Special Teams Battle Looms for UF-AU

Usually it’s the high powered offense or the shut them down defense that commands the most attention in these high stakes SEC football showdowns like the one we will see Saturday night when the second-ranked Florida Gators visit number 10 Auburn, but this definitely has all the makings of a game that could very well be decided by special teams play.

The Gators have the league’s most diverse offense while Auburn runs a balanced attack that emphasizes a power running game. Defensively, the Gators are number two in the SEC and 14 nationally, while Auburn is fourth in the league and 22 nationally. So you have two good offenses going against shut-down defenses so something will have to give which means the special teams emphasis of Florida Coach Urban Meyer and Auburn Coach Tommy Tuberville could prove to be the game decider.

Meyer has changed the special teams culture at Florida in his two years. The Gators were torched repeatedly on kick returns the three years prior to his arrival, but all that has changed dramatically. The Gators haven’t given up a touchdown on a return in the 18 games that Meyer has been the Florida head coach. Last year the Gators gave up just 60 total punt return yards, which is outstanding but when you factor in that 51 of those yards were in two teams (Kentucky and Tennessee) the numbers are even more impressive.

Through six games this season, the undefeated (6-0) Gators have punted 20 times and they’ve given up only nine punt return yards, which is the lowest total in the nation. When it comes to kickoff coverage, the Gators are allowing just 12.8 yards per return. That’s only tenth in the SEC, but Florida’s emphasis on kickoffs is to pin teams inside the 20, which is a contrast to Auburn’s philosophy.

The Tigers have the SEC’s top punter in Kody Bliss (46.9 yards per boot) and he’s ranked second nationally. Auburn has given up 104 punt return yards but the Tigers are ranked third in the SEC in net punting (39.5 yards per punt) and that’s good for the fourteenth spot nationally.

Auburn’s kickoff coverage philosophy is pretty simple — let John Vaughn kick the ball out of the end zone. He’s kicked off 31 times this year and 24 have gone for touchbacks.

“He [Bliss] is a really good player,” said Meyer after practice Wednesday afternoon. “Their kickoff guy is terrific too … he just knocks them all out of the end zone.”

Because the expectation is for the long booming kickoff, Auburn has been able to use a little trickery to its advantage. Against South Carolina, the Tigers scored a touchdown on their opening possession of the third quarter then they used a little pop-up kick that they recovered on the ensuing kickoff. South Carolina was totally unprepared for anything but a long boomer. Auburn recovered and in the entire third quarter of that 24-17 Auburn win, South Carolina didn’t run a single offensive play.

“I don’t know if you saw that one against South Carolina but that’s one of the best kicks, that little pooch kick that they recovered,” said Meyer. “South Carolina didn’t get the ball in the third quarter because they didn’t let them the ball after they scored. Both their kickers are as good as there are in the conference.”

That one little kick has made Meyer and the Florida staff spend time all week preparing for the possibility that Auburn would use it Saturday.

“You have to spend time on it,” said Meyer. “He [Tuberville] has a history of doing things like that. He ran a fake punt against Washington State. A couple of years ago he ran a fake punt in The Swamp. It didn’t work but he ran it from his goal line so we just have to make sure we’re covering all bases.”

Meyer isn’t above using a trick play to change a game. The Gators scored a touchdown on a double reverse, flea flicker from Chris Leak to Jemalle Cornelius against Kentucky that covered 33 yards. In that game, the Gators also tried a fake field goal although it was unsuccessful. Meyer says the Gators have two or three trick plays ready and available every game.

The secret, he says, is in the timing of the play and setting it up right.

“You just don’t want to get off schedule,” said Meyer, “Like you run a trick play and you lose seven yards in that series, it’s hard to get that back.”

The Gators did use fake punts successfully three times last year, getting critical first downs from punter Eric Wilbur in wins over Tennessee and Georgia and from fullback Billy Latsko in the Outback Bowl win over Iowa. Meyer would have preferred to use other trick plays than fake punts last year but injuries had a huge role in what he could and couldn’t do.

“Last year all our deceptives were on our punt team,” said Meyer. “Honestly, we ran three fake punts because we didn’t have the personnel to run on offense those trick plays when our guys got banged up.”

When the Gators do punt the ball, they get great coverage and the way Wilbur has been kicking the ball lately, there is often a huge change of field position in Florida’s favor. Wilbur was the SEC Special Teams Player of the Week against LSU, averaging 51 yards on four punts. For the season, he’s averaging 43.3 yards per punt. That would put him second in the SEC behind Bliss except he hasn’t punted enough times this season (19) to qualify (21 minimum through six games) for the league lead.

