Florida Gators: Caleb Sturgis
The starters: Sophomore placekicker Austin Hardin and sophomore punter Johnny Townsend
The backups: Senior placekicker Francisco Velez and senior punter Kyle Christy
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.
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.
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."
Florida nearly tied the school record for most players drafted in a seven-round format. The Gators had eight players selected -- including DTSharrif Floyd (Minnesota) and S Matt Elam (Baltimore) in the first round -- in last weekend's NFL draft. Miami selected three former Gators: LB Jelani Jenkins, RB Mike Gillislee and K Caleb Sturgis. You can find GatorNation's breakdown of UF's draftees here.
Having eight players drafted is more than a confirmation of last season's 11-2 record. It's also a big recruiting tool, and UF coach Will Muschamp hopes to use it to his advantage.
It was still an impressive showing. Eight UF players were drafted, the most since nine were taken in the 2010 draft. Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and safety Matt Elam were taken in the first round, giving the Gators multiple first-round picks for the first time since 2010.
Florida’s eight selections was one shy of LSU and Alabama, which led the Southeastern Conference with nine. Georgia also had eight players picked.
Here’s a breakdown of the Gators who were drafted:
DT Sharrif Floyd
First round: No. 23 overall by Minnesota
DT Kevin Williams and NT Letroy Guion are the Vikings’ starters, but Floyd should figure prominently in the rotation. He said he’s eager to learn all he can from Williams, a 10-year vet with 434 tackles and 56.5 sacks. The knock on Floyd is that he doesn’t have long arms, but he does have a quick first step and good speed for a 300-pounder.
S Matt Elam
First round: No. 32 overall by Baltimore
Elam couldn’t step into a better situation. The Ravens lost both starting safeties from their Super Bowl championship team. They released Bernard Pollard (he later signed with Tennessee) and Ed Reed signed a free-agent contract with Houston. Despite not having ideal size (5-foot-10, 208 pounds), Elam is more similar to Pollard than Reed. Elam is physical enough to play the run but also is good enough to cover slot receivers man-to-man.
LB Jonathan Bostic
Rather, it’s finding someone who can step in for kicker Caleb Sturgis. Redshirt freshman Austin Hardin and senior Brad Phillips are both struggling, and UF coach Will Muschamp isn’t happy.
“You leave a guy you had such confidence and the team had such confidence in and now you’re a little bit of the unknown,” Muschamp said. “The unknown for a coach is never good. That’s kind of where we are right now. The ability is certainly there. I have total confidence in those kids as far as their ability is concerned. They just have to do it. They have to be more consistent.”
Consistency and long-range accuracy were Sturgis’ strong points. His field goal percentage (79.5) ranks second all-time in school history among kickers with 50 or more attempts and he kicked a school-record eight field goals of 50 or more yards in his career.
Hardin entered the spring as the front-runner to win the job. He has a big leg -- he consistently put his kickoffs in the end zone in high school -- and was ESPN’s top-ranked kicker coming out of Atlanta Marist in 2012. Phillips filled in here and there when Sturgis was injured. Phillips has made two of his four field goal attempts, both PATs, and has had four touchbacks on 27 kickoffs.
What's new: Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn left to become the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks. Will Muschamp then promoted D.J. Durkin from linebackers/special teams coach to defensive coordinator. Brad Lawing was hired away from South Carolina to help coach Florida's defensive line and was given the title of assistant head coach. Interim wide receivers coach Bush Hamdan was replaced by former Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips.
On the mend: Redshirt junior offensive lineman Chaz Green will miss all of spring after undergoing ankle surgery following Florida's bowl game. Redshirt junior defensive end/linebacker Ronald Powell will also miss the spring while he continues to rehab his ACL injury that he suffered last spring. Redshirt junior offensive lineman Ian Silberman is out for the spring, as he recovers from shoulder surgery that he had before the bowl game. Freshman linebacker Matt Rolin is also out, recovering from ACL surgery. Senior offensive lineman Jon Halapio (knee scope), senior wide receiver Solomon Patton (broken arm), redshirt junior linebacker Neiron Ball (ankle) and punter Kyle Christy (shoulder) will all be limited this spring.
