Simply put, the Gamecocks special teams unit was a non-factor last year… at best. Carolina averaged just 20 yards per kick return and 3.4 yards per punt return. No TD's. Their opponent, on average, was better in both categories.
But first year special teams coordinator John Butler has come in with a new mentality as he tries to make the special teams game as an advantage for the Gamecocks. It all starts with every coach's favorite F-word.
"We're going to be fundamental…" Butler said. "My last eight years I've really emphasized fundamentals and really emphasized how to teach kids to how to play in space, to tackle in space, to cover kicks in space, to protect in space. It's the hardest thing you can do."
Butler comes over from a University of Minnesota program that consistently had one of the best special teams units in the Big Ten. The gophers' special teams numbers during Butler's tenure outranked USC each of the last four seasons. In addition to a new emphasis on fundamentals, accountability is another crucial aspect that Butler is stressing.
"Our guys are going to know who they're supposed to block and they're going to know how to do it. And they're going to be held accountable to do it that way. Some of the biggest problems we've had in the return games here have nothing to do with scheme. It has to do with the kids being held accountable."
After working out all the little details for an entire camp, Butler seems more than ready to put his final product out there and see what happens.
"To be honest with you, I'm just looking forward to actually seeing how it works in the games," said Carolina's newest coaching addition. "These guys are new and I'm new and I just want to see everything mesh together."
As of right now, Butler breaks down the special teams personnel like so: Junior safety D.J Swearinger will start as the kick returner. Stephon Gilmore and Ace Sanders will each get some opportunities to return punts, and you might even see them both back there at the same time. Fifth-year senior Joey Scriber-Howard will be the punter and another fifth-year senior in Jay Wooten will do the kick-offs, extra points and field goals.
One of the challenges in picking out the personnel for the different special teams units is how sparingly to use the first stringers. While it helps to have the experience and abilities of guys like Stephon Gilmore out there, Butler acknowledges that its not in the team's best interest to have Gilmore chasing down a kick-off and then immediately have to go out and cover receiver streaking down the field.
"We're putting the best available is the best way to say it. I've got to be smart," Butler said. "I understand there's a balance there. We're going to play the game with the core of our special teams that are guys in our two-deep sprinkled in with guys that are ones."
But when dealing with the return game, it's especially vital to have somebody back there that can be relied on to catch the ball and hold onto it thereafter. The guys that Butler will have returning, he believes fit the criteria.
"You have to have an experienced, quality, good player back there. You look at a lot of the great football teams that are good in the kicking game, their punt returners and kick returners are not only starters, they're the best players."
As for the punt team, Butler says the goal is to get the ball off in two seconds or less.
And with his last statement before the 2012 campaign begins, John Butler threw out a little bit of a wild card, mentioning a new player that could see some action in the return game.
"I think there's a good chance you see Bruce Ellington back there."
Butler ready to see his troops in action
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