Florida special teams help turn momentum vs. Kentucky

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Florida's Kadarius Toney returns a punt 50 yards for a touchdown Saturday against the Kentucky Wildcats at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Much of the conversation regarding the Florida Gators tends to focus on the offense and defense, with the special teams often getting the short end of the stick when it comes to praising the unit’s play on Saturdays. 

That wasn’t the case during and after UF’s 34-10 victory over Kentucky, considering Florida’s special teams stepped up early and often.

On Florida’s first drive on offense, the Gators punt team successfully faked it to Dameon Pierce for a 15-yard first down rather than punt the ball away to the Wildcats. 

If anyone had questions about Florida’s talent level at the position based on coach Dan Mullen’s willingness to go for it on fourth down, UF punter Jacob Finn made sure there weren’t any misconceptions remaining regarding his ability. 

His first punt was fair caught on the Wildcats’ eight-yard line, although UK would manage a short-yardage field goal on the drive to take the lead, but Finn’s second boot away would help the Gators begin swinging the momentum back in their direction. 

After the field goal, UF’s offense again stalled out, and Finn came back out to punt it away at midfield. His punt bounced favorably for Florida and went out of bounds at Kentucky’s one-yard line, forcing UK to operate out of its own end zone. 

Florida’s defense proceeded to get the three-and-out stop, making the Wildcats punt it as well — except Kentucky punter Max Duffy’s attempt was returnable, and headed directly to Florida’s most agile athlete, Kadarius Toney. 

Toney made one defender miss before proceeding to dash 50 yards untouched to the end zone, giving the Gators the 14-10 lead after Evan McPherson’s successful extra point. 

"It was huge. I think special teams did a great job today, executing in key moments,” quarterback Kyle Trask said of Toney’s punt-return touchdown. “It gave us the lead going into halftime. It was definitely a play that had a huge impact on the game."

Regardless of the on-field personnel, Mullen hasn’t hesitated to go for it on fourth down since taking over as UF’s head coach. The Gators consistently practice various situations with assistant coach Greg Knox, who also serves as the team’s special teams coordinator, throughout the week in the build-up to kickoff. 

That preparation, combined with knowledge gained by scouting the opposition, led Florida to send Toney out on the field along with another returner, freshman wide receiver Xzavier Henderson, Mullen said. 

“It’s one of our different return packages that we have in. They have an excellent punter. They kind of do this rollout-to-the-right punt, but when he rolls out to the right, they will punt it right or left. I think a lot of people use two returners to figure out where he is going to punt. We wanted to use two returners to take advantage of that situation that they were in and see if he made a mistake,” Mullen said. “If he was supposed to punt it left and punted it right, you know, we thought, ‘OK, KT (Toney) is going to be all by himself.’ Or if he is supposed to punt it right, then Xzavier is going to be by himself. Our guys up front did a great job of holding it up to get the return going, and then you saw KT, once he got in the open field, he is a dangerous guy in the open field with the ball in his hand.”

Like that, Florida was back in front and in control, but that wasn’t all — the Gators had shown they were a scoring threat in all aspects of the game. 

It possibly wouldn’t have been particularly notable, but Mullen has previously made comments noting the team’s lack of possible game-changing plays on special teams outside of McPherson’s field goals, such as return touchdowns or blocked punts. 

But a lack of production doesn’t signify an absence of preparation. 

When the time came, Florida’s special teams unit was ready to go to work, which didn’t surprise those inside the program. 

Linebacker James Houston — who tied his career-high Saturday for the third time with eight tackles, including a team-high 2.5 tackles for a loss, in his return to action after missing last week’s contest at Vanderbilt — confirmed the Gators game-planned for Duffy throughout the week. 

“That was great. The punt return team actually came on the field for that and they executed it great,” Houston said. “They had a great game plan for what the punter for Kentucky was trying to do and to kick it to this side and that side, so we had those two returners out there. We executed what we had been practicing all week.”

Mullen, who admits he has a tendency to note areas in need of improvement during remarks that begin complimentary, couldn’t help but do just that when praising the unit’s play; with further proof the Gators can pin opponents deep, drill long field goals and score return touchdowns, it’s likely Mullen’s expectations will only get higher. 

“One of the things we talked with those guys: 'Be ready for that moment and execute.' So you practice the fake punts, you practice them, you practice them. You get into a situation where we want to call it and then you've got to execute. I thought our guys came out, executed that very well. You practice the pooch punts all the time, we practice that a bunch. We come out there, we execute it extremely well. You go through the punt return scheme, we executed that well. I thought our kickoff coverage, kicking them deep, our kicking game was really good all day. There was one knock: We missed the field goal. We get used to Evan being automatic, but he missed a field goal today,” Mullen said. “Overall I thought it was a really good special teams day and we talk about all three phases being equal.

"Everyone on the team's got to understand how important each one of those things is worth. A lot of times young players or guys that come into the program are, 'Hey, what about my reps on offense, what about my reps on defense?' Worry about your reps and executing on special teams, because those can be game-changing plays, and you saw that with game-changing plays today."