In our final In-Depth Game Day wrap-up, Gator Country and Kentucky Sports Report take a look at each team’s special teams units and how they match-up for tonight’s game.
FLORIDA SPECIAL TEAMS
By Mark McLeod Senior Columnist
The return game between the ‘Cats and Gators figured to be very interesting until Rafael Little was injured last weekend. Little (punt return) and Keenan Burton (kickoff return) are the sixth ranked return specialists in the nation. The Gators have finally added a spark of their own in true freshman Brandon James.
“The team we play this week is excellent,” Florida head coach Urban Meyer said. “I think you can see the evolution of a team when you study them. The evolution of the team has been very positive. I think they have the best kick return scheme in the country. They have the best return game and I understand it has been like that for awhile.”
James brought back an electrifying 90 yard return that was nullified by a block in the back call. The officials call certainly looked suspect from here. James was able to bring back four kickoffs for 65 yards. His only other punt return was for eight yards. Being a week stronger after a knee injury in August will only help him in the process.
Last season, Chris Hetland was one of the top placekickers in college football. However, because of the outstanding offensive production, particularly in the red zone, he had not been given an opportunity for a field goal attempt. Failing to get an opportunity to work with his snapper and holder proved to be a disadvantage for the Gators. Hetland missed both of his attempts- from 52 and 47 yards respectively.
Florida also missed on two PAT conversions in the first two games. Those were not missed attempts by Hetland- just horribly botched plays.
Senior punter Eric Wilbur has punted nine times for a 40.6 yard average. Florida is outstanding in coverage. Only two of his kicks have been returned and they have gone for a combined eight yards. A one yard return was made by All-American punt return specialist Joe Burnett of Central Florida.
The Gators had only two kickoff returns last week. James took his kick back 30 yards, while running back Kestahn Moore brought back a 19 yard return.
The Gators kickoff coverage has been very good as well. They love punching the ball near the goal line and forcing the opponent to bring it back amid the hard hitting gunners.
Analysis: Obviously, Florida’s biggest concern is not having Hetland on track. That could very well have either helped blow things open or potentially have saved the game. They will get him at least one attempt. The Gators spend a lot of time on special teams. Don’t be surprised if they block one this weekend and/or James electrifies the “The Swamp” with a return.
Obviously, defending Keenan Burton will be very difficult. An injured Rafael Little means the Gators won’t get the best shot from the ‘Cats if Wilbur has to launch one.
KENTUCKY SPECIAL TEAMS
By Larry Vaught
Going into the season, punter Tim Masthay was the subject of great speculation because of the time it takes for him to get off kicks. However, he has not yet had a punt blocked and is averaging close to 40 yards per boot. He says handling kickoff duties — where he has been excellent — has helped him relax more on his punting.
Placekicking has been an adventure with UK already using three kickers. True freshman Lonas Seiber seems recovered from a summer injury and made his first field goal last week after having his first attempt earlier in the game blocked.
Kentucky has talent, and depth, in its return specialists. Little is one of the nation’s top punt returners. If he can’t play, Brooks will go with Burton, Lyons or receiver DeMoreo Ford. Burton is also a dangerous kickoff return man as he proved again against Louisville.
UK’s coverage teams have been solid the last two years. “We have more speed and better athletes. We should be able to cover kicks better,” Brooks said.