For a squad that boasted arguably the best special teams unit in the nation in 2012, the Florida Gators lack of production and consistency on the “third side of the ball” this season is especially concerning.
Head coach Will Muschamp said as much during his weekly press conference on Monday when he addressed the special teams unit as a whole.
“Our specialists need to get better. We’re not very productive at the punter position right now, or placekicker. We didn’t really affect the game as far as special teams are concerned like we have in our previous time here,” he explained. “We need to get better on special teams as far as affecting the game. We have not done that much, certainly last Saturday didn’t have any affect.”
Though the Gators lost kicker Caleb Sturgis, a multiple school record holder and back-to-back Lou Groza Award finalist, Florida retained its Ray Guy Award finalist punter from a year ago in junior Kyle Christy.
A 2012 First Team All-American, Christy averaged 45.8 yards on 66 punts and hit at least one punt of 53 yards or further in 10 of 13 games last year. Through three games this season, Christy has only boomed one total punt that far with most being substantially shorter. He is averaging just 40.9 yards per attempt.
“I’m going to open it up with Kyle,” Muschamp said, referring the competition for the starting job. “Johnny Townsend has been a guy that has probably been as consistent a punter as we’ve had in camp. We’ll pull the redshirt off Johnny if we need to. We need to get more production at the punter position and that’s what we’ll do.”
Former Florida P Eric Wilbur, who played four years with the Gators from 2003-06, has watched Christy since his freshman year in 2011 and known Townsend personally through his entire punting career. He spoke with OnlyGators.com on Monday about the team’s situation at the position.
Like anyone who watched Christy in 2011 when he kicked 11 punts an average of 39.5 yards, Wilbur believes he made some improvements in 2012 but noted that his numbers were better than his technical punting ability.
“Basically what the Gators have is the perfect combination of a couple bad things that work out in his favor,” Wilbur explained. “His get-off times have picked up a little bit, but his catch-to-kick is slow. From the time he catches the ball to the time it hits his foot, that should be in the 1.3-second maximum range. He’s anywhere from 1.35-1.5 seconds. But that allows him to have a lower hang time and his hang times are not specular. He has the ability for it, but they’re just not there in the games.
“So if the average punt – from the time it is snapped to the time the person catches it – is 6.5 seconds, his time still works out to be 6.5 seconds but it’s because his get-off is slow and his hang time is low.
“What makes up for that and what kept his numbers high was the fact that Florida’s coverage teams are great. People aren’t willing to rush the Gators because they know Florida can pull off a fake easily, so he’s allowed to take his time.”
Wilbur believes that Christy has a number of things to correct in his approach starting with some technical aspects.
“He drops the ball too low; he drops it outside his body. When he has a low drop, you need the nose to be somewhat down but he has it low and flat so at that point he hits the back of the ball a lot. It doesn’t turn over when it spirals and a lot of times it goes end over end. The technical details behind it are so miniscule compared to so many other things but a couple of them can make up a big issue,” he explained.
Wilbur also thinks that Christy could improve his confidence and needs to learn to shake off poor kicks and respond better because he does have natural ability.
“There’s no doubt that Kyle is very talented. He has a very strong leg. The issue with punters is being able to handle the mis-hits,” he said. “Every punter is going to have a mis-hit. Is it going to be a mis-hit that goes out of bounds at 30 yards or is it a mis-hit that is a 4.3-second hang that goes 38 yards? It’s being able to handle those.
“All the top Division I punters can crush the ball. There’s no doubt about that. They have the ability to, but it’s the consistency you have to worry about. That’s when it gets into the details of how he’s actually dropping the ball, how he’s holding it, all the different things that the coaches wouldn’t necessarily notice but would be glaringly obvious to a kicking coach.”
Muschamp jabbed Christy on Monday by propping up Florida’s special teams coaches, noting that it is on the player to make the necessary improvements.
“Jeff Choate and D.J. [Durkin] are two of the best special teams coaches I’ve been around,” he said. “[The players are] in no better hands. We didn’t forget how to coach Kyle from last year.”
In Wilbur’s opinion, a punting specialist could benefit Christy greatly.
“The coaches are good as far as scheming goes, special teams schemes. But when it comes to the actual physics and dynamics of kicking a football, that’s just not their expertise. They can only say so much to them. That’s where a kicking expert comes into play,” he said.
It is in that area that Wilbur believes Townsend has an advantage.
Both having grown up in the Orlando, FL, area, the two are family friends and Wilbur worked with Townsend in the years before he joined the Gators.
“I think Johnny is a phenomenal punter,” Wilbur said. “I would say that Christy’s leg is probably a little stronger than Johnny’s, but Christy is older. He’s been in college for three years. He’s had the weight training and all that stuff. I feel Johnny’s technique is better than Christy’s.”
Punter is not the only job up for grabs, according to Muschamp. Redshirt freshman K Austin Hardin, who is 3-for-5 on field goals with both his misses coming from around 40 yards out, will be tested by senior Brad Phillips in practice this week.
“Austin [is] in the same situation. I’m going to give Brad some live looks this week at practice and see how he responds,” Muschamp said.
Though questions at kicker have been persistent throughout the offseason, a dip in production at punter – coupled with no explosion yet in the kick return game – has turned Florida’s special teams into anything but three games into the season.