Florida Gators: Johnny Townsend

Florida two-deep: Special teams

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
10:30
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Editor’s note: We’re breaking down the Gators’ two-deep depth chart every day for the next two weeks. We’ll cover every position as well as offer a glimpse into the future. You can read the whole series here.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The starters: Sophomore placekicker Austin Hardin and sophomore punter Johnny Townsend

The backups: Senior placekicker Francisco Velez and senior punter Kyle Christy

[+] EnlargeAustin Hardin
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida place-kicker Austin Hardin had a solid spring after losing confidence last season.
The rest: Junior placekicker Brooks Abbott and freshman placekicker Jorge Powell

The lowdown: After a long stretch of above average seasons from its kicking specialists, Florida suffered through a down year in 2013. Hardin took over for Caleb Sturgis, the Gators' all-time leader in made field goals. It did not go well, as Hardin converted just 4 of 12 attempts. His mechanics broke down, causing Hardin to pull his kicks and lose confidence. His struggles caused coach Will Muschamp to give Velez, a walk-on, a chance. Although he made 6 of 8 kicks, Velez lacks Hardin's range. Their competition spilled into spring practice, when Muschamp praised Hardin's improved mechanics and renewed confidence. It showed in the spring game, when Hardin nailed all four of his attempts. He'll have to fend off the challenge of Velez and a couple of other walk-ons this fall, but Hardin is still standing as the incumbent starter. At punter, Florida went into the 2013 on cruise control with Christy, who was one of three finalists for the Ray Guy Award in 2012 after setting a school record with a 45.8-yard average. But Christy slumped to a 39.6-yard average in 2013 and was replaced midseason. Enter Townsend, a U.S Army All-American who flipped from Ohio State to Florida on signing day in 2013. Townsend handled UF's punting duties for the final six games, averaged 42 yards and was named to the SEC's All-Freshman Team. A more confident Christy battled Townsend to a draw during spring practice until Townsend was shut down to have wrist surgery. He's expected to be ready to resume the punting battle in preseason camp.

The future: Hardin, Florida's scholarship kicker, is just a sophomore. Ditto for Townsend, which means the Gators have time on their side. But while Muschamp is confident in his two punters, calling them both NFL-caliber, he is pushing hard to improve the placekicker position. There will be an open competition for the job, with a scholarship likely in the balance if one of Florida's preferred walk-ons can take the job. Abbott, a former U.S. Army All-American from Jacksonville, Florida, spent a season at Virginia Tech as a kickoff specialist before transferring to UF. Powell got a five-star rating from Kohl's Kicking Camp, which ranked him the No. 11 prospect in the Class of 2014.
Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.

The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.

Special teams position rankings

1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.

2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).

3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.

4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.

5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.

7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.

8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.

9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.

10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.

11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.

13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).

SEC's lunch links

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
12:00
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There were 80 fires put out and 21 arrests in Lexington on Saturday night after Kentucky defeated Wisconsin to reach Monday night's college basketball national championship game. Whatever happened to "Act like you've been there before?"
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Gators have completed seven of their 14 practices, and the spring game is less than two weeks away.

Before Florida opens another practice to its fans today, let's go over a few developments.

Fast-moving offense: It's all anyone wants to talk about. The Gators are installing a new offense, and so far the key word is speed. The players have learned and adapted quickly. The tempo is much faster than at any time in the last three years. Players look fast again.

Give much of the credit to new coordinator Kurt Roper, who simplified everything and really made the most of his meeting time before practice began.

"You spend the time you’re allowed in the meeting room trying to create that understanding and showing it to them on tape," he said. "You’re trying to put your install together that makes sense for them to understand it. The biggest thing for us is we try to create lining up simpler than most people. I think because of that, that's part of what you see. We're able to get lined up in a hurry."

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesWill Muschamp's future probably rides on Florida's offensive improvement.
Head coach Will Muschamp, whose future probably rides on Florida's offensive improvement, has noticed the difference and says he's very pleased.

"[They're] really play fast, physical," he said. "We’ve really limited negative plays to this point. … Our guys have got a lot of confidence, playing real good tempo and having a lot of fun."

Driskel separates himself: All three of Florida's top QBs -- junior Jeff Driskel, sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg and true freshman Will Grier -- have had their moments. They've shown a solid grasp of the offense in its early stages of installation, made solid decisions and delivered the ball to receivers in stride.

Muschamp has not yet named Driskel the starter but did say he has "distanced himself at this point" while the other two have split second-team reps.

Driskel, however, has a lot of work yet to do. While his arm strength has been on full display and he appears recovered from the broken leg that ended his 2013 season, Driskel is getting a crash course in quarterback fundamentals from Roper.

"Sometimes he’s overstepping a little bit which causes him to sail the ball," Muschamp said. "That’s been something that Kurt is really working on. Kurt is a really good fundamental quarterback coach."

D-line shuffle: One of the players who has been singled out most often for praise is sophomore defensive end Bryan Cox Jr., son of the former Miami Dolphins Pro Bowl linebacker.

