Special teams continues to be a disaster for Carolina

Gamecocks special teams have been an area of concern for years now. - Streeter Lecka

The Gamecocks have not been good at special teams under Spurrier, despite the presence of top-notch returner Ace Sanders in recent years. Given the number of coordinators we've had, this may be an institutional problem for the program.

When the Gamecocks hired Joe Robinson away from North Carolina, I had high hopes that he would bring stability and improvement to an area of our team that has varied from bad to downright awful every year of Steve Spurrier's reign here in Columbia - special teams.  For whatever reason, even in the good years, the Gamecocks simply haven't found a way to come out ahead of the game in an area that - while not nearly as important as offense or defense - can and does impact the winner and loser of football games.

In fact, even in one of the best seasons we've produced in our history, one of our biggest wins that season (and thus, ever) had a major special teams gaffe:

Unfortunately for us, the Gamecocks appear to have picked up right where they left off, except without Ace Sanders to help soften the blow.

Historical Issues

I'm not speaking lightly when I say that we've been terrible on special teams.  Take a look at this chart, put together using the data at the extremely helpful FootballOutsiders.com.  Since 2007, the Gamecocks have never been better than 51st in the nation at special teams, as measured by the Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI).

Succinctly, FEI uses the position of the ball on the field to derive the expected points "value" from a play, and then gives teams credit (or counts against them) based on whether they exceed the national average.  Also, this data does not include the average points gained or lost by your opponents' field goal efficiency, since there's nothing a team can really do to control whether or not an opposing kicker makes or misses (aside from blocking the kick).

So into our rating goes five components:

(1) FGE - Field goal efficiency

(2) PRE - Punt return efficiency

(3) KRE - Kick return efficiency

(4) PE - Punt efficiency

(5) KE - Kickoff efficiency

When combined, these five numbers spit out STE, or special teams efficiency.  Let's see how the Gamecocks have done in these categories, and in special teams overall for the last 6 years:

Gamecocks ST Coordinator FEI Rank FGE PRE KRE PE KE
2012 Joe Robinson 86th 56th 12th 110th 86th 103rd
2011 John Butler 112th 46th 105th 118th 106th 81st
2010 Shane Beamer 75th 16th 79th 109th 94th 17th
2009 Shane Beamer 94th 25th 79th 57th 86th 113th
2008 Ray Rychleski 51st 56th 107th 51st 57th 12th
2007 Beamer / Chatham 54th 40th 55th 41st 92nd 42nd

As you can see, no matter the coordinator, we simply haven't been very good at special teams ever, and certainly haven't been since 2008, when Ray Rychleski led us to a 51st in the nation finish.  Not stellar, but not bad, either.

Since then, STE has fallen off a cliff for us, starting in 2009, where Shane Beamer's two units were heavily bolstered by our FGE, which frankly is likely not so much a product of good coaching as it is a product of Spencer Lanning being a very good kicker (though, with NFL player Ryan Succop kicking for us in 2007 and 2008, we weren't as efficient on FGE, likely in part due to a number of blocks suffered, which likely WAS a product of coaching).

In 2011, John Butler put together an atrocious special teams squad that the Gamecocks regularly had to overcome on their way to an 11-2 record and a win in the Capital One Bowl.

The Joe Robinson Era

In 2012, the unit took a step forward under Joe Robinson, but still was mired in the bottom of the pack, and would've been just as bad as the 2011 unit were it not for the amazing exploits of one Ace Sanders:

Because of Ace, we were 12th in the nation in PRE last season.  However, we continued to struggle mightily in all other areas of special teams, with our only saving grace coming from the leg of Spencer Lanning.  Other than that, we were 86th or worse in every other area of special teams.

One thing that has been noted in many places - including by Spurrier himself - is that Robinson has been highly successful at coaching special teams in the past, most specifically from 2008-2010 at LSU.  However, in his one year in Chapel Hill, Robinson did not put together a very strong special teams unit, and as noted here, he put together a similarly weak squad in his first effort in Columbia.  Meanwhile, LSU keeps on trucking:

Robinson Program FEI Rank FGE PRE KRE PE KE LSU
2012 South Carolina 86th 56th 12th 110th 86th 103rd LSU 9th
2011 North Carolina 89th 90th 54th 39th 107th 85th LSU 6th
2010 LSU 3rd 11th 43rd 11th 14th 54th
2009 LSU 2nd 8th 1st 14th 34th 21st
2008 LSU 1st 5th 43rd 7th 6th 16th

2013 So Far

In the three games thus far, there has been a lot of carping about how we've been doing in special teams, so I thought I'd take a look at it.  Since FEI hasn't released data on special teams play as of yet (and won't for a few more weeks), I undertook a very simple process.  For punts and kickoffs, I looked at the net yardage gained by the punting or kicking team (e.g., if a kickoff is returned to the 30 yard line, that's a net kick of 35 yards, as the ball moved from your own 35 to the opposing 30 from the kick).  As such, you want higher numbers in the Gamecock column and lower numbers in the opponents column.

Through three games, here's the averages and the raw data for our non-field goal units:

Net Kick Net Punts Opp. Kick Opp. Punt
39.06 32.30 43.00 40.31
30 32 47 25
40 27 44 31
35 20 40 43
40 25 31
34 42 46
47 34
30 48 40 46
40 41 42
40 49
41 36
40 42
47 45
38
48 41 52 25
35 18 40 47
46 29 47 48
30 40 35
45 71
35 42

One thing I did not include above is the fact that the Gamecocks are actually at an even turnover margin on special teams this year, as North Carolina muffed a punt and the Georgia punter completely botched a punt attempt of his own (I did not count that in opp. net punting, which would obviously change the numbers somewhat).

The summary is this - on kickoffs, are opponents are gaining one additional yard per kick than we are, which is nothing in the grand scheme of things.  However, our punt coverage and punt returns have been very weak so far, and there's a marked field position discrepancy based on it.

As Bill Connelly showed in his advanced box score, despite the Gamecocks domination on offense and defense, they ran over 50 percent of their players on our side of the field, whereas we only ran 36 percent of our players on Vandy's side.  This happened in large part because Vandy gained almost 45 yards a punt, whereas we only added 29 net yards when Tyler Hull went back to kick.  Kickoffs were also an issue, as the Commodores netted an average of 45 yards per kickoff (a touchback results in a mere net 40 yards), while we gained an average of 40 yards.

What Drives This?

South Carolina has been weak in special teams for each of the past 6 seasons, with no marked signs of improvement this year.  Further, as we can see from the Joe Robinson chart, this isn't something that necessarily changes based on your special teams coach, as Robinson had great success at LSU, but that success was sustained without him, and it hasn't translated in either of his other two seasons as a special teams coordinator (though I'd have to do a far more robust analysis to see if this is something that holds true across college football, or if it's just a quirk of Joe Robinson).

However, based on this limited data, I'm inclined to think that certain programs prioritize this as a matter of coaching (and since we have the data, I may tease this out in a later post).  This much is clear - our special teams coordinator has changed many times in the last 6 seasons, but the performance has never been exceptional.  This is an area where improvement is possible and returns could make the difference between some very important wins and losses, starting this week in Orlando.  Let's hope the team, Robinson, and Spurrier get together and get it fixed during the bye week, so we don't look back with regret on a game (and season) lost by special teams, as we somewhat still do at the Florida game in 2012 which cost us a trip to Atlanta and a potential shot at a national championship.

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