This post begins a series on what I see as the five keys to success for the 2009 Gamecocks. Today we look at special teams. While special teams don't always get much attention from the press, they're absolutely critical to a team's success. Good special teams play results not just in points in the form of field goals but also in the "hidden yardage" that more intelligent commentators like Phil Steele like to refer to. Return units that put their offense in good field position can take the pressure off an inept offense, while good coverage units can handicap a prolific offense.
Last year, we had one of the best special teams units in the conference. On kickoffs, we led the conference in touchbacks with 25 and were second in terms of opponent's starting field position, with opponents starting from the 22.8 on average (that's only .1 yard behind the leader, Kentucky). Although he struggled at times during mid-season, we had the conference's fourth-best FG kicker in terms of percentage in Ryan Succop. Spencer Lanning and the punt coverage unit were serviceable. Chris Culliver was fourth best in kickoff return yards and projects to become USC's all-time leader in that category over the course of his career.
This year, though, we lose a cadre of important contributors to our success on special teams. The most important, probably, is Succop, and that's not just because he was one of the conference's best field goal booters. Succop was also responsible for all those touchbacks. The consequent quality defensive field position that we garnered from Succop's powerful leg undoubtedly helped us field what was one of the country's best scoring defenses until the three-game skid at the end of the year. As Westerdawg via Rex Robinson points out, due to offense-friendly rules changes it's become more difficult than ever to find a kicker that can consistently kickoff into the end zone, so we should expect a drop off in kickoff quality that will make the coverage unit all that more important. It's uncertain who will replace Succop; it appears that Adam Yates will handle kickoffs and punter Spencer Lanning will kick field goals, but it's possible that Yates will handle both duties. Neither was able to lock down the field goal kicking position during the spring.
We also lose Captain Munnerlyn, who returned punts last year. Our punt return units weren't as effective as our kickoff units, but losing Munnerlyn does leave us with another hole to fill. If Culliver takes over on punts, we may begin to stretch him thin considering that he'll then be doing kickoffs, punts, and starting at free safety. That could be problematic. Akeem Auguste and Dion LeCorn are also possible candidates.
Finally, we lose coach Ray Rychleski. Rychleski has long been considered one of the best special teams coaches in the game, and his arrival in Columbia last season made an instant difference. Rychleski was rewarded for his success with a swanky position with the Indianapolis Colts. Shane Beamer, who coached special teams in 2007 and cornerbacks in 2008, will take over on special teams again. Special teams play under Beamer in 2007 was mediocre and possibly cost us the game against Clemson, so my confidence in Beamer isn't quite what it was in Rychleski. That said, Beamer is a young coach and has hopefully grown into his role since 2007.
These losses are considerable, especially if we again field a spotty offense as Stephen Garcia continues to mature. If we can take care of them, it could help us win a couple of the close ones. If not, the opposite may be true.