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Florida Gators special teams duo earns AP All-America honors

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Heading into the 2017 season, Florida punter Johnny Townsend and kicker Eddy Pineiro wanted to prove that they could be one of the top special teams duos in the country.

While the Gators’ season ended in a tailspin with a fired coach and a 4-7 record, the two special teams aces lived up to individual expectations and were honored as such on the Associated Press’ All-America teams which were released on Monday.

Townsend earned second-team honors while Pineiro landed on the outlet’s third team.

Townsend, a redshirt senior, solidified himself as arguably the top punter in Florida football history. The redshirt senior is second nationally averaging 47.6 yards per punt, with 27 of his 64 punts going for at least 50 yards. Townsend owns every major career punting mark in the Gators’ record book.

Pineiro, a redshirt junior, made 17 of 18 field-goal attempts for a national-best 94.4-percent conversion percentage. He closed the season by making 16 straight field goals. Six of his 17 makes came from more than 40 yards. Pineiro owns the school record with an 88.4-percent field-goal percentage (38 of 43) and is one of two players in program history to have two separate strings of at least 13 consecutive made field goals.

Both Townsend and Pineiro also earned All-SEC honors by both AP and conference coaches.

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Jordan McPherson – SEC Country

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Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze: RB Jordan Wilkins poised for ‘a special year’

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Looking back at a disastrous 2016 season for Ole Miss, you can choose from a slew of factors that triggered the collapse: injuries, coaching and dismal defense among them. The absence of a decent running game cracks the top 5.

For the second time in three years, the Rebels rushing attack finished 11th among SEC in yards per carry, at 4.25. Only twice did Ole Miss running backs combine for 200 yards rushing in a single game — one of those was against Memphis. And coach Hugh Freeze’s pass-heavy system didn’t help produce balance. Ole Miss rushed the ball 35 times a game, the 12th-lowest rate of any Power 5 team last season.

Still, was the dip in rushing production that surprising? Not really. Ole Miss said goodbye to four senior starters on the offensive line, including first-rounder Laremy Tunsil, after the 2015 season. Then running back Jordan Wilkins learned he would have to sit out the 2016 season because of “an administrative error” related to his academic eligibility.

“The way he handled it made you proud,” Freeze said of Wilkins. “He’s been listening to us about how to handle adversity in life. The leadership role he provides having gone through that gives him even more credibility.”

As the season went downhill, so too did the offensive line’s injury situation. At one point tackle Sean Rawlings became the starting center out of necessity. So, yeah, none of this really set the Rebels up to succeed in rushing.

That could change in 2017, for a couple of reasons.

Number one: Freeze expects big things from Wilkins, a junior who showed great promise in his first two years on campus.

“With the disappointing news of not going to a bowl game next year with our self-imposed deal, I was curious to see how he’d react,” Freeze said. “And he immediately took the charge on, ‘This is how we’re going to handle it.’ I’m just so proud and praying he has a healthy year, because I think he’s going to have a special year.”

Freeze also cited progress he saw across the offensive line, which returns most of its starters from last season. Left tackle Greg Little, a former 5-star recruit, gained valuable experience as a true freshman. Upperclassmen Jordan Sims, Javon Patterson and Daronte Bouldin should anchor the interior.

“I said from Day 1 it would take us four to five years to get the offensive line the way we wanted it,” Freeze said. “I believe if we stay healthy, we’re going to have one of the better offensive lines in the country.

“The job [offensive line coach Matt Luke] has done in recruiting and being able to redshirt finally has paid off for us. Really excited about the comfort level and the chemistry those guys have up there. We’ve got most everybody back.”

It’s hard to gauge whether Ole Miss will show more balance under new coordinator Phil Longo, a disciple of Mike Leach and the Air Raid offense. For what it’s worth, Longo told SEC Country that his philosophy on running the ball differs from other Air Raid gurus including Leach and Kliff Kingsbury.

“At some point I feel like it’s important to have an emphasis on the run game,” Longo said. “I don’t particularly care if we throw or run it 70 times to win a game … As long as it’s what the defense is giving us, I’m all for it.”

However often the Rebels hand the ball to a running back this fall, they’ll at least have the tools to be better on the ground — and that will help sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson and his young receivers.

