Spring preview: Special teams

The Gators will be forced to replace one of the best returners in school history this spring.

Andre Debose never turned into the kind of receiver he was projected to be coming out of high school, but he still made a big impact in the return game. After five years in Gainesville, Debose left with the school record for kick return touchdown (4). That also tied for the Southeastern Conference record with Brandon Boykin (Georgia), Willie Gaulet (Tennessee) and Felix Jones (Arkansas).

Serving primarily as the kick return during his first three seasons, Debose took over full time punt returning duties in 2014. He had 23 of his career 34 punt returns last season. Debose averaged 14 yards per punt return and had one touchdown on punt returns last season, adding 24 yards per kickoff return.

His impact on special teams was important over recent years, and the Gators now begin the search to find his replacement.

There likely won’t be any final answers for the kick returner or punt returner this spring, but the coaches will take the opportunity to try multiple players at the position. While Debose handled the duties through most of last year, we do have some sample size to work with on games he didn’t play, since he elected not to play in the Birmingham Bowl with Florida.

With Debose out, Demarcus Robinson handled the punt returns while Chris Thompson had three kickoff returns and Brandon Powell had one. However, that was a game with the previous staff in charge, and this new staff could elect to go a different route.

Robinson’s ability after the catch makes him a good fit as the punt returner. The blinding speed of Powell and Thompson make them likely candidates at the kick returner spot, but there will be others involved. There are still multiple players that can do damage with the ball in their hands like cornerback J.C. Jackson and wide receiver Valdez Showers.

At kicker, Austin Hardin bounced back in 2014 from a difficult freshman season. He went 7-10 on field goals last season, splitting time with senior Frankie Velez. Hardin had the bigger leg, so he handled the longer kicks. The most important kick of his season was a 49-yarder at Tennessee, which served as the game-winner. He also went 4-6 at Florida State late in the year, adding a 52-yarder for his season long.

It has always been about the mental side for Hardin. He has a better leg than his career numbers suggest, and 2014 was a big step to reaching his potential.

While the Gators get their primary kicker back, they’ll have to replace punter Kyle Christy. Replacing a punter for most teams involves throwing an inexperienced player in the mix and hoping he’s ready to handle it. The Gators already know that sophomore Johnny Townsend can handle the starting job since he did exactly that for the final six games of the 2013 season.

Christy struggled that season, and the previous staff decided to pull the redshirt on Townsend. Over those six games, Townsend averaged 42 yards per punt with a long of 61 yards, five touchbacks and six punts dropped inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. He’ll take over the job as a redshirt sophomore in 2015.

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