GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – During his main press conference at SEC Football Media Days on Wednesday, first-year Gators coach Will Muschamp talked a lot about the changes in the program.
The Gators’ offense and defense will be vastly different than they have been the past six seasons under Urban Meyer.
But not everything will have a totally new look.
“Special teams, there will be a lot of continuity,’’ Muschamp said.
Florida’s special teams performed well overall a year ago, anchored by the performance of Chas Henry, named the 2010 Ray Guy Award winner as the nation’s top punter. Henry also took over place-kicking duties after Caleb Sturgis suffered a back injury early in the season that caused him to miss the final nine games.
Henry is gone but Sturgis is back, which provides Muschamp’s first Florida team with a proven kicker. Sturgis has hit 24 of 34 field goals during his career, including a 56-yarder against Georgia in 2009 that was the longest field goal in the SEC that season.
Primary long snapper Christopher Guido and holder John Crofoot also return.
Granted a medical redshirt, Sturgis showed he was completely healthy in the spring, capping his comeback by making 3-of-3 field goals in the spring game, including a 43-yarder.
Sturgis has also handled kickoff duties during his career, but if that is not in the plans, the Gators also have kickers Zack Brust and Brad Phillips on the roster. Both kicked off at times last season after Sturgis’ injury.
Meanwhile, Muschamp said freshman punter Kyle Christy is the front-runner to replace Henry, who averaged 45.1 yards per punt as a senior. Christy looked good in the spring and at 6-3, 189 pounds, showed off his strong leg with a 55-yard punt in the spring game. Senior David Lerner is the other punter on the roster.
Perhaps the most special player on special teams is kickoff returner Andre Debose, who finished second in the SEC a year ago by averaging 28 yards a return. Debose returned two kickoffs for touchdowns – including a 99-yarder on the opening kickoff against South Carolina – and showed that once he gets into the open field he is difficult to run down.
Running back Jeff Demps also display a penchant for returning kicks, averaging 32.5 yards on eight kickoff returns in 2010. Overall, the Gators averaged 26.3 yards per kickoff return, sixth in the country.
On punt returns, the Gators lose primary return man Janoris Jenkins, who led the team a year ago by averaging 8.3 yards on 18 returns. With Jenkins gone, Chris Rainey is the team’s most experienced punt returner. He averaged 7.4 yards on nine returns a year ago and also saw time at kickoff return.
Other returning players who could see time in the return game include Solomon Patton and Mike Gillislee. Among the newcomers, freshman receiver Ja’Juan Story was an accomplished kick return in high school should injuries take a toll.
In his six seasons at UF, Meyer placed a heavy emphasis on special teams and worked closely with the unit. In his departure, linebackers coach D.J. Durkin takes over as special teams coordinator.
Durkin coached special teams for three seasons at Stanford and at Bowling Green prior to joining Meyer’s staff in 2010.
GatorZone.com senior writer Scott Carter is previewing each position group on the Gators football team leading up to the start of fall camp.