When I look at USC's statistical rankings, one thing jumps out at me more than anything else: We're 20th in the nation in punt returns, after years of struggling in the category. Ace Sanders has racked up nearly 200 return yards on the season. Over 100 of those came last weekend against Mizzou, in what can only be described as a breakout performance for Carolina's special teams units. However, Sanders has returned kicks in every game, and he's averaging over 16 yards per return. For those of you who are keeping count, that's only around a yard per return less than Tyrann Mathieu had last year. And while it was only one game, you could easily argue that Sanders's game against Mizzou was every bit the game-changing performance that distinguished Mathieu's efforts last season. His big return got us on the board, and he had a couple of others that helped us keep field position on our side, which was certainly one of the stories of how the game played. So far this season, we look like a different team on punt returns--in fact, we look very close to a team that used punt returns to make a major difference in its season last year.
What's made the difference for Carolina on punt returns so far? Statistically, the biggest difference has been the number of returns. Last year, we only had 20 total returns on the year. LSU, a benchmark in anyone's measure of special team's play, had 39. This year, though, we have 13 returns through four games, which puts us on pace to return 39 in the twelve-game regular season. Needless to say, that's a substantial improvement. You can't make a difference in the punt-return game if you're fair-catching every punt. The number of returns has translated into much more yardage per game, which means improved field position. It's also given Sanders the opportunity he's needed to make a few really nice returns.
Why we're returning more this year is hard to determine. Our stats are probably slightly inflated due to competition. We're playing guys on special teams that teams like UAB and ECU could only dream of having on their rosters. Their punters weren't exactly all-world, either. However, I do think there are things that we're doing that are going to continue making a difference in SEC play. Most importantly, there doesn't seem to be as much emphasis now as there was in past years on playing for the blocked punt. We used to send multiple guys after the punter each time, but take a look at Sander's memorable return against Mizzou:
Ace Sanders Punt Return Against Missouri (via SECDigitalNetwork)
As you see, Carolina only sends a single guy in for the punter, and once that Gamecock sees that he's not going to get a hand on the ball, he starts worrying about putting a block on someone. Everyone else other than Sanders is also concerned with blocking a man. Because of this, Sanders has more room to run when he gets the ball, although certainly the lack of hangtime on this punt was part of the problem for Mizzou. Sanders does the rest with his balance, vision, speed, and shiftiness.
Our approach in the punt return game is something that I'm going to be watching very closely over the next few weeks, starting against Kentucky. If you've got a talented, sure-handed return specialist like Sanders, I'm a big advocate of not selling out for the punt block, other than in opportune situations.If you sell out everytime, you might get two blocks on the year, whereas if you focus on trying to set up returns, you can eat up large chunks of yardage on the returns and do your offense a big favor. Moreover, every so often you'll get a game-changing return that either scores or sets up an easy TD. Those kinds of returns are equivalent to punt block in the effect they have on the game, and when you factor in the shorter returns that help your field position, it seems like a no-brainer to me that you should play for the return, not the block, at least if you have a guy like Sanders on your roster. Let's hope Carolina sticks with this strategy.