Gamecocks begin preparations for Gators

The Gamecocks returned to practice Monday as a ranked team following their win over Arkansas. Carolina is 23rd in the coaches' poll and 24th in the AP, the second time this season it has been ranked in either poll. There is no time to enjoy the ranking, however, as the Gamecocks travel to Florida this weekend to take on the red-hot, third-ranked Gators.

Safety Chris Culliver will sit out the first half of the game this weekend per SEC rules for throwing several punches at an Arkansas player following an onside kick late in last week's game. After practice and with Steve Spurrier at his side, Culliver apologized to the team and to fans, but did not take questions.

"First of all, I just want to apologize to my teammates, my fans, to everybody that was watching South Carolina, the University," he said. "It was a careless mistake on my part. I shouldn't have retaliated that way. I just wish I could do it all over again. I'm sorry, really."

After Culliver finished, Spurrier added his own thoughts.

"Hopefully this will be behind us," he said. "It was an embarrassing situation. I couldn't believe that he was throwing a punch at a helmet. We don't do that. It should never happen again."

The Gamecocks and Gators will be the marquee game of the week in the SEC, playing in the coveted 3:30 game on CBS. That time slot is a mixed blessing for Carolina though, since the Gamecocks have not won on CBS since the 1995 Carquest Bowl. Still, the excitement remains.

"I think our guys are excited about getting the TV game of the week and seeing what happens when we go down there," Spurrier said.

What is not adding any extra excitement to the game is the storyline of Spurrier returning to face his alma mater and the team he coached to a National Championship. In his first season in Columbia, the Gamecocks upset Florida and Spurrier got a Gatorade bath after the game. Three years later, the Gators mean little beyond being the number three team in the nation.

"I think that's pretty old," said Spurrier about his return to Gainesville. "I think there's a lot more on the line for those guys. South Carolina's never beaten Florida down there before, so we've got a lot to play for and they've got a lot to play for. We get big games every week. We've been pretty fortunate. We were fortunate last week. We had a lot of careless play that gave Arkansas a chance to get in the game."

A game between two ranked foes should be expected to be fairly close, even if they are on opposite ends of the rankings. Las Vegas does not agree, though, installing Florida as a 24 point favorite. While that spread is already getting play on the message boards, Spurrier shrugged it off when asked if he was surprised at being such a big underdog.

"No, not surprised at all," he said. "They've been scoring a bunch of points [42.8 points per game], and we haven't been scoring a bunch of points [24.0], so just go by that."

Special teams could play key role against Gators

Under new coordinator Ray Rychleski, Carolina's special teams this season have been solid and occasionally spectacular. This weekend, the Gamecocks will be going back to their own house of horrors. In 2006, as the Gators were on their way to a National Championship, Ryan Succop lined up for a game-winning field goal, but had the kick blocked. That block is one of five blocked kicks Florida has had in the last three games against Carolina. Rychleski was not a part of any of those games, but that does not mean they are not going to come up several times this week.

"We've got enough problems with Brandon James on the return, and then if we let them block one, we're really up a creek," Rychleski said. "They understand and I thought they practiced really well tonight. They're looking forward to the challenge."

James may be the best return man in the country. The junior is averaging a whopping 19.3 yards per punt return, with two scores. By comparison, he is averaging "only" 26.5 yards per kick return. His abilities are the lynchpin for what Rychleski called the best unit he has seen in several years. Teams become so worried about covering James that they lose focus on protection, allowing the Gators to block the punt.

"Their punt block and return team is the best in the country," Rychleski said. "Not only can they block it, the kid back there is the Devin Hester of college football. You can't be scared of him. You still have to punt it to him and you've still got to cover him and you've got to do the fundamentals right. We're going to do our very best at doing that, protection and then coverage second."

Fundamental punt coverage means a high kick that allows the gunners to get down in coverage and force a fair catch. It may seem easier to punt away from James, as one reporter suggested, but Rychleski disagreed.

"Tell me where I can kick it," he said. "Miami tried to kick it out of bounds. I watched LSU shift around, [and] I watched Tennessee shift around. Everybody's tried something, and nothing's worked. Fundamentals are really what's going to have to work. A perfect punt in this world is 40 yards with 5.0 [second] hang time. We had two last week that were only about 36 yards, but they were very high and our gunners were right there."

Turning toward Carolina's punt return team, there could be a change in the lineup. Captain Munnerlyn has been the punt returner all season, but he muffed a punt against Arkansas that the Gamecocks were lucky to recover. Munnerlyn has muffed several punts this season, which has Carolina "living dangerously" according to Rychleski. As a result, Munnerlyn could be replaced by backup Akeem Auguste, who has a bad ankle, this weekend.

"We're looking at that," said Rychleski. "The problem right now is Akeem is dinged up, and we're not going to make a decision on that until later in the week. We are going to [use Auguste] if he's healthy."

If Auguste is not healthy enough to return punts, Munnerlyn would retain his job, although Rychleski said wide receiver Kenny McKinley who returned punts during his first three seasons, could get a look as well.

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