Replacing Sturgis a big concern for UF

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida has lost a lot of talented players from last season’s 11-2 team.

But replacing defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, a potential top-three NFL draft pick later this month, or tight end Jordan Reed (a team-high 45 receptions in 2012) isn't what’s giving the Gators the most trouble this spring.

Rather, it’s finding someone who can step in for kicker Caleb Sturgis. Redshirt freshman Austin Hardin and senior Brad Phillips are both struggling, and UF coach Will Muschamp isn’t happy.

“You leave a guy you had such confidence and the team had such confidence in and now you’re a little bit of the unknown,” Muschamp said. “The unknown for a coach is never good. That’s kind of where we are right now. The ability is certainly there. I have total confidence in those kids as far as their ability is concerned. They just have to do it. They have to be more consistent.”

Consistency and long-range accuracy were Sturgis’ strong points. His field goal percentage (79.5) ranks second all-time in school history among kickers with 50 or more attempts and he kicked a school-record eight field goals of 50 or more yards in his career.

Hardin entered the spring as the front-runner to win the job. He has a big leg -- he consistently put his kickoffs in the end zone in high school -- and was ESPN’s top-ranked kicker coming out of Atlanta Marist in 2012. Phillips filled in here and there when Sturgis was injured. Phillips has made two of his four field goal attempts, both PATs, and has had four touchbacks on 27 kickoffs.

But neither one has been impressive this spring. Both said they’re dealing with mechanics issues, and Hardin recently spent some time working with Sturgis because he was consistently pulling kicks to the left.

“Tiny little mechanical things,” said Hardin, who suffered a hamstring tear before the second game of the 2012 season and didn’t start kicking again until the Florida State game in late November. “Just a few things here and there to help me be that 90 percent field goal kicker I know I can be.

“It's tough to change the strokes and different things you've been doing for years now, but it's things that need to be changed and help me out in the long run. So he was just helping me out with a few things here and there. It's really close, but sometimes it gets frustrating.”

Phillips said the expectations in replacing Sturgis can be crushing, especially when he or Hardin thinks about how reliable Sturgis was in his career.

“You’ve got to replace the No. 1 kicker in the nation, a four-year starter,” Phillips said. “It’s a little bit overwhelming but you’ve got to rely on your technique. We’re here for a reason. Muschamp said we have the capability of doing it, so we’ve just got to go out and do it.”

Regardless of who wins the job, the Gators are going to have to be more aggressive offensively. With Sturgis, offensive coordinator Brent Pease knew that the Gators needed to get to the 35-yard line to be reasonably sure of coming away with three points -- and with an offense that struggled to move the ball consistently, getting any kind of points was imperative.

Now, UF might have to get the ball to the 20- or 25-yard line before Muschamp will consider trying a field goal.

"It changes your approach, changes your calls,” Muschamp said. “We're doing one-minute [drill in practice] and ... we're saying the offense was down three: 'All right guys, we've got to get the ball to the 37-yard line with Sturgis walking on the sideline. Now we need to get it a lot closer.’

“Your confidence factor is a little different. It changes everything. [Last season] when we crossed the 50, you're on the 42, Brent's calling a hitch, a slant, a diagonal curl, a combination route, ball's out quick. Now you've got to call a vertical route. ... It changes the game. It does. People don’t realize. It’s the luxury knowing [Sturgis could hit from the] 37-yard line anywhere on the field.”