Butler: Special teams trying to improve

The most overlooked aspect in the game of football is often special teams. That aspect can sometimes be the difference in a ball game. For proof of that, one just need to look at two games; South Carolina's season opener last week against East Carolina, and the last time they visited this week's opponent, Georgia. First-year special teams coach John Butler agrees.

"Whoever thinks special teams doesn't affect the game just has to watch our football game," Butler said. "We had 14 points off a punt return and we recovered a fumble and scored right away, and then they got 10 points because we fumbled and they kicked a field goal and then we fumbled and they scored a touchdown."

Carolina's Kenny Miles made the first special teams mistake, fumbling a second quarter kickoff return after ECU had already built a 14-0 lead. That turnover led to a Mike Barbour field goal. ECU would make the second miscue, fumbling a kickoff return after South Carolina finally got on the board. Sharrod Golightly forced the fumble with Antonio Allen recovering. That led to a Marcus Lattimore touchdown.

Perhaps the biggest special teams blunder came with less than a minute and a half left in the first half. Carolina had just held the Pirates and hoped to have one final shot at tying the game or taking the lead. Stephon Gilmore muffed the Ben Ryan punt and ECU recovered at the Gamecock 29 yard line. Five plays later ECU was in the end zone with three seconds left in the half.

"Obviously we have to clean up the ball security issues," Butler said. "You want to correct your mistakes. I thought that was the biggest negative obviously."

The final special teams turnover occurred just after Carolina took their first lead of the game. Antonio Allen stripped the ball from Michael Dobson and took it into the end zone. Though the kickoff team forced two Pirate turnovers, Butler thought it could be a little better.

"Our kickoff coverage unit could be better," Butler said. "I thought it was okay. I think we need to cover with more intensity and more physicality but we can build on that."

The biggest special teams play was obviously Ace Sanders' 68-yard touchdown return in the fourth quarter. It was the first special teams touchdown in nearly eight years. It also gave life to a punt return team that had struggled up to that point going back to last season. Gilmore had just four yards in three returns against ECU and Sanders' run topped the season total in punt return yards from 2010.

"The punt return game you obviously have to give credit to Ace and the guys holding them up," Butler said. "You have to have a good returner, but you also have to have 10 guys blocking for him. We had guys giving great effort."

The kickoff return team was a big improvement from recent years. It seemed Carolina was constantly starting drives from inside their own 20 in the past, but Carolina averaged 20 yards per return Saturday, including a long of 35 yards from Bruce Ellington. After several long returns, ECU just stopped kicking it deep.

"The kickoff return game, I thought, was excellent," Butler said. "After the second kickoff they just didn't kick to us anymore, they just sky kicked."

Ellington was impressive in his Gamecock debut in football. Ellington was credited with two returns for 55 yards, but one of his returns was called back on a penalty called on Quin Smith, a penalty that should have never happened.

"We got the official review of the first penalty," Butler said. "They reevaluated things and actually said that was a legal block...It was a 50/50 call and it's a tough call in the heat of battle. He ended up with his head right on the (opponent's) shoulder pads. If you don't see it right away it looks like a block in the back."

The Gamecocks have plenty of depth in the return game. D.J. Swearinger - the favorite to start entering the season - didn't return kicks at all against the Pirates. Even Shon Carson was put in as one of the ‘up men' to return one of the short kicks and displayed his tremendous speed and athleticism with a 23-yard return.

"Bruce did a nice job obviously," Butler said. "Kenny's back there, Shon's back there. The only reason D.J. didn't go back there is his hamstring was tweaked a little bit and we knew he was going to have to play a lot of plays on defense. We've got some good options."

Joey Scribner-Howard will remain the punter despite having a 14-yard punt. Butler says the key is building consistency. Scribner-Howard averaged 31.8 yards per punt in four punts.

"He did a nice job," Butler said. "Four out his five punts were excellent. The one he had, unfortunately, was a terrible one. That's just where he's at right now. We've got to get him to a point where consistently he can go 4-for-4 or 5-for-5 or 6-for-6. The punt right before that went 47 yards and was like a 4.6 (second) hang time. Because of the penalty the next one went 14 yards."

This week Butler's special teams will be facing one of the most dangerous return men in the SEC. Georgia's Brandon Boykin is a speedy returner that can break one at any moment. Boykin already has an 80-yard touchdown on his first career carry against Boise State last week. Boykin has returned four kicks for touchdowns, three of which were 100-yard returns.

"I've studied a lot of film on him," Butler said. "I thought he had more than four kickoff returns for touchdowns because I swear I saw on film where he scored six or seven. He must have had some called back. That kid can fly."

The first of Boykin's 100-yard touchdown returns came against South Carolina the last time the two teams met in Athens. In all, Boykin had a career-high 187 return yards on four returns. In total, the Bulldogs had 252 return yards on seven returns and constantly began drives near midfield.

"We have a challenge this week going down there," Butler said. "That's a huge weapon for them. Any time he touches the ball he can take it to the house. We have a challenge in our coverage units. That's why you play at this level - we have some players that can play too."


Gamecock Anthem Top Stories