Standing next to Johnny Townsend during the beginning of a spring football practice the former Florida Gators punter was amazed at the drill the team was doing. Dan Mullen began practice with the entire team working on blocking punts. Townsend told me they did it during his first year with Will Muschamp, but he hadn’t seen the drill since.
It’s no wonder that Florida blocked just five punts and kicks in the last five seasons. There was little to no emphasis put on special teams by the previous staff, especially under a head coach who would jokingly say he didn’t know the specialists names.
Not anymore in Gainesville.
“We’re gonna invest a lot of time on special teams, were gonna make sure everyone in the program is invested in special teams, every player understands the importance of it,” Mullen said on Monday. “And that’s a phase we want to try to be really strong at is our special teams phases.”
Greg Knox is the special teams coordinator but the emphasis that Mullen puts on special teams predates his relationship with Knox. Asked on Monday where it came from Mullen racked his brain, finally coming up with his time at Bowling Green, coaching under Urban Meyer. It’s something Meyer and Mullen carried to Utah and Florida and has been a staple of Mullen’s programs at Mississippi State and now, again, in Gainesville.
“Those guys get special treatment. They eat first at the meals,” he said. “They’re the one that get, are probably the favorites on the team are the special teams stars, so the guys understand the importance of what that is.”
That attention to detail pays off. Florida blocked 32 punts/kicks during Meyer’s six-year run in Gainesville.
Over the previous four seasons (2014-17) under Knox, Mississippi State ranks first in the SEC in blocked kicks and punts with 14, including two last season by Jeffery Simmons at Louisiana Tech in Week 2. Their 14 blocked kicks/punts is third best in the country in that span. The Gators have blocked just three in that span, including none in 2014 and 2015.
In 2017 Florida had more kicks blocked (2) than they blocked (1). The same can be said in 2015 (0/7) and 2014 (0/3).
Despite having the best punter in school history (Townsend) and one of the most accurate kickers in school history (Eddy Pineiro) special teams were anything but special in Gainesville.
Monday a reporter noted that the Gators won a lot of games due to special teams when Mullen was in Gainesville. He cut the reporter off, retorting, “We won a lot of games in nine years (at MSU) on special teams.”
Which is true and it’s why nearly every practice starts off working on the third aspect of a football game that is largely forgotten.
“We’re really spending time on individual work, on the technique, fundamentals of special teams before we put in the plays or the scheme and just go practice the scheme,” Mullen said. “Make sure everybody on the team gets reps and understanding of what the technique and fundamentals are involved in special team special teams, because during the season.”