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What to Watch for During Spring Practice: Special Teams

Carolina needs to see major improvement on special teams, an area that contributed substantially to its two losses last year.

This past fall, one of the major causes for angst amongst South Carolina fans was inspired by the Gamecocks' horrid special teams play. That angst included multiple articles here at GABA. ChickenHoops looked at the numbers over the past several years, revealing that Carolina has long been among the nation's worst programs when it comes to special teams, with the lone bright spots being Ace Sanders's return work in 2012 and Ryan Succop's and Spencer Lanning's place-kicking a few years before. Navin S wrote a great fanpost detailing Carolina's ineptitude on special teams in 2013 that identified the main areas for concern and suggested potential fixes in some cases.

Special teams mistakes contributed to both of Carolina's losses last season in the form of an allowed onsides kick against UGA and a grab bag of gaffes against Tennessee. If we had won either of those games, we would have gone to Atlanta with a chance to play our way into the national title game with a win over Auburn. Similarly, with better special teams play against Florida in 2012, we might have been able to make a game of it in the second half against the Gators. A win in that game, too, would have resulted in a trip to Atlanta with an opportunity play our way into the national title game. If anyone ever tells you special teams don't matter, mentioning those results should end the conversation.

Will Carolina improve on special teams? ChickenHoops had this to say in response to that question in his aforementioned post:

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.

In short, despite the fact that special teams mistakes have cost Carolina dearly in recent years, it seems that this area of the game simply isn't a priority for Steve Spurrier and his staff. Given that our coach is nearing the end of his career and isn't likely to be making any profound changes in his philosophy anytime soon, we may have to be satisfied with being what we are on special teams and hoping another Sanders (Pharoh Cooper?) will emerge who will soften the blow somewhat.

As far as what to watch for on special teams this spring, you typically don't get a lot of insight into the return game during spring ball, but you do get some looks into how the kickers are doing. There's less uncertainty regarding kicking duties this year than there was a year ago. With Nick St. Germain now out of the program, rising sophomore Elliott Fry and rising RS junior Landon Ard should play through the spring ensconced in their roles as place kicker and kickoff specialist. At punter, rising RS senior Tyler Hull remains the starter with Patrick Fish the backup.

Where can those players improve? The main thing you'd like to see from Fry would be evidence of greater range. After winning the job last fall, Fry had a very solid year kicking field goals, going 15-18 for the season for a percentage of over 83%. However, his long was 45; in fact, he didn't try one from over 50 in a full season, which is telling. Therefore, you'd like to see more evidence that he can nail the long one if the need arises.

For Hull, it's all about consistency. He looks good in some games but struggles to do it day in, day out. Hull worked hard on his mechanics over last offseason and was named most improved punter during 2013 spring ball, but his numbers actually got worse during the season. His average yards per punt were almost two yards down from 2012, despite the fact that he had almost 10 fewer kicks. Part of the decrease may owe to the fact that Carolina had a more productive offense last year than in 2012, leading not just to fewer punts overall but more attempts to punt the ball inside the 20. However, Hull's numbers for kicks inside the 20 decreased last year, too. Hull's inconsistency was particularly on display against Tennessee, when an off day for Carolina's offense forced Hull to take the field eight times. He had a costly shank late in the game that hurt Carolina's field position. It would be great to see him show evidence that we won't need to wonder what's about to happen when he takes the field in 2014.