Punt returning job still up in the air

The Gators spent the bye week working with punt returners and trying to get more production from the unit, but it didn't happen on Saturday in the upset win over LSU. It's a weakness on the team that coach Will Muschamp says will continue to see work until its fixed. Even when the explosive returns aren't there, the Gators just want someone to fair catch the punt.

"It's one of the toughest deals," Will Muschamp said. "You're standing looking at a ball, and you've got guys running down the field ready to hit you. I never did it, so I don't know. I can imagine it's pretty daunting."

The search continues for Florida this week in practice. Andre Debose was set to be the punt returner against LSU, but Muschamp said he "got banged up" early in the game and didn't see as much time as expected returning them. Sophomore Pop Saunders then moved back to take punts.

It wasn't much better.

The Gators totaled five fair catch calls—three by Saunders and two by Debose—on seven punts against LSU. Two of the punts weren't caught and rolled down.

The returners are struggling with their decision making. Saunders caught a booming punt off the foot of LSU punter Brad Wing with around 10 yards between him and the closest LSU gunner. However, he misread it and called for a fair catch.

"It's just about fielding the punt and making a good decision, and it's easy sitting on the practice fields doing it and sometime in the game situation when they're covering," Muschamp said. "We've just got to make better decisions. We work on it every single day. It's not something we haven't worked on."

There's a lot that goes into the decision. It starts with the look the punt coverage unit is in. If the Gators are trying to block the punt, the returners know it will likely end in a fair catch because of the lack of blockers. They must then read how well the gunners were blocked and whether there's enough room for a return.

All of this while still keeping an eye on the ball to be in position for the catch.

"He's got to make a judgment as he sees the flight of the ball and then see where the coverage and how close the coverage is to him, to whether or not he can return it, field it or fair catch the ball," Muschamp said. "It's easy for you and I to sit here on Monday afternoon and talk about.

"A little different when it's hung up there and you've got some guys that can really run well down the field, and you've got to make that decision. We need to make better choices and decisions in those situations."

RUNNING ON ANYONE: After the first game of the season, Muschamp made it known to players, coaches and fans that the team would need to run the ball to be successful. They went on the road and did it against Texas A&M and Tennessee defenses that don't strike fear into their opponents, and after running on Kentucky, the stage was set.

Florida would have to prove it could run on a well-respected LSU defense to know its capabilities. The Gators got a good idea of what they can do on Saturday.

The Gators ran the ball 58 times—compared to just 50 total plays run for LSU—for 176 yards on the ground.

"We've got to continue to do so. That's going to be the challenge," Muschamp said. "When you have success doing something, the first thing as a defensive coordinator, you watch the tape and you say, 'You better stop the run.' That's why we need to create more balance within what we do."

When defensive coordinators start to load the box to slow down running back Mike Gillislee, the hope from the Florida coaching staff is that quarterback Jeff Driskel can begin to stretch the field. It didn't happen on Saturday against LSU, but the Gators were more focused on the designed game plan to wear out the Tigers on the ground.

Driskel went 8-for-12, throwing for 61 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions while fumbling once when sacked. The Gators could be forced to open up the passing game more as defenses try to take away the running game.

"It ought to create opportunities for you down the field," Muschamp said. "And that's where we need to start capitalizing on some things."

Fightin Gators Top Stories