We're in the process of wrapping up our analyses of the state of South Carolina football post-spring practice. Today we're looking at special teams. Here are a few other posts you might want to read, if you haven't already done so: defensive backs, offensive line, defensive line.
Last year was the first time in a long time when we were a bit uncertain in the kicking game, as Ryan Succop and Spencer Lanning had given us legitimately elite performers over the course of their tenure. As their replacements, Jay Wooten proved to be a fairly reliable placekicker (although he had some bad misses on the year, he was money in two of our biggest games, Georgia and Clemson), but Joey Scribner-Howard was inconsistent as the punter. Both are now graduating, and we're again looking at uncertain prospects. At kicker, I don't feel too bad. Adam Yates came in with a solid pedigree, and he looked very solid in the Spring Game, doing some excellent work on kickoffs and then kicking through a 51-yard FG to close out the contest. Landon Ard is another talented kicker who is in the running for both duties. Punter, on the other hand, again looks like a liability. Right now, it appears that Patrick Fish will be our starter. He was shaky all spring and has not proven himself as an SEC-caliber punter. Mike Williamson is also in the mix there. At one time it looked like South Carolina was going to bring in Fort Mill kicker Worth Gregory to do its punting and perhaps placekicking, but Gregory decided to attend Alabama instead. I'll have to admit that I'm worried about our situation at punter. Let's just hope we don't have to punt too much!
At the return man positions, I'll have to admit that I'm a little uninformed about current developments. The depth chart lists Victor Hampton and Damiere Byrd as the kick returners, Ace Sanders as the punt returner. Sanders is almost certainly the guy on punts, particularly now that Stephon Gilmore is gone, and he's been solid so far. However, I'm not sure if Hampton and Byrd are going to hold on kickoffs. Hampton, I feel, is likely to get a lot of opportunities; I liked what he brought quite a bit late last season, and he ended up, in fact, leading the team in return average. To go along with speed and vision, Hampton has the kind of fire when he's on the field that you like to see from a returner--he's the kind of guy you can see breaking a big tackle, not giving up on the play, and getting some big gains. Byrd I'm not sure about. Obviously, he's a burner, but I haven't seen him return many kicks yet, so I'm not sure how well his speed translates on the field. Bruce Ellington and Kenny Miles also saw time on kickoffs last season, with Ellington showing some nice flashes.
Our coverage units were generally decent last year. There was a costly breakdown against Arkansas, but I felt we bounced back nicely from that game and limited the dangerous Florida and Clemson return units. We do lose a key coverage guy in Marty Markett, but the coaching staff has generally been pretty good about identifying guys like that, and we have some good candidates on the current roster.
The other thing to note about special teams is that we have a new special teams coach: Joe Robinson. Robinson is best known for his work at LSU:
Prior to his arrival in Chapel Hill, Robinson spent three seasons as the defensive line coach and special teams coordinator at LSU. In his award-winning 2010 season, the Tigers' special teams finished in the top 13 nationally in net punting, kickoff return average and punt return average while earning a trip to the Cotton Bowl. In 2009, LSU's special teams combined to rank No. 1 overall in the SEC as the Tigers led the league in both kickoff coverage (44.5 net average) and punt returns (18.9). LSU was the only team in the league to rank among the top three in the conference in four special teams categories. Kick returner Trinton Holliday led the SEC and ranked No. 2 in the nation in punt returns and was selected in the 2010 NFL Draft by the Houston Texans.
Not bad. Granted, LSU has been blessed with some phenomenal special teams stars over the years; I would imagine that none of us have forgotten little Trinton Holliday. However, the Gamecocks have some athletes of their own on the roster now, and I'm curious to see if Robinson can recreate some of the LSU magic with this group of players. One thing I'd like to see is more emphasis on setting up good protection schemes as opposed to going all out for the block on punts. Obviously, a block is great, but I tend to believe that in the long run, it's best to set up the return if you have a reliable return man. We do, and I'd like to see him get more opportunities this year.