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With little attention, Florida Gators' special teams produce key results

Chas Henry, punting against Alabama in last season’s SEC title game, didn’t have a punt returned against him until the ninth game this year. He has been a major field-position weapon for UF.

Getty Images (2008)

Chas Henry, punting against Alabama in last season’s SEC title game, didn’t have a punt returned against him until the ninth game this year. He has been a major field-position weapon for UF.

GAINESVILLE — On a team with one of Division I-A's top three defenses and a Heisman Trophy winner, it's probably understandable.

Add to that a current 20-game winning streak, and again, you can see how it might happen.

With so much talk about No. 1 Florida's dominant defense, its quest for an undefeated season and the seasonlong offensive struggles, it's quite easy to see why the special teams haven't seen a lot of the spotlight. But they may be the most unheralded groups on Florida's team, and make no mistake, the Gators wouldn't be where they are without their stellar play, coach Urban Meyer said.

"They know how I feel about them, but I don't do a very good job of letting everyone else know," said Meyer, who has also coached those units throughout his tenures as a head coach. "The correlation between (solid special teams) and winning games can't get any stronger."

A key to the Gators' success this season has been junior Chas Henry, a semifinalist for the Ray Guy award as the nation's top punter. Henry is averaging 42.8 yards per punt. Against Vanderbilt two weeks ago, he had four punts for an average of 52.8 yards, with three going 50 or more yards.

With Henry's booming kicks, the Gators' punt return unit has allowed just four returns for 13 yards (3.2-yard average). Florida didn't even allow a single punt return yard until the ninth game of the season. Meyer said Henry is akin to a 12th man on defense.

"I think he is," Meyer said. "We count that as a defensive play. Our kickoff unit and our punt, I'm very pleased with that right now. We're getting ready to face some very talented guys, so that's an area that I'm very pleased with. And with Chas, he's not only getting distance, he's getting phenomenal hang time and placement of the ball. His placement on Saturday (against South Carolina) was probably as good as we've had — we had three downed inside the 12."

Henry's decision to leave his native Georgia to attend Florida hinged on Meyer's reputation for being a special teams lover.

"That was one of the key things, I wanted a coach who really put an emphasis on special teams and really took punting seriously," said Henry, who is second in the SEC in net punting (40.21 yards) on just 28 punts — the fewest in the league. "Coach Meyer's big thing is special teams, and he takes a lot of pride in it. It helps me in the fact of the guys he gets on there. He gets Major Wright, Joe Haden, Terron Sanders, guys like that who are accountable people, who play on both sides of the ball, mainly defense. And having those guys out there really takes a lot of pressure off me."

The Gators, who lead the SEC in kickoff coverage, have faced seven of the nation's top 50 kick returners, who average 24.9 yards per carry or more. Only Leon Barry of Mississippi State exceeded his season return average against Florida.

"They've got some big, fast athletes running down there," Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said. "That's the best thing they do. … I think it's a combination of good coverers and good coverage."

Since the day he arrived at Florida, Meyer has preached the need for outstanding special teams, making it clear that the way to his heart — and the playing field — is through special teams. Former Gators Reggie Nelson and Louis Murphy were special teams players. Haden, one of the nation's best cornerbacks, is on three special teams phases this season. And young, up-and-coming players such as Dee Finley, Mike Gillislee and Omarius Hines are all vital members of the special teams unit.

"These guys work as hard as any segment of our team, and the emphasis is there," Meyer said. "You better be a man's man to come walking in there (special teams meeting room) because it's a tough room. And they've performed very well for us."

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3389.

With little attention, Florida Gators' special teams produce key results 11/19/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 19, 2009 11:01pm]
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