University of Florida

Gators putting emphasis on fixing special teams

Special teams were a staple on Florida’s championship squads in 1996, 2006 and 2008.

The Gators’ third unit even excelled during Will Muschamp’s lone standout season in 2012.

Former UF coach Urban Meyer famously let special teams starters eat first in the buffet line as a symbol of their importance to the team, but Florida’s once-feared unit — one that regularly featured dynamic returners (Jacquez Green, Brandon James) and block artists (Jarvis Moss, Chris Rainey, Shariff Floyd) — has suffered a dramatic drop-off in recent seasons, and the unit hasn’t improved at all in the early stages of the Jim McElwain era.

“We want to be explosive,” UF special teams coordinator Greg Nord said.

“We’ve just got to clean [some areas] up.”

Where to begin?

Despite emphasizing the phase’s importance, McElwain’s special teams are off to a very shaky start.

Maligned place kicker Austin Hardin is just 3-of-6 on field goals, missing three straight attempts inside 40 yards, with an extra point blocked, too. Sophomore punter Johnny Townsend has been just OK, while the return game has been mostly nonexistent.

“The missed field goals are something that is starting to become a concern,” McElwain said.

“I’ll be straight-up. The low trajectory, I mean it’s not like there’s a block issue in there as far as the schematics of protecting.”

Hardin, a redshirt junior, is just 14-of-28 on field goals in his career, but he’s Florida’s lone scholarship kicker on the roster. He does sport a 75 percent (15-of-20) touchback rate.

“He’s our kicker,” Nord said.

“He’s just got to go out there just like everybody on our team and improve on the things he doesn’t do well and continue doing the things he does well.”

The Gators have blocked just a single kick since 2012, and they rank 63rd nationally in returns this season.

Florida has also committed multiple special-teams penalties in 2015, including a pair of roughing-the-punter infractions.

“I’m still scratching my head how we did that,” McElwain said.

Florida’s coach attributed youth to some of the unit’s early mishaps, as freshman wideout Antonio Callaway is the No. 1 punt returner and sophomore receiver Brandon Powell is the first-team kick returner. Callaway did rip off an impressive 37-yard return against Kentucky, but the freshman has made several questionable decisions, too, nearly resulting in turnovers.

“We’re playing a lot of guys there,” McElwain said.

“I think the important thing for us is saying, ‘This rep is just as important as if you’re playing fourth-down defense or third-down offense.’ Taking pride in that spot is something that we’re continually working on, and I believe it’s going to be a positive thing for us.”

Florida’s inconsistent unit must sharpen up quickly, though, as a tough test looms this weekend.

Tennessee leads the SEC — and ranks third nationally — in kickoff returns (39.3 yards per returns). The Vols have registered two return touchdowns and have also blocked a kick.

“We’ve just got to make the plays,” said Valdez Showers, a senior wideout and special-teams starter.

“In 2012, we won a lot of games on special teams from special-teams plays, so [McElwain] definitely preaches that special teams win games, too. … We definitely have to focus.”

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