Editor’s note: In advance of Florida’s Orange & Blue Debut, SEC Country is highlighting one storyline of note each day to help prepare fans for the culmination of spring practice. Wednesday’s entry, the first in this series, focuses on one what could be an improved area for the Gators in 2016.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida had trouble putting up points last season, finishing 100th nationally in scoring offense.
A major part of the problem was kicker Austin Hardin, who left a game’s worth of points (30 total) on the field with his missed kicks in 2015.
Hardin is now gone and the Gators have replaced him with Eddy Pineiro, the nation’s No. 1 junior college kicker in the last recruiting cycle.
Pineiro, a former Alabama commit, become a YouTube sensation when video of his 77-yarder went viral. UF coach Jim McElwain wanted to see if Pineiro was as good as advertised on the opening day of spring practice.
“This is the first time I haven’t seen it on social media,” McElwain said after the first practice. “The ball comes up real quick and goes very far. He actually made them all … and he finished with, what was it, a 58-yarder with everybody around him. That was dead in the middle.
“Here’s the good thing — Eddy knew how to put his helmet on. I was excited about that.”
McElwain was half-joking with the helmet comment. Despite his ability, Pineiro has never kicked a field goal in a game before and played soccer in junior college.
He joined the school’s start-up football program, but the team just practiced last year. Despite playing in a few football games as a high school senior, Pineiro only got a chance to handle kickoff duties and extra points.
Friday’s Orange & Blue Debut will be his first field-goal attempt in a game setting.
“We’ve got to see Eddy kick in front of people and not on his YouTube,” McElwain said. “This is kind of an important deal there.”
For what it’s worth, McElwain and special teams coordinator Greg Nord have no concerns about Pineiro playing on a bigger stage after his performance this spring.
“With his focus, nothing rattles him,” Nord said. “He handles discipline and adversity well. He doesn’t let outside distractions draw him away from the focus that he needs to maintain for each play.
“When you get as old as I am, you’re fortunate to have been around some really good kickers and some really bad kickers. I’ve had guys that have been to the Pro Bowl, I’ve had guys that have won the Lou Groza award. He responds like those guys, not the bad ones.”
Nord said he and the coaches never had any apprehension about Pineiro’s inexperience because of their research on him and how he performed in summer camp. Alabama, Georgia and Miami also offered Pineiro.
“He was our guy from the get-go,” Nord said. “We’ve put him in some tough situations so he learns how to deal with non-success if it happens. … Everything we do is geared toward making sure we get him game-ready for next year. He’s a tremendous talent. He’s got a live, live leg.
“He’s learning how to be a football player. Everything he has to do is new for him, from being ready on third down in a situation where he has to go in and kick a field goal, then all of a sudden we make a first down and he’s back down resting. Just ebbs and flows of fitting into the game, knowing how to be ready and how to be called on when it’s his turn.”
Pineiro’s personality is not that of your typical kicker. He’s very outgoing and confident on the football field, despite being a former soccer player.
“A lot of people are saying I don’t have the experience or they don’t know how I work under pressure,” Pineiro told the Palm Beach Post just prior to enrolling at Florida. “But to be honest with you, when you kick next to Nick Saban kneeling down right next to you in front of 300 other kickers who are trying to take that same spot, I think that’s more pressure than kicking in front of 100,000 people.”
That attitude is one of the many reasons McElwain pursued Pineiro harder than any other kicker he’s ever recruited.
“I kind of like the guy’s demeanor,” McElwain said. “You kind of tell him, ‘Hey, we’re going to put you in some pressure situations today.’ He just smiles and shakes his head and says, ‘I can’t wait.’ That’s what you like.
“And yet, he’s missed a couple. I’m kind of glad to see that because he doesn’t seem to let it affect him. As much as we can do in The Swamp with the Friday night piece, I think all of that will help.”