Putting The Special Back In Special Teams

It certainly didn't happen in 2004. Tack on a big negative in that stat category in 2003. 2002? Fat chance, and if you see a trend developing you might as well just skip 2001. Come on you must be saying, "What stat category do my Florida Gators have a big goose egg in dating back till 2000?"

The last time the orange and blue had a punt return or kick return for a touchdown was when Lito Sheppard took a pair of punts to pay dirt back when Steve Spurrier was Florida's coach in 2000.

So the question begs to be answered: why have Florida's special teams failed? It can't be the athletes. Keiwan Ratliff had the speed and the moves. Vernell Brown is slithery and sure handed. Chad Jackson is a beast. All three should have at least had good shots at taking one all the way but they really never came close.

One of Ron Zook's undoings was the special teams play. How many games were there that a special teams touchdown could have ignited the Gators? Not only would it have turned on the Gators, imagine how a game changing play can put a 10,000-watt charge into a single sideline, coaching staff, stadium and fan base. Just one play in four of Florida's five losses could have been the difference in where Ron Zook is employed in 2005.

While spring football 2005 gave way to a new punt coverage formation, there was no decisive winner or loser in the punt return race. Incumbent Vernell Brown got his reps but several other players auditioned for the job. Going into August, there is no clear number one punt returner but here is a look at four players who could put the special back in special teams in 2005.

1. Dee Webb: For those that were lucky enough to see his recruiting film back in the day, Webb could only be described as a game breaker. Already one of the fastest guys on the team, Webb showcased and harnessed that speed in the spring when he competed with the track team on top of his rigorous football and academic schedule. The defensive back finished second in the 55-meter dash of the Gator Invitational earlier this year, running it in 6.38 seconds.

"Coming out here, Coach [Mike] Holloway has shown me how to run and not just using my natural talent, but using the techniques that make me use less energy," Webb said this spring. "Improving my speed here will help me take it to the football field."

If anyone deserves a shot at the punt return role it's Webb.

2. Chad Jackson: Jackson had his shot at the role briefly late last year, but didn't have enough reps to be effective or comfortable at the position. After seeing his big play ability in the spring, it's hard to deny that he has a knack for getting the ball into the end zone when he's on the move. He has plenty of kick return experience dating back to his freshman year and if he can translate that experience and his knack for putting points on the board, it could spell trouble for other teams.

3. Andre Caldwell: The only reason he finds himself here and not a spot above is because of his inconsistency with the ball in his hands. Caldwell's speed is second to none when taking a look up and down the Gator roster and like Webb, he has great field vision dating back to his time as a do-it-all-athlete at Tampa Jefferson.

4. Avery Atkins: While it takes every true freshman time to get accustomed to play in college and the Southeastern Conference, special teams is a place where they can let skill and instincts take over. Atkins has legit speed to return punts and while at Daytona Mainland, they used every opportunity including special teams to get the ball in his hands. With a lot of reps this summer he could emerge into the spot by late in the year, but look for him to be the go-to-guy down the road.

Fightin Gators Top Stories