For as poorly as the Florida Gators offense and – later in the season – defense played in 2013, special teams was also a non-factor in most contests, usually failing to put up points in the kicking game and struggling to help the team win the field position battle with its punt and return units.
Exist last year’s special team’s coordinator, Jeff Choate, and enter Coleman Hutzler, Florida’s new, fresh-faced 29-year-old coach who learned the game under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford and Gators defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin. He returns to the UF staff just two years after leaving to earn his stripes at New Mexico.
“It’s great to be back,” said Hutzler during his introductory press conference on Monday. “My wife and I really enjoyed our time here. … Very excited to be back part of Gator Nation and to be at this great university.”
His first role at Florida was in a non-coaching capacity as he learned defense and special teams under Durkin and built relationships with players on the team. Many of those players are now upperclassmen, and Hutzler is in a position to help them get the most out of their final season or two of college.
“[He] understands and knows our special teams system, how we teach it, our teaching progression. He’ll implement it very well,” said Muschamp when discussing Hutzler on Monday. “A guy that really had a year interview, so to speak, the first year he was here.”
Widely regarded for the job he did improving New Mexico’s special teams – the Lobos boasted the 16th-ranked kick return unit last year as well as a first-team all-conference punter – Hutzler is tasked with turning around a unit that struggled mightily in 2013.
“Two great years to be able to get on the field and work with the players, work with the special teams, to be able to run everything,” Hutzler said of his time at New Mexico. “When I was here before, it was under, obviously, Coach Durkin’s direction. So to be at New Mexico and run the special teams myself was the ultimate experience. [I'm] excited to get back here and do the same.”
He already has a plan in place and wants the Gators to focused on two main pillars.
“Technique and effort are the two things I’ll really harp on and [that] have been harped on here before,” Hutzler explained. “A guy that’s willing to apply the techniques that we teach, that we coach and do them with the most unbelievable effort that they can provide. Those two things are big for us.
“Obviously buying into special teams is important, which the support that Coach Muschamp gives is great. Some places, they talk about it being important, but they don’t necessarily practice it or preach it and back that up. Here, special teams has obviously had a great role in the success of this program, and I’ll look to continue that.”
Special teams being integral to Florida’s success, and the unit’s overall failure to contribute in a meaningful way last season, is a big reason why the Gators finished 4-8.
Hutzler said Monday that he has already sat down with senior punter Kyle Christy and redshirt sophomore kicker Austin Hardin, two guys that started the year as the primary players at their respective positions but lost their jobs.
With Christy, he discussed consistency and work ethic, applying the same tried and true methods over and over again. “For whatever reason or whatever happened, he did get away from those things,” Hutzler said. He also noted that sophomore Johnny Townsend, who ended the year as UF’s punter, is a talented player he is excited to work with.
As far as Hardin is concerned, Hutzler believes he was never able to find his natural kicking stroke after getting out of whack at some point in the offseason.
While Hutzler also admitted that he is not a specialist in teaching kicking or punting, he cautioned that he does “know the good from the bad” and will do what it takes to help the specialists improve. He has the same strategy for both positions.
“Rebuilding some confidence, obviously. That’s been my message to the guys throughout these meetings I’ve had with them is we need to get back to work, obviously, and get things cleaned up technique-wise and get things cleaned up when it comes to the foot hitting the ball,” he explained.
“But we also need to get our confidence back. Guys like Austin Hardin and Kyle Christy and Drew Ferris, the snapper, those guys need to have confidence in their abilities. Go out and put it out on the field. I wasn’t here [in 2013]. All that you can go off of is the numbers and the statistics. obviously that’s not the standard that we expect, and it starts now with building confidence, bottom line, and working your butt off both in the offseason and then through spring ball.”
Though Hutzler will have plenty of work to do with his specialists, he does benefit by getting a huge weapon back in the return game as wide receiver Andre Debose has decided to return for his sixth season with the Gators. The fact that he already has a bird in the hand is not lost on UF’s youngest coach.
“I’m very excited to get back with Andre, excited to get him obviously healthy first and back out on the field as a receiver and then as a returner,” Hutzler said. “He is obviously a tremendous athlete, has a great ability as a returner, great feel, great trust for the guys in front of him. One of my great memories is his returning that kick against South Carolina. Just to be able to get back with him and work with him – and obviously a lot of the other guys – that can bring something special to the return game.”