2009 is the year of the disappearing Gators.
The offense has disappeared. Players have disappeared. Florida’s home field advantage in The Swamp has disappeared. Florida’s number one ranking has disappeared.
And has anyone seen Brandon James and the punt return team this year?
Matt Patchan is gone to injury. Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy are in the NFL. Brandon Spikes left the Arkansas game to a groin injury. Justin Trattou has a shoulder injury. Lawrence Marsh and Jaye Howard have been battling injuries all year.
Florida has a new offensive coordinator Steve Addazio, after offensive coordinator Dan Mullen disappeared, resurfacing at Mississippi State. The expected depth of WR talent that Urban Meyer has recruited to Florida has disappeared too, as no young receiver has stepped up after Florida lost super recruit WR Nukeese Richardson to Tennessee.
Players like Deonte Thompson had been counted on to fill the void left by Harvin and Murphy. … But Thompson hasn’t played up to his potential. His hamstring injury hasn’t helped the team either.
But the real mystery is the disappearance of the punt return team. The first six games last year, punt return specialist Brandon James had 16 punt returns for 334 yards and two touchdowns.
Through six games this year, James has 14 punt returns for 50 net yards and zero touchdowns. In the first six games last year, James had only four punt fair catches, while this year he has seven.
On one punt return in the first game of 2008 against Hawaii, James had a return of 74 yards. He would've had more, but the end zone got in the way. The 74 yards in that one return are 24 more yards than James has had this entire season.
One more telling statistic is comparing the average punt return yardage from the first six games from 2008 to 2009. In 2008, James averaged 20.9 yards per return. This year, James is averaging a measly 3.6 yards per return.
So, what exactly is wrong with the Gators punt return team?
Is something wrong with James? Is it coaching? Different personnel? Are teams kicking away from James … or making kicks more difficult to return with their end over end kicks?
James is fine … on kickoff returns. Through the first six games of 2008, James had a 29.25 yard return average on 12 kickoff returns. This year, James has an average of 28.7 return yards on 13 kickoff returns. Teams aren’t kicking away from him either, as James has two fewer punt returns this year for 284 less yards than last year.
Brandon James has 57 percent more fair catches this year than through six games last year. Are kickers kicking it higher … or is the Florida punt return team not blocking as well as last year?
From the games that I’ve watched, it appears that James is more timid in his returns … dancing and hesitating instead of hitting the hole full speed. James also seems hesitant and calls for fair catches when he could have returned the punts.
It doesn’t seem like Florida has had nearly as strong a punt block unit this year when compared to 2008. The athletes are different, but maybe coaching has a role too.
Competing coaching staffs may be placing greater emphasis on preparing a game plan against the Gators to avoid the punt block. Teams may also be playing with a higher intensity, as so often is the case when a highly ranked team is coming off a championship year.
Perhaps Urban Meyer and his staff have simply been placing less emphasis on punt returns in practice this year.
Whatever the reason, if Florida wants to stay unbeaten the punt return team has to do a better job of winning the field position battle. When the offense has an easier time scoring, it turns opposing teams offenses into a one dimensional attack that is easier to defend.
Brandon James, it's time to reappear.