Spring preview: Special teams

The departure of Caleb Sturgis leaves a big hole to be filled on the Florida special teams unit. The first step to finding his replacement begins on March 13 when the Gators open spring practice. The future kicker will be the focus of the special teams. Florida returns Kyle Christy, one of the top punters in the country, and multiple experienced returners on punts and kickoffs.

PUNTER

There isn't a team in the country that feels more comfortable about its returning punter during spring practice. Kyle Christy came into the 2012 season as the starting punter, but there were still questions about how he would do. He didn't waste time answering them. Christy ended the year averaging 45.8 yards per punt while dropping 27 inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

The improvement came in his operation time. He struggled as a freshman and didn't win the job at the start of the 2011 season because he couldn't shorten his time from catching the punt until he got it away. D.J. Durkin worked with him and shortened that, pushing him to one of the top punters in the country in the fall.

Christy was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award, booming 25 punts for at least 50 yards. He was fifth in the nation in punting and led the SEC.

Florida will have three walk-on punters on the roster during the spring — Todd Fennell, Grant Van Aman and Justin Vogel.

PUNT RETURNER

There could be an open competition for the punt returner job after what the Gators tried last year. There are two players still on the team that returner a punt last season — Andre Debose and Marcus Roberson.

Debose returned 10 punts for 93 yards while Roberson returned two punts for 81 yards, including his 50-yard return in the fourth quarter against Florida State that set the Gators up for a touchdown that pushed it to a two-possession game.

Roberson took over the punt returning duties late in the season and showed his knack for making plays. Debose has to show this spring that he can be a factor with the ball in his hands. After struggling at wide receiver in Gainesville, Debose has still made an impact on special teams, but he needs to prove again this spring that he can handle the job, or Roberson could start the year returning punts.

KICKER

Caleb Sturgis leaves Florida with the third most points (340), the most field goals (88) and most field goals of 50+ yards (8) in school history. He rewrote the record book for kickers in Gainesville. Even while kicking for some struggling offenses, Sturgis was a constant on teams that desperately needed points.

The challenge now becomes replacing him. Whoever wins the job likely won't be as effective, simply because there hasn't been another kicker in Gainesville as good as him.

There are three kickers on campus this spring — Austin Hardin, Brad Phillips and Francisco Velez. Hardin is on scholarship and was ranked the No. 5 kicker in the country by Scout.com when he graduated from Marist School in 2012. Hardin strained his hamstring midway through the 2012 season and was held out of practices while taking a redshirt last season.

Phillips has seen action on kickoffs, field goals and extra points during his career. The senior from Bucholz High School is 2-4 on field goals with a long of 43, coming against Georgia in 2011. He also has 27 kickoffs with four touchbacks and an average of 62.8 yards.

Hardin and Phillips will start their battle in the spring to be the team's kicker in 2013.

KICKOFF RETURNER

Debose led the team with 18 kickoff returns last season for an average of 28.3 yards and one touchdown, coming on a 100-yard return at the Sugar Bowl. The redshirt senior has made an impact on kickoff returns during his career. He's averaging 27.4 yards per return and has four touchdowns on kickoff returns at Florida.

In the second half of the season, the Florida coaches decided to find more ways to get the ball in the hands of Loucheiz Purifoy. That included some touches on kickoff return. It'll be interesting to see if the Florida coaches continue with this after Purifoy suffered a thigh bruise during the Sugar Bowl. He's an important part of the Florida defense, so is it worth the risk of losing him to an injury on special teams?

Unless the Gators add a new playmaker to the mix for kickoff returner, Debose and Purifoy should battle it out for the job during spring practice.


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