This post begins a series on some of the question marks the South Carolina football team faces heading into fall camp. In the coming days, you'll see more posts from me and some of my colleagues on additional position groups. Today, we're discussing special teams.
1. Can Carolina find a punter? IMO, this is the biggest question mark facing Gamecocks special teams this year. After years of reliable punting courtesy of Ryan Succop and Spencer Lanning, Carolina took a step back last year. Joey Scribner-Howard had a good kick here and there, and luckily his gaffes never really came back to haunt us too much, but at the end of the day, Carolina ranked 92nd in net punting. That's not good. Things may get better, though. Carolina has a walk-on coming in named Tyler Hull who can reportedly kick the ball very well. Hull will compete with Patrick Fish and Mike Williamson for the starting job, and since neither Fish nor Williamson have distinguished themselves thus far, Carolina fans should hope that Hull is as good as reported.
2. Can Joe Robinson make a positive impact on special teams play? Robinson was hired to coach special teams and tight ends after John Butler departed for Penn St. (Wonder how Butler feels about that decision these days?) Robinson coached some great special teams units while he was LSU a few years ago. That was with Trinton Holliday and other Tigers at his disposal, though, and it's worth wondering how much of his success in Baton Rouge owed to the fact that he had no shortage of extremely talented players who were relegated to special teams on such a deep squad. Still, Carolina has upgraded its depth over the last few years, and we also have some players like Ace Sanders, Bruce Ellington, and Victor Hampton who have shown flashes of playmaking ability in the return game. Our special teams units, though, have been a mixed bag at best over the past few seasons, and it will be interesting to see if Robinson is the guy who helps us turn the corner.
3. Can Ace Sanders become one of the league's best punt returners? Sanders has shown flashes of being a very solid punt returner over the past couple of seasons. When given time, he makes good decisions that are designed to make sure he gains at least some yardage, and he has the instincts to make people miss. He's not had too many problems with fumbles. He brought one back for a TD against ECU last year. Still, he's yet to really take it to the next level and become a guy opposing teams really fear. Having that kind of guy can make a big difference. Not only is he a threat to take one to the house, he forces the opposing team to kick around him, which leads to more sub-40-yard punts. Will it happen this year? Perhaps. Phil Steele shows a little confidence in Sanders, picking him as his fourth-team All-SEC PR.
One thing I'd kind of like to see, from a strategic standpoint, is more emphasis on developing better protection schemes in the punt return game. Everybody loves a blocked punt, and blocking one on the opponent's side of the field can certainly change the complexion of a game, but how often does it happen? Too many teams, including Carolina in past years, sell out for the block and don't help the punt returner out. My gut tells me that if we focus on giving Sanders more time to make something happen, we might see him have a breakout year returning punts.
4. Can Carolina replace Marty Markett at gunner? Although Scribner-Howard wasn't always so reliable, we've certainly been blessed in the punt coverage game with Marty Markett, who has long proved to be among the best around at getting down the field and making a play on the return man. Who will we look to in this role this season? Vic Hampton seems like one guy who might be a good bet.
5. Will Carolina return a kickoff for a TD? Needless to say, it's been a long time since Carolina has returned a kickoff for a TD. If I'm not mistaken, Matthew Thomas's return against UVa in 2002 is the last one. Chris Culliver came close a few times, but he never broke the drought. Will that change this year? We have several players who have shown flashes of potential at KR. Hopefully, with improved blocking schemes instituted by Robinson, we'll take the next step this season.