On the move: Junior cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy will start the first seven practices at the "Z" receiver spot. Redshirt freshman Quinteze Williams moved from defensive tackle to offensive tackle. Sophomore Antonio Morrison moved from Will to Mike linebacker, while redshirt junior linebacker Michael Taylor has moved from Mike to Will. Redshirt freshman Rhaheim Ledbetter moved from safety to fullback. Redshirt junior Gideon Ajagbe also moved from linebacker to fullback. Redshirt junior Cody Riggs has moved from cornerback to safety, where he's listed as a starter.
Question marks: Heading into the spring, the biggest questions remain on offense, where the Gators were incredibly inconsistent last year. Workhorse running back Mike Gillislee is gone, and while the Gators should feature a stable of running backs this fall, throwing the ball has to improve or this offense will go in reverse. Quarterback Jeff Driskel says he's more confident and offensive coordinator Brent Pease expects to open things up more in the passing game, but the Gators also have to get better protection up front and develop some more reliable receivers and replace top target, tight end Jordan Reed. Florida's defense has a lot of experienced youngsters, but it won't be easy to replace the production that guys like Sharrif Floyd, Matt Elam and Jon Bostic had last year. Florida is also looking for someone to replace kicker Caleb Sturgis. Redshirt freshman Austin Hardin and senior Brad Phillips will compete for that spot.
New faces: Rolin, running back Kelvin Taylor, linebackers Alex Anzalone and Daniel McMillian, defensive lineman Joey Ivie, and wide receiver Demarcus Robinson all enrolled early as true freshmen. Florida also welcomed Nebraska offensive lineman transfer Tyler Moore (sophomore) and junior college transfer Darius Cummings (DT). Offensive lineman Max Garica also transferred from Maryland and sat out last season.
Key battle: Florida has to find a reliable receiving target at either tight end or receiver. The athletic Kent Taylor figures to be the favorite at tight end, but he'll have to compete with Colin Thompson, Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook. At receiver, it's a free-for-all, and there isn't a ton of experience. Purifoy will certainly get his shot, but vets Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose have to make significant strides. So does rising sophomore Latroy Pittman, who fell off last year after a successful spring. Sophomore Raphael Andrades will be back and forth between football and baseball, while Patton will be limited. Keep an eye on Robinson, who was the top receiver in the Gators' 2013 class and is a downfield threat and someone who can be elusive through the middle of the field.
Breaking out: Florida needs to replace Gillislee, and sophomore Matt Jones has already had a solid offseason, according to coaches. He progressed as last season went on and has both speed and strength to work with. The plan is for him to be a 20-plus-carry player this fall. Morrison's role now expands, and after having a very solid freshman year, even more is expected from him now that he's at the Mike. If he improves his coverage ability, he could be a big-time player for the Gators. Also, keep an eye on junior safety Jabari Gorman. He covers a lot of ground and isn't afraid to play in the box.
Don't forget about: Ball and Riggs have dealt with injuries in the past, but as they get healthy, Florida's coaches are excited about what they could do in 2013. Ball will play some Buck and provides Florida with another solid third-down pass-rusher and should help the Gators put more pressure on opposing backfields this fall. Riggs played in just two games last year before fracturing his foot, but he's a very physical defensive back. With his speed, moving to safety should provide him a chance to make more plays in Florida's secondary. He was also the starter at safety when Elam went to nickel last year.
The Gators might have another first-round pick in today’s group and two other players who might not get drafted. S Matt Elam has been projected to go late in the first round -- most often to New England with the 29th pick -- after a junior season in which he was named an All-American. S Josh Evans and K Caleb Sturgis might very well not get drafted in April. Sturgis is one of the nation’s top kickers, but some teams are reluctant to draft kickers even in the later rounds if they have other needs. Then again, there are the Jacksonville Jaguars, who drafted a punter in the third round.
