Returners playing catch-up

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Being a punt returner is not an easy job.

You have to decide whether to catch the ball and try to gain some yards, let it bounce to avoid any chance of a turnover, or fair-catch it while opposing players are running full speed at you with the goal of knocking you into next week. All in a matter of seconds.

After playing quarterback, it's probably the toughest job on the football field.

But that's not an excuse for doing it poorly.

And right now, Florida is doing it poorly. It's not just that the Gators are averaging only 9.6 yards per punt return; they're also having trouble fielding the ball. Whether it's Andre Debose, De'Ante Saunders or Marcus Roberson, they're all struggling with the decision of whether to catch the ball and run, let it bounce, or make a fair catch.

"We've worked on fielding punts and not losing yardage in those press situations," UF coach Will Muschamp said. "We cannot afford to continue to do that. 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."

If the Gators are trying to block the punt, that generally means the returner is going to fair catch the punt because there won't be many blockers. If the Gators are trying to return the punt, the returner has only the three to five seconds that the ball is in the air to make a decision. There's a lot of information to process in that short amount of time.

First, the returner has to check the gunners -- the players who line up wide and take off down the field immediately after the snap -- and see if they've broken free or been held up by blockers. Then he has to check the flight of the ball and adjust his position.

While he's doing that, he also has to keep glancing back at the coverage to see how much room he has. Then he has to make a judgment on whether he should catch the ball -- whether he has to race forward and grab it on the run or has time to settle under it -- or let it bounce. If it's a short punt, the better strategy is to let it bounce. But it's not an automatic rule that returners shouldn't field a punt inside their own 10-yard line. Sometimes it's better to field the ball at the 9 -- especially if there are several coverage players around -- than to let it bounce and potentially be downed inside the 5.

However, UF's returners have been fair-catching deep punts when they should be fielding them. Saunders, in particular, struggled with that last Saturday against LSU. He fair-caught three punts, the third of which drew boos because Saunders had 15 yards of space between himself and the coverage.

While he knows making those decisions quickly is difficult, Muschamp said Debose, Saunders, Roberson or whichever player ends up returning punts this week against Vanderbilt must do a better job.

"He's got to make a judgment as he sees the flight of the ball and then see where the coverage is and how close the coverage is to him, [and decide] 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," Muschamp 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 can imagine it's pretty daunting."