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January 11, 2012
A year ago, I opined on who South Carolina should hire after special team coordinator Shane Beamer left shortly after National Signing Day to join his father's staff at Virginia Tech.
Now, in the wake of Wednesday's mildly surprising departure of John Butler to Penn State, I'm making the same call.
It's time to bring Ray Rychleski back to USC.
I'm sure over the next week or so plenty of names will be tossed around as Steve Spurrier looks to fill the spot held for one season by Butler.
How many candidates will carry the resume of Rychleski? Few, if any, I'm sure.
Overall, I thought Butler did a good job here. Things started well with Ace Sanders returning a punt for a touchdown in the season-opening win over East Carolina and then Melvin Ingram stunned Georgia by racing 68 yards on a fake punt for a TD.
But, by the end of the season, the same woes we've seen for a few years on kickoff coverage cropped up again and USC entered bowl season last in the SEC in net kickoff coverage. Spurrier continuously lamented the Gamecocks' difficulties on kickoff coverage throughout bowl preparations.
In the Capital One Bowl, Jay Wooten botched a kickoff by booting it out of bounds and missed a chip shot field goal from 21 yards out.
In his post-game press conference, Spurrier summarized a conversation he had on the sidelines with Butler by telling the media this: "I said Coach Butler, do you realize you're on television right now acting like an idiot trying to demonstrate how to kick the ball?"
Spurrier then added USC "had issues all year" on special teams and he was constantly concerned disadvantageous field position brought about by poor special teams play "will kill us."
Thankfully, it didn't happen often in an 11-2 season, but Spurrier had thrown down the gauntlet: USC had to improve on special teams.
Based on his track record, Rychleski should be one of the top candidates for the job. As you recall, he spent one season (2008) as USC's special teams coordinator before accepting the same job for the NFL's Indianapolis Colts.
Money, of course, played a large role in Rychleski's decision to move up to the pro ranks. The Colts basically doubled his salary as coordinators in the NFL make a ton of money, and Rychleski was no exception.
Indianapolis reached the Super Bowl in Rychleski's first season with the Colts, so the first impressions were positive. But this past season was a struggle as the Colts' special teams endured a rough year, finishing near the bottom of the NFL in multiple categories, including kickoff return average and punt return average.
A week ago, the Colts announced they would not renew Rychleski's contract, NFL jargon for "You're fired!"
If you watched the Colts try to play football this season - and I did live on one occasion in Baltimore - you know that special teams were hardly their only unit that faltered. Without Peyton Manning, the offense was terrible and the defense wasn't much better.
The Colts have long been known around the NFL for their frugal economics when it comes to the bottom half of the roster, the pool from which most special teams players are drawn. As a result, Rychleski was often stuck having to figure out a way to succeed with a lot of borderline rookies, younger players and free agents barely making the league minimum.
More than one NFL scribe has written that Colts management was apathetic towards finding (and paying) for quality special team players.
Just because things didn't work out in Indianapolis doesn't mean Rychleski isn't a competent coach. If anything, his three-year tenure shows he is better suited for the college ranks.
I can assure you of one thing: Rychleski didn't fail in Indy because of a lack of effort, energy, focus, passion or intensity. He was a hard worker here at USC and I'm sure he brought the same traits to the NFL.
Rychleski's college resume is impressive with long stints at Wake Forest and Maryland before his single year with the Gamecocks. Because he has previously coached for the Gamecocks, he's familiar with Columbia and the inner workings of the program, so his "break-in" period will be brief.
So, who should Steve Spurrier contact first in his quest for a new special teams coach? Rychleski.
Rychleski proved in his one season at USC (2008) that he possesses all the attributes you need in a special teams coach at the SEC level, including strategical acumen. He also worked extensively with Ryan Succop and Spencer Lanning, and had a major role in their development.
If he joined USC now, I have no doubt he would develop 2012 commitment Nick St. Germain and sophomore punter Patrick Fish into reliable major college kickers.
Did Rychleski occasionally get obnoxiously loud? Sure. But coaching in the hyper-competitive SEC isn't for the meek. He's a battle-hardened special teams coach with over two decades of experience under his belt.
Rychleski loved it in Columbia during his one year here. When I spoke with him after the Super Bowl loss to the Saints, he bemoaned the cold weather in the Midwest and said he missed the mostly warm temperatures of the South.
Certainly, he wouldn't have left for another college job, and he assured me of that in a conversation we had a couple of years ago. But the NFL beckoned and the money and prestige was too attractive to turn down, so I understand why he left.
He left USC on good terms, so hopefully the door is open for his return.
After three years of coaching in the NFL and dealing with the enormous egos of owners, fellow coaches and players, Rychleski should be eager to return to the college ranks.
Of course, the Outback Bowl loss to Iowa wasn't his finest hour since the performance by USC's special teams was unacceptable.
And Rychleski was the first to acknowledge that during the post-game interviews.
But special teams were hardly the only reason the Gamecocks were thumped in Tampa, as I recall quarterback Stephen Garcia and the offense were flat as well. Looking at the big picture, Rychleski did a very good job in 2008 and, right now, he could be the best option for the Gamecocks.
As you may recall, the 2007 season was a terrible year for USC's special teams. Few Gamecock fans will forget the horrors of watching the two blocked punts by Clemson, one of which was scooped up for a touchdown, in the last-second 23-21 loss that kept USC out of a bowl game.
Rychleski arrived from Maryland and restored order as best he could. USC's kickoff return team was fourth in the SEC in 2008 with an average of 22.9 yards per return. The punt return unit averaged a respectable 6.0 yards per return.
Not everything was perfect, of course, but that was expected. In some ways, Rychleski's predicament in 2008 was identical to what former O-Line coach Eric Wolford went through in 2009. He was trying to clean up a major mess and had already taken the first few steps of progress when he departed for supposedly greener pastures.
Without question, Rychleski must be willing to take a pay cut to return to USC, or take any college job for that matter. He is probably willing to make the financial sacrifice in exchange for the opportunity to get back into college football. He will still get paid plenty to live a comfortable existence in Columbia.
Moreover, Rychleski is well-versed in Spurrier's idiosyncrasies and shouldn't require a lengthy adjustment period. He can jump feet first into the fray and not even think twice.
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