Practice report: Special teams not special

The South Carolina special teams struggled in Saturday's match-up with Florida. There were two fumbles, a blocked field goal, and kickoff coverage struggles helped attribute to Florida's big lead early on. It doesn't get any easier this week against Tennessee.

Joe Robinson was an easy man to find the first five weeks of the season. As a whole his special teams had played well and Ace Sanders had a pair of touchdowns. Robinson was even awarded a game ball early in the year. To his credit Robinson was not hard to find Tuesday afternoon either, even after a horrendous special teams performance in a 44-11 loss to Florida Saturday afternoon. Consecutive returns were fumbled to set up two Florida touchdowns and a 45-yard field goal attempt was blocked. As difficult as it was to watch from the stands or television, imagine being the one on the sidelines coaching the special teams.

"I don't know, I guess that's what Hell is like?" Robinson said after practice. "We just have to play the next snap. If we stand on the sideline and say ‘boy, this is really something' then that's probably not good. All we can do is play the next snap and try and do better."

There's not many times where you would expect that kind of performance from your special teams, but it's something that Florida knew they could do. They saw on film that the Carolina returners carried the ball loosely in their hands and knew they could attack it, and that's exactly what they did. Robinson saw it coming when things were going well, but for whatever reasons there wasn't an emphasis put on it until it cost them dearly.

"Unfortunately we worked on ball security before we fumbled it, too," Robinson said. "They happened and you can see on film why they happened. What we have is guys that really want to make plays and, as you guys have seen, they've made some plays earlier in the year the ball was loose and that's our fault for not getting that corrected and the ball tighter."

On the opening kickoff, Bruce Ellington chose to return the kick from the end zone despite a plea from T.J. Gurley to take a knee. The result was Gurley running into Mason Harris and Ellington being pushed out of bounds.

"The bottom line on our kickoff return is the ability to communicate and our communication broke down on the first kickoff in a bad way," Robinson said. "I think that set the tone for our guys and we got off-tempo and never got back on tempo."

On the next kickoff it was Damiere Byrd getting the return, but Robinson insisted on the fact that it was already decided that Byrd would get the second return and it was not because of Ellington's return. The result was catastrophic as Byrd fumbled to set up the third touchdown of the game for the Gators.

"There's fundamentals of ball security that we teach and they were not followed," Robinson said. "I thought it was funny that they said they have seen them all carry it loose, well Damiere hasn't returned a kick all year. It's pretty easy to say that after we've fumbled."

The return game was an issue on Saturday afternoon, but it has been the strong-suit all season for the special teams. The weak link has been the kickoff coverage. Opponents have averaged 25.5 yards per return and would be higher if not for Byrd's speed to run down several return men after they seemingly had a touchdown. Their 38.3 net average is 13th in the conference, but they are sixth in the conference in touchbacks. It has been a combination of bad kicking and poor coverage that has been the culprit for the poor coverage.

"Early in the year most of the issues was where the ball was kicked," Robinson said. "The ball was kicked to an area of the field that we were not planning on it being kicked to. The last couple have been more of people not being in the right lanes and not making a play. We've had a couple where we've had a guy ready to make a play and he just doesn't make the tackle. There's fundamentals of tackling as well and those fundamentals have not been good for us the last couple of weeks."

It won't get any better for Carolina this week with Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson. Patterson is one of just four SEC players to return a kick for a touchdown and is first in the conference with 34.8 yards per return.

"It looks like only a fool would kick it to that dude, I can tell you that," Robinson said. "We're certainly going to try and mix it up. We'd be insane to hand it to that guy over and over. He's been very good this year and is a scary returner."

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