Special Teams Makeover

New special teams coach John Butler faces the difficult task of replacing kicker/punter Spencer Lanning in 2011. The spring has seen a battle between four kickers vying for the job, but as spring practice closed Thursday afternoon the picture is getting a little bit clearer.

When you've got guys like "Mr. Irrelevant" Ryan Succop and Spencer Lanning - who will likely end up at a summer camp somewhere this summer - handling the kicking duties, your job as special teams toordinator is pretty easy. That's what former special teams coach Shane Beamer had for most of his tenure at South Carolina. Succop has been gone and Lanning's career ended last season, so new special teams coach John Butler faces a new challenge - finding a kicker and punter.

"I'd like to have (Lanning) back," Butler said following the conclusion of his first spring at South Carolina. "I followed South Carolina football pretty closely the last couple years, and I would love to have Spencer back. He was a duel-threat guy - kicker and also punt. I think the guys we have I feel comfortable that you can win with multiple guys we have here. Are they going to kick a 50-yard field goal to win the game? I don't know, but that's not what you really need. You need a consistent ball-striker and they are."

The 'they' Butler referred to is the quartet of kickers vying for kicking and punting duties this year. Jay Wooten - the only kicker with experience last season - is the proverbial favorite to win the kicking battle. The redshirt senior spent his first two years at North Carolina, redshirting his first season and connecting on 3-of-4 field goals and 11of-11 extra points as a redshirt freshman. Wooten then transferred to Carolina, where he sat out the 2009 season before handling kickoff duties last season. He kicked off 65 times, recording five touchbacks and converted his only extra point in the win over Troy.

Though Wooten seems to have the lead on kicking heading into the summer, don't forget about Adam Yates - the man who lost the kicking duties to Wooten last season. Yates handled the kickoff duties in 2009, kicking all but 10 of the 59 kickoffs with one touchback.

"Our kickoff job is really going to come down to Jay Wooten and Yates," Butler said. "If we had to practice today Wooten would be the starter but that will continue to be evaluated."

Joey Scribner-Howard - who kicked off 17 times and had four touchbacks last season - appears to be slightly behind Wooten and Yates, but he could make his mark in another aspect.

"Joey Scribner-Howard has done a nice job too, but he's had a great spring punting the ball which is something I don't think he's done yet here," Butler said. "Heading into the summer I'm optimistic that he could be a really good punter. (Patrick) Fish has done a good job too. I'm encouraged with all of our specialists and long-snappers - we'd like to have one more snapper for depth - but I'm encouraged with our specialists. I think they're going to be good enough to win with."

On the other side of the return game, several players have seen time returning kicks but one player has stood out to Butler - D.J. Swearinger. Swearinger - the 5'11, 206 pound junior safety - has limited experience returning kicks. Swearinger returned just four kicks for 87 yards (22 yards per return) in 2010, but he has caught the eye of Butler and stands in front of Ace Sanders and Kenny Miles.

"Our starting kickoff return would most likely be D.J. Swearinger among those that are already here," Butler said. "He's done a very nice job with that. Ace Sanders and Kenny Miles have done a very nice job as well, but the first kickoff return is going to be D.J. I just love his size and speed. He's really exactly what I like as far as build."

Sanders and Gilmore - who had all 18 punt returns last season - are among the leaders for that position, but that could all change when guys like Bruce Ellington and Damiere Byrd step onto the field this summer.

"Punt return is still kind of up in the air just because we haven't worked that a ton," Butler said. "I would say between (Stephon) Gilmore, Ace Sanders, (and) Nick Jones among the returners. There's two or three freshmen that we'll take a look at too."

On thing Butler recognizes that has been absent in recent years is the field position battle. Spurrier's offense seemingly always started inside thier 20-yard line while opponents routinely started around their 40. More often than not, that has led to more success from the opposition than it has for Carolina.

"If we're giving our offense the ball on a 60-yard field they're going to score more touchdowns than when we're giving them an 80-yard field, and vice versa," Butler said. "We've got to punt them down deep and make them go a long way, and we've got to kickoff cover deep. It's all about field position. One of my biggest goals is to get a lot of explosive plays - get plays that kind of generate enthusiasm and early belief."

How does Butler plan to change that? It sounds easy enough.

"Making sure you're sound fundamentally, making sure you've got the right players on the field, and execute the schemes," Butler said.

It's often said that the time kickers are noticed is when they're not getting the job done. When a punter averages 40 yards a kick and a kicker is making their field goals and extra points, no one notices. That's how it's been when you've had guys like Succop and Lanning. When guys shank 20-yard punts - or relying on rugby-style kicks - and start missing chip-shot field goals, everyone notices. While it's not clear which you're going to get with this group of kickers, Butler seems to be pretty optimistic with what he's going to get.

Gamecock Anthem Top Stories