Muschamp said Cox has gotten stronger, put on a few pounds and has "made really remarkable improvement" in his technique. That has allowed the Gators to slide junior Jonathan Bullard inside to defensive tackle, where the coaching staff believes he can thrive as a pass rusher on obvious throwing downs.

Because senior defensive tackle Leon Orr is sidelined this spring with a broken wrist, it bears watching whether these plans stick in the fall.

Florida has a number of talented young linemen starting to make an impact. But it remains to be seen if redshirt freshmen Caleb Brantley, Jay-nard Bostwick, Antonio Riles and sophomore Joey Ivie are ready to do more than just provide quality backup minutes.

"I feel like the depth is there," Muschamp said. "We've got some good players."

Veteran line with one exception: The makeup of Florida's first-team offensive line has been fairly consistent with junior D.J. Humphries at left tackle, junior Trip Thurman at left guard, senior Max Garcia at center, junior Tyler Moore at right guard, and senior Chaz Green at right tackle.

Thurman is the newcomer, the only player on that first unit who has never made a start.

"He hasn't played as much," Roper said, "but he's out there working hard to be a good player."

Starting would be quite a step forward for Thurman, who stands 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds. The fourth-year player has seen very limited playing time in just 15 career games as a reserve.

Overall, Muschamp and Roper have been pleased with the play of their O-line. There have been some issues with Garcia and backup center Cameron Dillard handling shotgun snaps, but the coaches expected some bumps in the road.

This is a unit that struggled mightily in pass protection last season but could benefit greatly from Roper's uptempo spread scheme.

Kickers still need work: Before practice started, Muschamp identified the kicking game as one of his top two priorities of the spring. Florida's place-kickers were abysmal last season and likely cost the team a couple of wins, while starting punter Kyle Christy slumped badly enough to force the Gators to burn freshman Johnny Townsend's redshirt.

So far this spring, the two punters have been locked in a battle that has featured some colossal moonshots and no clear starter.

"We've got two guys that have Sunday legs," Muschamp said of their potential as pro prospects. "They both kick very well."

The Gators are still struggling with field goals, however, and it seems unlikely that sophomore Austin Hardin or senior walk-on Francisco Velez will do enough to win the job outright. Their competition could continue throughout the fall with other walk-ons getting chances as well.

"The kicking situation is still not what it needs to be," Muschamp said, "but Austin is hitting the ball more consistently the same way."

Hutzler has some psyches to rebuild

January, 22, 2014
Jan 22
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It didn't take Sigmund Freud to see that Florida kicker Austin Hardin would need some special treatment after a calamitous 2013 season.

After Coleman Hutzler was hired in December to be the Gators' special teams coach, he met with all of his specialists and clearly saw his mission -- "rebuilding some confidence, obviously."

Hardin sticks out as a particularly important reclamation project.

Last season, expectations and opportunity loomed large for the No. 1 kicker prospect in the Class of 2012. Hardin's job was to replace Caleb Sturgis, a record-setting All-American who had the kicking duties locked down for three seasons.

Coleman Hutzler
Jeff Barlis/ESPNNew special teams coach Coleman Hutzler's top task is to restore confidence among the Gators' kickers and punters.
Hardin made just 4 of 12 field-goal attempts -- his season-long a 33-yarder -- and opened the door for walk-ons Francisco Velez and Brad Phillips to take the job.

Enter Hutzler, who could see right away in his meeting with Hardin that confidence was the first order of business.

"Yeah, anybody would," Hutzler said. "I wasn't here [last season]. The first thing I said to him was, 'I can't speak on what you went through.' But the bottom line is he's back and ready to work and excited about the opportunity to go out and not make amends, but do right."

Hutzler found himself repeating the advice for all of Florida's kickers.

"That’s been my message to the guys throughout these meetings I’ve had with them," he said. "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. But we also need to get our confidence back."

The same held true for punter Kyle Christy, a decorated recruit who showed off a powerful leg as soon as he arrived at UF. Christy was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award after averaging a school-record 45.8 yards per punt as a sophomore in 2012. Last year, he slumped badly and ceded his job to true freshman Johnny Townsend, who averaged 42 yards a punt and was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team.

"We've had a chance to sit down in the time that I've been here," Hutzler said of Christy. He said they talked about "just being consistent in what got him to the level he had, the season he had so much success. Getting back to that work ethic, getting back to that confidence in his ability that he has, the techniques that he has and applying those over and over again. I tell those guys it's repeating the same motion over and over. For whatever reason or whatever happened, he did get away from those things.

"[The challenge is] to get him back to that level and compete with a guy like Johnny Townsend, who I'm excited to see work as well this spring."

Hutzler doesn't claim to be a kicking guru, but he certainly has familiarity with the Gators, having served on the staff in 2010 and worked under then-special teams coordinator D.J. Durkin.

"Coleman Hutzler is a guy that was with our staff the first year, understands and knows our special-teams system, how we teach it, our teaching progression," head coach Will Muschamp said last week in introducing his new coaches. "He'll implement it very well. He's a guy that really had a year interview, so to speak, the first year he was here. ...

"We certainly struggled this past year with our specialists, and I think he can help us some there."

