COLUMBIA — There are numbers to weigh efficiency, numbers decrying non-production, numbers on the jerseys and numbers on the field. While the only number that truly matters is the one that lands under the left side of the W/L column, all the numbers that go into making that number are constantly scrutinized.
South Carolina’s special teams have their own set of numbers, but one that burns the brightest and glares the hardest.
A team blocks a punt, coordinator Coleman Hutzler says, and it wins 90 percent of the time.
The Gamecocks have won 22 games since Will Muschamp and Hutzler arrived, but none have had a blocked punt. Of the games they lost, a blocked punt probably wouldn’t have made much difference.
But maybe one or two could have. Which is why heading into a schedule judged the nation’s toughest by more than one publication (there are those numbers again), a blocked punt just may turn the momentum and move a result into the 90th percentile.
Rico Dowdle has never been able to stay off the injured list during his South Carolina career.
“We did a block drill today, did one about two days ago. It’s definitely a point of emphasis and a point of focus, and it’s all about identifying who those guys are,” Hutzler said. “Because you can be really fast and close your eyes and turn your face and not block a punt.”
There’s a technique as there is to everything in football, but speed helps. It’s why A.J. Turner, Shi Smith and Jaycee Horn, three of the Gamecocks’ fastest players, are getting a look at punt-block as preseason camp rolls into its second week.
Yet there’s more to it. It’s willing to have a ball clang off your facemask or take a punter’s cleat in the chest or get a hand stepped on when the kicker sticks his landing. Hutzler creates an identity of wanting to be those guys by having several starters play special teams and constantly promoting the magical 90 percent.
“You got to have both. Got to have the speed to do it and the focus to get it done,” Hutzler said, mentioning that nobody gets recruited to play right guard on special teams but the best teams make it an issue of pride. “The list was a lot longer two days ago and it was a lot shorter today.”
South Carolina will decide on a definite backup quarterback this month, although the winner will still play behind Jake Bentley.
Frank Beamer built a dynasty at Virginia Tech with special teams being a core ingredient. “Beamer Ball” came to define elite special-teams units.
Urban Meyer did the same throughout his coaching career, emphasizing special teams so much that the punt squad usually ate first during team meals.
All of it flows into the identity USC creates, since special teams is often not so much about talent, but want-to. The payoff of success, and the Gamecocks winning due to that success, is the goal.
“We haven’t done that in our first three years and we need to, because it’s a big momentum-changer,” Hutzler said.
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He doesn’t need to offer examples to bolster the claim of 90 percent. Neither does Muschamp, who is front and center for every special teams meeting.
One game of personal experience for each does just fine.
The last time USC blocked a punt was Nov. 15, 2014, in Gainesville, Fla. Carlton Heard’s diving rejection was the key play in the Gamecocks’ stunning comeback win against Florida.
Hutzler was the Gators’ special-teams coach. Florida head coach Will Muschamp was fired the next day.