With Florida Gators redshirt junior punter Johnny Townsend announcing Thursday his decision to complete his eligibility and return to the team, it stands to question whether Florida — while attempting to reload on defense and build up its offense — is arguably one of the strongest teams in the nation in another area: special teams.
Let’s get one thing straight: They’re not … for reasons we’ll get to momentarily. But what the Gators can boast is the best tandem of specialists in the nation when one considers the talents of Townsend and redshirt sophomore kicker Eddy Pineiro.
Depending who you ask, Townsend was arguably the best punter in the nation last season. Though Utah’s Mitch Wishnowsky was a near-consensus All-American and won the Ray Guy Award, Townsend bested him in punt average (47.9 yards per game) and was named to the CBS Sports All-America team.
Florida also returns Pineiro, who went 21-of-25 on field goals and ended his first season of competitive football at any level with 12 consecutive makes (dating back to Oct. 29). Pineiro went 11-of-13 from 40+ yards, hit all three of his 50+ yarders and did not miss an extra point, connecting on all 32 attempts.
Utah would’ve had a case if its kicker, Andy Phillips, returned, but alas, Philips (despite matching Pineiro’s stats) was a senior in 2016.
Where UF can draw some competition is from Cal (P Dylan Klumph, K Matt Anderson), but Townsend was far superior than Klumph last season and Anderson only bested Pineiro by a single field goal attempt.
But as impressive as Townsend and Pineiro were for the Gators in 2016 and likely will be in 2017, it is nearly impossible to crown Florida’s special teams as the best overall unit in the nation entering next season. It handles coverage on kickoff and punt returns poorly and is a unit wholly lacking aggression, hardly ever going for blocks and therefore only blocking two (both kicks) last season. UF negated those two blocks by relenting one on its punt and field goal units.
Still, what Townsend and Pineiro bring to the table is nothing to thumb one’s nose at. They were keys for the Gators picking up a second consecutive SEC East crown in 2016 and will once again be important pieces if Florida succeeds in moving forward next season.