Better/Worse in 2016: Florida special teams

The Gators experienced both extremes when it came to special teams in 2015.

Austin Hardin had one of the worst seasons (5-of-14 field goals) in all of college football. Johnny Townsend, on the other hand, was one of the best punters in the conference (No. 2 in average yards per punt). And when other teams had to boot it away, Antonio Callaway brought excitement to the game with his ability to score on any given punt.

After such a miserable season in the kicking game, it’s hardly surprising that newcomer Eddy Pineiro stole the show at the spring game, going 3-of-5 with makes from 56, 52 and 46 yards.

2015 Stats
FG-A: 7-17
Longest: 43
Punting average (SEC rank): 44.82 (3)
Kickoff return avg (SEC rank): 21 (7)
Kickoff return TDs (SEC rank): 0 (5)
Punt return avg. (SEC rank): 13.94 (3)
Punt return TDs: (SEC rank): 2 (4)
Kickoff/punt return TDs allowed: 0

The Kicker

Pineiro’s first in-game kick as a Gator will also be his first kick in a football game that counts. While it’s encouraging that the converted soccer player was able to make field goals in game-like situations during the Orange and Blue Debut, kicking in a spring scrimmage in front of a home crowd is not that same as kicking on the road with the game on the line.

Coach Jim McElwain, however, is encouraged by Pineiro’s approach and attitude as the newbie was able to shake off the misses. After failing to convert on kicks of 53 and 54 yards, Pineiro rebounded and made the next one both times.

At least one Gators quarterback is already sold on the new kid with the big leg.

“He’s definitely going to be a weapon,” quarterback Austin Appleby told Saturday Down South in April. “You pretty much just have to cross the 30 and you’ve got points. That’s going to be huge for us going down the stretch.”

If accuracy were to become an issue with Pineiro, there’s a chance that former walk-on Jorge Powell could see some action in shorter kicks this fall. He made 2-of-3 field goals, with a long of 31 yards, and made 10-of-11 extra points in 2015. Powell played in a four-game stretch of the season before tearing his ACL in the LSU game.

The Punter

It was frequently said, jokingly, that Townsend was Florida’s biggest weapon on offense last season. Unfortunately that looked like less of a joke in the final stretch of the 2015 campaign.

Townsend’s average of 45.4 yards per punt allowed the Gators to at least flip the field when the offense stalled and sputtered. And when a team relies on its defense, like Florida did last season, the field position battle becomes key to staying in the game.

Since Florida has to replace multiple starters at the offensive skill positions, Gators fans should not be surprised if the coaches lean on Townsend to flip the field in tight games again in 2016.

The Returners

Antonio Callaway has a way of finding the opening field and making people miss him when he has the ball in his hands. It has led to big plays on both offense and the return game.

Jan 1, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Florida Gators wide receiver Antonio Callaway (81) catches a punt against Michigan Wolverines in the 2016 Citrus Bowl at Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Callaway’s 15.5 yards per punt return and two touchdowns on the season did not top the SEC, but were good enough for No. 2 in both categories. It’s worth noting that the leaders of both categories – Tennessee CB Cam Sutton (18.7 yards) and former Alabama CB Cyrus Jones (4 TD) – were both college football veterans in 2015 while Callaway was a true freshman.

If Callaway returns to the team this fall (and things appear to be heading in that direction), it’s safe to assume the Gators will generate offense — if not points — on punt returns in 2016. Opposing punters, however, have certainly been advised to kick it away from No. 81.

Kickoff returns, however, have lacked the same kind of excitement and production. WR Brandon Powell, who took the bulk of kickoff returns (24-of-33) in 2015, was in the bottom half (No. 10) of the SEC’s returners with an average of 21.3 yards per return. Powell did not return any kicks for touchdowns.

Cover teams

Florida’s cover teams were rarely talked about in 2015, perhaps overshadowed by Hardin’s struggles and Callaway’s highlights.

The punt coverage team was a definite strength, holding opponents to an SEC-best 3.9 yards per return. While punting is never the goal, it’s clear the Gators made the most of giving the ball back to the opponent.

Kickoff coverage shows room for improvement, however, as UF allowed 20.5 yards per return, ranking No. 10 among SEC teams. On the plus side, that did not include any opponent touchdowns. Also, since Florida did not put up a ton of points in 2015, this was not a major issue.

Special moment

Hardin’s Florida career did not go as planned, but he’ll always have the Vanderbilt game to look back on.

In Week 10, the Gators trailed the Commodores 7-6 with 2:22 left in the game when McElwain called upon Hardin, who had missed his previous four field goal attempts and had been effectively benched in favor of Neil MacInnes, a walk-on dental student. But McElwain knew Hardin had the bigger leg, and rolled the dice. To the surprise of everyone watching, the ball went through the uprights.

The Gators escaped with a 9-7 victory and clinched the SEC East title. Had Hardin missed that kick, as he did on nine others and three extra points in 2015, who knows if the team would have bounced back to wrap up the division the following week against South Carolina.

Nov 7, 2015; Gainesville, FL, USA; Florida Gators place kicker Austin Hardin (16) kicks the go-ahead 43-yard field goal against the Vanderbilt Commodores during the fourth quarter at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Florida defeated Vanderbilt 9-7. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately, any boost in confidence gained from the Vanderbilt kick was only a quick fix. While Hardin made a field goal against the Gamecocks, he went 0-for-4 against Florida Atlantic, Florida State and Alabama, and did not play against Michigan.

Vanderbilt likely feels cursed losing to Florida on a Hardin field goal, but the Commodores’ friends in Knoxville will always be there to console them.

One stat that must improve in 2016

The obvious one is make more field goals, as 7-of-17 was absolutely abysmal. Even ignoring the obvious angle of leaving points on the field, it’s particularly crushing to a team that leans on its defense to win close games. While not necessarily ultra-conservative, McElwain is certainly not game planning for the Gators to score as fast as possible and win 55-52 shootouts.

A less talked-about area is the kickoff return game. The Gators need to figure out how to block better or try another speedster. Powell’s numbers (24 returns, 510 yards, no touchdowns) were pedestrian.

Better/Worse in 2016

Even if Pineiro fails to live up to the current hype, it’s almost impossible for the Gators’ special teams to be worse in 2016. Pineiro can be far from perfect and still give the team a significant upgrade. As Appleby’s above quote shows, the team feels like that any time it crosses the 30-yard line, points will be score – something that could not be said in 2015.

Callaway’s status is something to watch, as his absence would be a blow to Florida’s punt-return numbers. Even if the current suspension were to see a negative development, the Gators will gladly accept a capable place-kicker in place of a talented punt returner.

Townsend could be a Ray Guy Award winner if he repeats his 2015 numbers.

Source: Saturday Down South

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