Gators special teams must stop Hogs’ Johnson

By Adam Silverstein
October 15, 2009

Offense and defense are the most publicized parts of any team, but it is special teams that often wins or loses close football games. Just ask Florida Gators head coach Urban Meyer, who also coaches special teams and has been purposefully dominant in that area throughout his career. “It’s not interesting to people, but that’s how you win,” Meyer said in 2008 about special teams. “If you want to win, that’s how you do it.”

Unlike many of their opponents, the Gators put extra emphasis on the unit, utilizing many of their starters and best players on kick blocking, coverage and, of course, in the return game. Standouts over the past few years have included defensive lineman Jarvis Moss, cornerback Joe Haden and running backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey. “Special teams are high on [coach Meyer’s] priority list,” punter Chas Henry said. “Starters want to play on special teams.”

Sure they do; they get rewarded for it. “A lot of teams take special teams for granted. Here, it’s a privilege to play on the kickoff team or the punt return team,” said senior quarterback Tim Tebow, who was on the hands team as a true freshman. “[Meyer] rewards guys who do good on special teams. It’s not just overlooked like it is at some places. That’s why they play so hard. “

Yet while the unit is so important to the Gators, it has been less dominant in 2009 than it has in the past. Part of the reason for that is kick returner Brandon James being limited due to punters angling the ball away from him and the Florida defense allowing him few opportunities to return kickoffs by only letting opponents score, on average, 6.7 points per game. In the kicking game, the Gators have missed two makeable field goals and an extra point and only blocked one punt (which was blocked and returned for a touchdown by Rainey) – against the Kentucky Wildcats. In fact, the Gators appear to be putting less pressure on punters this season, focusing more on coverage.

This week, special teams may face its biggest challenge of the season in containing Arkansas Razorbacks kick returner Dennis Johnson, who averages 34 yards per return and has a 91-yard touchdown to boot. And while the Gators rank eighth nationally in yards allowed per return (17.4), any team is susceptible to a dynamic athlete like Johnson. “He’s very well blocked, but he’s hard to get down,” Meyer said of Johnson. “We’ve spent some extra time on that. That’s a big concern.”

In order to hold onto their undefeated season and spot at No. 1 in almost every college football poll, the Gators are going to have to step up the efforts and win on all three units against the Razorbacks. “We really feel like special teams are our edge week in and week out,” said James, who has returned the ball for Florida since 2006. “We put a lot of great players on special teams. Other teams work (mostly) on offense and defense. We feel if we can win the kicking game, it will help us out.”

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