Special teams a boost for Florida
by Mark Long
Associated Press Sports Writer
October 26, 2012 12:45 AM | 852 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — With arguably the best punter/place-kicker combination in the country, No. 3 Florida should be looking for a new adjective to describe its special teams.

How about supreme teams? Or superior teams? Either one would be appropriate.

The Gators have been downright dominant in the kicking game this season, putting the foot back in football and making anyone who watches coach Will Muschamp’s team appreciate that often overlooked aspect of the game.

Those units could give Florida (7-0, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) a leg up in Saturday’s game against rival Georgia (6-1, 4-1) in nearby Jacksonville.

“We’re a very invested group in our special teams as far as our staff is concerned,” Muschamp said. “What you emphasize is what’s important. We spend a lot of time on it — meetings, practice and emphasis from our staff.”

It shows.

Florida’s special teams were instrumental in wins against Vanderbilt and South Carolina the last two weeks, helping the Gators overcome offensive issues that come with having the league’s worst passing attack.

Against the Commodores, senior place-kicker Caleb Sturgis made all three of his attempts, Earl Okine blocked a field goal and Solomon Patton ran 54 yards on a fake punt to set up a touchdown that turned a close game into a double-digit lead.

Last week against the Gamecocks, sophomore punter Kyle Christy set a school record with a 54.3-yard average. The Gamecocks started 14 of 15 drives inside their 30-yard line and ended the game with an average starting point of the 22.

Christy leads the nation with a 47.9-yard punting average. Half of his 36 punts have been 50 yards or longer, and 13 have been inside the 20-yard line.

“He’s been able to flip the field for us,” linebacker Jon Bostic said. “On defense, that helps us a lot when we can pin guys down inside the 20 and keep them down there.”

Sturgis has been equally effective.

Sturgis has made 12 of 14 field-goal attempts this season, including both from beyond 50 yards. A Groza Award finalist in 2011, Sturgis also has a strong enough leg to put every kickoff in the end zone. Twenty-one of his 43 kickoffs have results in touchbacks.

“He’s very accurate and very dependable,” Muschamp said. “He never gets shook. He just lines up and does his job. ... In my two years as head coach, to have that opportunity to have a guy like him has just been a relief.”

Others haven’t been nearly as fortunate.

Penn State missed four field goals and had an extra point blocked in a loss to Virginia last month. Tennessee has switched place-kickers twice this season after missing four extra points. And few in Alabama have forgotten those four missed field goals in a 9-6 loss to LSU last season that could have cost the Tide a chance at the national championship.

Florida, meanwhile, has been almost automatic whenever a special teams unit gets on the field.

“Their special teams have been just that — special,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, whose team allowed a 99-yard kickoff return against the Gators last season. “It’s amazing, really, what they’ve been doing. ... They’re making it miserable for punt return teams to get something going. They’ve got a lot of speed on their return teams.”

Florida has allowed just 24 yards on 37 punts, which ranks 14th in the country, and is second in the SEC and 23rd nationally in kickoff coverage. Throw in return man Andre Debose, who owns a school record with four kickoff returns for touchdowns, and the Gators seemingly have few, if any, special teams holes.

The Bulldogs can’t say the same.

Georgia has struggled with two freshmen kickers. Marshall Morgan has missed four extra points, while Collin Barber and the punt team have the worst net average in the SEC.

Instead of hiring a full-time special teams coach, Richt said this week he may take on more of the duties himself during the offseason.

“I would have to fire somebody to hire a special teams coordinator,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m interested in doing that. One thing I can do is at least spend some time learning the kicking and punting fundamentals well enough to be their coach. Right now, at this minute, I don’t have enough expertise to do that. But in the offseason, I think it would be wise for me to do that.”

Florida lured special teams coordinator D.J. Durkin away from Stanford in 2010 and kept him despite interest from Ohio State’s Urban Meyer last year.

Durkin has been the catalyst behind Florida’s special, err supreme, teams.

“We say at the beginning of the year: If you’re not on special teams, you’re a selfish player,” quarterback Jeff Driskel said. “We take great pride in our special teams. We work on it a lot. We have some good players on our special teams. We get down there and we cover well. And when we get chances, we make big plays.”
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