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Beamer, USC try to patch coverage holes

Shane Beamer
Shane Beamer

As Vanderbilt's Warren Norman zipped past the diving tackle attempt of South Carolina kicker Adam Yates on his way to the end zone, Gamecocks special teams coordinator Shane Beamer looked for the last line of defense.

"When you see that thing pop, you're looking and praying that there's a yellow flag sitting out there somewhere," Beamer said. "I didn't see one the other night. It's not a good feeling."

It is a feeling Beamer has experienced twice this year. Besides giving up Norman's 99-yard return Saturday, the Gamecocks' kickoff team allowed Georgia's Brandon Boykin to go 100 yards for a score in the Bulldogs' 41-37 win last month in Athens.

Norman's runback dropped USC to last in the SEC in kick coverage and left Beamer searching for answers.

Though Yates failed to get much hang time on the kick and sent it down the middle of the field rather than toward the numbers, Beamer said the coverage woes go deeper.

"It's not the kicker," Beamer said. "It's all of us, starting with me, to the players, to the kicker, to the cover guys - we've all got to get better."

After USC's troubles at Georgia, Beamer responded by putting a number of defensive starters on the kickoff team. But two-thirds of the way through the season, Beamer said he has to pick his spots to use starters on special teams.

"Shaq Wilson and Cliff Matthews are two guys that are really, really good on kickoff coverage, and we've had to be very careful about using those guys," he said. "The last two weeks they haven't been out there on the same one."

Spencer Lanning, USC's starting punter and place-kicker, replaced Yates in the second half against Vandy. Both players worked on kickoffs during Monday's practice, although Beamer's preference is to use Yates to kick off and let Lanning handle the other kicking duties.

"I can handle all three if it's called upon," Lanning said. "I'd like not to, to keep my leg fresh. But if it benefits the team, I'm all for it."

After Ryan Succop banged 41 percent of his kicks into the end zone for touchbacks last season, Yates has just one this year. Georgia and Mississippi lead the SEC with nine touchbacks, while Mississippi State and Kentucky have none.

"It's a weapon," Beamer said. "And I'm seeing that this year, what a weapon it is."

But Beamer plans to keep working with Yates, while reminding other players of their coverage responsibilities. USC does a kickoff drill on Mondays and spends 10 minutes each Thursday going over the opponent's return schemes.

"It's not as simple as just putting 11 guys out there and running downfield and making a tackle," Beamer said.

That was evident against S.C. State when linebacker Eric Norwood, arguably the team's best defensive player, asked to be on the kickoff team. Beamer saw why on the first kick, when Norwood made a beeline for his younger brother, who was on the Bulldogs' return team.

Beamer laughed as he recalled the story Monday, one of the lighter moments he's enjoyed since Norman's 99-yarder.

"It's not good, and it stays with you until the next day," Beamer said. "I can promise you this, it hasn't been a fun 48 hours, and I probably haven't been a lot of fun to be around."

The kickoff team has four games to put a smile back on his face.

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