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Will special teams continue to hold the Gamecocks back in 2014?

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2013 marked yet another atrocious season for South Carolina special teams under Steve Spurrier. Can Joe Robinson fix the one area that has consistently faltered under the HBC?

Elliott Fry stands as one of the few bright spots in the Gamecocks' beleaguered special teams unit.
Elliott Fry stands as one of the few bright spots in the Gamecocks' beleaguered special teams unit.
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, South Carolina put together one of its best seasons ever, finishing fourth in major national polls on the strength of an elite offense and a very good defense.  Those units combined to put together a football team that, by one measure, came in at best in the nation when focusing solely on offensive and defensive play.

So why did the Gamecocks fail to climb the ladder to the top of the football world?  And why didn't they rank first in the nation in that same poll's measure of overall team excellence?  Because of the same issue that's plagued Carolina since Steve Spurrier arrived in Columbia - horrid special teams play.

Special teams are a special problem in Columbia under Spurrier

Let's catch everyone up with a synopsis of last year's post, which detailed the special teams issues faced by the Gamecocks from 2007 through the 2012 season:

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).

.....

[I]nto 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.

FEI has seven years of special teams data at this point, so we can look at how the Gamecocks have performed in these areas for a seven-year period.  Just how bad has South Carolina been in those five categories, as well as STE overall, the last seven years?

Gamecocks ST Coordinator FEI Rank FGE PRE KRE PE KE
2013 Joe Robinson 114th 40th 114th 125th 32nd 106th
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
AVERAGE 89th 40th 79th 87th 79th 68th

In 2007 and 2008 - when Carolina didn't possess the elite talent (or coaching) on offense and defense it has today - the team acquitted itself somewhat well in special teams, or at least avoided letting the unit drag down the rest of the team.  In particular, special teams guru Ray Rychleski lived up to the hype by putting together the best special teams unit in that seven-year period during his one season in Columbia.  And Shane Beamer and Fred Chatham put together a respectable squad in the 2007 season, which should remain forgotten by everyone.

But otherwise?  In short, awful.  Everywhere.  Consistently.  The only exception?  Field goal efficiency.  The area least impacted by coaching (given it's basically the measure of one player's performance)?  Field goal efficiency.

Joe Robinson hasn't helped, and may not be able to

Joe Robinson is charged with trying to turn this unit around.  Robinson put together three excellent special teams units at LSU from 2008-2010, but that doesn't necessarily reflect on Robinson as much as it reflects on LSU - they've since posted a 6th, 9th, and 10th-place rating in special teams from 2011-13 following his departure from Baton Rouge.

Meanwhile, Robinson has put together three horrid special teams units in his last three seasons, the first two in Chapel Hill, and the last at the helm for South Carolina.  The following chart shows how Robinson's six teams have done with him as special teams coordinator, with the last column showing how well the programs he used to coach did in years without him:

Robinson Program FEI Rank FGE PRE KRE PE KE Other Programs
2013 South Carolina 114th 40th 114th 125th 32nd 106th LSU 10th /   UNC 48th
2012 South Carolina 86th 56th 12th 110th 86th 103rd LSU 9th /   UNC 44th
2011 North Carolina 89th 90th 54th 39th 107th 85th LSU 6th
2010 LSU 3rd 11th 43rd 11th 14th 54th UNC 110th
2009 LSU 2nd 8th 1st 14th 34th 21st UNC 89th
2008 LSU 1st 5th 43rd 7th 6th 16th UNC 7th
AVERAGE 49th 35th 45th 51st 47th 64th
AVERAGE (non-LSU) 96th 62nd 60th 91st 75th 98th


Clearly, Robinson hasn't been much of a miracle worker since he left LSU, and given their consistent excellence without him, it's worth wondering how much - if at all - Robinson caused that success.

The results last year were brutal for Carolina, and caused real issues in a number of games.  Special teams represented a 14-point deficit against Vanderbilt (bringing a game that should have been a laugher to a too-close-for-comfort 35-25 margin), an 8-point loss against Wisconsin (with a kickoff return for a TD keeping that game close throughout the fourth quarter), and a brutal 7-point swing against Tennessee, a 2-point loss for the Gamecocks that kept them out of the SEC Championship Game, and potentially out of the BCS Championship Game.

Only against Clemson - where the Tigers consistently fumbled away opportunities to stay in the game - did South Carolina special teams represent value of over three points.  Week in and week out, the Gamecocks had to get it done from the line of scrimmage, because they could not count on their special teams units to flip the field.

How do the Gamecocks figure to fare in special teams in 2014?

2013 was an abomination.  Carolina ranked in the bottom 25 in three of the five areas where Fremeau measures special teams.  Special teams didn't fail in one area - they failed totally.  Can the 2014 team rebound, or does our own Gamecock Man rightly peg them near the bottom of the SEC once again?

Obviously, Elliott Fry sits as a cornerstone of the unit as the field goal kicker, and he'll look to exceed his solid freshman season.  And interestingly, Tyler Hull did some good things on the field despite his low punt average, at least according to Fremeau's system (which, per punt, measures the expected points gained or lost per punt against the national average for punts from that spot).

Elsewhere, South Carolina literally has nowhere to go but up - the kick and punt return units were horrific with the loss of Ace Sanders.  Meanwhile, the kicking team couldn't stop kicking the ball out of bounds, or when they could, couldn't stop teams from returning the ball.  Consistently, game after game, South Carolina put itself in bad positions in 2013 and dug itself out with outstanding performances on a down-by-down basis.

So what changes in 2014?  Hull is being pushed by Zack Cimaglia in pre-season practices, but the kickoff spot is yet to be spoken for, with Landon Ard returning from a very weak season.

Regardless, the return game averaged only 3.8 yards per return on 22 attempts last year, with Pharoh Cooper (the only returning returner, given the loss of Bruce Ellington and Victor Hampton) posting a 4.4 yard average. On kick returns, Cooper's 22.4 yard-per-return average paced the Gamecocks seven separate kick returners for 2013, as the team combined as a whole for just a 19.7 yard-per-return average.  If the Gamecocks can sustain that 2.5-yard increase, they would crack the top 50 in the NCAA, a perfectly acceptable average, if not still bitterly disappointing given the talent the Gamecocks have assembled in Columbia.

With an elite offense and a potentially very good defense once again in place in Columbia this fall, the Gamecocks sit primed to put together a special season.  The question remains - can they stop giving it away on special teams?