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Ups and downs: Breaking down Miami’s special teams against Florida

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Improvements in the punting game were overshadowed by kicking and punt return failures

NCAA Football: Florida at Miami
Miami Hurricanes kicker Bubba Baxa (21) celebrates a made field goal during Miami’s 24-20 loss to Florida last Saturday. Baxa was 2-for-3 on field goals in the game.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that special teams were a weakness for the Miami Hurricanes during the 2018 season.

In our first look at the unit during the 2019 season, the Hurricanes showed some improvement in some aspects of special teams play but made some frustrating mistakes that ultimately cost Miami a shot at an upset victory over rival Florida.

The Gators defeated the Hurricanes 24-20 at Camping World Stadium in Orlando.

Below is a breakdown of the five aspects of Miami’s special teams play against Florida.

Punting

Let’s start with a positive. New punter Louis Hedley was a huge improvement over what Miami had at punter during the 2018 season, as we expected that he would be.

Hedley, a former Australian Rules football player, was undoubtedly nervous playing his first game of American college football, but showed no ill effects of the nerves as he booted four punts for 170 yards. He averaged 42.5 yards per punt and had a long kick of 49 yards on the night.

For comparison sake, Jeff Feagles averaged 36.4 yards per punt in the season-opening loss to LSU last year and that included a 54-yard punt that he booted after the game was well out of reach for Miami.

Miami also held UF to just 19 punt return yards (returns of four, seven and eight yards) in the game, which means the Hurricanes did a fairly good job covering Hedley’s kicks.

While punting and punt coverage stats aren’t sexy and may not seem as important as offensive or defensive statistics, they cost Miami precious field position on many occasions during the 2018 season.

If Hedley can continue to get more comfortable with the American game and improve, Miami’s defense will only be put in better positions moving forward.

Kickoff Coverage

Bubba Baxa handled the kickoffs for Miami on Saturday night and booted five kickoffs for 315 yards, an average of 63 yards per kick.

Baxa recorded three touchbacks and allowed UF to return two of his kicks. The Hurricane kickoff coverage team held the Gators to 44 kick return yards on two attempts, which equated to the Florida offense starting drives on the 21 and 33-yard lines respectively.

Baxa’s only short kickoff of the night came in the second quarter his kick landed at the UF 10-yard line and Freddie Swain returned it 23 yards for Florida.

All in all, a pretty good effort from Baxa on kickoffs and a good job by the kickoff coverage team covering the two kicks that the Gators were able to return.

Field Goals

Baxa was less impressive on field goals as he made a huge mistake that totally changed the composition of the game in the second half.

After drilling field goals from 36 and 42 yards respectively in the first half, Baxa missed a chip shot 27-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter. That led to a 4-play, 80-yard drive for Florida that allowed the Gators to take a lead they would never rescind.

The kick came just three plays after Baxa was hit late out of bounds by Florida’s Jonathan Greenard on a fake field goal attempt, but as a power five scholarship kicker, making a 27-yard field goal is a must, regardless of circumstance.

Making the kick would have given Miami a 23-17 lead with 9:48 to play.

For his career, Baxa is now 11-for-15 on field goals, but strangely enough is 2-for-4 on field goals from 20-29 yards out.

In addition to Saturday’s short miss, Baxa also missed a 28-yard field goal in the fourth quarter of Miami’s come-from-behind win over Florida State in 2018.

Punt Returns

Miami has one punt return statistic recorded from Saturday’s game and it was an extremely negative one.

Jeff Thomas’ muffed punt in the third quarter was Miami’s only turnover of the game and it gave Florida the ball on the Miami 11-yard line late in the third quarter. Three plays later, Florida took its first lead of the second half at 17-13 after a touchdown pass from Feleipe Franks to Lamical Perine.

It appeared that Thomas misjudged the distance of the punt as he lifted his right foot as the ball was falling into his hands and he was unable to secure the ball and it was recovered by UF’s Van Jefferson.

Needless to say, Miami can’t have turnovers on special teams that give away field position like that. It’s tough to be angry at Thomas because he has made so many positive plays for Miami in his career but this was certainly a scenario to forget for the junior.

Kick Returns

Thomas had Miami’s lone kick return in the game in the fourth quarter. He fielded a kick at the 3-yard line and returned it 32 yards, and that allowed Miami starting field position at the 35-yard line for a drive that began with 8:18 left to play.

If he can hang onto the ball, using Thomas on kick and punt returns is very important for Miami because of his game-breaking speed and playmaking ability. Any chance to get the ball in his hands should be utilized.

***What were your thoughts on Miami’s special teams on Saturday night? Leave them in the comments section below!***