In our final in-depth series at how the Gators and Volunteers matchup, we take a look at the special teams on both sides. In a tightly contested match such as this one, special teams could be all the difference between a victory or a loss.
FLORIDA SPECIAL TEAMS
By Mark McLeod
The greatest mystery surrounding the 2006 edition of the Florida Gators focuses squarely on their special teams play. The questions easily outnumber anything know about the group. In big games, where special teams play so often can make the difference in a game- what do we know about Florida?
Florida returns kicker Chris Hetlend and punter Eric Wilbur. They have a bevy of talented return men, who really haven’t made much noise. Kickoff and punt coverage was much improved against Central Florida. That’s what we know. There’s much more that we don’t.
“Here’s what I like about our special teams play,” Meyer said. “Guys are arguing and begging and tearing up because I was going to take a guy off of kickoff and put a freshman in there. Riley Cooper’s running down there and I don’t know if you noticed this, but what a play he made. He’s seven yards out in front of everybody else and a guy tries to block him and he knocks him down. And I’m more excited about that than that 58 yard reception Percy (Harvin) got because we need that in this program. We didn’t have that (last year). You know, we had guys running down there on kickoff wondering why they get more carries and those types of things. It changes the element of everything. That’s really important to championship teams.”
The Gators have on of the top placekickers in college football in Chris Hetland. However, because of the outstanding offensive production, particularly in the red zone, he has not had an opportunity to take a shot. Hetland was 13 of 16 in his first year as the Florida kicker in 2005. Hetland not getting an opportunity to kick a field goal and working out any kinks with his snapper and holder by the third game of the season is not a position relished by Meyer. Not at all.
Head coach Urban Meyer was not at all pleased with the inconsistent play of the snapper and holder positions since the season opener. Thus far Florida has missed on two PAT conversions. Those were not missed attempts by Hetland- just horribly botched plays.
“I like the effort,” Meyer stated. “I like the intensity. Obviously we’re extremely sloppy right now with the operation of the field goals. We have not gotten our punt return going. We have not blocked a punt yet. So, there are some things that we’ve got to get cleaned up.”
Senior punter Eric Wilbur has punted five times for a 38.6 yard average. Only one of his kicks have been returned and that went for one yard by All-American return man Joe Burnett of Central Florida.
The Gators haven’t proven to be much better at returning punts. They have pretty much squandered their non attempts with a return average of just 5.4 yards, ninth best in the conference. Florida’s coaches are hoping that Brandon James is much improved this week. He returned last week from a knee injury, although it is obvious that he is not 100%.
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.
Analysis: Spectacular special teams play usually spells doom for the opposition in big games. Florida biggest concern is not having an attempt for Hetland. The Gators spend a lot of time on special teams. Don’t be surprised if they block one this weekend or James electrifies the visiting crowd with a return.
TENNESSEE SPECIAL TEAMS
By Randy Moore
Two games into the 2006 football season Tennessee’s special-teams play has provided a little bit of everything. The punting and kicking have been very good. The punt coverage has been solid. The kickoff coverage has been mediocre. The punt and kickoff returns have been abysmal.
Sophomore Britton Colquitt has punted five times for a 41.4-yard average with two kicks downed inside the 20-yard line. Senior James Wilhoit has made all nine conversion kicks and nailed his only field goal try, a 35-yarder. He has kicked off well, too. He put three of six kickoffs into the end zone in the opener vs.California, with two downed for touchbacks. He booted four of six kicks into the end zone in Game 2 vs. Air Force, with three resulting in touchbacks.
The Vols are allowing just 5.3 yards on punt returns but they’re surrendering 21.8 yards on kickoff returns.
Although Tennessee has returned three punts for a mere 7.0 average, the kickoff runbacks have been even worse. The Vols have returned four kickoffs for a putrid 9.5-yard average but even that doesn’t begin to capture how inept the kick return team has been. Consider this recap from Game 2 vs. Air Force:
Kickoff No. 1: Demetrice Morley fields it three yards deep in the end zone, ignores Lucas Taylor’s “stop” sign and is swarmed under at the Vol 13-yard line.
Kickoff No. 2: Up man Chris Brown fair catches a bloop kick at the 26-yard line.
Kickoff No. 3: Morley slips down at his 1-yard line while fielding the ball.
Kickoff No. 4: Taylor has a bloop kickoff bound off his shoulder pads, squirt nine yards downfield and out of bounds at the 27-yard line. He is credited with a nine-yard return. Inquoris Johnson’s shoulder pads and is recovered by Air Force.
Kickoff No. 6: Another on-sides kick is untouched by Tennessee and recovered by Air Force. Fortunately for the Vols, the Falcons were ruled off-sides and forced to kick again. Jayson Swain.
Head coach Phillip Fulmer couldn’t hide his disgust while discussing the Vols’ misadventures in handling on-sides kicks.
“On the first one, we went for the ball and it bounded off our chest, which is not a good thing,” he said. “On the second one, we acted like we didn’t want to field the ball. We acted like it was a hot potato and we were actually backing away from it.”
Given how poorly Tennessee’s return teams perform, they might do better with a potato than a football.