The name Brandon James will still send a shiver down the spine of Tennessee Volunteers fans for what he did on special teams against the Vols during his time in Gainesville. The Florida Gators pint sized special teams super hero returned two punts for scores against the Vols (83 yards in 2007 & 78 yards in 2008) and averaged 27.5 yards per punt return with 37.25 yards per kick return.
This year, however, there’s nothing special about Florida’s special teams unit and for the first time in years, Tennessee may actually have the advantage when it comes to this oft overlooked, yet important part of the game.
You can’t mention special teams at Florida without first addressing field goals. Redshirt Junior Austin Hardin. Hardin has missed his last three field goal attempts — all from inside 40 yards — and has only converted three of his last eight field goal attempts.
“The missed field goals are something that are starting to become a concern,” Jim McElwain said on Monday. “I’ll be straight up. The low trajectory, I mean it’s not like there’s a block issue in there as far as the schematics of protecting.”
Florida has done a good job on punt coverage, holding opponents to just a six yard average on four returns but the kick off coverage unit has struggled, namely with sound tackling. Missed tackles allowed New Mexico State and ECU to rattle off a 23.25-yard average on kick returns. With Austin Hardin’s ability to kick the ball into and out of the end zone, it’s a wonder why Florida ever kicks the ball in a position where it can be returned.
Coming into The Swamp this week is Volunteer kick return man Evan Berry, who leads he country with his 45.8 yard per return average. Berry took a kickoff to the house last week against Western Carolina. With a weapon like that, Tennessee will be waiting for Hardin to kick one short this week but if Florida is smart, they won’t let that happen.
Redshirt sophomore punter Johnny Townsend has also been a mixed bag this season. Townsend had a great punt downed at the two last week against Kentucky but he also sent a booming 50-yard kick down into the end zone for a touchback. Townsend’s average per kick this season is a decent 41.42 (0.55 yards shorter on average than his freshman season in 2013). However, that average doesn’t account for net yards. For instance, if you take that 50-yard punt that went into the end zone and subtract the 20 yards gets for the touchback Townsend’s average per kick drops to just 39.75 yards per kick, 4.5 yards shorter than Kyle Christy’s average a year ago. Additionally, special teams coordinator Greg Nord would like to see Townsend keep the ball to the short side of the field so that Florida’s punt coverage team isn’t strapped in trying to cover more of the field than necessary.
“What we gotta do, just continue working on where he’s placing the ball on his punts, make sure he’s not letting them get outside of the coverage,” Nord said before recalling a 60-yard bomb Townsend struck against ECU.
The lone bright spot on special teams has been Antonio Callaway on punt returns. Callaway almost broke a return against Kentucky but settled for a 37-yard return and he is averaging 15.5 yards per return.
When the Florida Gators were running the college football landscape special teams was a weapon. Whether it was the solid kicking from guys like Caleb Sturgis or punting of Chas Henry and Kyle Christy, the returns from guys like James, Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, the special teams at Florida were an extension of their offensive attack.
Jim McElwain aspires to bring that back to Gainesville but the Florida Gators are a long ways away from making those aspirations a reality.