Dogs', Gators' special teams crucial

Dogs', Gators' special teams crucial

October 24th, 2012 by David Paschall in Sports - College

The University of Georgia's Rhett McGowan in action against Florida.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

KICKING THE DOGS

Florida's recent dominance of Georgia has included a decided edge in special teams:

2008 -- WAYWARD WALSH

Georgia place-kicker Blair Walsh missed field-goal attempts of 38 and 27 yards, adding some salt to the wounds of a 49-10 loss to the Gators.

2009 -- BOXED-IN BOYKIN

Brandon Boykin returned three kickoffs for touchdowns in 2009 but was held to a 19-yard average on six returns in a 41-17 loss.

2010 -- NO CHOKING HERE

After Bulldogs defensive coordinator Todd Grantham flashed a choke sign, Gators punter Chas Henry drilled a 37-yard field goal for a 34-31 overtime win.

2011 -- DEMPS GOES DISTANCE

Georgia won 24-20 despite Walsh missing two field goals, Drew Butler averaging 34.6 yards and Florida's Jeff Demps scoring on a 99-yard kickoff return.

ATHENS, Ga. -- Florida punter Kyle Christy set a school record in last week's 44-11 rout of South Carolina, averaging 54.3 yards on seven attempts with six traveling at least 50 yards.

That's fine with Rhett McGowan, who returns punts for Georgia.

"If he's kicking it that far, his coverage unit better be getting down there," McGowan said Tuesday, "because we'll have some room for returns and hopefully can make something happen."

Georgia players are optimistic they can match or even surpass Florida in special-teams play Saturday afternoon when the No. 12 Bulldogs and No. 3 Gators collide in Jacksonville. Topping the Gators in football's third phase would mean topping the nation's hottest team, as the Gamecocks quickly discovered.

In addition to Christy's punting, Trey Burton forced a fumble on a punt return to set up a touchdown, Solomon Patton forced a fumble on a kickoff return to set up a touchdown and Sharrif Floyd blocked a field goal.

"Florida has been fantastic on special teams," Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said. "That's certainly going to be a big challenge for us. We've had some successes here and there, but we need to have a big day in the special-teams area, or it's going to hurt us."

The Gators have been superior to Georgia in the kicking game across the board.

Christy leads the nation with a 47.9-yard average, while Georgia freshman Collin Barber is 12th in the SEC with a 39.7-yard clip. Florida kicker Caleb Sturgis is a proven senior who has made 12 of 14 field-goal attempts, while Bulldogs freshman Marshall Morgan is 5-for-6 on field-goal tries but has missed a staggering four extra points.

The Gators also have the slightly higher average on punt returns and kickoff returns, even with Georgia freshman Todd Gurley having returned a kickoff 100 yards in the opener against Buffalo.

Florida's performance against South Carolina followed a 31-17 victory at Vanderbilt in which Andre Debose had a 60-yard kickoff return, Patton raced 54 yards with a fake punt and Earl Okine blocked a field goal. So while the Gators try to pound out victories with their ground game, they have provided thrills on special teams.

"We look forward to shocking a lot of people because it brings a lot of excitement," Patton said.

Florida's special teams are coordinated by linebackers coach D.J. Durkin, who spent three years at Stanford before being hired by former Gators coach Urban Meyer in 2010. When Will Muschamp became head coach last year, he retained Durkin and current running backs coach Brian White.

"D.J. got really good experience as a young coach having the opportunity to be the special-teams coordinator for Jim Harbaugh out at Stanford," Muschamp said. "He really enjoys it, and 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."

Richt hasn't had a special-teams coach in his 12 seasons with the Bulldogs and has no plans to hire one. He said Tuesday that he could take more ownership of that area in the future but admitted that it certainly isn't his expertise right now.

The Bulldogs had three productive special-teams members who were seniors last season -- punter Drew Butler, kicker Blair Walsh and return specialist Brandon Boykin -- but those still involved believe they will not take a back seat to the Gators. Georgia did not perform well in special teams in its last marquee matchup, allowing a 70-yard punt return for a touchdown to South Carolina's Ace Sanders.

"Florida has done some great things on special teams this year, but so have we," said cornerback Sanders Commings, who is on the punt-coverage unit. "I think we did ours a little bit earlier and they've done theirs the past few games, but I definitely think we can match their special-teams play. I actually think our special teams are better."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.