Punter Kyle Christy and kicker Frankie Velez led the Gators last season.
Christy completed an outstanding career, which included a Ray Guy Award finalist honor in 2012. In 2014, he averaged 44.4 yards per punt and dropped 21 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line with only seven touchbacks. He also had 20 punts for 50+ yards. He punted 56 times with a long of 66 yards.
Velez spent the season as Florida’s kicker on field goals shorter than 40 yards, but he lost his job by the time the season came to a close. Austin Hardin improved as the season went on and built up his confidence. Velez, a walk-on, had a good senior season as the kicker for Florida. He went 12-14, going 6-6 on field goals from 29 yards or closer. He went 5-7 on field goals from 30-39 yards and 1-1 on field goals of 40+ yards.
He had one field goal blocked, and that was the one that cost him his job. Velez’s low field goal against South Carolina would have iced the game, but it was blocked and kept the Gamecocks in a game they would eventually win.
Both Christy and Velez are done with their playing days, but the Gators have reinforcements ready to take over in 2015.
It’s rare that a team has an experienced punter after one leaves, but the Gators are in a unique situation at the position. Johnny Townsend punted for Florida late in the 2013 season when Christy struggled. Christy won the starting job this year and punted well, allowing Townsend to take a redshirt. He’ll head into the 2015 season as the starting punter and a redshirt sophomore with three years left in college.
In limited action during the 2013 season, Townsend averaged 42 yards per punt with a long of 61 and six punts dropped inside the opponents’ 20-yard line with five touchbacks.
At kicker, the Gators will also have an experienced player ready to take over. Hardin has already taken reps as the team’s kickoff specialist throughout the year because of his strong leg. The momentum started for Hardin this year when he hit a 49-yard field goal that gave Florida the lead over Tennessee with 6:20 left to play. It ended up being the final score in the Gators’ 10th straight win over the Volunteers.
Hardin went 7-10 on the year, going 3-3 on field goals from 30-39 yards, 3-4 on field goals 40-49 yards and 1-3 on field goals from 50+ yards. His long of the season came from 52 yards.
No one questions the strength of Hardin’s leg, and confidence has always been the most important part of his kicking ability. He heads into the spring with plenty of confidence and without any direct competition to his starting job.
The most interesting roles that needs to be filled on special teams are the returner spots. Andre Debose served as Florida’s kick and punt returner last season and excelled at both. Any guesses at this point in the year about who would fill those spots shouldn’t be taken as guarantees, but there are some guys that make sense.
Brandon Powell is electric in space and has the straightaway speed to fill both roles. He also showed impressive hands out of the backfield and could handle punts. Demarcus Robinson also caught punts in open practices and could work there because of how good his hands are.