Written by Chris Canada, Gatorsfirst.com Co-Founder
The long and dull offseason is finally coming to a close. Anticipation has never been higher in Gainesville, as last year's BCS champions are looking to do what no team in the BCS era has been able to accomplish: win a second consecutive championship.
With all of the players from last year's team coming back to defend their title, introductions are probably not needed. However, the Gatorsfirst.com team will give you the positional breakdowns you deserve to be fully ready for the 2009 season.
Urban Meyer has emphasized an importance in the special teams game ever since he got here. Last season alone, the Gators ranked 9th nationally in punt return yardage, with two punt return touchdowns, ranked 8th in the country in net punt yardage, and blocked a total of nine kicks. This year appears to be headed in the right track as all the big players are back, as well as some new blood. Here’s the special teams preview...
Florida returns one of the best punters in the nation in Chas Henry (Jr., No.17, P, 6'3'', 222lbs). Last season, he averaged 43.4 net yards per punt, which ranked him third in the SEC. He put 21 punts inside the 20-yardline, which is a huge benefit to the field position game.
Henry continually boom punts, and he had a season long of 67 yards against FSU. He was a semifinalist for the Ray Guy award given to the nation’s premier punter. I expect him to be in the running for that award this year.
In addition to booming punts, he will be our emergency quarterback if needed, as he started for his high school team. The trick plays are always a threat because of his strong arm.
Backing him up will be redshirt freshman walk-on David Lerner. Although we only have two punters, Lerner will not see any action with a star in front of him.
Jonathan Phillips (RSr., No.38, K, 5'10'', 218lbs) returns for what seems like his 17th season in Gainesville, as he was able to get a medical redshirt for his missed 2007 campaign. Phillips was very steady last season, hitting 12 of 13 field goals, and making 78 of 79 extra points, which set an SEC record. We all know the one he missed...
Because of his accuracy, he was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza award, given to the nation’s best kicker. And although he’s accurate, he doesn’t have a very strong leg, so you’ll rarely see him attempt from lengths greater than 45 yards.
Caleb Sturgis (So., No.19, S, 5'10'', 190lbs) will be taking care of the kickoffs this season. He has an incredibly strong leg, as showcased at the Orange & Blue game. Unfortunately, he tends to pull a lot of kickoffs out of bounds (eight last year to be exact). This frustrated me constantly, because they always seem to happen after big scores. The coaching staff wasn’t too pleased either, often pulling him for the next kickoff. He has a lot of talent, and we’ll probably see him attempt some long field goal tries throughout the season.
I’ve mentioned Brandon James (Sr., No.25, PR/KR, 5'7'', 185lbs) before in my WR preview. However his true threat to defenses is returning kicks. His ’08 campaign was something special. He was named an All-American by FWAA, Sporting News, and Phil Steele. He was also named the SEC Special Teams Player of the Year.
He finished third in the country in punt return yards, averaging 29.7 yards per game, returning two back for touchdowns, including the breathtaking one against Tennessee, which I wrote about here. His ability to move the ball down the field creates an extremely important field position advantage.
James returns kickoffs as well. However, he’ll be sharing the field with a new returner now that Kestahn Moore has graduated. I expect some other burners to take his place. Jeff Demps returned a kick 39 yards last year in his lone opportunity. The boy’s got speed. I think he’d make a great option to fill that roll.
Another person that I can see fielding kickoffs is true freshman Andre Debose. He has a knack for making big plays, and when he’s alone in space, watch out!
The Gators have a fine punt coverage game. Because Chas Henry is able to get a lot of air time under his kicks, the speedy defenders have plenty of time to get down field and make the tackle, as evidenced by they’re low 5.6 yard per return average.
The area that concerns me is kickoff coverage. During both of the last two seasons, the Gator kickoff team has allowed over 20 yards per return. This is crucial because over time those extra yards of field position add up. Hopefully Coach Meyer will do something to shore this up.
The most under-appreciated part of this special teams unit is the ability to block kicks. Last season alone, the Gators blocked nine kicks. Carlos Dunlap had three of those blocks, on both punts and field goals. Jeff Demps had two punt blocks as well.
The ability to not only stop an offense, but to also create the equivalent of a turnover by blocking a kick alters the field position game drastically. With all of the speed and size coming back, I expect the trend of blocking kicks to continue.