Gators Have Shut Down Nations Best Returners

It has become almost a badge of honor to be a part of the punt team in the two years of the Urban Meyer at the University of Florida. When the punt team takes the field, the Gators stand up and take notice on the sidelines. They know there is a very good chance that something good is going to happen.

Whether it’s a fake punt (see Arkansas 2006, Tennessee and Georgia 2005), a blocked punt that alters a game (see Arkansas, Vanderbilt and LSU 2006, Iowa 2005), or shutting down one of the nation’s top punt returners, the Florida punt team has done its part in making the Gators’ special teams very special. Florida has yet to surrender a punt return for a touchdown in two seasons.

In 2005, even against dynamic punt returners such as Kentucky’s Rafael Little, Alabama’s Tyrone Prothro, LSU’s Skyler Green, Georgia’s Thomas Flowers and Florida State’s Willie Reid, the Gators gave up just 60 total punt return yards and finished ninth in the nation in net punting. The Gators ran fake punts in the Tennessee and Georgia games for critical first downs.

Florida ranks eighth in the nation in net punting in 2006. The Gators have given up 57 total yards even though they’ve faced dynamic punt returners like Little, Georgia’s Mikey Henderson, Florida State’s Chris Davis and LSU’s Trindon Holliday.

The Gators have punted 113 times in two years and they’ve given up just 117 return yards. The coverage has been good that only 36 of those punts have actually been returned for an average of 3.25 yards per return.

“Being on the punt team and all those special teams, you’re like royalty around here,” said wide receiver Bubba Caldwell. “They’re like kings around here. They make the big plays. They had a big impact on the game. Coach Meyer loves them.”

The punt team will face perhaps its toughest challenge ever in Glendale, Arizona on January 8 when their task will be stopping Ohio State’s one-man wrecking crew, Ted Ginn Jr. Ginn is Ohio State’s top wide receiver (59 catches, 781 yards and nine touchdowns) but he has six punt returns for touchdowns in his three-year career. Over the course of his career, Ginn has returned 64 punts for 900 yards (14.06 yards per return) for six touchdowns.

In 2006 Ginn only has one punt return for a touchdown, a 60-yarder against Michigan State, but that doesn’t mean he’s having an off year.

“He doesn’t have the stats but he has the talent,” said Meyer after Monday’s practice.

Ohio State uses its other dynamic wide receiver, Antonio Gonzalez, as a twin safety in its punt return scheme but Ginn is the guy the Buckeyes want with the ball in his hands. Meyer knows the Gators will need to neutralize both of the Ohio State returners to give Florida the kind of field position advantage that it takes to win the game.

“That’s something we’ve been very good at all year and actually for two years covering down on punts so we’re working that every day,” said Meyer. “They have great punt returners and they can change the game.”

Meyer said that Ohio State’s twin-safety arrangement will actually allow the Gators to get one more man down in coverage.

“It’s one less threat of a guy threat of coming [to block a punt] so you can release one more player,” said Meyer. “We like to free release as many as we can. If you saw that one, for example, against Arkansas … there are seven guys right there.”

Against Arkansas, Eric Wilbur’s booming punt was muffed by Reggie Fish at the five yard line. The ball rolled into the end zone where Florida freshman Wondy Pierre-Louis led a pack of Gators in a scramble for the ball and a game-altering touchdown.

“That’s why we’re so good at punt coverage because if they don’t rush we free release and that gives us an opportunity to get one more guy up the field,” Meyer said.

Florida is 21-4 in Meyer’s two years at Florida and at least eight wins can be directly attributed to special teams play. In 2005, the Gators got earned superior field position against Tennessee with the punt game plus they blocked a field goal and got a critical first down on a fake by punter Eric Wilbur. Against Georgia, the punt coverage kept Thomas Flowers in check and Wilbur got a critical first down on a fake. The Gators blocked a field goal to change the game against Florida State and they opened the scoring in the Outback Bowl against Iowa with a blocked punt by Jemalle Cornelius that was recovered for a touchdown by Tremaine McCollum.

In 2006, the Gators got a safety on kickoff coverage against LSU when Riley Cooper hit Early Doucet and forced a fumble into the end zone. Reggie Nelson also blocked a punt in that game. Against Vanderbilt, Florida got a blocked punt by Ryan Smith that led to a touchdown. The Gators blocked an extra point and two field goals to win the South Carolina game. Jarvis Moss blocked the extra point that provided the one-point difference (Florida won 17-16) and on the game’s last play he blocked what would have been the game-winning field goal. Against Arkansas, Florida ran a fake punt with Cornelius taking the ball 18 yards for a critical first down and Pierre-Louis got a touchdown on punt coverage.

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Tight end Tate Casey will be unable to practice for the next two weeks because of a high ankle sprain but otherwise, Florida’s health for the championship game is improving.

“Earl [Everett] practiced today … he’s about back,” said Meyer. “Drew [Miller] is still a little slowed up from that ankle and Ray McDonald (hyperextended elbow) is going to be ready to play in the game.”

Safety Tony Joiner (high ankle sprain) isn’t practicing yet but he is expected to be ready for the Ohio State game.

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Meyer said that senior defensive tackle Steve Harris has seriously improved his chances to play professional football with his play since he moved to nose tackle to replace Marcus Thomas, booted off the team in November for repeat violations of the school drug policy. Harris played well against Florida State in the regular season finale and then followed that up with an outstanding game as the Gators held Arkansas a full 100 yards below their per game rushing average in the SEC championship game.

“That’s going to help his career,” said Meyer. “He’s legitimate. People are looking at him.”

Harris, who graduated from Florida this past Saturday, is one of Meyer’s reclamation projects and he’s a source of pride for the Florida coach.

“If you had to say most improved in all areas — lifestyle, academics and football — Steve Harris might be number one right now.”

Meyer said that the improvement on the field has plenty to do with defensive line coach Greg Mattison. Mattison and Harris have built a strong one-on-one relationship in the past two years.

“I think it’s two years of coaching with Coach [Greg] Mattison and he’s a talented guy,” said Meyer. “That’s one of those player-coach relationships that made him a player.”

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Meyer had intended to run gassers at the end of practice but he gave the team a chance to avoid the extra conditioning.

“We have a tradition that if you catch a punt we don’t run gassers after practice,” said Meyer. “We always pick a D-lineman and we picked Lawrence Marsh. He laid out, dove in the dirt and made a great catch.”

When Marsh made the catch, the team let out a roar and the big freshman was immediately mobbed by teammates.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.