South Carolina’s punt return game looks terrible on paper. The Gamecocks are 12th in the SEC and 104th in the nation with 3.6 yards per return.
But maybe that’s not a fair assessment. Maybe the problem is South Carolina just hasn’t had a chance to show it could be a competent punt returning team because it has given itself so few chances.
The most startling number surrounding the Gamecocks’ punt return team is five. That’s how many punts the Gamecocks have returned. All season. The remainder of the 30 punts South Carolina has forced this year have either been fair caught or allowed to hit the ground and roll. Only 10 teams in the country have returned fewer punts.
“I figured at a Division I program we’d have somebody that could catch a punt,” an exasperated Will Muschamp said after the team’s last game.
In that game, sure-handed tight end Hayden Hurst earned the starting punt return job for the first time in his football-playing life. Hurst won the job after a comedy of errors in the first five games that included Deebo Samuel fumbling away the first punt of the season, Rashad Fenton dropping another one and Jamarcus King losing a critical fumble in the fourth quarter against Texas A&M. On the team’s only successful punt return of the season, a touchdown by Fenton, freshman linebacker T.J. Brunson was called for a block in the back that negated the play.
“It has been too much of an issue,” Muschamp said.
Hurst didn’t field any of the five punts he dropped back for against Georgia and eventually was replaced by Chris Lammons after allowing one to hit and roll to the Gamecocks’ 3-yard line.
“It’s difficult to get a read on those balls,” he said after the game. “The ball was wobbling and looked like it was going to fall short and then took a heck of a bounce. That’s a tough one.”
South Carolina’s coaches, like coaches on every football team, try to prepare their returners for the reality of punt returns in practice.
“We have obviously had our struggles, but going back to spring we are constantly putting those guys under duress (in practice),” Muschamp said. “We catch punts every single day at every practice. We are coaching all the right things.”
But fielding punts is perhaps the most nerve-wracking play in the sport because the returner must focus on a ball falling from 80 feet in the air while the coverage team barrels down the field at him. Unlike kickoff returners, who have up to 15 yards between themselves and the nearest defender when they catch the ball, a punt coverage team’s “gunners” frequently are within 2 yards of the returner when he catches the ball.
“You have to see sometimes in game day to find out exactly what you’ve got,” Muschamp said. “We would never put a guy out there who hasn’t caught it extremely well at practice, and that has happened in our situation and where I’ve been before. ”
The difference between doing that on the practice field, when you know your teammate usually is not allowed to level you, to doing it in a game against an opponent whose job it is to do just that, is marked.
“We do a lot of live work with those guys as far as guys covering kicks in practice. We always do it. We certainly have ramped it up in the last two or three weeks with the issues that we have had,” Muschamp said. “Somebody has got to have some guts to go field the ball and understand that if you do fair catch it, they can’t touch you.”
The Gamecocks are auditioning Lammons, Samuel, Fenton Bryan Edwards, Kiel Pollard and A.J. Turner for the job this week, Muschamp said. Fenton and Samuel share the team’s punt return lead with two returns for 8 yards each.
“Punt return takes courage to catch the ball,” said Turner, who returns kickoffs for South Carolina. “You have to have really good ball skills, you have to have good vision to judge where the ball is. It’s definitely different than kick return.”
Whoever wins the job will have modest goals, at least at first, Turner said.
“Our motto is we just want the ball afterward, which means we need people to catch it,” he said. “We want to be able to put in returns and score and things like that, but our first thing is to just catch the ball. We are finding people to just go back there and catch the ball right now.”
Who: UMass (1-6) vs. South Carolina (2-4)
When: Noon, Saturday
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium
TV: SEC Network Radio: 107.5 FM
Line: USC by 20