Gators’ camp preview: Special teams

Florida’s special teams units will look much different this fall.

The Gators have to replace punter Kyle Christy and record-setting kick and punt returner Andre Debose.

The only significant contributor that returns is kicker Austin Hardin, but even he split time with Frankie Velez last season. After Velez graduated, Hardin now has to assume the starting kicker role. In 2014, Velez handled field goals from 35 yards and shorter. Hardin has the stronger leg and was responsible for field goals longer than 35 yards.

Hardin has served as the primary option on kickoffs since he came to campus, and when the Gators needed a long field goal, Hardin showed progress with his accuracy in 2014. He went 7-10 with all of his field goal attempts coming from 30 yards or longer. He went 3-4 on field goals from 40-49 yards and hit a season-long 52-yard field goal that won the game at Tennessee.

Velez did what was asked of him last season, going 6-6 on field goals shorter than 30 yards. The challenge for Hardin will be to replicate that success on shorter field goals this year. Accuracy has not been his best skill since kicking at Florida, especially when it’s a shorter field goal that requires more touch than power.

Johnny Townsend will take over the punting for Florida this year after redshirting last season. Christy averaged 44.2 yards per punt with a long of 66 yards, dropping 22 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line and hitting 22 punts over 50 yards. It wasn’t always good for Christy, who lost his job in 2013 to the true freshman Townsend.

During the 2013 season, Townsend took over as the starter for the final six games. He averaged 42 yards per punt with a long of 61 yards. He put six punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line to go with five touchbacks, an area that needs to improve this fall as the starting punter. He has already proven to have a leg capable of being the starting punter, and that’s a job he’ll likely maintain for the next three years.

Even when the Florida offense struggled to move the ball last year, there was always a threat in the return game from Andre Debose. He left Gainesville owning the school record with four kick returns for a touchdown, which also ties for the Southeastern Conference record.

There’s no obvious candidate to take over for Hargreaves, and the new coaching staff won’t decide on a starter until they see how different players handle the job in the fall. Players to keep an eye on winning the kick return, punt return or both jobs are Vernon Hargreaves III, Brandon Powell, Demarcus Robinson, Valdez Showers and Chris Thompson.

Hargreaves is an athlete and has the skill to do it, but it would be a risk to throw the team’s best overall player into that role with the chance of an injury. Powell has the straight-line speed that makes a lot of sense as a returner while Robinson can make people miss in the open field. After Debose elected not to play in the Birmingham Bowl last year, Thompson started as the kick returner and averaged 24 yards on three returns.

There are options that could make an impact in the return roles, but it’s hard to imagine anyone posing the threat that Debose did last season.

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