South Carolina special teams coach John Butler was able to accomplish in one game what several of his predecessors couldn't accomplish over seven seasons - figure out a way for USC to return a kickoff or punt for a touchdown.
Coach Steve Spurrier predicted six weeks ago that the Gamecocks would score a touchdown on special teams in 2011. It took just 3 1-2 quarters (7.3 percent of the regular season) until his forecast was proven true.
Ace Sanders weaved his way 68 yards through the East Carolina coverage team (Spurrier admitted he was helped by a non-call on a block in the back) for the first touchdown by any Gamecock return team since Nov. 15, 2003.
Afterwards, Butler said, he accepted congratulations from Spurrier and told him, "Hopefully that's the first of many."
"People ask me when will we score the next one and I say as soon as possible," Butler said following an intense 2 1-2-hour workout on Wednesday at The Proving Grounds.
The return capped a respectable night for USC's special teams, though it was far from perfect since Stephon Gilmore muffed a punt, Kenny Miles fumbled a kickoff and Quin Smith and Kadetrix Marcus were flagged for illegal blocks on separate kicks.
"Obviously, we have to clean up the ball-security issues," Butler said. "That's the first and biggest thing. You want to correct your mistakes. That was the biggest negative. Anybody who doesn't think special teams affects a game just has to watch our football game.
"We got 14 points off a punt return and we recovered a fumble and scored right away. They got 10 points because we fumbled twice and they got a field goal and touchdown. Special teams had a huge impact for us in a positive and negative way. We just have to clean up the negative and keep building on the positive."
All four of those costly mistakes occurred in the first half and played roles in USC's 10-point halftime deficit. The second half was better, though, as USC's special teams were largely error-free.
Still, Butler said, penalties by the special teams cost the Gamecocks over 90 yards of field position.
"That affected points on our part," Butler said.
The mission this week? Clean up the mistakes. USC won't get away with the same number of sloppy mistakes at Georgia that it did against East Carolina. And they'll be facing one of the top kick returners in the SEC, Georgia's Brandon Boykin, who returned a kickoff for a school-record 100 yards two years ago against USC. In that game, Boykin totaled 187 yards in kickoff returns.
"We have a challenge in our coverage units," Butler said. "We need to be locked in and focused, especially in the punt game."
USC averaged 20.0 yards on five kickoff returns, though that figure was diminished a bit when Sanders ran directly out of bounds at the 9-yard line after fielding a kickoff with 2:42 left.
"The kickoff return game was excellent," Butler said. "After the second kickoff (Bruce Ellington returned the opening kickoff 35 yards), they didn't kick to us anymore. They just sky-kicked. We had some answers to that (Shon Carson was inserted in place of Chaz Sutton). Take away the two turnovers and I thought it was right about where I thought it would be."
Ellington has assumed the role of USC's top kickoff returner with Miles and Carson behind him. D.J. Swearinger was taken off the kickoff return team after he tweaked a hamstring in practice last week and the defensive coaches planned for him to play a lot of snaps on defense, due to the lack of depth at strong safety.
"Bruce did a nice job, obviously," Butler said. "Kenny and Shon are back there too. As one of the defensive coaches (Butler coaches the spurs) I'm smart enough to realize that our numbers are limited in the secondary. We have to do what's best for the football team as a whole, not what's best for our kickoff return team. (Swearinger) was disappointed by it, but that was the decision we made in the best interests of all of us."
Because of Sanders' 68-yard scamper, USC averaged 18.0 yards on four punt returns, a vast improvement over last season when USC finished last in the SEC in that category.
"In our punt return game, you have to give the majority of the credit to Ace and the guys holding them up," Butler said. "Like I've said before, you have to have a good returner and also 10 guys blocking for him who are giving great effort. That's what we had."
Not surprisingly, Sanders will return punts for USC on Saturday at Georgia. He is listed ahead of Gilmore on this week's depth chart, as the two players have reversed spots from last week.
Although Smith was called for an illegal block in the back on USC's second kickoff return of the night, Butler said the SEC office reviewed the play and told him the flag should not have been thrown.
"They re-evaluated things and said it was actually a legal block," Butler said. "That's something to build on. It was a 50-50 call. It was a tough call in the heat of the battle. He had his hand up near the head on the shoulder pad. If you don't see it right away, it looks like a block in the back."
ECU didn't register a single yard on punt returns and averaged 21.5 yards on six kickoff returns. Joey Scribner-Howard punted four times for a 31.8-yard average. Three of the punts were fine, but a fourth was shanked out of bounds near midfield when he was forced to kick again following a USC penalty.
"Our coverages were solid except for the one bad punt by Joey," Butler said. "Except for that, I thought he punted nicely. They were excellent. His biggest thing is building consistency. His one bad punt was a terrible one. He needs to get to the point where he can go 4-for-4 or 5-for-5 on punts. His punt before that (bad) one went about 47 yards and had a 4.6 (second) hang time. His next one right after that went 14 yards. We had an unfortunate penalty that cost us about 35 yards of field position."
Jay Wooten had three touchbacks on nine kickoffs, a percentage of 33.3 percent, and averaged 65.3 yards per boot. He had just five touchbacks in 65 kickoffs last season when he averaged 63.6 yards per kick. Obviously, an off-season of strengthening his leg paid dividends for Wooten.
"Jay Wooten did a great job with three touchbacks and putting the ball where we wanted to put it," Butler said. "There was a lot to coach off of both positively and negatively."
Butler described the performance of USC's kickoff coverage unit as "OK."
"We need to cover with more intensity and more physicality," Butler said. "But we can build on that."
-- Cody Gibson, who has been out for a month with a dislocated right kneecap, practiced lightly on Wednesday. He is expected to practice again on Thursday and could be "full-go" by next week.
-- USC president Harris Pastides released a statement on Wednesday about the SEC's unanimous vote to conditionally accept Texas A&M.
"I am very pleased with the current 12-university configuration of the Southeast (sic) Conference," the statement read. "But, if we are going to expand, a university of Texas A&M's quality is a great choice. The conference has been very careful in its deliberations. As a league, we know that this is not something that will happen until all of the Big 12 universities are in agreement about Texas A&M's withdrawal. It is prudent to wait to ensure that everyone is aligned. At the point that happens, I will join my colleagues in welcoming A&M."
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