Gators battle to find a replacement kicker

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Gators knew replacing kicker Caleb Sturgis would be difficult.
That has turned out to be the case this spring as Brad Phillips and Austin Hardin have been up-and-down in getting a leg up on the competition. Florida coach Will Muschamp has described them as “inconsistent” much of the spring and recently tossed redshirt junior walk-on Frank Velez into the mix.
“Obviously kickers don’t want to be called inconsistent,” said Phillips, the only member of the trio to see game action at Florida.
Phillips appeared to take a step forward on Monday at practice when he made a pair of field goals in late-game situational drills and performed well in red-zone drills.
“He’s really kicking well,” Muschamp said Tuesday. “Austin has done some nice things. Frank Velez has come along as a third kicker we’ve kind of thrown into the competition. Certainly no one has taken the job yet but I’m very pleased with our progress there.
“We’ve got to continue to see that success out of that position.”
With the competition still open, the kicking trio will get an opportunity to showcase their progress on Saturday at the Orange & Blue Debut.
Hardin, a redshirt freshman and the only one of the three on scholarship, has the strongest leg of the three. He kicked a 59-yard game-winner in high school and all seven misses his senior season were more than 50 yards.
A former soccer player like Sturgis, Hardin has been working out with the former Gators standout this spring as Sturgis prepares for the upcoming NFL Draft.
They mostly work on minor techniques that only kickers can appreciate fully. Keeping his head down is the primary focus for Hardin during the drills.
“As a young kicker, I’m anxious to see the ball get up and through the uprights,” said Hardin. “That’s one of the things that has really been helping me out.”
Likewise, Phillips also relies on lessons he learned from Sturgis, who graduated as UF’s all-time career leader in field goals made.
“Caleb has taught me so much,” Phillips said. “He has helped me from everything from form to the mental approach of kicking the football. It’s overwhelming. You’ve got to come in after a four-year starter who was automatic every time he stepped onto the field.
“We have the talent to fill his shoes, but Caleb was so consistent.”
Regardless of how the rest of the week plays out, the competition appears one that is likely to continue into the fall.
When spring camp started, Hardin figured to be the front runner. Coming out of the Marist School in Atlanta, Hardin was ranked the top prep kicker in the country by various recruiting services.
His goal is to be on the top of the depth chart when the Gators open the season Aug. 31 at home against Toledo.
“I’m generally very hard on myself and I like to be the best, to be the No. 1 guy,” Hardin said. “I don’t shy away from competition. I need to be the kicker that I know I can be. I’ve had days where I’ve really done well and I think opened the coaches’ eyes, and I know I’ve had days where I can do better. Missing one is enough to get me upset.”
A senior, Phillips replaced an injured Sturgis in 2011 against Georgia and made 2 of 3 field goals. He has also kicked off during his time at UF.
Meanwhile, Velez is the least known of the three but walked onto the team in the fall of 2010 with some impressive credentials.
He made 24 of 26 field goals and 170 of 172 extra-points during his career at Trinity Catholic High in Ocala, the same school that produced former Gators quarterback John Brantley.
While it’s too early to declare a winner in the competition, Phillips at least can tell the kickers are making progress. He said Muschamp has been in a better mood of late after watching the three at practice.
That’s a good sign for the Gators with Sturgis no longer around as Mr. Automatic.