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Alec Shirkey – SEC Country

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On the Beat: Special teams another example of how Nick Saban refuses to be complacent

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It’s been proven over the years that if you impress Nick Saban enough while on the other sideline, he might end up hiring you.

It’s happened a few times since he’s been at the University of Alabama, including with new special teams and tight ends coach Jeff Banks. His previous job had been at SEC rival Texas A&M.

“They were always one team, especially on special teams, that always gave us a lot of trouble,” senior tight end Hale Hentges said. “So he kind of brings that same fire, energy and passion to our team.”

Although the NCAA’s new rule allowing football staffs to have a 10th assistant coach made it easier to have someone handle every position group, Saban’s hiring of Banks only demonstrates that he does look for ways to improve in every facet.

A lot of coaches don’t give special teams much thought or effort. You ask them about how they handle a kicker and they often say something like, “I pretty much let them do their own thing.”

Special teams are Banks’ specialty.

He’s a former All-Pac 10 punter for Washington State (who ironically got his coaching start under Mike Price). Despite having graduated around the time a lot of his players were born, he already has 17-years experience as special-teams coordinator.

Last year, the Aggies were third in the nation in net punting (42.29 yards per punt), with Shane Tripucka’s average of 45.5 yards sixth. Texas A&M was also second in punt returns (17.1 average and two touchdown) and blocked 8 kicks.

In 2016, the Aggies led the nation in punt return average (25.39) and had 4 touchdowns. A lot of that had to do with returner Christian Kirk, but not all.

Anyone who has been following the Crimson Tide is well aware of  how important special teams can be, especially in big games. For example, during the 2015 national championship it was an onside kick that turned the momentum against Clemson, followed by Kenyan Drake’s kick return for a touchdown.

Going back to the 2009 title game, Texas recovered 2 kickoffs, one short the other onside, which could have been disastrous. Instead, they only led to 3 points for the Longhorns. There was also the Kick 6 game that ended Alabama’s bid to three-peat in 2013.

Of course, just three months ago were the two missed field goals against Georgia in the National Championship Game, including the potential game-winner at the end of regulation. The Crimson Tide still won the game in overtime, but there was a whole lot of extra drama involved.

Alabama has to replace the best punter in program history, JK Scott, and Andy Pappanastos at kicker, a position where Alabama fans are desperately hoping for a steady foot.

Alabama’s 2017 Special-Teams Rankings

Category SEC National
Kickoff returns 5 44
Kickoff coverage 1 24
Punting 7 24
Punt returns 10 58
Punt return defense 7 57

It added prize recruit Skyler Delong at punter to go with long snappers Thomas Fletcher and Scotty Meyer and returners Trevon Diggs, Henry Ruggs III, Xavian Marks and Josh Jacobs.

At kicker, Joseph Bulovas is coming off a redshirt season and former Temple kicker Austin Jones is expected to be added to the roster over the summer as a graduate transfer.

“We’re going to have new holders, so that’s another issue when it comes to field goals,” Saban said. “We’re going to do like we do at every other position and play the player who we think gives us the best chance to be successful at that position, and it’ll be no different when it comes to kicking. Whether it’s kicking field goals or kicking off or if we have to short field goal/long field goal or whatever.

“We certainly have a lot of confidence in Joseph, and we think that he has a lot of talent. We’re just working on the consistency level to get him to where he wants to be and where we’d like for him to be.”

Consequently, overall improvement isn’t just something Alabama’s hoping for, but is expected.

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Christopher Walsh – SEC Country

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Florida State’s special teams the goat in 24-7 Greatest Opener of All Time loss to Alabama

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ATLANTA — It was billed at the Greatest Opener of All Time, but the goat turned out to be special teams Saturday night.

Florida State’s special teams, that is.

While both sides had their fair share of issues as No. 1 Alabama pulled out a 24-7 victory against No. 3 Florida State, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher had absolutely no trouble pinpointing where things went wrong against his former boss, Nick Saban, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“The big thing was the momentum swings and the special teams in the second half,” he said. “When you get momentum, I always talk about that all the time. Momentum is a thing we don’t — it’s hard to swing, especially when you play good people.”

Fisher was referring to a blocked punt and a forced fumble on a kick return that helped Alabama pull away in what was otherwise a fairly even defensive struggle for most of the night.

