Gators Understand Importance of Special Teams

Urban Meyer takes pride in focusing on the little things within the Florida program to make it successful. On the field, that means special teams. While it may be overlooked in some programs, Meyer's focus on special teams could not be more intense.

The media section watching spring and fall practices knows when to get a drink of water or make a phone call. There is always a long period of practice, most times over a half hour, where the Florida coaching staff runs through the basics of punt coverage, punt return and field goal units. These mini-clinics still happen near the end of spring practices, when the players have been going through the same thing for a few weeks.

A possible mistake on special teams during a game in the fall is something Meyer doesn't want to risk. He will run through the basic fundamentals to make sure each individual responsibility is plastered into the mind of the players.

That determination is a large part of Florida's success. Florida has won two national championships under Meyer thanks to dominating defenses and offenses that can eat clock and control the game. But the key aspect to the Gators controlling the game comes through field position.

Chas Henry's importance in that couldn't be overstated. He averaged 43.4 yards per punt last season and had eight punts over 50 yards. He can punt the ball to the specifications of what Florida needs. If they are deep in their own territory, Henry can boot it to flip field position. If the Gators are around midfield and need to punt, Henry can dial it up inside the 20-yard line with hang time to force a fair catch or allow his gunners to get down the field.

The stats prove how good Henry has been. He knocked 15 kicks inside the 20-yard line last season, while having only three touchbacks. He has a knack for the perfect hang time to allow the gunners enough time to get down the field. He forced 12 fair catches during the 2009 season, proving that if he can't have the touch to drop it inside the five for his teammates to down, he'll kick it high enough where the returner can't gain any yardage.

Caleb Sturgis won the starting job as the place kicker and went 22-30. His longest field goal was 56 yards, but inside of 50 yards, Sturgis was 20-25. He also served as the kickoff specialist.

His leg strength is enough to kick it into the end zone with consistency, but Meyer's special teams plan attempts to pin the opposing team deep in their own territory. Sturgis tries to kick the ball inside the five-yard line and close to the sideline. The Florida kickoff coverage unit rushes towards the corner to pin the returner into that corner, using the sideline against him.

Sturgis struggled last season, knocking the kickoff out of bounds four times. The experience in the system should benefit Sturgis for 2010.

The Gators will also be looking for a new kickoff and punt returner for the first time since 2006. It's two positions that some teams struggle to fill every season, but Florida has been lucky to send Brandon James back with full confidence for four seasons. He stole the job as a freshman in 2006 when Meyer liked the confidence James showed while coming out of the tunnel against Tennessee at Neyland Stadium. All he did that game was flip field position twice and have a punt return for a touchdown called back because of a questionable block in the back.

Chris Rainey is the obvious candidate to replace James. He has the speed and elusiveness to fit the position well. Rainey has experience as a kick returner in blowout games, but he is shaky catching punts. In hostile environments like Tuscaloosa and Knoxville, a shaky punt returner is the last thing the Gators want.

Rainey may be the favorite to return kickoffs, but don't be surprised if the Gators go another route with the punt returner. It could be a similar situation to James where a freshman wins the job. If that happens, expect Robert Clark or Solomon Patton to get the call. Each showed the ability to make moves after the catch from the slot receiver position in the spring.


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