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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

THE SPECIALISTS: Florida lost a pair of special teams legends. How will UF replace them?

<p>UF punter Tommy Townsend and tight end R.J. Raymond celebrate after the Orange and Blue game on April 14.</p>

UF punter Tommy Townsend and tight end R.J. Raymond celebrate after the Orange and Blue game on April 14.

Every meal Florida’s football team eats is meticulously accounted for. Calories are measured down to the last bite, and it all corresponds to the team’s new strength and conditioning program.

Team meals also include a ritual. One group eats first every time: the starting punt team.

Coach Dan Mullen said it’s his mission to make every player on UF’s roster aware of the importance of special teams.

He said he thinks it’s getting through to his players. During spring practices, Mullen would often race up and down the field with the punt coverage units. Players say he’s heavily involved in special teams meetings, nearly to the point that he runs them himself.

Mullen also made a point that few (if any) Florida coaches have before.

“You’ve got a guy that’s a linebacker that’s trying to learn how to be a linebacker in our defense,” he said. “They’re thinking about being a linebacker because they were recruited as a linebacker. I guess if you look at the roster, it says linebacker. It doesn’t say left guard on punt. But the left guard on punt is more important than the linebacker position for us to win games.”

Mullen went on to say a good day on special teams can make up for a subpar day on either offense or defense. He said a team could win with two out of the three, but that special teams absolutely had to be great.

“(It’s) just a mindset of the coaching staff, the mindset of the program is we want to be a great special teams team,” Mullen said. “If you look at our plan to win, what it takes, winning special teams is a huge aspect of it.”

 

The Kickers

“ED-DY! ED-DY! ED-DY!”

The familiar chorus of the student section at the Swamp during UF field goals has been put into retirement. Now the crowd will get a chance to sing out…

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Well, definitely someone different. Former Florida kicker Eddy Pineiro has been in Oakland during the Raiders’ training camp and preseason. He has been rooming with fellow UF graduate Johnny Townsend, another face fresh in the minds of Gators fans.

“(Johnny) actually got to room with Eddy for camp, so he’s been with him the past 15 weeks in a hotel,” said Tommy Townsend, Johnny’s younger brother and starting UF punter. “I’m surprised they haven’t chopped each other’s heads off. But they’re closer. I’m not really too worried about either of them. They both have their heads screwed on.”

New bonds and friendships have been built in the wake of Pineiro’s and the elder Townsend’s departures. Long hours at the Gators’ indoor practice facility — clearly separated from the rest of the team performing drills outside — have developed relationships in the forge of isolation.

 

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Nobody knows who UF’s starting placekicker will be as of Thursday night. Last week Mullen said he wanted to see how each kicker reacted under pressure the closer it got to game day.

“They haven’t been in this situation where they’re expected to go kick on a Saturday, he said. “I mean, that could be something that gets decided as we run out of the tunnel… All of a sudden, you go in there and you get into pre-game warmups and one guy freaks out.”

The Gators landed Evan McPherson — the top kicking prospect in the nation according to 247Sports — in Mullen’s first recruiting class.

McPherson originally committed to Mullen while he was still at Mississippi State on April 8, 2017. A few months later on Nov. 26, Mullen agreed to sign with Florida as its 27th head football coach. Mullen offered McPherson a scholarship the very same day. On Dec. 8, he took his first and only official visit to Gainesville. Two days later, he decommitted from MSU and pledged to sign with the Gators.

They also have a seasoned veteran waiting in the wings in redshirt senior Jorge Powell. He was the only Gator kicker to make a field goal during the spring game on his lone attempt from 45 yards out. To him, the budding friendship between the two kickers has a similar feel to it as the one from last season.

“(McPherson) reminds me a little bit of myself my freshman year,” Powell said. “Definitely very similar to how me and Eddy worked. Me and Evan have been competing a lot in practice and stuff, and it just gets you better if you have someone that can compete with you. It makes you go harder.”

