GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida’s kicking situation was the worst in the Southeastern Conference last season and among the least productive in the country.
It was so inadequate that coach Jim McElwain held open tryouts — in the middle of the season.
After two more failed field goal attempts in the regular-season finale against rival Florida State, McElwain declared “we’ll get a kicker. And we’ll get a good one.”
The 25th-ranked Gators may have gotten the best one available.
Eddy Pineiro, a sophomore who attended ASA Community College in Miami last season but didn’t play football, is expected to dramatically improve Florida’s field-goal fortunes this fall. His first opportunity to kick in front of 90,000 will happen Saturday against UMass.
“I’m excited,” said Pineiro, who has made a number of 70-yard-plus kicks and put them on YouTube. “I think people exaggerate (the pressure). But if you work on the same thing every single day, why can’t you do it in a game? … You should be able to put a blindfold on and kick it because it’s the same kick every single time. It’s muscle memory.”
Pineiro makes it sound easy: see ball, kick ball.
But Florida learned last season just how difficult a task kicking can be.
The Gators missed five extra points and 10 field goals in 2015. They made just 7 of 17 field goals, a 41.2 percent success rate that ranked 127th out of 128 teams in the nation. McElwain used three different kickers, including a dental student added to the roster late in the year, but nothing fixed the problem.
“Seeing them go through those kicking struggles last year was pretty depressing,” Pineiro said.
McElwain tried just about everything while experienced junior Austin Hardin, who ended up making 5 of 14 attempts, kept struggling. He turned to Jorge Powell, but the walk-on injured a knee trying to make a tackle against LSU and missed the final seven games. That prompted McElwain to open things up to Florida’s student body.
More than 200 students responded to the open call, and dental student Neil MacInnes won the multistage kicking competition. Still, McElwain stuck with Hardin — the Gators ended up going for it on fourth down 27 times — while putting the full recruiting press on Pineiro.
Pineiro eventually de-committed from Alabama and enrolled at Florida in January.
He’s essentially been Florida’s kicker since, even though he’s never kicked in a game. Pineiro was a standout soccer player at Miami Sunset High School, so his first real action came in Florida’s spring game, where he made all five extra points and three lengthy field goals.
“I didn’t think people were going to scream out my name after an extra point, so that was pretty interesting,” said Pineiro, who will wear No. 15, made famous in Gainesville by Tim Tebow.
Pineiro wasn’t perfect: He hit from 52, 46 and 56 yards, and missed from 53 and 52. He also had nine touchbacks on 10 kickoffs, so McElwain was clearly testing him.
The coach hasn’t stopped, either.
McElwain challenges Pineiro at nearly every practice.
“Lately he’s been putting the whole team around me while I’m kicking my field goal, just screaming in my ear, throwing water in my face, trying to get me off-balance and stuff,” Pineiro said. “So far, I’m like 4-for-4 on those, whatever you want to call them, pressure kicks. So he’s happy about that.”
McElwain will be even happier if Pineiro makes them in games, something the Gators rarely did last season.
“I don’t want to sit here and put all these high expectations on him,” McElwain said. “I mean, the guy hasn’t kicked in a game yet, right? And yet all of a sudden, we’re ready to say this guy is the Golden Toe Award or whatever.
“At the same time, I do know this: He has the talent to do it, and I love the way he goes about his work.”
AP college football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org