Alabama only finished with a 269-250 edge in total yards, and neither offense was particularly effective on third downs (7 for 29 combined). The Seminoles didn’t score a point on their last 11 possessions.

But the setbacks also came on the heels of a blocked 37-yard field-goal attempt by Minkah Fitzpatrick at the end of the first half, which not only kept FSU from tying the game, but squandered a huge opportunity as the Seminoles were set to receive the second-half kickoff.

“Another big momentum swing,” Fisher admitted.

Instead, Alabama took over the game in the third quarter, beginning with running back Damien Harris making the impressive punt block, recovered by freshman Dylan Moses. It gave Alabama first down at the FSU 6.

“They didn’t do a whole lot of stuff that they haven’t done in the past, so I think our coaches did a really good job of preparing our team to take advantage of some situations in the kicking game,” Saban said. “The blocked punt was good scheme based on their protection and how they protect. Should have scooped it and scored it instead of falling on it, but sometimes freshmen are freshmen.”

Yet, Moses quickly made up for the minor gaffe.

Although the Crimson Tide couldn’t capitalize with a touchdown, and settled for a short field goal, he made FSU kick returner Keith Gavin pay for his mistake to try and make something happen, with linebacker Keith Holcombe recovering the loose ball.

“He played a great game, and he just made a bad decision,” Fisher said about Gavin, who made 8 receptions for 61 yards. “He thought he was out farther, wasn’t as close to the goal line, and he should have just let the ball go. Just made a poor decision, and tried to get it out and actually fumbled. Those are big, critical plays in the game.”

Given a second chance, this time at the FSU 11, Alabama didn’t mess around with the play-calling and Harris went 11 yards up the gut for the decisive touchdown. Ahead 21-7, the Crimson Tide was able to rely on their defense, and Florida State never crossed midfield again.

Senior cornerback Levi Wallace and sophomore linebacker Mack Wilson picked off Deondre Francois’ next 2 pass attempts, and the quarterback completed just 5 passes in the second half.

He finished 19 for 33 for 201 yards and left the game late with an apparent leg/knee injury. Fisher was vague about its severity, preferring to wait until all test results were in.

Ironically, Alabama’s special teams were otherwise pretty abysmal. Senior JK Scott shanked a 9-yard punt, only to be bailed out by his defense after FSU had first down at the Crimson Tide 31 — and the Seminoles countered with a 12-yard punt.

Former Ole Miss kicker Andy Pappanastos made 3 field goals (35, 25 and 33 yards), but also missed 2 (42 and 41).

But Alabama still found a way to win, which Saban was proud of afterward.

“We just made too many mistakes,” Florida State safety Derwin James said.

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Christopher Walsh – SEC Country

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Florida’s Eddy Pineiro, Johnny Townsend aim to be top special teams duo in the country

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida’s Eddy Pineiro and Johnny Townsend aren’t afraid of setting lofty goals for themselves.

The two made special teams play a strength for the Gators in 2016, and it looks like it will be a strength once again this year.

Pineiro, a redshirt junior kicker, is on the Lou Groza Award watch list. Townsend, a redshirt senior punter, is on the Ray Guy Award watch list. Individually, each has a chance to be the best in the country at his position. Together, the argument can be made that they’re the top kicker and punter duo in the country.

At least, that’s their goal.

“It’s just something we have to go out and do,” Pineiro said. “We have to show people that we’re the best.”

‘Every kick is pretty nerve racking’

Florida kicker Eddy Pineiro lines up a field goal against Kentucky in 2016. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Eddy Pineiro gets the signal to attempt a field goal and trots out to the field. His heart is racing. The crowd chants his name — “Eddy, Eddy, Eddy.”

“Whoever says they don’t get nervous, they’re complete liars,” Pineiro says. “Every kick is pretty nerve racking.”

After the former high school soccer standout lines up the shot and steps away from his holder — four steps back, two steps to the left — he takes two deep breaths and clears his mind of the noise.

From there, Pineiro says, “everything else will follow through.”

