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Gators 2024 Positional Outlook: Specialists and Returners

All Gators is reviewing, and previewing, each position on Florida's roster during the 2024 offseason. We conclude the series with the specialists and returners.

Photo: Gators kicker Trey Smack; Credit: Alex Shepherd 

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The winds of attrition breezed through The Swamp again this winter, with Florida making 30 total scholarship roster additions and 21 subtractions via the NCAA transfer portal, along with several departing players heading toward the NFL Draft or their post-football careers. 

All Gators is breaking down each position on Florida's roster as the team approaches spring training camp, reviewing the performances of each group in 2023 and previewing their makeup for the 2024 season.

Following our analyses of the quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, interior defensive lineedge rusher, linebacker, cornerback and safety/STAR groups, we conclude the series with the specialists and returners.

If required, All Gators will revisit positions affected by the spring transfer portal window later this offseason. We will offer final depth chart projections during Florida's fall training camp in August.

2023 Season in Review: Florida's Specialists and Returners

Punter Jeremy Crawshaw and long snapper Rocco Underwood handled starting duties at their positions for the third and second consecutive seasons in 2023, respectively. Otherwise, the front-facing positions of UF's special teams experienced significant changes from the year prior. 

Although he entered the season as the incumbent starting placekicker, Adam Mihalek was quickly replaced in the role by Trey Smack, who at the time only managed kickoff duties, in Week 3. By that point, Mihalek had missed an extra point attempt and two field goal tries on the year, continuing a concerning trend after eight total misses in 2022. 

Smack, a class of 2022 enrollee at Florida, offered improved accuracy to pair with dynamic kicking power in the role. He connected on 17-of-21 field goal attempts with a long of 54 yards, a mark he accomplished twice, against Charlotte in Week 4 and South Carolina in Week 7. 

On kickoffs, Smack was close to exceptional. 56 of his 70 attempts ended in touchbacks, although he pushed one ball out of bounds in Week 5 against Kentucky, which resulted in a penalty. 

There were new faces in the return game, too.

Running back Trevor Etienne took the primary kickoff returning job for himself after splitting the duties with Xzavier Henderson in 2022. However, Etienne returned nearly half the kicks in 2022 that he did the year before, nine compared to 17, although his yards per return average went up one-tenth of a yard. No other player logged more than two return attempts.

Etienne also returned two punts at an average of 13 yards per return, after previously not receiving such an opportunity.

Wide receiver Ricky Pearsall replaced Henderson as the Gators' punt returner and was quite efficient in the role. He averaged 11.5 yards per return over 11 tries, including a 40-yard return against Arkansas and a 21-yard return versus Charlotte.

After seeing a dramatic downtick in utilization in 2022 (35 punts) compared to 2021 (52) under former head coach Dan Mullen, Crawshaw launched 42 punts in 2023, which went for an average of 48.6 gross yards and 44.1 net yards. 

Excluding his two-attempt freshman year, the gross average Crawshaw posted in 2023 marked a single-season career-high.

However, Crawshaw didn't capitalize on the increased punt count when it came to pinning opposing offenses inside the 20. He did so 16 times, the same number he posted in 2022, when he appeared in the team's additional game, the Las Vegas Bowl.

Five of his punts in 2023 went for touchbacks. Only one rolled into the endzone in 2022, and six resulted in touchbacks in 2021, when he punted more than any other season in his career to date.

Out and In

Scholarship players only

  • Out: Kicker Adam Mihalek (transfer portal), Punter Jacob Watkins (graduated), punter Ara Emerzian (graduated), Kickoff Returner Trevor Etienne (transferred to Georgia), Punt Returner Ricky Pearsall (NFL Draft)
  • In: Kicker Hunter Smith (transferred from FAU), Punter Jack Muse (transferred from UMass), Punter Nicholas Inglis (freshman), Returner Jerrae Hawkins Jr. (freshman)

Looking Forward

Smack, Crawshaw and Underwood return as Florida's specialist corps for 2024, with Crawshaw entering his final season of college eligibility. Consider each of these players locked into starting roles.

But with Etienne and Pearsall now gone from Gainesville, the Gators are tasked with identifying a new kick returner and a new punt returner, unless one player emerges as capable of handling both gigs. 

Perhaps one will, but for now, All Gators envisions sophomore wide receiver Eugene Wilson III and freshman wideout Jerrae "Tank" Hawkins filling in for Etienne and Pearsall in the return game. 

Amid his Freshman All-SEC and All-American 2023 season at Florida, where he caught 61 passes for 538 yards and a team-high six touchdowns, Wilson was inserted to return one kick against Missouri in Week 12, which he took back for 20 yards. 

His return production is extremely limited, but given the dynamic speed and agility he displayed offensively paired with the late-season attempt to return a kick, Wilson is a logical projection to fill the vacancy. 

It's fair to wonder if Florida will limit Wilson's special teams usage due to the value he presents to the Gators' offense, though.

But in this scenario, that leaves Hawkins to man punt return responsibilities, qualifying for the position with perhaps an even more athletic profile than Wilson's. 

Hawkins reportedly clocked a 4.25-second 40-yard dash during an Ohio State recruiting camp in 2022 and logged 6.69-second 60-meter, 10.37-second 100-meter and 21.48-second 200-meter results during his high school track and field career. On the field, he averaged 18.1 yards per reception over 123 catches at the prep level. 

"I think Tank is probably one of the more electric skill players in the country. Took a huge step forward this year at IMG, just relative to adding some play strength, run the full route tree inside and outside, dynamic returner," Napier described Hawkins on Early Signing Day in December 2023. 

"When you see this guy on ground level there's just a different level of speed. He'll immediately be the fastest player on our team, and I think he's got a chance to change the game."

Early 2024 Gators Specialists Depth Chart Projection


Starter: Jeremy Crawshaw (Sr.)

Backups: Jack Muse* (So.), Nicholas Inglis* (Fr.) 


Starter: Trey Smack (Jr.)

Backups: Hunter Smith* (r-Jr.)

Long Snapper

Starter: Rocco Underwood (r-Jr.)

Backup: Gannon Burt* (r-Fr.)

Kick returner

Starter: Eugene Wilson III (So.)

Punt returner

Starter: Jerrae Hawkins Jr. (Fr.)

* indicates walk-on status

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