UF position breakdown: Special teams among best in nation

Eddy Pineiro, Johnny Townsend
Two of the best in the nation at what they do: Florida kicker Eddy Pineiro (15) and place-holder/punter Johnny Townsend (19) give the Gators a leg up on the competition. [File]

The upside: The Gators have the best kicking combination in the SEC (and possibly the nation) in junior place-kicker Eddy Pineiro and senior punter Johnny Townsend. Both are proven and highly efficient at what they do.

When Pineiro first arrived on campus in the spring of 2016, Florida’s field-goal kicking game was in shambles. But the confident junior college transfer quickly turned it into a team strength.

He was one of the stars of the spring game, where he became a fan favorite. He followed that up with a near flawless 2016 season, making 21 of 25 field goal attempts and having 48 touchbacks on kickoffs. He finished his first season strong, connecting on three field goals in the upset win at LSU, then knocking through three more in the Gators’ win over Iowa in the Outback Bowl.

Townsend and the punting game have been a strength the past two seasons. On a team that’s been offensively challenged, he has been one of the Gators’ MVPs with his ability to flip field position and force teams to take the long route to the red zone. Last season, he led the nation in punting with a 47.9-yard average. Just as important, on 27 occasions, he pinned opposing teams inside their own 20.

Florida’s two kickers share similar traits. They are proven, reliable and confident players who take their craft seriously.

UF’s return game is also a potential team strength with Brandon Powell, Dre Massey and Tyrie Cleveland, three of the fastest players on the team. Massey was expected to make some big things happen on special teams (and on offense) in 2016, but he was lost for the year after he injured his knee on the opening kickoff in the first game of the season. Cleveland figures to be the No. 1 punt returner.

The downside: Junior wide receiver Antonio Callaway is potentially one of the most dangerous punt returners in the SEC, but he’s a threat to no one at the moment while he serves out his suspension, which is for at least one game, but could be longer.

While the kicking aspect of UF’s special teams warrants a five-star rating, the Gators have underachieved in other areas. They’ve been solid in the cover game, but have made almost nothing happen in terms of big plays and blocked kicks in the kick rush game. For a team with so many fast and athletic players, that’s unacceptable β€” and hard to figure out. It’s an area that has been a priority, and the Gators are hoping to start seeing results this season.

Young guy to watch: When asked about the return game at Friday’s news conference, UF coach Jim McElwain said he was excited about Massey and Powell and β€œone of those freshmen that runs really fast.” McElwain did not give a name, but when someone threw out a possible name, McElwain held up five fingers. No. 5. That would be CJ Henderson, a 6-1, 186-pound cornerback (and speedster) from Miami Columbus who played in the Under Armour All-American game. Not only was Henderson a standout CB in high school, he was also a running back/receiver. His highlight tape on UF’s website shows Henderson making big play after big play running and catching the football. On most of his plays, he easily pulls away from opposing defensive backs. So, he’s one to watch.

UF’s Probable Depth Chart
15-Eddy Pineiro
98-Jorge Powell

19-Johnny Townsend
88-Tommy Townsend
97-Jon Gould

Kickoff returners
9-Dre Massey
4-Brandon Powell
17-Kadarius Toney
5-CJ Henderson

Punter returner
89-Tyrie Cleveland
9-Dre Massey
7-Kadarius Toney

Long snapper
41-Ryan Farr
49-Jacob Tilghman

19-Johnny Townsend
88-Tommy Townsend

Ranking the SEC special teams
1. Florida
2. Texas A&M
3. Tennessee
4. Auburn
5. Alabama
6. LSU
7. Mississippi
8. Georgia
9. Missouri
10. South Carolina
11. Arkansas
12. Mississippi State
13. Kentucky
14. Vanderbilt

Don’t be surprised if: McElwain gives Pineiro a chance to attempt a field goal of 60 yards or farther β€” and Pineiro nails it. As he’s shown in practice and in warmups (and on YouTube), Pineiro certainly has the range with his powerful leg. He also has great confidence to go along with it. So, if the opportunity arises, you might see it.

Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or robbie.andreu@gvillesun.com. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.