And as Pineiro’s first season of college football progressed, everything did follow through. He made 21 of his 25 field goals last season — an 84 percent efficiency rate that ranked third in the SEC among kickers with at least 20 attempts. Even better, he went a perfect 12 for 12 to close out the season. Five of those final 12 makes were from farther than 40 yards away.  

“It was all new to me,” Pineiro said. “I never played football before, so it’s just a matter of feeling comfortable.”

He’s comfortable now and more confident than ever.

Pineiro has always had trust in his leg strength. Look no further than the 81-yard field goal he drilled during a practice while wearing pads or the 11 field goals he made during the season from farther than 40 yards out.

But there were other aspects of his game that made him less optimistic. Prior to the 2016 season, Pineiro had never kicked a field goal in a live game. He never had the roar of 90,000 fans howling at him as he runs through his technique in his head. If the offense stuttered in scoring territory, the onus to salvage the drive was on his shoulders.

Plus, he was tasked with reviving Florida’s kicking game that made an abysmal 41.2 percent of its field goals in 2015, which ranked second to last in the country.

“I felt like a lot of pressure was put on top of me,” Pineiro said. “But it’s something you have to deal with when you’re a specialist. When you’re a kicker, it’s all about pressure and having the spotlight.”

Pineiro has no problem basking in the spotlight now. Before his time at Florida is over, he’ll have no problem seeing his name in the record books as well.

The one with the earliest chance to fall: most consecutive field goals made. The record is 17 set by Bobby Raymond in 1984.

“Just make your next five. No pressure,” he said with a laugh.

“It’s very doable.”

The art of punting

Florida’s Johnny Townsend punts during the 2016 SEC Championship Game. (Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)

Johnny Townsend didn’t begin punting until his sophomore year of high school.

Even then, that wasn’t his sole priority. Townsend also played safety and quarterback during his time at Orlando’s Boone High. He was also part of the baseball team.

But seven years later — as Townsend begins his final with the Gators and begins studying for his master’s degree in management — Townsend is grateful he made the switch to punting.

“Once I knew I had the opportunity to play college football and pursue my dreams through that, that’s when I started really working on it,” Townsend said.

Punting, Townsend says, is as much an art as it is a test of leg strength.

Mistiming the drop or shifting his foot even an inch could be the difference between pinning his opponents deep in their territory or shanking the ball out of bounds.

“They don’t call it a skill position for nothing,” Townsend said. “It’s very technical. It’s very refined.”

Townsend said it took about a year in high school to get his bearings. By his senior year, he was the No. 2-ranked punter in the country, according to the 247Sports composite.

“It’s a process,” Townsend said. “Each and every day, I’m always trying to work on something and refine something. It’s my craft.”

And Townsend has mastered the craft.

In 2016, Townsend led the nation in punting average (47.9 yards). To dive a little deeper:

  • 29 of his 64 punts went for at least 50 yards.
  • 27 of his punts pinned opponents inside their 20-yard line.
  • Only seven resulted in touchbacks.

His ability to flip the field salvaged the Gators’ offense when it sputtered at various points last season and gave the defense a leg up when he forced opponents to start inside its own red zone. Florida fans on Twitter have called for him to be in consideration for the Heisman Trophy. 

Heading into his final season, Townsend already owns most of Florida’s punting records — career average yards per punt (45.7), season average yards per punt (47.9 in 2016) and most punts in a season (83 in 2015).

“I’ve learned a lot about myself and my game since Day 1,” Townsend said. “I’ve developed as a person and as a player. I’m excited to lay it all on the line and give it all I got this season.”

Championship goals

Eddy Pineiro (15) and Johnny Townsend (19) celebrate after Pineiro makes a field goal against South Carolina. (Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

While the individual accolades are well within reach for both Pineiro and Townsend, both also have a bigger goal to achieve before the season ends.

Namely, winning an SEC championship.

The Gators won the SEC East each of the last two years only to lose to Alabama in the conference title game, a sour end to conference play after exceeding expectations during the regular season.

Both feel the Gators have the chance to break through this year.

“We expect nothing less than that this season.”

They also expect nothing less of each other. Pineiro and Townsend challenge each other during practice and spend time together off the field as well.

When the season starts on Sept. 2, they’re hoping it will help them out in the long run.

“We know each other best,” Townsend said, “and we know we can be the best.”

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Jordan McPherson – SEC Country