When South Carolina opens preseason football camp in a little less than a week, special teams coach Joe Robinson will have his plate full.
The Gamecocks have major holes to fill with the departure of placekicker Adam Yates and punt returner Ace Sanders, but it's the less-obvious things that have the second-year coordinator concerned the most.
Those two guys were instrumental in making South Carolina's special teams a weapon instead of a liability, but it's the supporting cast in those units that will be a huge focus.
“I probably look at it different than most people,” Robinson said. “I have quite a few concerns with position players on special teams. We have to get the right guys in those places and that will be a key element of camp.”
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Walker Inabinet has been the long snapper the past three years and Steve Spurrier recently called him one of the best long snappers in school history.
Shaq Wilson and Kenny Miles were terrors on punt and kickoff return coverage. D.L. Moore was tasked with the job of protector of Sanders on most punt returns and that helped Sanders compile the most prolific punt return yardage in a season in school history.
Those are just a few of the players that need to be replaced.
“A lot of people don't look at the supporting cast,” Robinson said. “Those are things that will take a lot of work. We have a whole bunch of wonderful candidates and young players to step up but there are holes on all of our special teams. Those are the kind of things that need to be addressed and decisions that need to be made.”
Robinson also needs to replace Yates, who was 11-of-17 on field goals and handled nearly all of the kickoffs. Sophomore Landon Ard has the inside track, but redshirt freshman Nick St. Germain is in contention and could be the starter by the time North Carolina comes to Williams-Brice Stadium for the season opener.
Robinson has confidence in both.
“Ard and St. Germain had a good competition in the spring but right now Landon has been consistently a little bit ahead and he's had some game experience which helps,” Robinson said. “As we head into camp, he might have a slight lead but it's a competition and Nick has every opportunity to win the job.”
Robinson also said it could be a case where one guy will be the placekicker and the other could handle kickoffs. He doesn’t have a preference if one player handles both spots or they split it.
“I've had it both ways in the past,” he said. “If one excels in one phase and another excels in another, we'll use as many guys as it takes. It really isn’t that uncommon to use two guys.”
Tyler Hull returns after winning the punter job last year. The junior averaged 39.4 yards per punt and will again be in competition with Patrick Fish. Fish also is one of the leading candidates to replace Seth Strickland as the holder for kicks.
Replacing the consistency of Inabinet will be another key. Sophomore Coleman Harley and junior Ryland Culbertson have the inside track, but incoming freshman Drew Williams from Dutch Fork could challenge for the job.
“Walker did a fine job for us the last few years,” Robinson said. “That should be a lively competition during camp. It can be critical position and that person very well could be involved with the game on the line.”
Bruce Ellington has handled the bulk of the kickoff returns in each of the past two seasons and should be first in line in 2013. But if Ellington’s role on offense is expanded, Damiere Byrd and Victor Hampton also could get looks.
Those three guys also will look to replace Sanders. Several of the newcomers, including Pharoh Cooper, could be a factors.
“We have a ton of guys that I think can do it,” Robinson said. “There's a bunch of guys in the mix. There is a whole group of guys that will provide competition. We'll try and get the best person out there for the job.”
Who’s Back: Tyler Hull, punter; Bruce Ellington, kickoff returner
Who’s Gone: Ace Sanders, punt returner; Adam Yates, placekicker/kickoff; Walker Inabinet, long snapper; Seth Strickland, holder
Best Battle: Landon Ard and Nick St. Germain – These two will look to replace the production of Yates on field goals and kickoffs
Key Question: Who will replace Ace Sanders? Sanders elected to forgo his senior season after posting the most punt return yards in a season in school history. Victor Hampton has the inside track but several newcomers could factor in
Player to Watch: Tyler Hull, a junior won the punting job last year after arriving on campus for preseason workouts. After a year getting stronger, the coaching staff hopes he can improve on his 36.0 net average.