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Special teams haven't always been so special to Meyer

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

The first thing Florida coach Urban Meyer does every week when he starts preparing for a game is check out the opposing team's kickoff return unit.

He says it's his little ritual every Sunday morning. He does his television show and then flips on the tape.

"I watch their kickoff return, and I know exactly what kind of team we're getting ready to play," Meyer said. "If it's sloppy and disorganized and unmotivated, I get really excited because I think we're going to beat the mess out of that team.

"If it's a team that's hungry, works hard and you can tell there's an attention to detail on their kicking team, then I know we're in for a long day. That means every phase of their team is going to be very well organized."

Special teams are near and dear to Meyer's heart, and it's no coincidence that the Gators head into Saturday's SEC Championship Game against Alabama with some of the best special teams play in the country.

"The guys who get treated the best on this team are the guys who play on special teams," said Florida cornerback Joe Haden, one of several starters who's a regular on special teams.

Quarterback Tim Tebow said starters actually lobby to play on special teams because it's such a big deal at Florida and because they've seen what an impact it's had on games.

"I've been trying since my freshman year," Tebow joked. "No luck yet, but I'm going to stay on them."

Almost sheepishly, Meyer admits that he hasn't always been such a stickler for special teams. Everywhere he's been as a head coach -- Bowling Green, Utah and Florida -- it's been his baby. He's the unquestioned special teams coach.

But as an assistant at Notre Dame in the late 1990s, his idea of special teams was making sure the kickers got all their kicks in after practice.

Former Notre Dame coach Bob Davie still kids him about it.

"I was the guy who would sit in the back of the meeting room and draw pass plays on a pad of paper when they started talking about the kicking game," Meyer said. "I'm not proud of that, but it's true."

Then one day, Davie approached Meyer, then the Irish receivers coach, and told him that he wanted him to take over special teams.

"My first reaction was, 'I don't want to do that. I want to throw the ball around. No, I don't want to do that,'" Meyer recalled. "Obviously, the respect I had for coach [Davie], I thought about it and said, 'Absolutely.'"

In those days, there were just so many trips you could make, so Meyer dipped into his own frequent flier miles and his own pocket and started traveling everywhere he could to learn as much as he could about special teams.

He visited with the Carolina Panthers, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Denver Broncos, the New England Patriots and Virginia Tech, which has long set the standard in college football for special teams play under Frank Beamer.

"I just went around and was blown away with the amount of detail, and more than anything, the opportunity to play the game and have an impact on the game," Meyer said. "I'd never really studied it like that, never understood it."

Needless to say, he learned well.

The Gators have been explosive offensively and suffocating defensively in their eight-game winning streak that's seen them maul teams by an average margin of 39.6 points per game. But special teams, in many ways, has been what's set them apart.

Brandon James has returned two punts for touchdowns this season and is second nationally in punt return average (13.6 yards). The Gators have blocked eight kicks (five punts, two field goals and one extra point) and have allowed a total of 43 yards on punt returns all season, which ranks sixth nationally.

Only five of Florida's opponents this season have started a drive in Florida territory. The Gators, on the other hand, have started 38 drives in the opposition's territory and scored on 28 of those.

"If you want to get on the field on this team, you better earn your way on special teams," said Brandon Spikes, the Gators' All-SEC middle linebacker. "That's the way we do it around here."

The mentality didn't come overnight. Meyer said the Gators were "pathetic" on special teams his first season at Florida in 2005. Meyer even remembers a younger player (who's no longer on the team) walking up to him and saying flatly that he had no interest in being on the kickoff return team.

"It's taken a while and been a hard process," Meyer said. "But then they start seeing the rewards."

On Sundays, the only tape the entire Florida team watches is the kicking game.

"I make them all sit in there and watch and point out the guys doing a great job and point out the guys maybe not doing a great job," Meyer said.

Here's betting that it was an extra-long film session this past Sunday after the Gators' troubles on kickoff coverage against Florida State. The Seminoles had a 63-yard kickoff return to set up their first field goal, and the Gators also had two kickoffs that ended up going out of bounds.

Florida spends five of its 22 periods in practice on special teams, and Meyer said that's pretty standard nowadays.

"But when I first got into coaching, I remember one place I was at that after practice they'd work on the kicking game," he recounted. "It was almost like it was a penalty if you were on that team.

"We've tried to make it the exact opposite. If you're not on our kicking game, you don't get treated very well around here."

It's doubtful anybody's doodling pass routes in the Gators' special teams meetings, either.