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Five Goals for the Off-Season: Three, Improved Special Teams Play

This post continues a series on issues confronting the 2011 Gamecocks. Again, these are in no particular order.

The most important special teams players are your kicker and punter. The 2010 Gamecocks were decent in that category. Spencer Lanning wasn't the best K or P in the country, particularly as a K. Despite the final score, I remember at the time that he kicked them thinking those missed FGs in the SEC Championship Game could have changed the tenor of the game. And who knows? They probably wouldn't have made a huge difference, but sometimes those kinds of things really affect the psychology of a game. In most respects, though, Lanning was a very reliable player. He generally made the FGs he was supposed to make, and he was often quite excellent as a punter.

In almost all other respects, the 2010 Gamecocks special teams play was poor. When competent special teams coach Ray Rychleski departed for the Indianapolis Colts a couple of years back, Steve Spurrier hired Shane Beamer to recapture the special teams magic made famous by Beamer's father Frank. Young Beamer's outfits, however, have not only failed to produce the game-changing blocks and dazzling returns that are the stuff of Beamer Ball; they've also given up those plays much more often than any team ever should. Our return units provided negligible help this year. We ranked 90th in the country in kickoff returns and a putrid 115th in punt returns. I largely attribute the kickoff return problems to Bryce Sherman--fast kid but can't break even the weakest of tackles and doesn't seem to have good vision. The punt return problems owed to poor blocking--Ace Sanders usually didn't have time to make any plays. The coverage units improved from their terrible, at times game-costing performance in 2009, but some of the old problems popped up again late in the season. To top it off, I'm having trouble remembering a key special teams turnover we benefited from outside an unforced fumbled punt snap against Clemson. When we had chances to make those kinds of plays, we flaked, as when we failed to fall on a fumbled kickoff against FSU, and we gave up some nasty such turnovers ourselves.

Steve Spurrier says it's not the Xs and Os; it's the Jimmies and the Joes. I disagree. It would undoubtedly be nice to have dozens of four-star athletes ready to line up on special teams. Who has that, though, outside of a handful of glamor programs? Our guys are generally going up against special teams units of equal or lesser talent, just like everyone else. Yet, many programs have competent special teams units, including some that have a relative dearth of talent. Vanderbilt returned a kickoff for a TD against us last year and blocked a FG this year. Does Vandy have top-shelf talent on special teams? No, of course not. What Vandy does seem to have is competency, which is a reflection of coaching. Vandy also has the wisdom to place make wise personnel choices with the talent it does have. Vandy has used a starting runningback, Warren Norman, as a kick returner. Conservative wisdom says to avoid using a key player like Norman as a returner for risk of injury, and Carolina has followed suit by sitting Chris Culliver and Stephon Gilmore on returns in favor of the less effective and Sanders and, particularly, Sherman. I would say, though, that it's Vanderbilt that's getting the greater overall production. How many times do you actually see the return guy getting hurt? Not as often as you might think, especially if that player has been trained to protect himself. These and others problems confronting our special teams units are coaching issues that Spurrier needs to address. I'm not sure if canning Beamer is the right move; he's reportedly very successful on the recruiting trail. Perhaps we should consider moving him and bringing in someone else to work with special teams.

Special teams generally doesn't make an otherwise bad team great or vice versa. Norman's ability to run kicks back hasn't changed the fact that Vandy stinks, and our problems on special teams didn't stop up from winning nine games. However, special teams does make a difference: just witness what having recovered that fumbled kickoff or having covered punts better would have meant in the FSU game. For a Carolina team that only needs to improve itself in a handful of relatively minor ways, discernible improvement in special teams could be part of the key to taking the next step in 2011.