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January 5, 2011

Spurrier: We Need Better Athletes

The question had to be asked, especially after Steve Spurrier mentioned it three separate times in an 11-minute press conference.

"Will you make a change in coaching assignments for special teams?"

"Oh, no," Spurrier quickly replied. "Coach (Shane) Beamer does a super job with those guys. We've got to give him some better athletes, simple as that. We can't hold anybody up, and I guess we couldn't cover some punts very well. We've got to get some better athletes, I guess, out there covering, or try to coach them a little different."

South Carolina again finished a middling year on special teams in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, allowing too many big returns and not getting any for themselves. The actual kicking remained fine - Spencer Lanning finished his career with a 40-yard field goal and two lengthy punts - but the questions began soon after.

What's going to happen now? Why can't the Gamecocks ever get the kind of field position off special teams that their opponents routinely do?

USC checked into the Chick-fil-A Bowl seventh and fifth, respectively, in the SEC in kickoffs and punting this season. Their return game was 11th in kickoffs and tied for 11th in punts.

Florida State, as many have before, trashed USC's coverage units for a combined 115 yards on five kick returns while the Gamecocks got 41 on four. While the final score was only a nine-point difference, USC's average starting position was on its own 19-yard-line.

The Seminoles were starting at their 43.

"We punted twice and they rammed both of them right down our throats," Spurrier said. "That tells you they have better athletes on special teams. We've got to get better, somehow or another, on special teams."

Beamer is in charge of the group, with Jay Graham and Jeep Hunter as assistant coordinators, and while the results of the special teams haven't been pleasant, Beamer seems to take a bit more heat than would be expected. It's the last name.

His dad, Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer, has made quite a reputation with his "Beamerball" approach to special teams. The Hokies block, cover, kick and return equally well, usually ranking among the nation's leaders in each category.

Shane Beamer has done a masterful job as USC's recruiting coordinator and has had his moments as special teams coach. It was only a year ago that the Gamecocks blocked five kicks, which tied for the SEC lead and was the eighth-best total in the nation. And it's not like the Gamecocks were ever brilliant in special teams before Beamer came aboard - Ryan Succop masked a lot of weaknesses and before him, there were plenty of return-less seasons long, long before Beamer was hired.

But when the difference between USC and the opponent comes to special teams, naturally the finger begins to point to Beamer, the same as how this year's weakness in the secondary swung the blame toward Ellis Johnson and Lorenzo Ward.

So what happens now?

Lanning is gone. Kickoff specialist Jay Wooten seems to be the favorite to repeat that job and take over for Lanning at place-kicker. For punting, the Gamecocks will have several options, but redshirt freshman Patrick Fish was signed to a scholarship for a reason.

As for the return game, the Gamecocks will again have options, along with some returning experience, albeit not very productive experience. Bryce Sherman handled the lion's share of kickoffs this year -- Chris Culliver was lost for the season but had ceded the job to Sherman before the injury - but never showed that breakaway speed. While fast and low to the ground, Sherman's slight stature is constantly allowing him to be popped on first contact and not be able to break a tackle.

D.J. Swearinger got a few chances late in the year, but as Beamer pointed out before the bowl, was often coming onto the field after he had just played several snaps on defense. On punts, Stephon Gilmore had the job until a rough day at Kentucky, when he was replaced by Ace Sanders. While Sanders, like Sherman, is shifty and quick, his freshman year was spent learning how not to go backwards when trying to turn nothing into something.

Sherman, Swearinger, Gilmore and Sanders will return next year, as will Kenny Miles, who had one return during the SEC Championship Game. Damiere Byrd, a speedster who was once clocked at 4.26 seconds in the 40-yard-dash, has also verbally committed to USC.

"I want to come in and return kicks right off the bat," Byrd recently told GamecockCentral.com. "Hopefully I can help make the return game a threat."

It would seem to be an open audition for the coverage teams, with anybody who wants to ready to step in and play. Brian Maddox volunteered for the duty late in this year; a high snap at Clemson avoided the punter and ended up in Maddox's hands in the red zone.

USC stands to return massive talent in 2011 and be a heavy favorite to repeat as SEC East champion. But Spurrier would like to see his offense get a few favors now and then with great field position, and his defense not to have to constantly patrol a short field.

"Hopefully we'll get somebody in here to give us some help on special teams," he said. "Can't win big games when you play special teams the way we do. You can, if we play pretty close to perfect on offense or defense, but you've got to make some plays here or there."

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