New South Carolina special teams coordinator Joe Robinson has several obstacles to overcome before the Gamecocks take the field in the fall.
He lost his top kick returner when Bruce Ellington decided to play only basketball next season. Add the fact that he has to find replacements for a field goal kicker, punter and kickoff guy makes his first spring practice about as important as any of the five new coaches on the staff.
He has some experience in return guys in Ace Sanders on punts and Victor Hampton and Damiere Byrd on kickoffs.
But the specialist jobs are a whole different situation.
Robinson likes the emphasis being placed on the special teams, but he knows he will have to make several decisions to improve on a group last year that made seven field goals, averaged less than 39 yards a punt and had six touchbacks in 71 kickoffs.
“Your special teams are only as good as your specialist,” Robinson said.
Help might be on the way in the fall when recruited kicker Nick St. Germain arrives, but Robinson is working feverishly with the players on campus. Senior Adam Yates and redshirt freshman Landon Ard are battling for the field goal and kickoff positions, while Patrick Fish and Mike Williamson are vying for the punting spot.
So far, he likes the effort but agrees there is still a lot of work to be done.
“I couldn't be more impressed with their work ethic,” Robinson said, “We've talked to that crew about being a strong link in that chain. To be very honest, we've got some work to do and those guys know it. They are tireless workers and are getting better every day. We saw some improvement in those guys but we have to keep working at those positions. All three – snapper, punter, kicker – we have some work to do.”
As it stands, Yates is a little ahead of Ard, according to Robinson, for the field goal and kickoff positions. Robinson said there wasn't much difference in Fish and Williamson at this point.
Yates handled most of the kickoff duties in 2009 but has not appeared in a game in the past two seasons.
Ard is making his case for both jobs. He is a former soccer player from South Pointe in Rock Hill that decided during his junior year to stop playing travel soccer and focus more on football.
“I thought I had a better chance to pursue athletics through football, so I put more effort towards that,” Ard said.
Ard turned down several soccer scholarship offers from smaller schools to walk on to the football team at South Carolina. He knows the competition is wide open right now and he is doing his best to get noticed now so he will have a chance to win both jobs in fall camp.
“I'm working on trying to be more consistent in my field goals and trying to get longer kickoffs is my main emphasis right now,” Ard said. “I can only worry about myself, so I'm trying to make all my field goals and doing the best that I can. Hopefully it pays off.”
Robinson has liked the way Ard has responded to coaching in the first two spring practices. They made a change to his technique that has improved his leg speed.
“What I've found out in two practices is Ard is a guy that will listen to coaching and will go out and get better,” Robinson said. “I would say we'd list Yates first and Ard second, but they are pushing each other and have a good competition and they need that.”