On fourth down with the Gators trailing at Vanderbilt 21-13 in 2018, that’s all they needed when Tommy Townsend stepped up for what was supposed to be his third punt of the game.
He went through his mental checklist: feet set, hands steady, know the situation. But this time, he had to remember one more thing: When you see a hole, run through it.
The ball was snapped, Tommy started his kicking motion, and then he saw the window. A hole at the line of scrimmage opened up for him in the middle of the line, and Tommy tucked the ball away and sprinted down field.
Emerging past the line of scrimmage, the 183-pound punter introduced himself to the first Commodore he saw: 6-foot-4, 225-pound receiver Chris Pierce. Tommy met him, not with a feet-first slide, but with a lowered shoulder. The two collided head-on with both refusing to go down, and a rugby-like scrum ensued.
Well after the whistles had blown the play dead, Tommy still continued to brawl with Vanderbilt players, battling 6-foot-1 safety Justin Harris for the ball that was still in his hands. Townsend ripped the ball out, shoved Harris away and spiked the ball down to the ground with teammates jumping all over him in elation.
He needed three yards. He got 18.
Half the size of everyone else, his fearlessness and toughness made him the biggest player on the field, if only for a play.
“It was just running hard and not going down easy,” he said after the game. “I was really excited for that play call all week. We’d been practicing it all week. I was excited that the coaches trusted me to put the ball in my hands to get that first down.”
Three plays later, Florida scored and, by the game’s end, had come back to win 37-27 with Tommy’s fake punt sparking the surge.
“I think that play just describes (Tommy) as who he is,” said his brother Johnny, a two-time All-American punter with the Florida Gators. “He’s just a hard-nosed, physical player and a tough kid. He just lays it all on the line.”
Tommy made it from Orlando to his dream school at the University of Florida using grit at a position not known for it. Townsend’s off-the-field personality, which is as free-flowing as his long brown hair, and toughness on the field has made him one of the nation’s most unique punters. And it might take him to the next level, too.
Tommy is different. He’s different on the field and he’s different off of it.
His father, Clay Sr., describes him as a free spirit in contrast to his two older brothers Johnny and Clay Jr., who are more serious and mellow.
“He’s feisty. That’s the word that keeps coming to me,” Clay Sr. said. “Very independent and definitely a Type A personality. He has a real edge to him.”
Punters are not typically known as tough guys, but Tommy has proven time and time again that they can be.
Boone High School coach Andy Johnson got an eyeful of Tommy’s tough and brazen nature when he first coached him in Tommy’s freshman spring game.
“We played him at cornerback… He just kept blitzing whenever he felt like it,” Johnson said. “I had to keep telling him that’s not what you do, but he just kept telling me he had to go make a play… He was like a wild stallion, and we had to break him.”
Tommy gets his grit from his family. Growing up the youngest of three brothers who all played sports, he was naturally picked on. Tommy, clad in his older brothers’ oversized Pop Warner football pads, would “train” with Johnny and Clay Jr. in the front yard. This “training” entailed his brothers tackling him full speed in Oklahoma-like drills. Tommy had to learn to toughen up quick.
In high school, he played all over the field as a quarterback, cornerback and punter in football and in the outfield in baseball. But he excelled at the safety position, where he was allowed to roam the field, make plays and produce bone-crushing tackles.
“He was just really athletic. Long and rangy. Really good football instincts,” Johnson said. “And he definitely loved to hit.”
Johnson’s favorite memory of Tommy was in his senior year against rival Edgewater High. Tommy made several tackles and two key interceptions to win the game.
“He was a hell of a safety. He had no fear,” Johnson said. “He probably could have went to college as a safety if that’s what he wanted to do… He’s a football player that happens to be a good punter.”
But Tommy said he also owes a lot to his brothers for his successful punting career, especially Johnny.
“I really started to realize this punting thing could take me far when Johnny started to get offers from schools,” he said. “I just thought, ‘You know, maybe I could do this, too.’”
Johnny showed Tommy punting techniques and the importance of going down and making the tackle afterward. With Florida in 2016, Johnny made four tackles (tied for most of any punter that year) while averaging almost 48 yards a punt.
Johnny’s penchant for hitting rubbed off on Tommy, who made two tackles while averaging 45.4 yards a punt in his first season as the Florida starter in 2018.
“I liked to say that was my thing: going down and making those plays,” Johnny said. “That was like my favorite thing as a player, and it’s obvious that it’s Tommy’s, too.”
Every position on the football field demands athleticism.
The middle linebacker needs strength to make tackles. The receiver needs speed to get past the defender. And the punter needs athleticism to be flexible and precise enough to put the ball where he needs it to be.
