Camp preview: Specialists

Florida saw declines at many positions last year, but the kicker and punter jobs might have taken the biggest step back from the 2012 season. That needs to change this fall, and the beginning of fall camp is an important time for them.

The 2012 Florida team reached a BCS bowl on the back of defense and special teams. During the 2013 season, the specialists struggled.

Austin Hardin stepped into the kicker job after Caleb Sturgis was a finalists for the Lou Groza Award during the previous season. Hardin’s reputation for having a big leg never translated to the field. He ended the season 4-12 on field goals with all four field goals made coming from 33 yards or fewer. He was 0-6 on field goals from 40+ yards out.

Kickoffs were an adventure at times, too, but that should be an easier fix for Hardin. He has the leg to get the ball where it needs to be and should be able to harness it.

The most important part of fall camp for Hardin is the mental side. When a kicker goes 4-12 on field goals, especially when it’s someone that had scholarships from major universities out of high school and has the talent to kick in the SEC, the mental part of the game always takes priority. First-year special teams coordinator Coleman Hutzler had to focus on that during the spring and make sure Hardin’s confidence returned.

Things looked fine on the practice field, and the ball was jumping off Hardin’s foot again. However, when the kicking job was opened during practice last fall, Hardin usually won the job because of his performance in practices. The issue was in game situations. During the spring game, Hardin added a 4-4 performance, hitting field goals from 24, 35, 42 and 43 yards. It’s not a concrete sign that he is back to form, but it was a step in the right direction.

If Hardin struggles again this season, the Gators have multiple options they could go to. Frankie Velez was successful last season, going 6-8 with a long of 44 yards. He’s a redshirt senior this fall. Florida also added Brooks Abbott in the offseason after he transferred from Virginia Tech. He is a former Army All-American while a student at the Bolles School and handled kickoff duties for the Hokies in 2012.

The punter position should produce one of the best battles in fall camp. The idea of a position battle seemed crazy heading into last season. Kyle Christy was coming off a year that had him as a finalist for the Ray Guy Award. However, his early season struggles forced him to lose his job. He ended the year with just 21 punts, averaging 39.6 yards after averaging 45.8 yards per punt in 2012.

Every number took a dip, and the Florida coaches eventually had to make a change.

Freshman Johnny Townsend, who was originally expected to redshirt last season, took over as the starting punter and led the team with 29 punts on the year. Townsend averaged 42 yards per punt, topping the 40.9 yards that Christy averaged during his freshman year of 2011. Townsend added five punts of 50+ yards.

Both punters had a good spring. Practices usually ended with Christy and Townsend alternating reps, booming punts and helping the team work on special teams. The ball jumped off Christy’s foot like it did during the 2012 season, and he looked ready for a bounce back.

The best case scenario for Florida is for one of the two to win the job and keep it all year. Christy, a true senior, might make the most sense for the roster. It would give Townsend a chance to redshirt and still have three years to punt for Florida, and it would be Christy’s last year at Florida.

The issues for the fall are similar to what happened at the kicker position in the spring. Christy’s confidence has to be rebuilt. That started during the spring and looked to be paying dividends, but it has to continue into fall practice.

It’s rare to have such questions about the both specialist positions on a team heading into fall camp, but the Gators have to answer them at both spots.

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