The Florida Gators are fighting a rash of injuries early in training camp, but it’s two perfectly healthy players who have coach Will Muschamp really concerned.
The position battle to replace All-American kicker Caleb Sturgis — the Dolphins’ fifth-round selection in April’s NFL Draft — has proved futile to date, as neither senior walk-on Brad Phillips nor redshirt freshman Austin Hardin has taken hold of the starting job.
“I mean you lose the best kicker I’ve ever been around, so there’s no question it’s a huge concern,” Muschamp said.
“We have to get better.”
So far, Florida’s inexperienced duo has not.
The kickers continue to struggle with accuracy, consistency and confidence early in practice.
During an illustrious four-year career at UF, Sturgis set school records for made field goals and field-goal attempts. But his shadow looms as Florida’s current kickers deal with a precedent of lofty expectations.
Phillips admitted succeeding a legend can be overwhelming sometimes.
“[Sturgis] is one of the greatest kickers Florida’s ever had,” Phillips said. “We have to own up to the standard that’s been set.”
Muschamp said he would prefer to settle on a single kicker and stick with him but remains frustrated by the lack of progress.
“I’d like for one guy to go take the job. There’s no question,” he said. “But also we need production at the position.”
Last season, Florida’s offense relied heavily on Sturgis’ strong right leg, particularly as a scoring lifeline. Sturgis made 24 of 28 field-goal attempts in 2012, including 8 for 9 on attempts 40 yards or longer.
That luxury is now gone.
“When you had Caleb, you knew you had three points in your hand,” Muschamp said. “Now we may change that a little philosophically of what we think when we cross the 50-yard line.”
Phillips has some minimal game experience. The senior has four career field-goal attempts (two makes) and was UF’s kickoff specialist in 2011 when Sturgis battled back problems.
Hardin — a former Under Armor All-American and ESPN’s top-rated prep kicker in 2011 — is the front-runner to replace Sturgis but the star from Atlanta has yet to display the accuracy needed to be a steady starter.
“This is what I wanted to do. This is why I came to Florida to play,” he said. “I’m competing with a guy who is pushing me every day, which has really helped me step up my game. … It’s just an all-or-nothing-type of attitude.”