GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Will Muschamp does not want to talk about it. The thought of life after senior placekicker Caleb Sturgis hits Muschamp too hard.
A former college safety best known for coaching tough, aggressive defenses, Muschamp has developed quite a soft spot for one of the least imposing players on his roster who has become a titan among college kickers.
“We’re trying to find an extra year of eligibility for him,” Muschamp said
For two seasons as Florida’s head coach, Muschamp has known he can send Sturgis out on the field and pretty much count on three points.
Sturgis might be the hardest player No. 3 Florida will have to replace after facing Louisville in the Sugar Bowl Jan. 2.
“I’ll miss him a lot,” offensive coordinator Brent Pease said. “Maybe our other guys develop into that. With someone like Caleb, he opens up our playbook offensively for us.”
Once the Gators’ offense crosses midfield, it is a first down away from Sturgis’ kicking range.
Eight of his school-record 69 field goals are from 50 yards or longer, including a 56-yard boot in 2009 against Georgia. Sturgis’ 51-yard kick Sept. 8 at Texas A&M kept Florida in striking distance during a 20-17 comeback win that was a springboard to the Gators’ 11-1 season.
Florida’s history of placekickers includes a Lou Groza Award winner (Judd Davis), a two-time Super Bowl champion (Don Chandler of Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers) and a second-team All-American (Jeff Chandler).
While Sturgis, a third-team All-America in 2012, put together the best career of them all, he said “just being mentioned in the same sentence as them is awesome.”
Sturgis never imagined how far placekicking would take him when he decided to give it a try at St. Augustine High School.
Sturgis, one of six children, grew up in a soccer family and could hold his own on the pitch. But when his big brother, Nathan, now a midfielder for the Houston Dynamo of the MLS, left home at age 16 to train in Bradenton for the U.S. Junior National team, Caleb Sturgis decided on a different path.
“I always thought I’d (play soccer),” Caleb Sturgis said. “Then I realized I wasn’t as good as him.”
Sturgis decided football offered his best chance to win a state championship, and his sophomore season St. Augustine won the 2005 Class 3A state title.
“I never really thought about college football or anything,” he said.
But it quickly became clear to everyone Sturgis was special.
“Every time I would come home to watch him kick, I was like, ‘Wow!’” Nathan Sturgis said.
Caleb Sturgis also caught the eye of former UF coach Urban Meyer.
Not all coaches emphasized special teams like Meyer or awarded full scholarships to kickers. Meyer was able to virtually handpick any recruit he chose, and he signed Sturgis in 2008.
“We grew up Gator fans, our whole family is Gator fans,” Nathan Sturgis said. “To see him out there kicking in the Swamp in front of 80,000 people, it’s been amazing.”
Caleb Sturgis kicked for Meyer’s 2008 national title team and the 13-1 Sugar Bowl champions a season later. A back injury cost Sturgis the 2010 season, but he did not lose a beat with a new coaching staff and quickly gained its confidence.
“It’s a lot easier going out there when, no matter what happens, the coaches have your back,” Sturgis said. “That’s been huge for me.”
Sturgis connected on 45 of 53 field-goal attempts (84.9 percent) in 2011 and 2012 and twice was named one of three finalists for the Lou Groza Award honoring the nation’s top kicker.
For perspective, the placekickers for the top five scoring offenses in 2012 — Louisiana Tech, Oregon, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Baylor — hit a combined 70 of 106 (66 percent) field-goal attempts.
Only a handful of college kickers can fathom Sturgis’ combination of accuracy, nerve and leg strength. One is Florida State’s Dustin Hopkins, also a finalist the past two seasons for the Groza award and, along with Sturgis, the only kicker with six field goals of 50 yards or longer since 2011.
“He’s a great kicker, a great individual,” Hopkins said. “I always root for Caleb . . . unless it’s a gamewinner against us.”
The Gators are 16-point favorites to beat Louisville in New Orleans. But Sturgis, who earned a master’s degree in management last weekend, learned one thing when he gave up soccer for football.
“A lot of times, it comes down to the kicker,” he said.
For one more game, at least, Muschamp is fine with counting on Sturgis.
“I think he’s the best placekicker in the country,” Muschamp said.