Although Florida is fresh off an upset win over LSU, coach Will Muschamp sees plenty of areas in need of work.
"Punt return and kickoff return, we need drastic improvement," Muschamp said on Monday, adding that changes in personnel are likely.
Florida currently ranks last in the Southeastern Conference and 94th nationally in kick return average at 18.82 and 50th nationally in punt return average at 9.57. Wide receiver Andre Debose is the only Gators player to return a punt this season, and he has returned nine of the 11 kickoffs the team has received.
Against Kentucky three weeks ago, Debose was benched for the first half and then muffed a punt in the second half. His next return went for eight yards, but Debose has done more dancing and lateral movement in an attempt to break a big return than Muschamp would like. He also fumbled on a return he fielded inside UF's own 10-yard line in the fourth quarter of a one-score game against Texas A&M in Week 2.
"Punt return, we’ve worked on fielding punts and not losing yardage in those press situations. We cannot afford to continue to do that," Muschamp said. "That’s something we’ve addressed. We have not done a good job. We’ll find somebody different and figure out what we can do there."
"We’ve just got to make better decisions. We work on it every single day. It’s not something we haven’t worked on."
Florida forced seven punts in Saturday's win against LSU, but Debose and De'Ante Saunders did not attempt a return on any of them. Cornerback Marcus Roberson has also worked as a returner this season, but Debose is the only one of the three to attempt a return. His longest return (32 yards) came against Bowling Green in the season opener, and it's been downhill since with an average of just 4.2 yards on his six other returns.
With the new kickoff rules this season, making the right decision has become paramount. But twice against LSU, Debose took the kick out from deep in the end zone only to not make it to the 20-yard line. Because a touchback now sets up the offense at the 25, those poor decisions were also something that drew Muschamp's ire.
Debose was effective in the return role last season, averaging 26.1 yards per kick return with a 99-yard long that went for a touchdown in the Gator Bowl game against Ohio State. That number is down to 21.5 this season, but Debose remains the best option for kick returns.
However, at punt returner, it's likely Muschamp goes with someone else this week against Vanderbilt. Roberson, Saunders and wide receivers Frankie Hammond and Solomon Patton are options. Regardless of who earns the job, Muschamp said he knows it's a difficult job, but an important one nonetheless."[The returner has] got to make a judgment as he sees the flight of the ball and then see where the coverage and how close the coverage is to him, to whether or not he can return it, field it or fair catch the ball, which is easy for you and I to sit here on Monday afternoon and talk about," he said. "It's a little different when it’s hung up there and you’ve got some guys that can really run well down the field, and you’ve got to make that decision. We need to make better choices and decisions in those situations."
“It’s one of the toughest deals. You’re standing looking at a ball, and you’ve got guys running down the field ready to hit you. I never did it, so I don’t know. I can imagine it’s pretty daunting.”