GatorNation told you after every game. Now that the season’s over, here are the final rankings of the players who are responsible for the Gators’ 11-2 record:
1. RB Mike Gillislee: The Gators needed him to stay healthy and be a feature back capable of handling 20-plus carries per game. He delivered. Though he got banged up -- he hurt his groin against Texas A&M on a TD run but stayed in the game -- he played in every game and ran for 1,152 yards and 10 TDs. He averaged 18.7 carries and 4.7 yards per game.
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Terell Floyd interception
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Here is the good and the bad from the 33-23 loss, which snapped UF’s four-game bowl winning streak.
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K Caleb Sturgis
23-for-27 field goals; 32-for-33 PATs; 101 points
The good: Sturgis’ 23 field goals tied Bobby Raymond’s single-season record and his 69 career field goals are a school record. He already holds the school record with eight field goals of 50 or more yards. He affected the way offensive coordinator Brent Pease called plays because once the Gators got to the 35-yard line they were in Sturgis’ range, so Pease would get a little more conservative to make sure they didn’t lose an almost sure chance for three points.
The bad: What can you find wrong with the greatest kicker in school history? He probably worked out too much early in his career, which was a factor in the back injury that cost him the final nine games of the 2010 season. He has backed off a bit and works out enough to maintain his strength and flexibility.
Crystal ball: Sturgis is Mel Kiper, Jr.’s, second-ranked kicker behind Florida State’s Dustin Hopkins. He’ll be drafted and should have a long career in the NFL. He’s very accurate (79.3 percent in his career and 85 percent his final two seasons) and his strong leg will allow him to be effective in bad weather. If he lands with a dome team he could become a consistent long-range weapon the way he was at Florida.
During Muschamp's second season at Florida, he helped lead the Gators to an 11-1 record and a 7-1 record in SEC play. Florida ended the season No. 3 in the BCS standings and will play Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The Gators also defeated four teams that finished the season ranked in the top 12 of the BCS standings.
As for Sumlin, in his first year at Texas A&M, the Aggies went 10-2 (6-2 SEC) and upset No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa. A&M also owned the SEC's No. 1 offense and quarterback Johnny Manziel broke the SEC record for total offense in single season and is a Heisman Trophy finalist. The Aggies are headed to the AT&T Cotton Bowl to take on Oklahoma.
The coaches also named Manziel, who threw for 3,419 yards and 24 touchdowns to eight interceptions and rushed for an SEC-high 1,181 yards and 19 touchdowns, the SEC's Offensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year.
Here are the individual awards voted on by the SEC's coaches:
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
CO-SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE YEAR
*Caleb Sturgis, Florida
*Ace Sanders, South Carolina
FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
SCHOLAR-ATHLETE OF THE YEAR
Barrett Jones, Alabama
JACOBS BLOCKING TROPHY
Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M
CO-COACHES OF THE YEAR
*Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
*Will Muschamp, Florida
Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m. ET, New Orleans (ESPN)
Louisville take from Big East blogger Andrea Adelson: The Cardinals were the overwhelming preseason choice to win the Big East because they returned just about everybody off a team that won a share of the league title last season. The star among the bunch lived up to his top billing, as quarterback Teddy Bridgewater knocked just about everybody’s socks off with his performance in 2012. He is the biggest reason why Louisville is headed to the BCS and not a second-tier bowl game.
But this team had major adversity to overcome. Louisville survived one close call after another en route to a school-record 9-0 start. Then came loss No. 1 on the season, a stunning 45-26 blowout on the road to Syracuse in which the Orange outplayed the Cardinals in every single phase of the game. Then came loss No. 2, an inexplicable triple-overtime home defeat to UConn -- a team with one of the worst offenses in the nation. In that game, Bridgewater broke his wrist and sprained his ankle, yet nearly led a comeback win.