Johnny compared punting to the intricacies of hitting a golf ball. One centimeter off in the placement of the kick, and it will careen out of bounds for an embarrassing 10-yard punt. To consistently place a punt perfectly, a lot of composure and athleticism is needed.
“I rarely get nervous,” Tommy said. “I’m aware of the situation and know I need to hit this right, but I have a lot of confidence in my abilities.”
Tommy had the necessary athleticism to propel him into the national eye as a punter.
In his senior year of high school, he averaged 43 yards a punt and was rated as a top-five punting prospect by KohlsKicking and Chris Sailer Kicking Camp, the No. 6-ranked prospect by ESPN and named a U.S. Army All-American, just like his brother two years prior.
Tommy was offered scholarships to play at Division I schools, including Colorado, Texas A&M and Tennessee. But one name was missing: Florida.
“When my brother went to Florida, I thought back then that I wouldn’t have a scholarship opportunity there,” Tommy said. “They only scholarship kickers and punters every four years.”
Tommy grew up a long-time Florida fan along with the rest of his family. Both his parents and brothers attended UF, and it was his first choice. But it didn’t seem possible. Tommy wanted an opportunity to play right away and chose Tennessee instead.
But the path to the field proved more difficult than Tommy had thought.
He found himself in an unexpected competition upon arriving on campus, and walk-on junior punter Trevor Daniel emerged with the starting spot for the Volunteers to start the 2015 season. Tommy subsequently redshirted.
Devastated (and knowing Daniel still had two more years of eligibility) Tommy opted for a change after just one year.
“When I was talking to (Johnny) about transferring, he told me to feel it out and use my gut,” he said,
Tommy thought long and hard, but in the end, his gut wanted a reunion with his brother. He transferred to UF in June of 2016 and moved into a house just off campus with his brother. With Johnny ahead of him, he wouldn’t play immediately, but Tommy said he never regretted coming to Florida.
“Those years with (Johnny) on the team, our relationship really developed into best friends, not just brothers,” Tommy said. “And I learned so much from him that made me so much better as a punter.”
With Tommy on the sidelines, patiently waiting, Johnny became a two-time All-American and the all-time leading punter in program history, averaging over 46 yards on 240 total punts.
“Of course I wanted to play, but I was willing to wait,” Tommy said. “Me and (Johnny) have really different attributes as punters, so I needed to just focus on my game to be ready when it was my turn.”
In Johnny’s final two seasons, he led the nation in gross-punting average (47.9, 47.5) and was drafted in the fifth round of the NFL draft by the Oakland Raiders.
He was a hard act to follow, but Tommy has met expectations while being completely different from his brother.
Johnny was a booming punter, but often struggled with placement, downing only 42 percent of his senior-year punts inside the opposing 20-yard line.
Tommy is a stark contrast, kicking high-arching punts that force fair catches and are downed deep in enemy territory. In his first starting season in 2018, he was named Second Team All-SEC by Athlon Sports and was a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award for the best punter in the country. He downed almost half his kicks inside the opponent’s 20-yard line and had 14 punts over 50 yards or more.
Through the first eight games of 2019, he’s forced 10 fair catches on 25 punts and downed the opponent inside its own 20-yard line 13 times.
Tommy has emulated his brothers’ collegiate success just as he did in high school. And Johnny, who has played for the Raiders and New York Giants, affirmed that his little brother has what it takes to meet him at the next level.
“Being around the game so long and being in the NFL, and knowing what it takes, he definitely has it,” Johnny said. “He’s a tremendous punter, but he can also kick field goals, kickoffs. He can hold. All of that skyrockets his value. Yeah, I think he is going to have a really good NFL career.”
Tommy kicked a season-high seven punts in the win against South Carolina on Oct. 19, and his next game in Jacksonville for the annual rivalry bout against Georgia is expected to be a defensive game with many more punts.
“(Florida-Georgia) is a dogfight every single year,” he said. “It’s just a game we always come out to with a chip on our shoulder and try to play our best.”
Performing in big games like Florida-Georgia puts the NFL on notice. Last year against the Bulldogs, Tommy had four punts averaging almost 50 yards and bombed a career-long 71-yard punt in the second quarter — NFL-level stats.
Tommy’s abilities have opened up NFL opportunities as big as the hole against Vanderbilt a year ago, and he has the chance to sprint through it. But time alone will tell if he meets it head-on again.
“I feel like I’ve done pretty well,” he said. “In situations where I need to produce, I do.”
Follow Dylan Rudolph on Twitter @dyrudolph. Contact him at email@example.com
Tommy Townsend credits his brother (and former UF teammate) Johnny Townsend with helping him hone his craft: "(He) made me so much better as a punter."