With so much confidence in the defense and concern about the offense, little had been learned about Florida Gators football’s special teams unit as it prepared with the rest of the team to enter the 2015 season. For head coach Jim McElwain, who places a premium on special teams and said at the onset of his tenure that he would work closely with that unit, the returns appear to be positive with a week to go until the campaign begins.
Florida’s starters at kicker and punter have been known for quite some time with redshirt junior Austin Hardin and redshirt sophomore Johnny Townsend holding those positions, respectively.
Though Hardin struggled as a redshirt freshman in 2013, hitting just 4-of-12 field goals with a season long of 33 yards, he proved to be more consistent over the final four weeks of 2014, ending the campaign 7-for-10 with long conversions from 48, 49 and 52 yards.
McElwain is pleased with Hardin’s approach to the offseason and thinks his leg strength has improved, not only on field goals but on kickoffs as well. “I think he’s had a great offseason,” the coach said. “And just consistency putting it through the uprights is what we’re asking him to do.”
After stepping up to alleviate some of the Gators’ concerns at punter during his true freshman season, Townsend sat out in 2014 as Kyle Christy concluded his career. With two more offseasons under his belt, Townsend has not only locked down that job, he will also be Florida’s primary holder on field goals with redshirt sophomore walk-on RB Case Harrison serving as his backup.
Walk-ons freshman Ryan Farr and redshirt junior Jonathan Haney continued their long snapper competition from the spring and got a new face to go head-to-head with in freshman walk-on Jacob Tilghman. McElwain is not yet sure how that will play out.
“They sometimes have off days. [It’s about] consistency. One may end up being the short snapper; one may end up being the long snapper,” he said. “But with those three guys, they’ve all built a good rapport with obviously Johnny.”
One of two spotlight special teams positions in the return game, of course, is gunner, where Gators defensive backs like Will Hill, Loucheiz Purifoy and Keanu Neal made names for themselves well before they became secondary stars. McElwain listed four DBs as rotational players in that role, including senior Brian Poole, junior Vernon Hargreaves III and sophomores Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson.
Chances are, those four will play gunner sparingly, though McElwain said his goal is to get a lot of players in there in order to keep them from expending too much energy.
Also in line for roles as gunnesrs are wide receivers junior Chris Thompson and redshirt sophomore Alvin Bailey, who “have really shown that they’ve got a propensity to go down and make a play.”
McElwain has yet to finalize his list of kickoff and punt returners, but expect to see some familiar names on the field at those times, such as Hargreaves and sophomore WR Brandon Powell, among others.
With just a week to go until the season begins, Florida’s depth chart should begin to take shape in the coming days.
Bits and notes
» The Gators have been holding more evening practices than usual in order to get prepared for three straight night games to begin the 2015 season.
» Redshirt senior wide receiver Valdez Showers returned to practice on Thursday after missing an extended period of time with an undisclosed injury.
» Florida will name captains on a week-to-week basis, choosing four players “based on not only what they do on the field but what they do in practice and in the classroom.” The “most coveted” captain, according to McElwain, will “handle ‘Swamp jacks,’ which is something we do when we all come together. That’s kind of the guy that really had a great impact that week.” What exactly are “Swamp jacks,” exactly? “It’s just kind of what we do when we kind of set our minds to go practice. [We] do it during stretch. I guess in layman’s terms, I guess ‘jumping jacks.'”
» Though the Gators’ wideouts have improved in their pass-catching consistency, McElwain is far from satisfied with their production. “Every now and then, they catch it. I’m getting kind of excited about it. I haven’t really jumped up and down about it,” he said. “I’d still like to see them go up in the air and get things more aggressively when the ball is up there, demand that it’s theirs and not play second seed to anybody. Those are some of things we still have to work on.”
» McElwain expects that Florida will have upwards of five ball-carriers toting the rock at any given time. In addition to junior Kelvin Taylor and freshmen Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite, two Gators walk-ons may see time in the offensive backfield. “Those guys all three will play. I think Case [Harrison] will play as well, and [Mark] Herndon‘s had a good camp, too. We’ve got to keep those guys fresh. We obviously can’t beat Kelvin up the whole time, and obviously we’ve got to figure out who’s going to have the hot hand. One of the good things is we’ve developed some depth at the position. I think that’s a real positive.”