USC Placing Emphasis on Special Teams in 2007

After struggling on special teams during the first two years of the Steve Spurrier era, the Gamecocks are focused on trying to get more production out of the "forgotten unit" in 2007. With a new co-special teams coordinator, an increased emphasis on the kicking game each practice and an assortment of new talent to work with, USC is hoping to make strides this season on special teams.

Junior placekicker and punter Ryan Succop has All-Conference talent, but he has not always had much support. With that in mind, Spurrier brought in assistant coach Shane Beamer, hoping to recreate some of the success his dad Frank Beamer's Virginia Tech squads have had in Blacksburg.

Spurrier isn't shooting for the moon just yet. After failing to get a single block or touchdown on special teams last year, it will not take much for Beamer to improve the defensive special teams play.

"I hope that we can make a score on special teams," Spurrier says wishfully. "Hopefully we can block a punt or get some field position and do some things like that."

Nobody in Gamecock Nation is concerned about the other end of the special teams unit. With the strong-legged Succop handling all the kicking duties, the only question is whether he could return kicks as well. Succop showed plenty of foot speed when, sensing his punt was about to be blocked, he tucked the ball and sprinted 16 yards down the field for a first down against Mississippi State in the season opener last season.

"He's a good one," Spurrier said, "and anywhere inside the 50, we feel comfortable letting him have a go at it. It's good to have a good kicker. I have learned that in close games. The team with the best kicker has got a chance to win, and maybe win the conference."

A recent rule change might make Succop's greatest strength, his kicking power, even more valuable. Kickoffs have been moved back five yards, from the 35-yard line to the 30-yard line. His freshman year, nearly half of Succop's kickoffs went for touchbacks. Last year, the percentage dipped to 40%, still higher than many kickers. Both Spurrier and Succop think the rule change will bring more excitement to the game in the form of additional return opportunities. But neither one knows quite what it will mean in terms of strategy.

"I'm not sure how we're going to kick it off," Spurrier said, "but I think you are not going to see a guy kick it right down there to the five or ten yard line. You are going to kick it in the corner or kick it out of bounds or squib it or do something."

Succop does not know how he will approach the kickoffs either, saying that he will take a bit of a wait and see approach.

"We'll have to wait and see how the first couple games go," he says. "If we need to hit some sky balls, that's what we'll do. If we need to work the ball around a little bit, we can do that. We'll make adjustments just depending on how it's going. Getting out there and just kicking it as hard as you can is a lot of fun, but we're going to do whatever is most successful for the team."

Succop sees nothing wrong with the new rules, and excitement crept into his voice when he talked about the challenge kickoffs now pose.

"It helps me to work harder and get stronger and kick the ball a lot further. I guess it makes more of a difference for some guys that can't get it in the end zone now. I've been pretty successful [getting touchbacks]. We have great coverage guys, and we'll still get a lot of touchbacks, [so] it doesn't bother me."

Do-it-all kicker Ryan Succop has earned multiple preseason All-SEC honors heading into this fall.

Spurrier suggested there may be more directional kicking, and Succop used the summer to work on that. He admitted that he had never done much directional kicking "based on the fact that I've been able to get a lot of touchbacks," but he is not concerned about figuring it out by September 1st. He already views himself as a placekicker who happened to learn to punt along the way, so he takes a matter-of-fact view to this new challenge.

"I feel pretty confident that we can do it if need be," he said. "I've worked on it over the summer. You can be very successful doing it that way, especially with some of the guys that we have covering the ball. We've got a lot of great athletes on the [coverage] team.

It is not often that a kicker holds a high profile, but Succop definitely breaks the mold. His good looks, genial personality, and talent on the field have made him a fan favorite in Columbia. Media day is usually about glamour positions like quarterback, running back, or wide receiver, hotshot freshmen, and players who turn down NFL bucks to come back to school. On media day this year, one of the hardest players to get a hold of for an interview was Succop, who was shuffled between cameras and reports all afternoon. When asked how he felt to be so popular, Succop almost blushed.

"If that's the case, then that's great," he laughed. "I feel very fortunate to be in that situation. I'm not too caught up in that. I'm just focused on trying to go out and do the best I can on the field."

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