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Florida's Eddy Pineiro (center) and Johnny Townsend (left) celebrate after a field goal against LSU.

Florida’s Eddy Pineiro, Johnny Townsend aim to be top special teams duo in the country

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida’s Eddy Pineiro and Johnny Townsend aren’t afraid of setting lofty goals for themselves.

The two made special teams play a strength for the Gators in 2016, and it looks like it will be a strength once again this year.

Pineiro, a redshirt junior kicker, is on the Lou Groza Award watch list. Townsend, a redshirt senior punter, is on the Ray Guy Award watch list. Individually, each has a chance to be the best in the country at his position. Together, the argument can be made that they’re the top kicker and punter duo in the country.

At least, that’s their goal.

“It’s just something we have to go out and do,” Pineiro said. “We have to show people that we’re the best.”

‘Every kick is pretty nerve racking’

Florida kicker Eddy Pineiro lines up a field goal against Kentucky in 2016. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Eddy Pineiro gets the signal to attempt a field goal and trots out to the field. His heart is racing. The crowd chants his name — “Eddy, Eddy, Eddy.”

“Whoever says they don’t get nervous, they’re complete liars,” Pineiro says. “Every kick is pretty nerve racking.”

After the former high school soccer standout lines up the shot and steps away from his holder — four steps back, two steps to the left — he takes two deep breaths and clears his mind of the noise.

From there, Pineiro says, “everything else will follow through.”

And as Pineiro’s first season of college football progressed, everything did follow through. He made 21 of his 25 field goals last season — an 84 percent efficiency rate that ranked third in the SEC among kickers with at least 20 attempts. Even better, he went a perfect 12 for 12 to close out the season. Five of those final 12 makes were from farther than 40 yards away.  

“It was all new to me,” Pineiro said. “I never played football before, so it’s just a matter of feeling comfortable.”

He’s comfortable now and more confident than ever.

Pineiro has always had trust in his leg strength. Look no further than the 81-yard field goal he drilled during a practice while wearing pads or the 11 field goals he made during the season from farther than 40 yards out.

But there were other aspects of his game that made him less optimistic. Prior to the 2016 season, Pineiro had never kicked a field goal in a live game. He never had the roar of 90,000 fans howling at him as he runs through his technique in his head. If the offense stuttered in scoring territory, the onus to salvage the drive was on his shoulders.

Plus, he was tasked with reviving Florida’s kicking game that made an abysmal 41.2 percent of its field goals in 2015, which ranked second to last in the country.

“I felt like a lot of pressure was put on top of me,” Pineiro said. “But it’s something you have to deal with when you’re a specialist. When you’re a kicker, it’s all about pressure and having the spotlight.”

Pineiro has no problem basking in the spotlight now. Before his time at Florida is over, he’ll have no problem seeing his name in the record books as well.

The one with the earliest chance to fall: most consecutive field goals made. The record is 17 set by Bobby Raymond in 1984.

“Just make your next five. No pressure,” he said with a laugh.

“It’s very doable.”

The art of punting

Florida’s Johnny Townsend punts during the 2016 SEC Championship Game. (Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)

Johnny Townsend didn’t begin punting until his sophomore year of high school.

Even then, that wasn’t his sole priority. Townsend also played safety and quarterback during his time at Orlando’s Boone High. He was also part of the baseball team.

But seven years later — as Townsend begins his final with the Gators and begins studying for his master’s degree in management — Townsend is grateful he made the switch to punting.

“Once I knew I had the opportunity to play college football and pursue my dreams through that, that’s when I started really working on it,” Townsend said.

Punting, Townsend says, is as much an art as it is a test of leg strength.

Mistiming the drop or shifting his foot even an inch could be the difference between pinning his opponents deep in their territory or shanking the ball out of bounds.

“They don’t call it a skill position for nothing,” Townsend said. “It’s very technical. It’s very refined.”

Townsend said it took about a year in high school to get his bearings. By his senior year, he was the No. 2-ranked punter in the country, according to the 247Sports composite.

“It’s a process,” Townsend said. “Each and every day, I’m always trying to work on something and refine something. It’s my craft.”

And Townsend has mastered the craft.

In 2016, Townsend led the nation in punting average (47.9 yards). To dive a little deeper:

  • 29 of his 64 punts went for at least 50 yards.
  • 27 of his punts pinned opponents inside their 20-yard line.
  • Only seven resulted in touchbacks.

His ability to flip the field salvaged the Gators’ offense when it sputtered at various points last season and gave the defense a leg up when he forced opponents to start inside its own red zone. Florida fans on Twitter have called for him to be in consideration for the Heisman Trophy. 

Heading into his final season, Townsend already owns most of Florida’s punting records — career average yards per punt (45.7), season average yards per punt (47.9 in 2016) and most punts in a season (83 in 2015).

“I’ve learned a lot about myself and my game since Day 1,” Townsend said. “I’ve developed as a person and as a player. I’m excited to lay it all on the line and give it all I got this season.”

Championship goals

Eddy Pineiro (15) and Johnny Townsend (19) celebrate after Pineiro makes a field goal against South Carolina. (Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

While the individual accolades are well within reach for both Pineiro and Townsend, both also have a bigger goal to achieve before the season ends.

Namely, winning an SEC championship.

The Gators won the SEC East each of the last two years only to lose to Alabama in the conference title game, a sour end to conference play after exceeding expectations during the regular season.

Both feel the Gators have the chance to break through this year.

“We expect nothing less than that this season.”

They also expect nothing less of each other. Pineiro and Townsend challenge each other during practice and spend time together off the field as well.

When the season starts on Sept. 2, they’re hoping it will help them out in the long run.

“We know each other best,” Townsend said, “and we know we can be the best.”