Louisville went into its regular-season finale at Rutgers without many people giving the Cards much of a shot to win. Rutgers jumped out to a 14-3 lead. But Bridgewater refused to be denied. Playing through his injuries, he led Louisville to a 20-17 comeback win to clinch the BCS spot. Bridgewater ended up throwing for 3,452 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions on the season and was one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the entire nation. He may have been an unknown outside the Big East before the season began; that is no longer the case.
Bridgewater allowed his team to survive the loss of leading rusher Senorise Perry, who tore his ACL against Syracuse and is out for the season. He allowed his team to win games it struggled in for a large chunk of time. And he allowed his team to survive some pretty shaky play on defense. It’s safe to say that many expected Louisville to be better than it was defensively this season, particularly up front. But for a majority of the season, the Cardinals had a hard time consistently stopping the run or consistently getting a pass rush going.
And yet, Louisville found a way to win 10 games and get back to a BCS game. In Teddy, Louisville trusts.
Florida take from GatorNation's Michael DiRocco: The Gators were one of the nation’s biggest surprises this season.
They followed up a 7-6 mark in coach Will Muschamp’s debut season with an 11-1 record in 2012, highlighted by victories over Texas A&M, South Carolina, LSU and Florida State. And if USC had upset Notre Dame, Florida could possibly be playing for the national title.
Florida’s turnaround was led by a smothering defense, which isn’t surprising considering Muschamp’s background. The Gators rank in the top six nationally in total defense, rush defense and scoring defense and have allowed opponents to throw just five touchdown passes. Safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and linebacker Jon Bostic have had career years.
But the biggest change is how good the Gators have been at forcing turnovers this season. UF forced just 14 in 2011, which was the lowest single-season total in school history since the school began compiling fumble stats in 1950. This year, UF has forced 29, which includes 19 interceptions (four by Elam), and the Gators have a plus-17 turnover margin.
UF’s offense hasn’t been pretty, but coordinator Brent Pease did a good job of compensating for a lack of playmakers at receiver and injuries along the offensive line. Running back Mike Gillislee finally got his chance to be the feature back, and he responded with 1,104 yards and 10 touchdowns to become the first UF player to surpass 1,000 yards since Ciatrick Fason in 2004.
After finally settling on Jeff Driskel as the starter, Pease put together game plans that took advantage of Driskel’s mobility and didn’t ask the sophomore to do too much. Manage the game and stay away from mistakes were the goals, and Driskel did that this season with one exception (Georgia). He ended up throwing for 1,471 yards and 11 TDs -- many of those yards to tight end Jordan Reed (44 catches for 552 yards) -- with only three interceptions while running for 409 yards and four touchdowns.
The Gators could play conservatively on offense because of their outstanding defense, but also because of punter Kyle Christy and kicker Caleb Sturgis. Christy, a Ray Guy Award finalist, was a field-position weapon with a 46.1-yard average (fifth nationally) and 25 punts of 50 or more yards. Sturgis, a Lou Groza Award finalist, made 23 of 27 field goal attempts and is the school’s all-time leader in field goals (69) and field goals of 50 or more yards (eight).
Here’s this week’s top 10 (last week’s rankings in parentheses):
1. RB Mike Gillislee (1): Gillislee played the best game of his career against Florida State. He ripped the nation’s No. 1 rush defense for 140 yards and two touchdowns. That performance gave him 1,104 yards, which makes him the first UF player to rush for 1,000 yards since Ciatrick Fason in 2004.
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Here are the good and bad from the 37-26 victory at Doak Campbell Stadium:
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QB Driskel will make Gator nation proud
12:00 PM ET Florida Tennessee 12:00 PM ET 6 Texas A&M 12 Mississippi State 3:30 PM ET 3 Alabama 11 Ole Miss 4:00 PM ET Vanderbilt 13 Georgia 7:00 PM ET 15 LSU 5 Auburn 7:30 PM ET South Carolina Kentucky