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Special teams looking to flip script, field against Florida

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New kick returner Mychal Bailey will look to build on his 36-yard return of the opening kickoff against Louisville. (Brett Marshall, UK Athletics) New kick returner Mychal Bailey will look to build on his 36-yard return of the opening kickoff against Louisville. (Brett Marshall, UK Athletics)
Any way you slice it, Florida is a tough opponent. Even though 2010 was a relative struggle for them, as they went 8-5, the Gators have been one of the dominant programs both in the Southeastern Conference and nationally over the past few years.

They have shown themselves to be more than capable of inflicting damage on both offense and defense, but nowhere has the Gators' ability to dominate been more evident than on special teams. Placing a focus on putting its best players on the field for special teams, Florida has broken the back of many an opponent with a big play on a punt, kickoff or field goal attempt.

Among the teams on that list is Kentucky. In the past three matchups between the two teams, Florida has blocked four UK punts or field goals, all of which have led to Gator touchdowns. UK special teams coach Greg Nord says Florida's success boils down to a few simple factors.

"They've got great personnel, they've got sound schemes and they've experienced a lot of success over the years so they all believe in what they're doing," Nord said.

As the Wildcats look to end a streak of 24 consecutive losses to Florida, special teams will be called upon to do what Florida has done to so many teams: win the battle for "hidden yards."

"Anytime you go out there, you have a chance to change the game in special teams," special teams coach Greg Nord said. "You're going to either flip field position or you have to maintain or get possession of the ball."

The importance of special teams has been obvious in UK's first three games. In a win over Western Kentucky, the Wildcats rode a sterling effort from punter Ryan Tydlacka to overcome offensive struggles. In a loss to Louisville, the Cardinals used special teams to continually shorten the field and upend the Cats.

"It's an overlooked aspect from the fans point of view," Tydlacka said. "You saw in the Western game how much field position can help. This last game, Louisville had us pinned deep a lot so field position affects defense which affect offense, so that's huge."

The first priority against Florida will be ensuring Tydlacka is able to get punts off cleanly. One way UK plans to do that is by switching up schemes throughout the game.

"You want to make sure you're not ever doing the same thing all the time," Nord said. "As you watch Florida, some of the things that they've done and been successful with have been against teams that have stayed the same over time. They have a way to get their best players matched up on a guy they feel is your weakest player."

Against Louisville, UK turned to a rugby style punt in response to a heavy rush by the Cardinals. One of Tydlacka's rugby efforts was very effective, while the other took a poor bounce. Tydlacka also expect to use more directional punts to avoid speedy return men like Chris Rainey. Though he prefers when he is able to let loose and boot the ball downfield, Tydlacka is on board with the philosophy behind rugby and directional punting.

Rainey is the player that most catches the attention of Nord and Tydlacka. His return ability is well-known, but he also has a blocked punt this season. The block, amazingly, came on a play when the Gators had just 10 players on the field.

"They've got a guy that's blocked punts and he's returned them for touchdowns, so that's not an average player," Nord said. "You start getting players like that and all of a sudden there are a lot of things that look better."

Rainey has not yet returned a kick this season, but the Gators have plenty of talent in that area. Andre Debose, Solomon Patton and Jeff Demps are Florida's listed returners, but Nord knows to have his team ready no matter who lines up because they can't afford to allow the momentum swing that accompanies a long kickoff return.

"They've had five different returners return kicks over 50 yards over the last couple years," Nord said. "They're one of the top kick return teams in the country, so usually when you're kicking off you've just had something good happen to your team and all of a sudden they pop a big return and they switch the momentum."

In spite of how dangerous the Gators are, UK has reason to be confident in its kickoff coverage unit. Joe Mansour has handled kickoff duties and returners have managed just an average of 14.7 yards on seven attempts.

Kentucky's returners haven't made much of an impact either. Four different Wildcats have had opportunities this season, combining to average just 20 yards per return. However, in UK's last game against Louisville, first-time returner Mychal Bailey ran the opening kickoff back for 36 yards, only to be tackled by the Cardinal kicker. Next time, Nord said Bailey will need to break that tackle.

"We popped open a kickoff free to the kicker," Nord said. "Every return you have is designed to try to get on the kicker, that's the one guy you don't block. He's the returner's guy. That's the guy the great returner makes miss. If you make the kicker miss, you score a touchdown there."

On punt returns, the Wildcats have done even less damage, but some of that is because situations have called for being conservative. Punt returner Randall Burden has just five yards on five returns this season, but he has completed his No. 1 objective: take care of the football. On the few occasions when there has been an opportunity for a return, the blocking hasn't been there.

"The couple that we did have a chance to return, we have a gunner get away from us so you get a zero-yard return," Nord said. "To get a return, you have to block the gunners and the returner has to make someone miss."

If Burden picks up some blocks, makes a man miss and pops a big return, it could be just what the doctor ordered for UK against favored Florida.

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