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Special teams coordinator key to Florida's turnaround season

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Posted: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 5:36 pm, Wed Aug 28, 2013.

When history looks at Florida’s 2012 season, coach Will Muschamp will undoubtedly be remembered as the Gators’ savior — and deservedly so.

In just his second year on the job, he brought a reeling college football superpower — gutted and abandoned in 2010 by Urban Meyer — back to prominence.

A major factor in Florida’s success is Muschamp’s commitment to special teams and the work of special teams coordinator D.J. Durkin. Before I continue, let’s step back a bit.

One of the keys to Meyer’s success at UF was his penchant for special teams. From 2005-2010, Florida was the scariest team in America on fourth downs and kickoffs.

Kicking the ball to Brandon James was like sticking a fork in an electrical socket. You did it once, and it shocked the stupid out of you.

The legs of Gators like Eric Wilbur,  Joey Ijjas, Chas Henry and Caleb Sturgis came through on the rare occasions when Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin and the high-powered UF offense did not.

When kicking and punting, the opposition battened down the hatches. A storm was coming.

In five seasons with Meyer calling the special teams, Florida blocked 26 punts and field goal attempts. Jarvis Moss’ “‘Cock Block” preserved the Gators’ 2006 national title run.

So when Durkin took over for Meyer as the special teams coordinator in 2010, expectations were unbelievably high and not at all tempered. But the former Bowling Green defensive end never wavered.

He picked up right where Meyer left off.

In Durkin’s first two seasons running the Gators’ special teams unit, Florida blocked 10 punts and kicks. Henry won the Ray Guy Award in 2010. Sturgis was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award in 2011. Andre Debose set a school record with three career kickoff returns for touchdowns.

In 2012, the Durkin-directed unit reached new heights. Special teams won multiple games for the Gators this season.

When Florida’s offense struggled early in a 14-6 win against LSU on Oct. 6, punter Kyle Christy pinned the Tigers inside their own 10 three times. LSU went three and out on each possession, totaling only 14 yards on nine plays. In an intense battle for field position, Christy gave UF a crucial edge.

In a 44-11 blowout victory against South Carolina only two weeks later, three of Florida’s four forced fumbles came on special teams plays.

Loucheiz Purifoy made the special teams play of the year in Florida’s 27-20 win against Louisiana on Nov. 10. Purifoy blocked a Ragin’ Cajuns punt that Jelani Jenkins recovered and returned 36 yards for the game-winning touchdown with two seconds left in regulation.

Purifoy’s blocked punt was one of the Gators’ Southeastern Conference-leading six blocks this year, marking the third straight season UF led the league in that category.

Florida forced five fumbles and recovered four on special teams.

Sturgis was again named a Lou Groza finalist, and Christy, a Ray Guy finalist, was passed over for an award he deserved. Even a terrible season did not stop Debose from upping his kickoff return touchdown record to four.

Much was wrong with the way Meyer ran the program during his six-year tenure. But Durkin has done a great job implementing one of Meyer’s better coaching philosophies — emphasizing and prioritizing special teams.

Durkin told players before the season began that those not willing to play on special teams were selfish.

He used positions on special teams to reward effort and hard work.

“Anytime you’re a gunner or you’re really doing anything on special teams, it’s an honor,” quarterback Jeff Driskel said on Oct. 22. “They take great pride in that.”

As long as Durkin is at Florida, the Gators can take great pride in their special teams.

Contact Joe Morgan at joemorgan@alligator.org.


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