GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It’s not exactly the Twelve Days of Christmas or the Eight Days of Hanukkah — or any other sort of time-honored tradition — but for the next 10 days we’ll review the Florida football season by position group.
How did the Gators grade at each spot? What were the highlights, the lowlights and how is the team positioned heading into next season?
Here’s the countdown schedule, starting with special teams and ending with the position everybody will be thinking about through the offseason:
Dec. 12: Special teams
Dec. 13: Cornerbacks
Dec. 14: Safeties
Dec. 15: Linebackers
Dec. 16: Defensive line
Dec. 17: Offensive line
Dec. 18: Running backs
Dec. 19: Tight ends
Dec. 20: Wide receivers
Dec. 21: Quarterbacks
Without further ado …
Special teams season grade
What more could a program ask for out of its special teams unit than a punter who leads the nation in yards per attempt and a kicker who became a fan favorite while ranking top-5 in the SEC in both total field goals and field goal percentage?
Well, there’s always room for improvement and the Gators’ return game left just a little to be desired.
Officially, Florida ranked sixth in the SEC in kickoff return average (22.31 yards per attempt) and third in returns of at least 30 yards (6). Meanwhile, the Gators were 10th in punt return average (6.7 yards) and fifth in returns of at least 20 yards (3).
They only produced one return touchdown in either department, that being Antonio Callaway’s flukey score off a poorly executed onside kick by Missouri. There was more optimism for the group after Callaway returned two punts for touchdowns last season. Instead this fall, he had some baffling struggles with fumbled returns and ill-advised fair catches inside the 5-yard line.
That’s about the only knock on this unit, though, and it’s not a major one.
Kicker Eddy Pineiro was fantastic in his debut season, living up to all of the hype while converting 18-of-22 field goal tries and going a perfect 3-of-3 from beyond 50 yards (54, 53 and 54).
And punter Johnny Townsend, meanwhile, heads into the bowl season ranked tops nationally in punting average at 48.1 yards. He landed 25 of his 62 punts inside the 20-yard line and was a glaring snub from the list of Ray Guy Award finalists.
Star of the group
How many kickers get their name chanted by packed stadiums before every big kick? Likely only one.
It’s unfortunate that after being slighted by the Ray Guy Award committee, Townsend would also get snubbed from this prestigious mention as well, but Pineiro gets the nod here for what he meant to the Gators this season.
After Florida went a brutal 7-of-17 on field goals last year, coach Jim McElwain and his staff made the position such a priority that they won a recruiting battle with Alabama to flip Pineiro’s commitment from the Crimson Tide.
Pineiro was a steadying presence from the start and finished especially strong while making his last nine field goal tries. Also, his 9 field goals overall of at least 40 yards tied Caleb Sturgis’ program record.
Not bad for a guy who had never attempted a field goal in a game at any level.
Looking at 2017
Pineiro was classified as a redshirt sophomore this season and should be around for a couple more years. Townsend is a redshirt junior who could consider jumping to the NFL if he gets the right feedback, but it would be uncommon for a punter to leave early and the Gators will hope he’s back next fall to give the Ray Guy Award folks one more chance to get it right.
Callaway didn’t have his best season in the return game, but he’s still an incredible asset back there who has the potential for delivering game-changing plays at any point. He’ll look to bounce back as a punt returner in 2017.
The Gators spread the kickoff return duties around this fall, but one name to watch next year is Dre Massey. After sustaining a season-ending knee injury in the opening game this year, the highly-touted junior college transfer should be ready to roll in 2017 and should get another chance to establish himself in the return game.