In an incredibly prescient article that our own RantinRhonda posted last week, she highlighted the importance of South Carolina’s special teams and how that phase of the game could be key against Missouri. She reasoned that winning the field position battle, among other things, would go a long way toward having success against the Tigers’ potent offense.
In an early 10-0 hole and looking very uneven across the board, the Gamecocks needed something — anything — to get off the mat and into the game. Enter Deebo Samuel, who reprised his 97-yard kickoff return touchdown against N.C. State, and it was the spark that started a fire en route to a 31-13 victory. While Samuel continues to get his rightful share of press and accolades, it’s worth appreciating South Carolina’s specialists as a whole.
First, let’s step back to the Steve Spurrier era, when I remember frequently bemoaning the state of the Gamecocks’ special teams. On one hand, South Carolina was usually blessed with a reliable kicking game, which featured quality placekickers like Ryan Succop and Elliott Fry and punters like Spencer Lanning. It’s hard to overstate how important a consistent kicking performance can be — it can literally prove the difference between a win or a loss, whether because of a made field goal or consistently pinning the opponent deep in their own territory. More often that not, Gamecock fans could breathe easy when the team lined up for a field goal attempt, which was an admitted luxury.
Unfortunately, there was precious little else South Carolina did well. Despite the presence of a dedicated special teams coordinator on staff — an assistant few college programs employ — that phase of the game always felt like an afterthought. Ace Sanders was an electric punt returner who set school records with multiple scores, but his development in that role seemed like a happy accident since he was the only above-average returner in Spurrier’s tenure. Sure, guys like Chris Culliver, Stephon Gilmore, and Pharoh Cooper occasionally broke long returns, and Rashad Fenton surprised with a kickoff return touchdown against LSU in 2015. But those flashes of brilliance were just that — infrequent and certainly not an expectation. If it happened, great! If not, well, I couldn’t be sure the coaching staff was actually working on it.
At one point, South Carolina had an 8-year punt return touchdown drought and a 13-year stretch without a kickoff returned. Special teams were boring at best and depressing at worst. I was jealous of conference mates like LSU and Florida who seemed to have excellent special teams units, year in and year out, that were always a threat to score or come up with a huge play. Those championship teams were incredibly talented and well-constructed on offense and defense, of course. But their coaching staffs did not ignore what special teams could do for them, and that attention to detail was evident.
Ultimately, there are three phases in a football game, and that at last seems to be something South Carolina’s coaches not only understand, but value. Against Missouri, the Gamecocks got a complete performance from their specialists: a kickoff return touchdown, a made field goal, a blocked field goal, a recovered punt, and punting that included a long of 73 yards (!). It’s true some elements of special teams play can come down to chance, like the fortunate roll of a punt or the returner who has an unlucky slip with nobody nearby. But by emphasizing special teams performance, a team can help create its own luck in that department. The Gamecocks are starting to look like they finally have.