This post continues a series picking an All-Decade Team. Over the summer, we'll be honoring the best players Carolina has had at each position over the past ten years. We'll also give shout-outs to some of the other memorable players we've had. In our last four installments of this series, I picked Ryan Succop as our top placekicker, Spencer Lanning as our punter, Marcus Lattimore (with an honorable mention to Cory Boyd) as our runningback, Jared Cook at tight end, Alshon Jeffery and Sidney Rice at wide receiver, Travelle Wharton, Garrett Chisolm, T.J. Johnson, Shane Hall, and Melvin Paige on the offensive line, Stephen Garcia at quarterback, Syvelle Newton and Ryan Brewer at all-purpose, and Andrew Pinnock at fullback.
Today, we're wrapping up offense and special teams by talking about kick returners. I'm going to do a single post on kickoff and punt returners, as I'd like go ahead and move to defense while we still have time left during the summer. While the two positions are obviously different, time is of the essence.
As we all know, South Carolina has frequently lacked quality kick returners in recent years. We've failed to return a kickoff or a punt for a touchdown in many years. Although there have been a few near misses since, Matthew Thomas's 95-yard return in 2002 was the last kickoff we took all the way back, and Chavez Donnings's 73-yard return in 2003 was the last such punt return. As such, it shouldn't be surprising that there aren't many Carolina players at return man that really jump out at you as huge gamechangers. That said, we have had some decent returners.
Here are the players who got most of the return touches each year over the past decade:
2001: Ryan Brewer (punts and kickoffs), Derek Watson (kickoffs)
2002: Ryan Brewer (punts and kickoffs), Matthew Thomas (kickoffs)
2003: Demetris Summers (punts), Matthew Thomas (kickoffs), Troy Williamson (kickoffs), Chavez Donnings (punts)
2004: Noah Whiteside (punts), Matthew Thomas (kickoffs), Troy Williamson (kickoffs)
2005: Carlos Thomas (kickoffs), Kenny McKinley (punts)
2006: Kenny McKinley (kickoffs), Carlos Thomas (kickoffs), Captain Munnerlyn (punts)
2007: Captain Munnerlyn (punts), Chris Culliver (kickoffs)
2008: Captain Munnerlyn (punts and kickoffs), Chris Culliver (kickoffs)
2009: Stephon Gilmore (punts), Chris Culliver (kickoffs), Bryce Sherman (kickoffs)
2010: Chris Culliver (kickoffs), Stephon Gilmore (punts), Bryce Sherman (kickoffs), Ace Sanders (punts)
Some of the more notable names here are Brewer (very consistent), Thomas (nice threat to break a long return), and Munnerlyn (probably the most consistently effective punt returner on the list). However, I'm going with Culliver as the best player here. Culliver owns Carolina career records in kickoff returns and return yardage. He's third over the past decade in the SEC in the latter category (2476 yards), and although his average isn't quite as impressive, he comes in at 15th in the SEC over the past decade there (23.36 ypr). Not bad, particularly in comparison to the others we've had at USC. Moreover, while Culliver never took one back for a touchdown, he came close several times; in 2009 he did so not once but twice against Kentucky, and both returns led to Carolina TDs. You might, therefore, say that Culliver deserves as much credit as anyone for that close win.