2021 Florida Gators preview: Four starters to replace on special teams

Zach Abolverdi
Gator Sports
Chris Howard saw spot duty at kicker last season for the Gators.

The Florida football team is set to return to the practice field with fall training camp starting Aug. 6. 

The Gators kick off the season a month later with their Sept. 4 home opener against Florida Atlantic. This week The Sun will preview UF’s offensive, defensive and special teams units for 2021. 

More:Florida Gators 2021 preview: Defense retools secondary, returns front-seven talent

Breaking down offense:Florida Gators 2021 preview: Offense to feature new look at QB, skill positions

We conclude the series today with special teams, where the Gators have to replace four starters. 

RETURNER

Departures: Kadarius Toney

Returners: Fenley Graham, Malik Davis, Nay’Quan Wright

Newcomers: Demarkcus Bowman (transfer)

Overview: In addition to being the team’s leading receiver in 2020, Kadarius Toney also served as Florida’s return specialist. He had 11 punt returns for 139 yards (12.6 avg.) and a 50-yard touchdown, which earned him SEC Co-Special Teams Player of the Week, along with seven kick returns for 155 yards (22.1 avg.). Running backs Malik Davis and Nay’Quan Wright also returned a few kicks last season, but safety Fenley Graham — a star returner at Lakeland High School — is expected to take over Toney’s duties. Graham averaged 48.6 yards per kick return and 22.6 yards per punt return in 2018, while averaging 44.3 and 22.6 yards, respectively, as a senior.

KICKER

Departures: Evan McPherson, Zack Sessa

Returners: Chris Howard

Newcomers: Jace Christmann

Overview: Evan McPherson decided to forgo his senior season and entered the 2021 NFL draft, where he was the only kicker selected as a fifth-round pick to the Bengals. Preferred walk-on Zack Sessa also hit the transfer portal in January, four days after the Gators landed Mississippi State graduate transfer Jace Christmann. He played for Florida coach Dan Mullen at MSU and is the school’s all-time leader in scoring (219). Christmann was named to the Lou Groza Award watch list Wednesday. He’ll have to compete for the starting job with redshirt senior Chris Howard, who made his first career start against Missouri last year with McPherson unavailable. Howard made two kicks from 28 and 32 yards and all five extra point attempts.

PUNTER

Departures: Jacob Finn

Returners: Jeremy Crawshaw 

Newcomers: Jacob Watkins (transfer)

Overview: Jacob Finn replaced Tommy Townsend as the starter in 2020, punting 26 times for 1,203 yards (46.3 avg.) with a long of 67. After five seasons with the Gators, Finn elected to use his sixth year of eligibility elsewhere and transferred to Virginia. The job will now belong to Australian punter Jeremy Crawshaw, a member of Florida's 2020 recruiting class. He made his career debut in the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma and averaged 49.0 yards on his two attempts (long of 50). The position also includes Gainesville product Jacob Watkins (Buchholz), a redshirt senior from Valdosta State who joined the team as a walk-on in the spring.

LONG SNAPPER

Departures: Brett DioGuardi

Returners: Marco Ortiz

Newcomers: Rocco Underwood

Overview: Brett DioGuardi became Florida's long snapper last season and was named second-team All-SEC by Phil Steele. He appeared in all 12 games, logging 115 total snaps that included 29 punts, 85 field goals and PATs and one executed fake punt against Kentucky. With DioGuardi’s departure, redshirt junior Marco Ortiz and true freshman Rocco Underwood will battle it out in fall camp for the starting job. Ortiz has been with the program since 2018 and appeared in one game each of the last two years. Underwood enrolled in June and was the nation’s top-ranked long snapper in the 2021 class, according to Rubio Long Snapping.