GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Gators could make a coaching-clinic film to highlight the importance of special teams. All they would need to use are their last three games.
As the Gators surged up the polls in recent weeks, their special teams often led the way.
In the victory over LSU, punter Kyle Christy continually flipped the field on the Tigers in the first half to emerge as one of Florida’s most dangerous weapons.
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In Florida’s win at Vanderbilt, receiver Solomon Patton raced 54 yards on a fake punt, Earl Okine blocked a field goal, and just as it appeared the Commodores had seized the momentum, Andre Debose returned a kickoff 60 yards.
And then Saturday in Florida’s 41-11 win over South Carolina, the special teams once again came up clutch.
Trey Burton forced a fumble on a punt return and then recovered the turnover that led to a Florida touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff, Patton forced a fumble that was recovered by Chris Johnson and returned to South Carolina’s 1-yard line. Sharrif Floyd added a blocked field goal in the first half, and Christy did his normal work, booming seven punts 50 or more yards.
Christy averaged a single-game school record 54.3 yards a punt, breaking the previous mark (53.0) established in 1949 against Alabama.
The quick turn of events on the back-to-back fumble recoveries had Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel strapping his helmet back on right after taking it off on the sideline.
“That’s huge,” Driskel said. “There were a couple of times [the offense] didn’t really get to sit down for too long. They did a great job of getting the ball off guys, and we took advantage of our opportunities. Anytime you get the ball inside your own territory, it’s nice for the offense.”
The Gators have consistently had one of the country’s top special-teams units for several years. There has not been a dropoff under second-year coach Will Muschamp.
“It’s competitive [to play on special teams],” linebacker Jon Bostic said. “Guys are going at it each and every week.”
When Muschamp was hired to replace Urban Meyer, one of the assistants he kept from Meyer’s staff was special-teams coordinator D.J. Durkin, who spent three years at Stanford prior to coming to UF in 2010.
It’s usually easy to find Durkin on the sideline during a game. He is likely running up and down the sideline waving his arms when the Gators’ special-teams units are on the field.
His enthusiasm is just one reason Muschamp said Durkin gets the job done.
“He is very knowledgeable, No. 1,” Muschamp said Monday. “He got really good experience as a young coach having the opportunity to be the special-teams coordinator for Jim Harbaugh out at Stanford. He’s got a lot of experience. He is very passionate about it, he really enjoys it. He does a great job of motivating the players.
“We’re a very vested group in special teams as far as our staff is concerned. What you emphasize is important, and we spend a lot of time on it.”
The players take special teams seriously, too.
Several starters play on different special-team groups. Bostic, a starting linebacker, is on the punt protection team as a blocker. Starting F-Back Trey Burton is on the punt cover team. Starting safety Josh Evans plays on the kickoff cover team. Floyd, a starting defensive tackle, plays on the field-goal block team.
There are others. The players thrive on the competition and contributing in other ways, which provides Durkin with some talented units.
“I’m very proud with what they’ve done,” Durkin said after Saturday’s game. “I’m proud of the effort they play with and the trust they put in one another. They believe in one another and they execute the scheme. That’s all you can ask for as a coach.”
As the team’s starting quarterback, Driskel doesn’t play on special teams, of course, but he appreciates that phase of the game as much as anything the offense or defense provides.
“We say at the beginning of the year that if you are not on special teams you are a selfish player,” Driskel said. “We take great pride in our special teams. We work on it a lot and we have some good players on our special teams. That’s definitely a spot we take pride in.”
A couple of minutes into his opening remarks Monday to review the South Carolina game, Muschamp finally came to special teams.
“I probably should have started off with special teams,” Muschamp quipped.
The Gators’ special teams are producing at a high level, and that’s not by accident. They spend up to 25 minutes per practice working on the various special-team drills.
In this case, practice is truly paying off.
“We grade everything,” Muschamp said. “If a guy is not playing well, he is replaced during the game. We watch that no different from any other phase of our football team.”