After a mediocre performance at Georgia three weeks ago, South Carolina's special teams units rebounded solidly against Navy and Vanderbilt.
Steve Spurrier is certainly pleased with what he saw, and for good reason. He hopes the string of good performances continues Saturday (3:30 p.m., CBS) when USC faces Auburn at Williams-Brice Stadium
In the last two games, the Midshipmen and Commodores combined to average 20.1 yards per kickoff return, while USC averaged 21.8 yards per return.
That's one reason why USC enjoyed advantageous field position in both games. In the 24-21 victory over Navy, USC's average starting field position was their own 28-yard line, while six of Navy's seven possessions started inside their 29-yard line, forcing them to drive the field for scores.
Against Vanderbilt, USC kicked off to the Commodores four times. The average starting field position? The 19-yard line.
So, while the statistics tell us that USC remains last in the SEC in kickoff coverage (42.2 net yards), Spurrier is happy where special teams coach John Butler has his units after four games.
"John Butler is an excellent coach and our players are playing with much better effort since the Georgia game," Spurrier said Tuesday. "That Georgia game, we didn't look very good for some reason. Since then, covering kickoffs and punts and so forth, we've got guys who can run. All they've got to do is give effort.
"That's what special teams is all about. Everybody has pretty good athletes. Those Navy kids, you want to watch some kids cover kickoffs. They came down like a bunch of wild guys and tried to knock over anything that got in front of them. Special teams is about effort and smarts and wanting to do it. Hopefully we got the right guys out there to do it."
Traditionally, Auburn has great special teams and this year is no different, which will present a challenge for the Gamecocks on Saturday. Placekicker Cody Parkey has boomed 15 of his 26 kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks and is averaging 69.5 yards per kickoff.
"He's kicking the ball like eight yards out of the back of the end zone," Butler said. "Jay (Wooten) has done a nice job for us. We know we're probably going to start a bunch of possessions at the 20-yard line. Auburn has good athletes too. They know how to cover."
Because of Parkey's powerful leg, the Tigers are ranked first in the SEC in kickoff coverage with a net average of 49.7 yards per boot.
Auburn punter Steven Clark (43.7 ypk) holds an edge over USC's Joey Scribner-Howard (41.2 ypk), but the latter had one of his best games of the season last Saturday when he averaged an impressive 46.3 yards on three punts one week after not even stepping onto the field against Navy.
Scribner-Howard bailed the Gamecocks out of a bad situation in the second quarter of last Saturday night's win over Vanderbilt when USC had their backs to the end zone. He boomed a 56-yard punt to the VU 41. A nine-yard return placed the ball at midfield. Three plays later, Stephen Gilmore intercepted his first pass of the season.
"Joey punted the ball great," Butler said. "I think we covered pretty well. (Marty) Markett did a great job. We had one issue with protection but luckily Joey got it off."
Through four weeks, USC is ranked seventh in punting (37.8 net yards), two spots below Auburn.
Ace Sanders averaged 5.4 yards on five punt returns with a long of 16 yards. He almost received the blocking to take it to the house for the second time this season.
"We had one punt return where I thought we were one block away from a touchdown," Butler said. "We're getting closer and closer to scoring again. It just comes down to executing and really getting 11 guys on the same page and not just nine or ten."
However, Sanders fumbled on his first punt return of the night. Fortunately, he fell on the loose football at the USC 31. Butler knows, though, it could have been disastrous.
"We talk to all of our special team returners and we try to work it in practice," Butler said. "But we don't tackle a whole lot in special teams during practice, so we're doing some drills this week. He was carrying that thing like a loaf of bread, like Antonio was carrying the fumble.
"Anybody that holds the football has to immediately secure it high and tight. They must realize they have to run with it that way or they're going to be in danger of losing it. If that guy doesn't knock the ball out, Ace is around the corner and he's running down the sidelines."
Wooten missed a 46-yard field goal for his first misfire of the season. He had previously connected on 49 and 48 yarders.
Butler doesn't expect the miss will impact Wooten mentally since it was beyond 45 yards.
"He missed it right off the foot. He came across it a little bit," Butler said. "It goes back to his fundamentals. He made the first two long ones because his fundamentals were solid. He just got out of whack a little bit on that one."
Only one SEC school (Ole Miss) has attempted fewer field goals than USC in 2011. Wooten is 2-for-3 (.667). Five schools have attempted eight or more field goals.
Part of the reason for that is attributable to the fact all 10 of USC's scores when they've driven into the red zone have been touchdowns. In fact, 13 of USC's 14 red zone penetrations have resulted in either a touchdown (10) or a turnover (league high 3).
Bruce Ellington is averaging 22.8 yards on nine kickoff returns. USC is currently ninth in the SEC in that category with an average of 20.5 yards per return, while Auburn is second (26.4 ypr).
Butler says Ellington is improving each week as he gets more and more acclimated to playing football again.
"I think he's done well," Butler said. "With his athletic ability, experience on kickoff returns is invaluable. The experience in the spacing will help him. I'm encouraged with where we're headed. He just needs more time to read things and get his vision right."
WHERE USC RANKS IN SEC IN SPECIAL TEAMS:
Kickoff Returns - 9th (20.5 yards per return)
Punt Returns - 6th (10.4 yards per return)
Kickoff Coverage - 12th (42.2 net yards per kick)
Punting - 7th (37.8 net yards)
Field Goals - 10th (.667 pct)
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