NEXT GAMEWHO: No. 6 South Carolina (4-0, 2-0 SEC) vs. Kentucky (1-3, 0-1 SEC)WHEN: Saturday, 7 p.m.WHERE: Lexington, Ky.TV: ESPN2LINE: South Carolina by 21
COLUMBIA — Joe Robinson’s family moved often when he was growing up. He attended three different high schools because of his father’s job with NCR Corporation, which sold cash registers. So Robinson bouncing from college to college while he rose through the football coaching ranks as a career assistant was not jarring for him.
Since graduating from LSU in 1985, he has coached at two high schools and eight colleges, with two stints at Louisiana Tech. From 2001-03, he had a different job each season, at Louisiana Tech, Houston and Central Florida.
He did another one-year stint last season at North Carolina. When a head coaching change left him out of work, he was content to remain in Chapel Hill and not coach this season. One of his three daughters attends UNC and another was a rising high school senior.
But South Carolina had a need for his specialty, special teams, because John Butler left for Penn State. Robinson couldn’t pass up the chance to coach for a top 10 team, and so, by January, he was on the move again. Through four games, he has already made a significant impact on USC’s special teams, which floundered in recent years.
Ace and Bruce
Entering Saturday’s trip to Kentucky, USC ranks No. 8 nationally in kickoff returns and No. 21 in punt returns. That’s mainly because, in last Saturday’s win over Missouri, Ace Sanders had a 49-yard punt return to the four-yard line and Bruce Ellington had a 50-yard kickoff return to midfield. Both set up touchdowns.
From 2007-11, USC ranked Nos. 38, 31, 72, 96 and 60 nationally in kickoff returns and Nos. 46, 103, 74, 115 and 68 in punt returns. The Gamecocks haven’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2002. Sanders’ punt return for a touchdown last season was their first since 2003.
USC this season also ranks No. 48 in opponents’ punt returns and No. 90 in opponents’ kickoff returns, mainly due to Vanderbilt having a 52-yard kickoff return and Alabama-Birmingham having a 53-yarder, the latter due to a poor kickoff rather than shoddy coverage.
Players attribute USC’s early special teams success this season to Robinson’s basic coaching approach and their increased dedication to an often overlooked part of the game.
“It can make or break a game at any given moment,” Sanders said. “As you can see already, it’s made a drastic change.”
If the Gamecocks continue their special teams progress, it will be largely due to their 52-year-old coaching journeyman. Special teams became Robinson’s focus when he worked at Southern Mississippi from 1992-98 and head coach Jeff Bower wanted a dedicated special teams coordinator. Robinson had worked with special teams earlier in his career and jumped at the opportunity to be more involved in game planning.
Simple is better
Over the years, Robinson found that a simple approach worked best for him. He was LSU’s special teams coordinator from 2008-10, and in this final year, LSU ranked No. 8 nationally in kickoff returns and No. 11 in both punt returns and opponents’ punt returns.
“You’re smart to use the word simple, because if it was complicated, I couldn’t handle it,” said Robinson, who drops a self-effacing wisecrack into almost every interview. I think maybe that’s part of getting old, and I’m real old. You start to realize that you can come up with a lot of really good ideas, and they look great on the blackboard, but sometimes they don’t translate to the field.”
Robinson is also listed as USC’s tight ends coach, but graduate assistant Tommy Galt primarily works with that group, allowing Robinson to focus on special teams. To succeed, a special teams coach needs a head coach willing to emphasize special teams, and allow starters to play on them. Robinson said that didn’t happen in all of his previous jobs, but so far at USC, “I haven’t had (any other assistant) come up and say anything about, ‘Hey, let’s not use this guy.’”
Robinson knows athletic and experienced players like Ellington and Sanders, who dart through traffic with ease, can also make the special teams coach look better, especially when the blocking scheme breaks down, as it did on Sanders’ punt return against Missouri.
Sanders has returned punts since he arrived at USC in 2010, and as Robinson brought his services to USC this offseason, Sanders focused on simplifying his own approach by watching video of dynamic returners, past and present — Deion Sanders, Peter Warrick, Tyrann Mathieu.
“You see them get vertical real quick, north and south, instead of going left and right,” Ace Sanders said. “That’s what I really worked on, just finding my hole and just hitting it.”