Joe Robinson watched his kickoff coverage unit swarm Tennessee’s Devrin Young at the 12-yard line on Saturday and saw a glimmer of promise.
“Our guys on kickoff coverage, they really went out there and had a little bit of passion to them,” Robinson said. “That’s an area where we can sit and watch these guys and watch them grow.”
Robinson, the Gamecocks’ second-year special teams coordinator, is looking for reasons to believe in a season that has seen a lot more bad than good. South Carolina is last in the SEC in kickoff returns and punting, 12th in opponent’s punt returns, 11th in kickoffs and 10th in punt returns.
“I think the thing everybody wants to know is ‘Why?’ I don’t know,” said Robinson, who was named the national special teams coordinator of the year by FootballScoop.com in 2010. “Sometimes there are things where it does seem like you get some bad breaks, but if it is or isn’t, that’s kind of out of your control. You have to force and create your own breaks.”
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The Gamecocks spend “at least a fourth” of their practice time each week on special teams, coach Steve Spurrier said, and they have no plans to devote more practice periods to the kicking game.
“I know, probably, the fans say, ‘Do they spend any time at all? Do they do anything?’” he said.
Is the time doing any good is a totally separate, and understandable, question, Spurrier said.
“Sometimes you wonder if you’re wasting your time, because nothing good much has happened,” he said. “Just haven’t had much happen, yet.”
Unless it has been bad, like in last weekend’s 23-21 loss to the Volunteers. In the fourth quarter of that game, South Carolina punter Tyler Hull averaged 33 yards on four kicks, and a pair of penalties (on a punt return and a kickoff return) cost the Gamecocks 57 yards of field position.
“The penalties that happened at Tennessee were pretty tough calls,” Robinson said. “We put ourselves in position to get called, so we certainly can’t complain about the calls, but they were kids (T.J. Gurley and Sidney Rhodes) that were really fighting hard to make a play. Those are ones you have to correct, but you feel better about correcting them. They were very, very close to doing the right thing.”
Hull, who is last in the SEC with a 37.4-yard average, “absolutely” will remain South Carolina’s starter, Robinson said. The Gamecocks have swapped return men, putting Pharoh Cooper in place of Victor Hampton on punt return and in place of Bruce Ellington on kickoff return. Nothing, yet, has provided the right spark.
One team in the SEC has given up more punt returns of 20 or more yards than the Gamecocks’ two, and three teams have fewer kickoff returns of 30 or more yard than South Carolina’s two. The Gamecocks lead the SEC, and are third in the nation in kickoffs out of bounds. Landon Ard has booted four of his 43 kickoffs out of bounds.
“Obviously, there are things each week that we are addressing and trying to improve on,” Robinson said. “One thing I have seen is, if you just keep working hard and keep practicing the right way and keep believing, sometimes those breaks will start coming your way.”
WHERE USC RANKS
Gamecocks’ special teams rankings in the SEC:
No. 11: 62.28 yard average
No. 10: 5.25 yard average
No. 14: 18.26 average
No. 14: 36 yard average
Opp. Punt returns
No. 12: 11 yard average
Opp. Kickoff returns
No. 6: 20.32 yard average