried about for the upcoming season. Last year, as I just mentioned, the kicking game was downright atrocious. To give you an idea of last season’s futility, the Gators scored 30 points fewer than their opponents on field goals. In total, they were 12-for-21 in the kicking game (8-for-8 from 20-29 yards out; 3-for-6 from 30-39 yards out; 1-for-7 from 40-49 yards out; and 0-for-1 from 50+ yards out), good for 116th nationally. In addition, they scored the lowest amount of points from field goals in the SEC (60). By season’s mid-point it was evident that going for three wasn’t an option. Coming off a year where three games were lost by six points or less (Georgia, South Carolina and Georgia Southern), improving the kicking game will be paramount to the team’s success – equal to improving the offense, in my opinion.

And from all indications, while the kicking game has improved somewhat, it is not to where it needs to be. Austin Hardin, who was benched midway through 2013, has been improving this off season. He was 4-for-4 in the Orange and Blue Debut in April (including FGs from 42 and 43 yards, respectively), and has made over 70% of his kicks in fall camp. However, Muschamp believes there is room for improvement.

Frankie Velez also returns, bringing with him valuable experience due to Hardin’s benching last season. He was 6-for-8 on FGs and 6-for-6 for PATs through five starts, including a season-long 44 yard kick at LSU. Brooks Abbott, a transfer from Virginia Tech, is available as well. A Jacksonville native, he was 11-for-14 on field goals as a high school senior, and owns The Bolles School’s record kick of 52 yards.

Punters

Perhaps the most perplexing drop in special teams was from the punting game in 2013. In 2012, Kyle Christy averaged 45.8 yards per punt, with 27 of those landing inside the opponent’s 20. In 2013, Florida finished 11th in the SEC with punts averaging 40 yards. For a team that prides itself on its defensive ability, the punting game is critical to pinning an opponent deep and forcing their offense to earn every yard. Christy averaged 43.4 in the spring game, with a long of 51 yard. As a senior, he needs to improve for both his potential draft stock, and to help the Gators regain some swagger on special teams that was nonexistent last season.

Kick Return

And speaking of  a guy with one last chance, we come to the most explosive kick returner in UF history. Much has been made of Andre Debose’s 6th year eligibility. Though he holds the school record with four returns for touchdowns,the “next Percy Harvin” (as former Gators coach Urban Liar … I mean, Meyer called him) has not panned out (yet). This is his make or break year, and I believe he will make the most of it. Not only will he be a major boon to Kurt Roper, but Debose’s should slide right back into his role as kickoff returner with little-to-no issues.

Coaching changes

Special Teams Coach Jeff Choate resigned at the end of 2013, and Florida brought back a familiar face in Coleman Hutzler. Hutzler worked on the Florida staff in 2010 and 2011 before accepting a promotion at the University of New Mexico. The Lobos ranked 26th in kickoff returns in 2012, up from 70th in 2011. Hutzler has worked with DJ Durkin, who coached special teams at Florida in 2011 and 2012, so there is camaraderie there, and they both coached one of the university’s most talented kicking teams. Prior to his time at Florida, Hutzler spent three seasons (2007-09) at Stanford working for coach Jim Harbaugh. He also coached punter Ben Skaer, who was a first-team All-Mountain West selection in 2013, and who led the conference and ranked seventh nationally with a punting average of 45.8 yards (which was also a single-season record at UNM).

Bottom line: the unit can, should, and really must improve for the Gators to find any success. The golden rule of football is to never leave attainable points on the board, and that’s exactly what happened last season. If the Gators can recover some of those lost opportunities in the kicking game, a huge rebound is possible.