COLUMBIA – South Carolina’s special teams have been bad this season — to the point coach Steve Spurrier had to give assurances this week.
Yes, he said, the Gamecocks do practice them.
“We spend a lot of time on special teams,” Spurrier said. “Sometimes you wonder if you’re wasting your time because nothing good has happened. We believe in special teams. I know probably the fans say, ‘Do they spend any time at all? Do they do anything?’ I would say we spend almost a third of our time, at least a fourth of our time, on special teams around here. Just haven’t had much happen yet, changing guys and so forth.”
That’s an understatement.
South Carolina is one of two SEC teams ranked 10th or worse in punting (14th), kicking (11), punt returns (10) and kickoff returns (14). The other is Georgia.
USC is the only SEC team ranked last in two of the four “kicking game” categories.
In the season’s first seven games, USC’s two most memorable plays on special teams were fumbled kick returns. One came against Vanderbilt, the other Kentucky. Both were in the fourth quarter, opening the door for inferior opponents to climb back into the game.
Freshman receiver Pharoh Cooper seems to be the answer. He hasn’t fumbled in his two games at punt and kick returner, where he replaced Victor Hampton and Bruce Ellington, respectively. At Arkansas, Cooper broke open for a 36-yard punt return.
At Tennessee, Cooper didn’t get much of a chance to break off another big return. In five opportunities, South Carolina was called for two holding penalties.
“Pharoh seems to be a good return man,” Spurrier said. “We keep getting penalties on kickoff returns and punt returns, and so forth. You know, they’re close. The ref could almost call a penalty every kickoff if he wanted to. Hopefully, we can start avoiding those penalties.”
USC’s special teams couldn’t dig its offense out of a hole early at Tennessee. In seven first-half possessions Saturday, USC started at its 20-yard line or deeper five times. It never started past its 25-yard line in the opening half.
The punt coverage team also failed to flip field position in the fourth quarter as the Gamecocks clung to a one-point lead. The Volunteers got two cracks at a potential game-winning field goal with a short field inside the game’s final eight minutes.
USC’s defense made stops on those two drives, but had nothing left for the final series when Tennessee marched it down to the 2-yard line for kicker Michael Palardy’s game-winning field goal.
Sophomore linebacker Marcquis Roberts said the defense doesn’t get frustrated with its special teams, even after being put in poor position so many times this season.
“I wouldn’t say they’ve let us down,” Roberts said. “I just know sometimes you’re going to be put in predicaments, but sometimes you have to step up and play better.”
For USC to win Saturday at No. 5 Missouri, the special teams units must play better. In close games, in upset wins and losses, special teams can be the difference — just like it was at Tennessee.
The Gamecocks believe they can fix their issues. Skai Moore, a freshman linebacker and member of the kickoff return team, said the special teams issues haven’t affected the squad’s confidence.
“Every time we go out there, we’re always hyped and ready to make a play,” Moore said. “I don’t think there’s any type of confidence issue or anything. I think we’re all fine from that aspect.”