Against LSU, Wilbur had two game-changers, a 50-plus yard punt that LSU’s Chevis Jackson fielded at the six where he was promptly hammered by Wondy Pierre-Louis and a 42-yarder that Jackson muffed. Florida’s Lutrell Alford recovered that one, a 58-yard change in field position plus possession of the ball for the Gators and that set up Florida’s first touchdown of the game.

The Gators pride themselves on punt coverage. They use a funky spread formation that allows three players to release early and that severely limits return opportunities for opponents.

“For sure there are three going at all times down the field and traditionally it’s two,” said Meyer. “In the NFL you’re only allowed two. The men on the end of the line of scrimmage are the only two allowed to go but in college you can snap the ball and go. Our long snapper (James Smith) and our two gunners go. We do other things where we let more go.”

LSU managed a net of -10 yards on punt returns but Meyer said there was one Florida mistake or else the net would have been even worse.

“We made a mistake on Saturday but you look on the last three years (two at Florida and 2004 at Utah) we haven’t given up any yards because the guys are doing a good job getting down the field,” he said.

LSU is a common denominator for Wilbur and Bliss. Bliss also was the SEC’s Special Teams Player of the Week when Auburn beat LSU. In that game he averaged 48.2 yards per punt, nailing four of 50 yards or more. He also dropped two of his punts inside the LSU 20. On the season, Bliss has punted 22 times and five of his punts have been downed inside the 20.

In addition to kickoffs, Vaughn has hit nine of his 11 field goal attempts including both his attempts from beyond 50 yards. He hit a 52-yarder against Washington State and a 55-yarder against Mississippi State. He is 2-2 this season from 40 yards or more.

Florida’s placekicking appears to be the Achilles Heel of the second ranked Gators. Florida hasn’t made a field goal all season and the Gators have had two extra points blocked.

Chris Hetland, who was 13-16 on field goals last year, is 0-4 this year. It’s cause for concern but Meyer felt a little bit more optimistic after Wednesday’s practice.

“Hetland’s still kicking,” said Meyer. “He had an excellent day today. He hit every one of them. He’s fine. He’s kicked in stadiums before and he’s done a good job so we just have to get him one.”

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There was good news on the injury front Wednesday. Tailback DeShawn Wynn and Percy Harvin saw their status upgraded and both of them will be needed against Auburn’s fast, tough defense.

“DeShawn practiced today a little bit and Percy Harvin practiced a lot so I feel a little bit better about those two guys,” said Meyer.

Wynn leads the Gators with 354 rushing yards while Harvin has caught 10 passes for 163 yards and one touchdown and he’s rushed nine times for 92 yards. Wynn missed the LSU game last week and nearly half of the Alabama game the week before with a knee injury. Harvin has touched the ball only four times since a high ankle sprain against Tennessee in game three.

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Meyer knows that it is highly important that Florida gets off to a good start offensively against Auburn. The Tigers are a run-first offense and when they get a lead, they have shown the ability to pound the ball on the ground, eating up huge chunks of clock. The Gators have trailed in the first half in all four of their SEC games and they haven’t faced a team capable of running the ball and controlling the clock like Auburn.

“I think against Tennessee we did a good job with that,” said Meyer. “We went down and scored and hung around, hung around, hung around and then our conditioning kind of took over. I don’t want to say we just want to hang around but we know what kind of environment that’s going to be now. That’s not a surprise. Our guys are used to it. We need to come out with a fast start.”

Last year, the Gators lost three games and in each of the three games, they found themselves trailing by at least ten points early on.

“Last year we got in a bad deal in the first five minutes of the game and we can’t let that happen,” he said. “I think we’re a different team but if it does happen you’ve got to tighten the chin strap a little harder like we did against Tennessee and keep going.”

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Meyer said the two-quarterback system he’s using with senior Chris Leak being spelled a few plays by freshman Tim Tebow isn’t all that unusual. Friends in the coaching profession like Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia use it as does Jeff Tedford at California.

“I think the way we [Meyer and coaching profession buddies] look at it is offensive football is it’s a ten yard game,” he said. “You got to find a way to win that game. Get ten yards and don’t worry about all that other stuff. Especially in this kind of game [Florida vs. Auburn], each ten yards is going to be a premium. We have to find a way to go win that game.”

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.