South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier wanted more big plays on special teams this season. After a couple of games, he had them. But since the East Carolina and Georgia games to start the season, those game-changing plays have dried up.
Special teams coordinator John Butler and his unit were off to a great start this season putting up a touchdown in each of the first two games. Since then though, the explosive plays have been few and far between.
“Yeah, we’re not quite making anything happen,” Spurrier said. “There’s no question about it. It’s frustrating for all of us. We had a chance to block two punts last week. Got close, just didn’t make a play. We’re not holding guys up real well. Not blocking real well on kickoff returns.”
Special teams coordinator John Butler is disappointed with some of the aspects of the special teams play but he’s happy with the way the guys have been able to defend.
The Gamecocks are tenth in the Southeastern Conference in kickoff returns averaging 20.5 yards per return. South Carolina is sixth in the league in punt returns averaging 7.9 yards, which is spearheaded by sophomore Ace Sanders.
Joey Scribner-Howard is eighth in the league in punting at 36.8 yards per kick with only two touchbacks this season. The Gamecocks are tenth in kickoff coverage this season ahead of only LSU and Alabama.
What has changed since the first couple of games on special teams?
I’m doing kind of a self-scout right now\We’ve had four explosive plays and our opponents have had five. Four of them on both sides of the ball were in the first two games. We’ve got to do a better job of trying to find out how we can create them but we have done a good job of not giving them up. We’ve given up one punt return and one kickoff return and both were in the Georgia game. Both gave up good field position but really didn’t hurt us. Our coverage units have been good, but our return units need to be improved.
D.J. Swearinger was getting the kickoff returns against Mississippi State. Is that a permanent change or will Bruce Ellington get back in there?
We kind of have, they’re co-returners. I’m just trying to find a spark. It’s not really about those guys though. Those guys are doing a solid job. We’ve got to block better for them. We have to hold up better. There are too many guys who are missing. They know who they’re supposed to block, they’re just getting beat physically. We worked on that hard today. We just have to try to find a way.
Sophomore Ace Sanders and the Gamecocks are sixth in the SEC in punt returns averaging 7.9 yards per try.
Is it a personnel thing or do you just have to get the guys better who are on the unit now?
I don’t know. I think it’s a combination of both. You have to find the right fit, find the right guys who can do it. I want to use as many starters on special teams as I can but we have to be smart. We just have to keep plugging along. Sooner or later, we’ll have something pop.
Ace Sanders has done a good job of fair catching in traffic. What would it mean for him to get a crease and try to run one back?
We’re trying of late to get some pressure on the punter and that has not opened things up for him in the return game. I think Ace has done a great job, other than the ball he misjudeged against Kentucky, he’s fielded the ball close to about a 95 percent rate. The punters we’ve been facing, every week, the net punting against us has been somewhere between 42, 43, 44 – that’s tough.
What does Marty Markett bring to the role of covering?
It’s like a really good defensive lineman that gets penetration. What happens is, he gets so much penetration on the kickoffs, there are no creases there. They can’t attack us north and south. They have to bounce to the perimeter. Some of those other guys we’ve gotten in there, we have four or five in there, guys who really want to make the travel squad, they’ve helped us. Jay hasn’t had that many touchbacks – we’re 4-out-of-41. But he’s giving us about 4.05 or 4.1 hangtime. We’re getting down there covering, guys are in their lanes, and we’ve been making tackles. That’s been positive. Other than the one return we gave up against Georgia, they’ve done a good job.
At Spur, Antonio Allen has played about every snap. Is that still the plan?
I would like to play Damario a little more. I felt after the Auburn game he should have played at least 15 snaps and that was on me. The game last week, it was so close, Antonio is playing so well it’s hard to substitute. We’re playing a style right now that requires Antonio to be on the field. We have to play Damario more. He’s practicing well, he’s a good kid, he’s earned a little more playing time. I’ve got to get him in the game a little bit.
Is he still upbeat about everything?
I think he’s probably disappointed like any competitor would be if they’re not playing as much as maybe they would like. He comes out, practices hard, asks good questions, and he understands that he has a good player in front of him that maybe has been our most productive defensive player.
What is the ideal hangtime on kickoff?
We’re trying to get at least 4.0. If you can get 4.0, you should be in position to cover and make some plays. When you do that, you can get most of your guys inside the 30 or 25-yard line when the kick returner catches the ball. Then you’re in good shape. That’s why some of the return units have struggled. Sixteen of our kickoff returns, 11 of them have been touchbacks. Guys are kicking the ball well against us and punting the ball well.
Does Damiere Byrd get a chance at kickoff return?
Maybe. He’s got to give us a spark somewhere but guys have got to earn their keep. When he shows it on the practice field, those guys will play.
Scribner-Howard seems to do a better job when he takes his steps and punts. Are the rugby kicks primarily to keep teams honest?
Yeah. Every football player on our team has to be able to execute what the coaches ask them to do. Everybody nowadays has to be able to run the rugby punt or else everybody will run seven or eight guys up inside like Vanderbilt did on the play they roughed our punter. He executes that in practice flawlessly then came out in the game, took his eye off the ball, and punted it into the stands. He can’t do that. He has to be able to do what we ask him to do – punt the ball in that situation. If he gives us a 40-yard punt, that thing is going to roll an extra 10 yards. We had Antonio and Marty Markett in his face. Joey has done a very good job, he’s just had three punts this year that have been severely substandard. That’s hurt our stats but hasn’t hurt the outcome of our games. He also had four punts over 4.5 hangtime and four over 40 yards, so he’s helped us.