GAINESVILLE — Caleb Sturgis began feeling the pain in his back midway through fall camp last season, but like a true competitor, he tried to shake it off. It's not that big a deal, the Florida kicker told himself. It'll be fine.
But as the season progressed and the pain worsened, it became evident something was seriously wrong.
"That was one thing, eventually it got to the point where I couldn't sleep," Sturgis said. "At the beginning of the season it was bearable, and then it got worse and worse."
Sturgis did not make the trip for an October game at Alabama. He eventually missed the final nine games with a stress fracture and herniated disc — which proved costly for Sturgis and the Gators.
After Sturgis went out, Florida lost three straight, with two (LSU and Mississippi State) by four points or fewer. Then-senior punter Chas Henry, who hadn't kicked field goals since high school, had to step in. He missed two field goals in a 10-7 loss to Mississippi State.
And all Sturgis could do was watch and wonder what might have been.
"Any time your team loses it's tough to watch so that was pretty hard," he said. "It was hard putting Chas through that. I can't say for certain that I would have made every kick if I had been out there, but you can't help but think about it and wonder."
Almost three weeks into fall preseason practice, Sturgis said he's feeling like his old self again. His leg is strong. His mind is right. He hasn't done much long-distance kicking, for precautionary reasons, but insists he can still hit in the 50-yard range just fine. Nearly everything is the same again — with the exception of his training routine, which might have contributed to the injury, he said. New coach Will Muschamp has insisted that Sturgis start training more like a kicker than an outside linebacker.
"We changed his routine a little bit," Muschamp said. "He's not doing squats anymore. Mickey (Marotti, strength and conditioning coach) wants to have him power clean, squat and dead-lift. We need him to be a good kicker."
Sturgis has been on the field for the Gators since he arrived from St. Augustine High in 2008. He handled kickoffs his first season, averaging 63.7 yards on 90 kicks. In 2009, he was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award, given to the nation's top kicker. He was 22-of-30 that season, including a career-long 56-yarder against Georgia. For his career, he's 24-for-34 on field goals and 65-for-70 on PATs.
His starting job is locked up, and his role on a team trying to install a brand new offense might be invaluable.
"Right now, Caleb is by far the kicker," Muschamp said. "He has been very consistent. He's been kicking the ball extremely well thus far in camp."
The time away from the game last season helped Sturgis realize just how important football is. These days, taking care of his back is his primary priority.
He spends about half of his day taking extra precautions to make sure he can kick on consecutive days. He visits UF's athletic trainer daily for stretching, cold tank treatment and massages. He doesn't kick more than 40 balls per day.
"I think this is the best I've felt going in to any camp, kicking-wise," Sturgis said. "I think it might just be (that I'm) a year older and being able to appreciate what I lost. I'm really excited. I think this is the most excited I've been going into camp. I'm just excited to be back out there with the guys, and hopefully starting the season soon."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her coverage at gators.tampabay.com.