GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – He aced the first test of the season. That’s when Caleb Sturgis knew.
He knew he still had the leg. He knew he could still do what he did before the injury. He knew that when he planted his left foot and swung his right foot to meet the ball, his back didn’t hurt.
The moment Sturgis discovered those answers came on the Gators’ very first drive of the season. On the opening series of the game, Florida drove from its 20 to Florida Atlantic’s 33 on Sept. 3.
Florida coach Will Muschamp, confident in Sturgis from what he saw during spring practice and fall camp, signaled for a field goal.
Sturgis had not attempted a kick in a game since a win at Tennessee nearly a year earlier. Soon after he hurt his back lifting weights and was diagnosed with a cracked vertebrae and bulging disc. Sturgis missed the final nine games and redshirted.
The pain was so bad at times that Sturgis wondered if his body would ever be right again.
Now it was time to see if he could make a 51-yard field goal against FAU for Florida’s first points of the season.
The snap was good. The hold was good. The kick was on target and drifted through the uprights for the third field goal of Sturgis’ career good from 50 yards or more.
Sturgis knew he was going to be fine.
“I didn’t hit it that great but it went in,’’ Sturgis said. “I think that one gave me confidence to kick off the season.’’
The boot – and boost in confidence it delivered – allowed Sturgis to quickly put away any concerns about his back and focus on kicking. He let his talent do the rest as he made 12 consecutive field goals to start the season. His first miss was a 52-yard attempt against Alabama on Oct. 1.
More than three months later Sturgis has a busy week ahead as one of three finalists for the Groza Award, the nation’s top honor for a collegiate placekicker. Sturgis is trying to join Judd Davis (1993) as the only UF kicker to win the award.
Sturgis will be in West Palm Beach on Tuesday night for the Groza Award’s annual banquet and in Orlando on Thursday night at The Home Depot College Football Awards show on ESPN where the winner will be announced.
Sturgis is up for the Groza against Texas A&M’s Randy Bullock and Florida State’s Dustin Hopkins.
Sturgis finished the regular season by making 21 of 25 field goals and all 28 of his extra-point attempts. He missed the second half of the Auburn game and entire Georgia game due to a right hamstring injury.
However, once Sturgis returned, he showed off his leg with a 55-yarder against Vanderbilt on Nov.5 to put to rest any doubts about another lingering injury.
Sturgis’ older brother Nathan was at The Swamp that day, taking a break from his season as a midfielder for Toronto FC of the MLS.
While Nathan’s professional soccer career has kept him and Caleb apart the last few years, he follows Caleb’s career closely.
“It’s been great to see him grow and be successful at Florida,’’ Nathan said.
The long field goals and kickoffs have impressed Nathan, but not as much as his younger brother’s determination to return from the kind of back injury that might end some careers.
“Any time you are injured, it’s a tough process to go through, especially when you have to sit on the sidelines on watch everyone else play,’’ Nathan said. “For him to go through that whole year being injured and working hard to get back says a lot about him. He was able to get back and have a good year. Any time you can do that you learn a lot.’’
During his comeback season Sturgis solidified his place in the Gators’ record books. His 55-yard field goal against Furman on Nov. 19 was his fifth career score from 50 or more yards, setting a new school record. He also moved into second place behind Jeff Chandler (67) for most career field goals at UF. Sturgis now has made 45 of 59 (76.3 percent) field-goal attempts in his career.
With another season of eligibility remaining, Chandler’s record is within range.
Sturgis was one player Muschamp did not fret over in his first season as UF’s head coach.
“He gives you an awful lot of confidence with the accuracy of his leg,’’ Muschamp said. “He’s been a very consistent performer for us all season.’’
Once upon a time Sturgis expected to follow in the footsteps of Nathan. All six kids in the Sturgis family grew up playing soccer, none better than Nathan, who played at Clemson before leaving school to start a professional career.
Sturgis’ path changed when he started attending St. Augustine High after several years of being home-schooled. There, he played on a bad soccer team but was rescued by the football coach.
“My sophomore year the football coach saw me kick a soccer ball and asked me to come out for football,’’ Sturgis said. “I always saw myself going to play soccer in college.’’
Ironically, a former FSU kicker helped him get this far. Former Seminole kicker Dan Mowrey – better known as the culprit of Wide Right II – is a St. Augustine attorney nowadays who used to work with St. Augustine High kickers.
Sturgis is one of his former pupils, one now competing against an FSU kicker (Hopkins) for the Groza.
“He taught me everything about kicking,’’ Sturgis said. “He really helped me a lot.’’
What’s at the heart of Sturgis’ philosophy on kicking?
“You are just trying to have more good days than bad,’’ he said.
Sturgis easily passed that test this season, too. A year after not knowing if he would kick again, Sturgis can’t help but think how far he has come to be a Groza finalist.
“It would definitely be big time to me to win it,’’ he said. “Last year was really depressing. With all my injuries and all, I don’t know how many more years I’ll play football, so it would definitely be something to remember it by.’’