Practice Goal #1: Find A Placekicker

It’s a complicated week of practice for the Florida Gators. Not only do the Gators have to face an improving Vanderbilt team Saturday in Nashville, but they’re dealing with issues in the kicking game and at running back all week. Perhaps nothing is more vital to Florida’s long term success in the last third of the season than resolving the problems in the field goal kicking game.

Senior Chris Hetland earned his scholarship last year with a 13-16 performance including several clutch kicks that were difference makers. This season, the only field goal that Hetland has knocked through is a 22-yarder. He’s 1-7 and coming off the Georgia game when he missed from 39 and 42 yards.

“I’m missing by inches,” said Hetland after Tuesday’s practice. “I should put them down the middle, I feel like, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. I’ll keep working and get it done.”

Hetland is having to earn the right to kick Saturday. He’s going against Eric Nappy and Jonathon Phillips in practice this week and Coach Urban Meyer has said that if either Nappy or Phillips is even with Hetland at week’s end that will be his kicker on Saturday.

“We’re going to do it all three days,” said Meyer. “I’ll probably announce at the end of the week, maybe not even until game time. I just want to make sure it’s right. I don’t want to do the wrong thing here.”

Doing the right thing for Hetland means having him spend some time with someone to deal with the psychological issues of what Hetland calls “a slump.”

“He’s a great kid but he’s one of seven and now it’s in his head,” said Meyer. “I’m even going to have him talk to someone who works with that kind of stuff.”

Hetland attributes the problems to confidence issues caused by a shaky beginning to the season.

“I’m still the same person,” said Hetland. “I just got off to a shaky start and I’m in I guess what some people call a slump. I just have to get out of it. We have some big games coming up so there’s no better time to get out of it than now.”

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Another place where there are some problems is the tailback position where the number one and two players have been battling through some injuries. DeShawn Wynn has been slowed by a knee injury suffered in the Alabama game but he came through in the fourth quarter against Georgia last Saturday, gaining 36 yards when the game was on the line.

Sophomore Kestahn Moore is still dinged up so he’s trying to get healthy again.

“The tailback position needs a lot more consistency,” said Meyer. “We started having some and then a guy gets hurt.”

Meyer has used freshman Percy Harvin some of the time at tailback but Harvin is 180 pounds and not a between the tackles kind of runner.

The third option at tailback is sophomore Markus Manson, whom Meyer said has looked better in practice during the last couple of weeks. Manson gained 365 yards last year as a freshman but Meyer says he didn’t have a good spring or August camp.

“The fall is not the time for a tryout camp,” said Meyer. “Spring practice is when you go earn a position and Markus obviously didn’t have a great spring and he didn’t have a great training camp during summer camp but he’s practicing and he’s not getting a lot of reps.

“We’re trying to get the other guys better so he’s not getting a lot of reps. He’s actually had a couple of good weeks of practice so he’s slowly moving his way back up, but like I said here at Florida in spring practice — you go earn a position and in training camp you solidify it and go. If you’re not there you don’t earn it during the season because we don’t have time. We saw how he runs. We saw it in spring practice and we saw it in training camp. He’s had a couple of good weeks but he’s third.”

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The Gators lead the SEC in penalties and penalty yardage per game by a substantial margin. It’s the penalties that Meyer believes are at the heart of the offensive problems.

“You take away penalties and the offense, I think, is okay,” he said.

Against Georgia, the Gators had eight offensive penalties and one costly block in the back penalty that brought back a 66-yard punt return for a touchdown by Brandon James.

“If you start taking out the penalties that’s about 100 yards of offense,” said Meyer. “We ran for 150 against Georgia and we had eight penalties on offense.”

To help eliminate the penalty plague, Meyer has been bringing in officials to practice the last couple of weeks.

“We have officials come in once a week for the last two weeks and the purpose is for that reason alone and that’s to make sure receivers aren’t holding and the offensive line isn’t jumping offsides and holding and we’re not having nonsense penalties,” said Meyer. “That’s why the officials are here and that’s why guys are staying after practice running when they have penalties. We’re throwing flags and we’re doing everything we possibly can to eliminate it.”

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Most of the infractions have been called on the offensive line, a line that had a collective 20 collegiate starts entering the season.

“We have four new starters up front and to be honest with you, in the last few weeks a couple of those guys were overmatched and we had some problems there,” said Meyer. “Now they have to get a lot better. They’re young players. They will get better.”

Some of the offensive linemen have been overmatched because once the season begins, they spend most of their practice going against the scout team and for the most part, there’s no way scout team players can simulate the speed of the caliber of opponents the Gators have played.

Meyer has been trying to integrate some head to head action of first team offensive linemen against first team defensive linemen to help bring the offensive players up to speed.

“The negative is during the season you don’t get to go against our defense a whole lot,” said Meyer. “We do 10 plays at the end of practice and we have added a section called BPU — blitz pick up — and we don’t usually do that. It’s the first time we’ve ever done that and it’s good against good.

“What happens is you go against the scout team which is not real fast and then you face that guy at Auburn or Alabama and he’s like (Jarvis) Moss or (Derrick) Harvey. We’re trying to go as much as we can without guys getting banged up.”

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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.