COLUMBIA — Keisean Nixon, Jamyest Williams, Bryan Edwards, Nick Harvey, Josh Vann, Shi Smith, A.J. Turner, Rico Dowdle, Rashad Fenton, Deebo Samuel …
Can you catch a football after it’s punted? Yes?
Practice begins at 9 a.m. Saturday at the indoor facility.
“We have a bunch of guys that are going to be up for the job and our number-one thing — at the end of the play, we got ball possession,” coach Will Muschamp said. “Do you remember the first year? Yeah, me too.”
The horrors of 2016 and the better-but-not-great performance of 2017 has USC holding an open audition at punt return during preseason camp. If a player has two hands, he’s automatically enrolled.
Catching the ball is the first and most important part. After that …
Well, let’s stick with that and then worry about what may come after.
“We had two turnovers last year, which are unfortunate. We forced four, as a punt team, which really helped us field position-wise,” special teams coordinator Coleman Hutzler said Friday. “Objective number one — catching and communicating. Traffic control, we call it, right? Got to know when to make those ‘poison’ calls, when to get everybody away.”
The Gamecocks’ first punt return of the 2016 season wasn’t even a return. Samuel camped under a punt, waved fair-catch, then the ball popped right out of his mitts and Vanderbilt recovered. USC won the game but the Gamecocks cycled through returners all season, looking for anybody who could catch first, then think about running.
Chris Lammons finally took over full-time, a position he held throughout 2017. But as good as Lammons could be, there were some plays that caused just as much consternation and heartache as they did relief and celebration. It got to where breaths were being held from everybody in garnet and black anytime the opponent launched a football into the autumn sky.
With Lammons gone, USC needs a new guy and is sticking with the basics. Of course, the Gamecocks would love to have a return for a touchdown (which is why Samuel, with three kickoff returns for TDs in his career, is an option). Of course, they would love to further impact the game after they’ve forced a punt.
But they also have to tell everyone auditioning to not even think how good it would feel to trot into the north end zone of Williams-Brice Stadium with the ball, students waving those white towels and falling over themselves to get to field level and slap your shoulder pads. Don’t watch that Ace Sanders game-over return against Georgia in 2012 — which yes, began with a dropped punt.
Just. Catch. The. Ball.
“We got an open competition and it’s been awesome, actually,” Hutzler said. “We got a lot of names in the hat right now and obviously when it comes Sept. 1, we got to pick one out.”
Somebody will win the job and have a chance to stay in it. Others will at least have experience — Muschamp made it clear that at least with punt returns, the Gamecocks are going live in camp.
And if someone should return a punt for a touchdown this season, Muschamp and Hutzler may be the first to greet them in the end zone. A penalty for leaving the sideline is a small price to pay.
At least the guy would have caught it.