GAINESVILLE — The No. 22 Florida Gators consistently praise the attention to detail of Billy Napier’s staff. Graham Mertz did it again Monday, gushing over how their coaches break down zones and mechanics.
Which makes Florida’s special teams issues even more mindboggling.
The Gators were a punchline in their opener at Utah when they fielded two players with No. 3 jerseys on a punt return. But that wasn’t the only odd mistake Florida has made in this phase.
Florida didn’t have 11 men on the field during a 55-yard Utes field goal attempt. Saturday against Charlotte, only 10 participated for a late 49ers punt because someone ran off late. Napier said that issue was a result of the play before — a sack that pushed Charlotte into the position of choosing between a punt or a long field goal.
“So is it the kicker? Is it the punter?” Napier said Monday. “The returner is the missing piece there. We’re in a grouping where we can go, say, for a rush we think it’s safe, and then we pull a returner off and it’s rush. So we’re one short.”
Napier said after the game that he was OK with the miscue based on the situation.
Florida appeared to have another issue, too, when a different player ran off late before Charlotte’s 55-yard field goal. The broadcast showed only 10 players on the field, but Napier was confident after the game there were 11.
“I think we’ve got to eliminate some of these communication errors, game-day operation errors, much like you guys have talked about,” Napier said. “But I do think that — I believe it’s an area on our team where we have a chance to continue to improve because the personnel that’s out there playing.”
Perhaps it seems like nitpicking to point out a few relatively trivial issues for a 3-1 team. But the Gators are entering the meat of their schedule, starting Saturday at 4-0 Kentucky. This game and the SEC finale at Missouri look like tossups.
According to ESPN Analytics’ matchup predictor, Arkansas and South Carolina are, too; Florida’s win probability in all four games ranges from 59% to 43%. The miscues that were irrelevant against Utah and Charlotte could be the difference between an 8-4 season that leads to an offseason of confidence or a 6-6 run that leaves more questions than answers.
Florida’s history against Kentucky shows this, too. In 2020, the Gators used a pair of special teams deceptions (a fourth-down conversion via fake punt and a tricky play on a punt return touchdown) to turn a close home game into a 24-point victory. A year later, the Wildcats scored on a blocked field goal to help hand Florida a 20-13 defeat. It’s hard to imagine Florida making some of those game-changing plays down a man.
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Those plays light up social media and message boards because Florida doesn’t have a dedicated onfield special teams assistant. Instead, the Gators have an analyst as their “GameChanger coordinator” and split onfield duties among the staff. The hiccups also overshadow the improvement Napier sees in that phase. The Gators’ special teams ranked 57th nationally last year, according to ESPN’s SP+ analytics. They’re up to 40th this season.
Napier said the unit “took a step forward” against Charlotte with Derek Wingo blocking a punt, Trey Smack making five field goals (including a 54-yarder) and more players winning one-on-one battles.
“It is an area on our team where we are playing young players, and I think a lot of guys are getting significant time that this is their first college football,” Napier said. “So I think those players are getting better.”
Week 6 kickoff, TV information
Most kickoff times and TV information were announced for the Oct. 7 games, though some final determinations will be made after this week’s games:
Florida State vs. Virginia Tech: 3:30 p.m., ABC or ESPN
USF at Alabama Birmingham: 3:30 or 4 p.m., ESPNU or ESPN2
Vanderbilt at Florida: 4 p.m., SEC Network
UCF at Kansas: 4 p.m., Fox
Georgia Tech at Miami: 8 p.m., ACC Network
Florida State has announced that its Oct. 21 homecoming game against No. 17 Duke has sold out. The Seminoles have also sold out home games against the Hokies and Miami.
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