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Punter Kyle Christy returns after a record-setting 2012 season.

Saturday March 9, 2013Gators Spring Preview: Special Teams

Punter Kyle Christy returns after a record-setting 2012 season.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- If there was one position Gators coach Will Muschamp lost little sleep over in his first two seasons, it was kicker.

Muschamp has Caleb Sturgis to thank for that.

Muschamp called Sturgis the best kicker in the country the past two seasons for good reason. Sturgis was nearly automatic, connecting on 46 of 54 field goals in Muschamp's first two seasons and 70 of 88 in his career.

Sturgis capped his career in the Sugar Bowl by breaking Bobby Raymond's 28-year-old school record for field goals in a single season, booting a 33-yarder for his 24th field goal of the season.

Sturgis was not only accurate, but he had range, hitting a school-record eight kicks of 50 yards or more in his career.

Sturgis is now gone, which means redshirt freshman Austin Hardin is up as the Gators prepare to open spring practice.

Many recruiting analysts considered Hardin the top prep kicker in the country coming out of the Marist School in Atlanta. Like Sturgis, Hardin is a former soccer player who played for the 17-and-under Bolivian National Team growing up in South America, where his father worked for the U.S. Justice Department.

The Gators still have one of the country's top kickers in junior punter Kyle Christy, a finalist for the Ray Guy Award last season.

Christy was one of the Gators' top weapons, setting a single-season school record by averaging 45.8 yards per punt. Christy had 25 punts of 50 or more yards and 27 kicks inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

Christy had offseason shoulder injury but his right leg is fine entering spring practice.

While Hardin and Christy provide the Gators with a promising 1-2 punch in the kicking game, senior kicker Brad Phillips is back in the mix at placekicker. Phillips is 4-for-4 on extra-points and 2-for-4 on field goals in limited action over his career. He has also kicked off 27 times.

Meanwhile, redshirt sophomore punter Todd Fennell returns as a potential backup to Christy, and incoming freshman Johnny Townsend will arrive in the fall. Townsend, out of Orlando's Boone High, was a late addition to the Gators' 2013 recruiting class when he opted to sign with Florida after originally committing to Ohio State.

The most electrifying player on Florida's special-teams units is kickoff returner Andre Debose. While Debose has yet to fulfill his promise at receiver, the fifth-year senior is one of the nation's most dangerous kick returners.

Debose set a Sugar Bowl record when he returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in Florida's loss to Louisville, his school-record fourth career kickoff return for a score. Debose enters his final season needing one more kickoff return for a score to establish a new Southeastern Conference record for a career.

While Debose is Florida's primary kickoff returner, junior Loucheiz Purifoy emerged in that role late last season and could remain a factor.

At punt return, cornerback Marcus Roberson is a top option. Roberson had a career-high 50-yard punt return in a win at Florida State. Debose and fellow receiver Solomon Patton, who has been cleared for non-contact drills coming off a season-ending broken arm against Georgia last season, also have experience in that role.

Redshirt sophomore long snapper Kyle Crofoot returns as does redshirt junior Drew Ferris. Ferris opened last season holding that job but suffered a broken collarbone in the season opener against Bowling Green and missed the rest of the season. Crofoot took over after Ferris was hurt.

Crofoot's brother, John, has departed as the Gators' primary holder on field-goal attempts. Quarterback Tyler Murphy and receiver/running back Trey Burton are players to watch there.

Special teams played a huge role in Florida's 11-2 record in 2012. The Gators blocked six kicks in the final eight games, including a blocked punt by Purifoy that was returned by Jelani Jenkins for a game-winning touchdown with only seconds remaining in a home victory over Louisiana.

First-year defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin served as special-teams coordinator since Muschamp took over. However, with Durkin taking over the defense, Muschamp has not named a special-teams coordinator and may not.

He said recently that he has been on staffs where the coaches have shared the assignment with success.

"We've got a lot of different avenues to travel down,'' Muschamp said. "We'll make it work."

 

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