November 15, 2003. A 24-22 loss to Florida at Williams-Brice Stadium. Heading into this season, that's the last time the Gamecocks scored a touchdown on special teams.
Times have changed.
Ace Sanders returned a punt 68 yards for a score in Carolina's opening game against ECU, providing a spark for the Gamecocks that they haven't gotten in nearly a decade.
A week later, Carolina's punt team was doing it again with another score of exactly 68 yards, except the man with the football weighed about a hundred pounds more. But just as Sanders did the week before, senior defensive tackle Melvin Ingram gave South Carolina a tremendous boost, taking a one-point lead that they'd keep heading into the locker room.
Although it felt quite spontaneous, first-year special teams coach John Butler says his unit has rehearsed that play ten times a week in practice this season. It was only a matter of time until Butler saw what he needed to see to put the play in motion.
The light bulb went off on the team's very first punt, when the Georgia Bulldogs rushed one man and held the rest back.
"I felt if they gave us that look again, it could be there if the down and distance were right," Butler said.
Sure enough, nearing the two-minute mark in the second quarter, No. 6 was juking and hurdling his way to the end zone.
The big plays that we've seen from the special teams unit are obviously new. But that doesn't mean all is well in that department, nor does it mean Butler is completely satisfied with his crew.
"I think our kick-off coverage unit left some plays out in the field. We had 11 missed tackles…" Butler said. "That has to get corrected. It comes down to effort but it also comes down to execution of the tackle."
Butler also acknowledged it wasn't just kick coverage but also punt coverage that struggled.
On the two punts that Georgia returned, it gained a total of 32 yards. On kick-offs, Georgia averaged 26.3 yards per return, much worse than what USC allowed last year.
The silver lining - Jay Wooten managed to place it well enough to keep Georgia return specialist (one of the best in the country) Brandon Boykin from breaking off a touchdown. Butler was pleased with that as well as Wooten's 49-yard field goal that gave the Gamecocks a fourth quarter lead.
"Jay did a great job. His kick offs to this point have been great. You kick a 49-yard field goal on the road, I mean that was a huge, huge kick," Butler said.
Another bright spot for Butler and the special teams unit: Fifth year-senior punter Joey Scribner-Howard booted one 59 yards on Saturday - the longest of his Gamecock career. As for Wooten's 49-yarder in the fourth quarter - also his career long.
Room for improvement, but it's safe to say coach Butler and his crew are making strides. Big, heavy, 276-pound strides.
Improving but not satisfied
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