The 2014 Gators are on a mission. Last season was unacceptable in Gainesville and you’ll hear those exact words from Will Muschamp throughout his summer speaking tour.
Florida’s road won’t be easy with trips to Knoxville, Tuscaloosa and an end of the season date with the reigning national champions and the current Heisman Trophy winner. The road isn’t easy but it’s what the Gators have grown accustomed to and they’ll need to weather the storm to save Will Muschamp’s job.
With a younger team heading into this season, Florida will need to rely on players stepping into new leadership roles. This change will put more pressure on a few players who we’ll spotlight this week as the five players that have the most pressure on their shoulders this season.
We’ll kick things off (awful pun intended) with Florida’s kicker, Austin Hardin.
2013 Stats: 4-12 (33.3%) field goals, 15-15 PAT
Overview:An Under Armour All-American recruited out of Marist High School in Atlanta, Georgia, Hardin was brought in to be the eventual replacement to Caleb Sturgis. Sturgis left Florida with the most field goals in school history (70). Unfortunately for Hardin, his career hasn’t taken off at the trajectory that he would have expected.
After a redshirt season his first year on campus, Hardin came out of a kicking battle with senior Brad Phillips as the starter but after starting the year off at 4-of-8 on field goal tries, the job was given to Frankie Velez. The rest of the season Hardin handled longer field goals (his long on the season was just 33-yards) and Velez handled the close-range kicking job.
Hardin has put his disappointing 2013 season behind him and by the looks of it has taken hold of the starting job this spring. Hardin had a perfect day in the Orange and Blue Debut stave for one attempt where a low snap and poor hold affected his kick and caused it to bounce off the upright.
He earned the praise of his head coach, something that was hard to come by in 2013 and appears to have regained the confidence he lost last season. Kicking coaches often compare kicking or punting to a golf swing. If kicking is like golf, confidence is key and having the confidence that made him one of the best kickers coming out of high school will help Hardin moving forward.
Why is he so important?
He’s just a kicker, right?
Sure, kickers are often overlooked but their importance cannot be measured simply in makes and misses. Sturgis allowed Florida’s offense leeway in their play calling. If Florida was within range of a 50-yard field goal, having Sturgis in their pocket almost created an assumption of points on the board. A reliable kicker is an extension of the offense and a safety net. Florida sorely missed that safety net that Sturgis provided but have a kicker with the potential to create that in Hardin.
Can he live up to the pressure?
If kicking is like golf — as most special teams coaches insist — than confidence is key. Missing a few kicks early in the season and having to kick for his job in practice week in and week out obviously affected Hardin’s confidence last year. He had a solid spring, took all but one kick in the Orange and Blue Debut and connected on all of his attempts.
If Hardin can get the ball rolling early in the season, convert a few field goals in a row and build his confidence, he’ll be able to develop into the kicker that Florida thought he could be when they offered him a scholarship. A kicker worthy of replacing an all-time great at the university.