UF kicker Caleb Sturgis will be hard to replace

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — There’s a reason he keeps saying it.
More like many reasons.
In Will Muschamp’s two seasons as Florida’s head coach he has searched to find out which players he could depend on and which ones he couldn’t.
That’s the quest of any coach but especially one that takes over a program in transition and loaded with players from the previous regime like Muschamp did.
He never lacked confidence in fifth-year senior kicker Caleb Sturgis. It’s been that way from Muschamp’s very first game.
In the 2011 season opener against Florida Atlantic, Sturgis trotted onto Florida Field for the first time since the fourth game of the previous season. He missed the final nine games in 2010 due to a lower-back injury.
But by the time Muschamp’s first fall camp arrived, Sturgis was healthy and ready to resume his career. Early in the first quarter against the Owls, Sturgis lined up for a 24-yard field goal.
He nailed it. A little while later Sturgis drilled a 35-yard kick to score the first six points of the Muschamp era.
Since then, Sturgis has added 43 more field goals as Muschamp watched from the sideline with little concern of whether it was the right call to send the kicker out.
His assessment of Sturgis has never wavered.
“I think he’s the best placekicker in the country,” Muschamp has said once, twice, maybe 50 times over the past two years.
In this case it’s not a coach’s blind loyalty to one of his players.
Sturgis has been perhaps Florida’s most consistent performer the past two seasons, a dependable source of points for a Gators offense starving for playmakers for much of that time.
Over the past two seasons Sturgis has connected on 45 of 53 field goals, including 23 of 27 this season. If Sturgis kicks a field goal in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2 against Louisville, he will break a tie with Bobby Raymond for most field goals in a single season. Raymond made 23 of 26 in 1984.
“You fake a field goal and you really question yourself,” Muschamp said after a fake failed in the win against Florida State last month. “You know you probably just left three points out there.”
Sturgis already broke former Gators kicker Jeff Chandler’s school records for most field goals and most attempts in a career. He has made 69 of 87 kicks (79.3 percent) and is considered a potential draft pick in April’s NFL Draft.
Florida hasn’t had a placekicker selected in the draft since the 49ers took Chandler in the fourth round in 2002. Brian Clark in 1982 by the Patriots (10th round) and David Posey in the ninth round by the 49ers in 1977 are Florida’s only other placekickers drafted.
Depending on the scouting service, Sturgis is considered the top kicker available in the draft or second-best prospect behind Florida State’s Dustin Hopkins.
What isn’t up for debate is Sturgis’ place in Florida’s record book.
He is at the top, including eight field goals of 50 or more yards.
The former soccer player didn’t plan it this way when he signed with the Gators in 2008 out of St. Augustine High.
“You never go out there to break records,” he said. “You just want to be prepared when your number is called and be ready to kick.”
Former Florida coach Urban Meyer only needed to see — and hear — Sturgis kick for a couple of weeks in the fall of 2008 to know the Gators had a special talent.
“When his foot hits the ball, it sounds different than most other kickers,” Meyer said then.
Sturgis has those three qualities all great kickers possess: range, accuracy and confidence. Whether it’s a chip shot or from 50 yards Sturgis expects to make the kick.
In his first season as Florida’s regular kicker in 2009 he booted a career-long 56-yarder against Georgia.
“You’ve got to believe you can make it before the ball is ever snapped or you probably won’t,” he said. “I like to be put in situations where I can make a difference in a game.”
Sturgis is already committed to playing in the East-West Shrine Game after the Sugar Bowl. It will be a final opportunity to impress NFL scouts who have not seen him regularly in person.
A year ago Missouri Western’s Greg Zuerlein opened a lot of eyes at the East-West Shrine Game and the Rams grabbed him in the sixth round. Zuerlein is one of the league’s top rookies, making 21 of 28 field goals including a franchise-record 60-yarder earlier this season.
Sturgis isn’t quite as under-the-radar as Zerelein as a two-time finalist for the Lou Groza Award.
The experience was worth it despite not having his named called as Sturgis got to mingle with several of the country’s top players.
“It’s definitely neat as a kicker to be able to be mentioned in the same sentence as some of these other guys and watch them walk down the red carpet,” Sturgis said. “It was big to me. Only three guys get invited and there are 120 Division I teams.”
One of them — the Gators — will have big shoes to fill next season.
“We’re trying to find an extra year of eligibility for him,” Muschamp quipped.
What else did you expect him to say about the kicker he considers the best in the country?