COLUMBIA — One of the worst days of Joe Robinson’s professional life started with a mistake that would seem innocent compared to what followed.
On the opening kickoff of South Carolina’s 44-11 loss Saturday at Florida, USC’s Bruce Ellington fielded the ball about four yards deep in the end zone. Teammate T.J. Gurley turned around, motioning for Ellington to take a knee. But Ellington brought the kickoff out. As Gurley scrambled to recover and lead block, he ran head-on into teammate Mason Harris at the 13-yard line, just as Ellington was driven out of bounds at the 17. So began the comedy of errors that doomed USC.
“The No. 1 thing on our kickoff return is the ability of our guys to communicate, and our communication broke down on the first kickoff return and it broke down in a bad way,” Robinson said. “I think that set the tone for our guys.”
Things unraveled on special teams in the second quarter. With 8:07 left, USC lined up for a 45-yard field goal that would have cut Florida’s lead to 7-6. USC’s protection broke down and Florida blocked the kick. By the time 2:02 remained in the quarter, a fumbled punt return by Ace Sanders and, immediately thereafter, a fumbled kickoff return by Damiere Byrd led to touchdown possessions of 29 yards and 1 yard, and a 21-3 lead for Florida.
“Is that what hell is like?” Robinson said when asked how Saturday felt for him.
Things got no better in the second half. Typical of USC’s year-long kickoff coverage issues, Florida returned the half’s opening kickoff 39 yards to start a 59-yard touchdown drive. Florida went up 44-11 on an 11-yard touchdown drive, after returning an onside kick 35 yards. The game was already over, but it was a fitting end to Robinson’s afternoon, which included no USC kickoff return longer than 18 yards and three punt returns for minus-13 yards.
Games like these stick with a coach for years. Robinson, primarily a special teams coach since he was at Southern Mississippi from 1992-98, still remembers a similarly dreadful special teams performance against Oregon when he coached at Arizona from 2004-07.
Robinson and his special teams must flush the Florida disaster. They can’t have a repeat this Saturday at home against Tennessee and its dangerous kickoff returner, Cordarrelle Patterson.
But ball security is Robinson’s biggest concern this week. Sanders’ fumble was more surprising than Byrd’s, because Sanders is one of the nation’s best punt returners. His six punt returns for 106 yards against Missouri on Sept. 22 drew praise for Robinson’s special teams and his positive impact in his first year at USC.
The problems at Florida don’t negate that, especially considering Byrd returned just two kickoffs in his career before his fumble. Robinson said Byrd was in because of a planned rotation with Ellington, and not because Ellington fumbled the previous kickoff, which USC recovered.
“We’ve got some guys that really want to make plays, and when they made some plays earlier in the year, the ball was loose,” Robinson said. “That’s our fault for not getting that corrected and not getting the ball tighter. There are fundamentals of ball security that we teach, and they were not followed (at Florida). The ball was too loose. It’s not right to make a good play and carry it loose. Eventually, it’s going to cost you, and it eventually did cost us.”
Sanders and Ellington have been effective returners, so “we’re not going to fire all our return guys,” said USC coach Steve Spurrier. But he also said, of the Florida game, “Special teams was horrible. That’s the best way you can describe it. We’ve regressed there.”
Even when Robinson was lauded after Missouri, kickoff coverage was an issue. Vanderbilt had a 52-yard return in the opener, Alabama-Birmingham a 53-yarder. Both resulted from the kickoff going to the wrong place on the field, and not coverage, Robinson said. Since, poor coverage has led to returns of 31, 33, 39 and 48 yards. USC ranks No. 113 of 124 teams nationally with 25.6 yards per opposing kickoff return.
“The last couple have been more of people not being in the right lanes and not making the play,” Robinson said. “We’ve had a couple of them where we’ve had a guy ready to make the play and just fall right off the tackle. They can be corrected. I don’t feel like we’ve just had guys in the wrong position. I just feel like we haven’t made plays.”
USC has to avoid kickoff coverage miscues against Patterson, who ranks No. 2 nationally with a 34.8-yard average on 12 kickoff returns, including one for a touchdown.
“It looks like only a fool would kick it to that dude, but you may be looking at a fool,” Robinson said with a laugh. “It certainly would be insane to just hand the ball to that guy over and over. He’s a scary returner.”