 

The Punt Team

Tommy Townsend has the pedigree. He has a firm grip on the starting punting job in an age of uncertainty in Gators football.

Tommy Townsend also has belief in the staff’s renewed emphasis on special teams.

“This year, coach Mullen really is making it a statement to be on special teams,” Townsend said, “so everyone has this new urge to want to be on special teams, which is good.”

Townsend said he wasn’t quite satisfied with how his camp has gone, but it’s hard to argue with with his results in the spring game. He averaged 45.5 yards per punt and boomed a 55-yarder from his 25-yard line to the opponents’ 20.

 

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Mullen said he wants starter-caliber athletes on punt teams. He thought it was funny that other coaches would put reserves and backups in during punt coverage.

“I ask coaches all the time. I’ll say ‘Hey, I don’t think this guy’s good enough to start on special teams and you’re gonna start them on offense or defense?’” he said. “‘What are you seeing?’”

One of the members of the now-coveted punt coverage team could be redshirt senior R.J. Raymond. He’s currently the backup to starting tight end C’yontai Lewis. Raymond was surprised by Mullen with a scholarship offer after practice on Aug. 20.

“That was just a huge weight off my shoulders and it let me know that everybody around here is appreciating the work and the time that I’ve put into this,” Raymond said. “It was awesome.”

Mullen praised him for working toward whatever his team needed him to do. Raymond has been used as a linebacker, defensive lineman, fullback and tight end. He said he called his mom right when he got to the locker room that night to share the good news.

“She was actually with my dad and my grandma,” Raymond said. “And so she put her on speaker phone and they were all jumping up and down screaming and yelling and super excited. It was pretty cool.”

 

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Redshirt junior Nick Villano was awarded a scholarship the same night as Raymond. The 6-foot-3, 290-pound offensive lineman hasn’t appeared in a game during his time as a Gator. That could change this weekend as the Wellington, Florida, native is said to be a starting member of the punt coverage team, according to Mullen.

“They’re both starting on punt team and that makes them the elite of the elite on the team,” Mullen said. “They’re the best of the best if you’re gonna be on the punt team.”

Villano was equally stunned when his name was called after Raymond’s.

“I was kind of in shock,” Villano said. “It was a good feeling. Words really can’t describe the feeling.”

Villano is listed as third on the depth chart at the starting center position. But that hasn’t stopped him from seeing what his coaches see.

“It’s a good feeling just to have a coaching staff that actually believes in you,” he said. “It’s awesome.”

 

The Long Snapper

One of the few members on the special teams unit with extensive experience is Ryan Farr. The senior from Henderson, Nevada, has started at long snapper every game of his Gators career.

Don’t know who Ryan Farr is? Don’t sweat it too much. He recently went undercover as a UF supporter during Fan Day and got autographs from some of his teammates.

Few recognized him.

“I know all the guys, but they all know I mess around,” Farr said. “I was just kind of keeping my head low and just having some fun with it. You gotta have a little bit of fun during camp, especially my last time around.”

Farr will be responsible for getting the ball to Townsend this season. He said the competition between the new specialists has been worthy of the recent memory of two Gators mainstays.

“Obviously huge shoes to fill with Johnny and Eddy being gone,” he said. “Just working with them was incredible. But the new guys coming in, we have Jorge and Evan kicking, and they both have had a great competition throughout camp. Even Jorge has been going over there punting and he’s been hitting some bombs.”

The punter has been set. Mullen said he believes he has a starting punt coverage unit. All the hype over quarterback competitions and transfer standouts and a new defense has overshadowed the special teams battles still raging.

But the battles are worth fighting. Mullen said he thinks as much. As has Powell and Townsend and Raymond and Villano and Farr.

“I think we will be set with specialists this year. Obviously, massive shoes to fill, but I think they will be all right.”

 

You can follow Morgan McMullen on Twitter @MorganMcMuffin or contact him at mmcmullen@alligator.org.

 

UF punter Tommy Townsend and tight end R.J. Raymond celebrate after the Orange and Blue game on April 14.

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