To do that, Hutzler might need to spend as much time off the field in helping several Gators get over a difficult 2013 season.

"Guys like Austin Hardin and Kyle Christy and Drew Ferris, the snapper, those guys need to have confidence in their abilities and go out and put it out on the field," he said. "I wasn't here. All that you can go off of is the numbers and the statistics.

"Obviously that’s not the standard that we expect. It starts now with building confidence, bottom line, and working your butt off both in the offseason and then through spring ball."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- One of the obvious silver linings of a subpar season is having the opportunity to get young players on the field. Florida burned 11 redshirts last season. That's a lot of precious experience for players who will be counted on to step up even further in 2014.

Here are the five Gators who impressed the most:

[+] EnlargeVernon Hargreaves III
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsVernon Hargreaves didn't waste much time making an impact at Florida, as the five-star cornerback became the first Gators freshman to make first-team all-SEC since Emmitt Smith.
CB Vernon Hargreaves III: This coach's son stood out from the moment he stepped on campus last summer and started the final 10 games of the season. Hargreaves led Florida with 11 pass breakups (tying the school record for a freshman set by Janoris Jenkins) and three interceptions. He showed very refined technique in coverage for someone so young. Hargreaves was rewarded with first-team All-SEC honors from the league's coaches and the Associated Press, becoming the first UF freshman to earn such distinctions since running back Emmitt Smith in 1987.

RB Kelvin Taylor: The son of Gator great Fred Taylor seemingly was around the program for years before he signed last January. When Kelvin Taylor hit the field, he immediately reminded fans of his father, thrilling a sold-out crowd on opening day when he broke off a long run in mop-up duty. But he really spread his wings after starting running back Matt Jones was lost for the season due to injury. Taylor started four of the last five games of the season and finished second on the team with 111 carries for 508 yards rushing (4.6 yards per carry). He was named to the SEC's All-Freshman Team.

LB Jarrad Davis: A three-star recruit and one of the least-heralded members of Florida's 2013 class, Davis was also deemed the least likely of the Gators' four linebacker signees to get playing time as a freshman. But he did just that and was the only one to earn a start. Davis was a special-teams standout throughout the season and saw his playing time at outside linebacker increase as the season progressed, as all but one of his 24 tackles came in the final six games. Davis showed good closing speed in recording two tackles for loss, a pass breakup and a forced fumble to boot.

P Johnny Townsend: After flipping his commitment from Ohio State to Florida on signing day last February, Townsend didn't take long to make a surprising impact on the field. He took the punting job from record-setting sophomore Kyle Christy midway through the season and didn't look back. Townsend led Florida with a 42.0-yard average on 29 punts, including five over 50 yards and six inside the 20-yard line. He was named to the SEC's All-Freshman Team.

WR Ahmad Fulwood: One of three freshmen receivers who avoided a redshirt, Fulwood was the most consistent and the most involved in weekly game plans. He finished the season with 17 catches for 127 yards and one touchdown, modest stats on an offense that struggled mightily. But Fulwood flashed promise and has the kind of size (6-foot-5, 196 pounds) that creates mismatches all over the field. The Florida coaching staff is very eager to see what Fulwood can do with a complete offseason of strength and conditioning.

The rest: Six other true freshmen played for UF last season, gaining invaluable experience. They were wide receivers Chris Thompson and Demarcus Robinson, linebackers Alex Anzalone and Daniel McMillian, defensive lineman Joey Ivie and safety Keanu Neal.

SEC All-Freshman team

December, 12, 2013
12/12/13
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Every SEC team has representation on the SEC All-Freshman team, which was released on Thursday.

The team was selected by the league's coaches, and coaches could not vote for players on their own team. Arkansas, Ole Miss and South Carolina led the way with four players each on the squad. Here it is in its entirety:

Offense:
TE:
Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
OL: Andrew Jelks, Vanderbilt
OL: Alex Kozan, Auburn
OL: Denver Kirkland, Arkansas
C: Jon Toth, Kentucky
WR: Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
WR: Marquez North, Tennessee
QB: Maty Mauk, Missouri
RB: Alex Collins, Arkansas
RB: Kelvin Taylor, Florida
AP: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

Defense:
DL:
Chris Jones, Mississippi State
DL: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
DL: Darius Philon, Arkansas
LB: Darian Claiborne, Texas A&M
LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB: Skai Moore, South Carolina
DB: Vernon Hargreaves, Florida
DB: Tony Conner, Ole Miss
DB: Tre'Davious White, LSU
DB: Cameron Sutton, Tennessee

Special teams:
PK:
Elliott Fry, South Carolina
P: Johnny Townsend, Florida
RS: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

GatorNation: Recruiting mailbag 

February, 8, 2013
2/08/13
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Now that signing day is complete, it's time to dive in to the GatorNation recruiting mailbag and answer the questions you want to know. Because of the amount of questions we’ve received, we won’t be able to get to all of them today, but we encourage you to ask your questions on our Insider fan forum, The Chompions Club.

Gators flip 3-star punter from Ohio State 

February, 7, 2013
2/07/13
4:02
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The Gators have added yet another player to their 2013 class.


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