Alex Shepherd/Inside the Gators
During the first two seasons of the Jim McElwain era, Florida never truly found a consistent game-changer at the kick returner spot.
In 2015, while Antonio Callaway emerged as one of the top punt returners in the country as a true freshman with two scores in that capacity, the Gators ranked just tied for 67th nationally with 21 yards per kickoff return and did not score on a kickoff return. Although Brandon Powell broke off a 71-yard kick return during that season, he ranked just 86th in the country with 21.2 yards per return.
Last season, the Gators were looking to get JUCO signee Dre Massey involved heavily as a kick returner. However, on the opening kickoff of the 2016 campaign in the season-opener against UMass, Massey made an awkward cut and then took a hit to his knee, suffering a torn ACL that would quickly put an end to his debut season as a Gator.
“We were hoping Dre would be that guy last year and you know he gets hurt early, then another guy gets hurt, and the we’ve got a guy that now if we get him hurt on kickoff coverage we’re in trouble at his position,” tight ends coach/special teams coordinator Greg Nord said. “So, it’s a position that we have to continue working on and getting it knocked out.”
Florida tested out a variety of options at kick returner in 2016, with wideout Chris Thompson ultimately returning the most kicks. Powell struggled early on, with just 28 yards on two attempts. The Gators experimented with Lamical Perine in that role, and he returned four kicks for 86 yards - logging the best traditional kick return of the year for 41 yards against Missouri.
Chris Thompson eventually assumed full-time kick returner duties, finishing with 283 yards on 13 returns (21.8 YPKR, which was 73rd nationally). Mark Thompson, Massey, Swain and Jalen Tabor each returned a kick, none going for more than than 33 yards.
However, once again Florida didn’t log a touchdown on a traditional kick return in 2016 for the second consecutive season. The only score came on Callaway’s 44-yard touchdown on his return of an onside kick – one that bounced right into his hands as he raced down the right sideline untouched.
This offseason, the Gators have tested out a number of options at kick returner. While Callaway remains the go-to option at punt returner despite an erratic sophomore season in that role, Florida is still evaluating who its top players returning kickoffs could be in 2017.
“Of course, we’ve got Callaway back as punt returner, we’ll get him back juiced up ready to go,” Nord said. “Kick returner, we’re still looking at a bunch of guys in there. We’re starting to work that, will continue to work that. You know it’s been a position you know that we haven’t had one guy go grab the bull by the horn and be the guy. We’ve had a couple of guys go in there.”
Despite seeing his 2016 season end on a kickoff return, Massey remains open to returning kicks moving forward and helping out the team in any capacity he can.
"Yeah, we'll leave that up to him,” I'd never take a guy and say, 'You've got to go back there and return kicks if that's how you've been hurt,’” Nord said. “He came to us wanting to get back on it and get on it. [Wednesday] was one of the days we actually worked him there some."
Florida has also evaluated a handful of other players currently on the roster for the role, including sophomore cornerback Chauncey Gardner and Florida’s four fully available wideouts this spring: Callaway, Powell, Tyrie Cleveland and Joshua Hammond.
“We worked nine guys [Wednesday],” Nord said. “Chauncey caught them today, Antonio caught them, every one of our starting receivers, every one of them. At the same time, those may not be the guys we use because of all the other things."
Nord mentioned the possibility that some signees from Florida’s 2017 recruiting class who are set to arrive during the summer semesters could end up becoming options at kick returner or simply helping out in other aspects of special teams this season.
“Everybody on the team would like to return, I think,” Nord said. “Our job is to try and get the mix and match of which one of the guys can give us the best option to go have long returns and use the other guys to help block for him. What we're doing with our drills this spring is doing a lot of base fundamentals and technique work as opposed to the actual scheme of it.
“We've got a lot of guys coming in at a lot of key spots that we're going to count on in this class coming that are going to have to help us on special teams, to be quite honest. Both depth in the secondary and depth on the special teams, so rather than lock down all the positions on each team, we've been working a lot on technique and fundamentals as far as the skills we're going to need to use in those areas."
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