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Sunday, May 22, 2022

Special teams can often be overlooked, even if a team is struggling in that facet of the game.

Florida’s recent turnovers and red-zone struggles have received most of the attention this week as fans recover from the team’s loss to Alabama. But coach Urban Meyer said he is more concerned with his team’s punt coverage.

With the Crimson Tide already ahead 10-0 early in the second quarter Saturday, senior Chas Henry booted a punt inside the Alabama 20-yard line. But Tide receiver Julio Jones fielded the punt, ran past redshirt freshman Chris Guido and streaked down the left sideline until Henry pushed him out of bounds inside Florida territory.

The 41-yard return set the Alabama offense up with a short field and, eight plays later, Florida trailed 17-0.

“That was disappointing,” Meyer said. “There was a lot of disappointments in that game — that might have been No. 1.”

The coach said fans can expect to see new players on the punt team if porous coverage continues in practice. The unit does not have time to recover, however.

Florida faces the best punt returner in the Southeastern Conference on Saturday in LSU’s Patrick Peterson, who leads the SEC and ranks fourth in the nation with an average punt return of 16.6 yards.

Peterson has also brought two punts back for touchdowns.

“That’s absolutely the No. 1 concern of our football team right now,” Meyer said of containing Peterson.

Since Meyer took over in 2005, Florida’s punt coverage has been among the best in the nation, allowing just north of four yards per return in 61 chances. But, in four returns this season, opponents are averaging 16.25 yards.

In fact, Jones’ return was the longest against the Florida punt team since Meyer became coach, yielding almost twice as many yards as the unit allowed all of last season (21 yards on five returns).

The second-longest return since 2005? Twenty-one yards by Kentucky’s Randall Cobb two weeks ago.

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But with freshmen filling out 46 percent of the Gators’ roster, special teams struggles should not be surprising. Meyer said earlier this season that a lack of focus in that area is a sign of an inexperienced team.

On Jones’ return, he said the Gators did not “net” the ball, or take proper lanes to converge at the same spot (wherever Jones happened to be running) to limit the receiver’s space to make cuts.

Until this season, Meyer has been the team’s unofficial special teams coach. But, in light of the health issues that nearly drove him to retirement last December, Meyer relinquished that role to D.J. Durkin.

Meyer decided to maintain control of one unit this year, though: punt team.

And so it will be partially up to his group to prevent LSU’s offense from receiving a gift-wrapped scoring chance.

“We got to come out, we got to win field position,” linebacker Jon Bostic said. “That’s one thing coaches always stress. This week, we got to get special teams right to where we win the field-position battle.”

Bostic knows as well as anyone how important containing Peterson is. The linebacker first saw Peterson run at a track meet before college, when Bostic attended Wellington High and Peterson went to Pompano Ely High.

“I know the kid can run,” Bostic said.

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