When Ace Sanders snapped off a 68-yard punt return for a touchdown in the season opener against East Carolina, most people thought the Gamecocks were gearing up for a turnaround season on special teams.
But, if anything, the first seven weeks have shown explicitly how far USC has to go before they see significant improvement in a critically important area.
After John Butler was hired as special teams coordinator in February, he spent a considerable amount of time in the spring working on improving kickoff returns after USC finished 11th in the SEC in that category with an average of 20.4 yards per return.
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Through seven games, USC is averaging 20.5 yards on 17 kickoff returns in 2011, an increase of one-tenth of a yard. The longest return has been 35 yards by Bruce Ellington.
The kickoff coverage unit is also about the same. USC had a net average of 43.7 yards on kickoffs in 2010. A year later, USC's net kickoff average is 43.6 yards, 10th-best in the SEC.
"We're not quite making anything happen, no question about it," USC head coach Steve Spurrier said Tuesday. "It's frustrating for all of us. We're not holding guys up real well, not blocking real well on kickoff returns."
Mostly because of Sanders' TD return against the Pirates, USC has seen their punt return average more than double from 3.4 yards in 2010 to 7.9 yards in 2011, sixth in the SEC.
However, that's small consolation to Butler, who is working feverishly to ignite a spark under USC's special teams. USC jumped out to a quick start, but the pace has slowed considerably in recent weeks.
"I'm doing kind of a self-scout right now," Butler said Tuesday. "We've had four explosive plays and our opponents have had five total. Four of them on both sides of the ball were in the first two games. We've got to do a better job of trying to find out how we can create them, but we have been doing a good job of not giving them up. We've given up one punt return and one kickoff return and both of them were in the Georgia game. Both gave them good field position, but really didn't hurt us. Our coverage units have been good, but our return units need to be improved."
Ellington and D.J. Swearinger are now working as USC's top kickoff returners. Ellington is averaging 22.2 yards on 11 returns, while Swearinger returned his first kickoff of the season for 16 yards in last Saturday's 14-12 win at Mississippi State.
Butler described Ellington and Swearinger as "co-returners" on Tuesday. USC's two kickoff returns in Starkville went for 17 and 16 yards.
"I told Coach Butler that I was watching the highlights of the Texas-Oklahoma State game (last Saturday) and they had back-to-back kickoffs for a touchdown, so they are possible out there," Spurrier said. "We're not even getting back to the 30 or so. Seems like in the East Carolina game we got back to midfield and had the punt return. We're still working on it. I don't know if changing personnel is the answer."
Like his predecessor, Butler is trying to improve the blocking in front of the returners. So far, the results have been mixed.
"I'm just trying to find a spark. It's not really about those guys though. Those guys are doing a solid job," Butler said. "We've got to block better for them. We have to hold guys up better. There are too many guys at the point of attack who are missing (blocks). They know who they're supposed to block, they're just getting beat physically. We worked on that hard today. We just have to try to find a way."
Butler faces a tricky situation. Does he try to make personnel changes at this point or just attempt to get the current players to play better?
"I don't know. It's a combination of both. You have to find the right fit and find the right guys who can do it," Butler said. "I want to use as many good players or starters on special teams as I can, but we have to be smart. We just have to keep plugging along. Sooner or later, we'll have something pop."
If USC's kickoff returns don't improve, will lightning-fast freshman Damiere Byrd get an opportunity to show what he can do? Possible.
"He's got to give us a spark somewhere, but guys have got to earn their keep," Butler said. "Until he shows it on the practice field, those guys (Ellington and Swearinger) will play."
Sanders is fourth in the SEC in punt returns with an average of 9.9 yards and has displayed his usual fearlessness when it comes to making fair catches in traffic. Sixty-eight of his 119 punt return yards came on the TD play in the season opener.
"We're trying of late to get some pressure on the punter and that has not opened things up for him in the return game," Butler said. "Ace has done a great job other than the ball against Kentucky that he misjudged. He's fielded the ball close to about a 95 percent rate. The punters we've been facing every week, the net punting against us has been somewhere between 42, 43, 44 (yards) - that's tough."
Marty Markett, the second-fastest player on the team behind Byrd, remains USC's most productive player in terms of covering kickoffs and punts.
"It's like a really good defensive lineman that gets penetration," Butler said. "What happens is, he gets so much penetration on the kickoffs, there are no creases in there. They can't attack us north and south. They have to bounce to the perimeter. Some of those other guys we've gotten in there, we have four or five walk-ons in there, guys who really want to make the travel squad, they've helped us.
Only four of Jay Wooten's 41 kickoffs have sailed into the end zone for touchbacks, but his boots have usually had enough trajectory to allow USC's coverage team to run down the field and make the tackle.
"Jay doesn't have many touchbacks, but he's giving us about 4.05 or 4.1 hang time so we're getting down there covering," Butler said. "Guys are in their lanes and we've been making tackles. That's been positive. Other than the one return we gave up against Georgia, they've done a good job."
Joey Scribner-Howard is averaging 40.5 yards on 31 punts in seven games. His longest punt of 60 yards came in last week's win at Mississippi State. Overall, USC's net punt average of 36.8 yards is eighth in the SEC.
"Joey is doing pretty well," Spurrier said. "He's not an All-American punter, but he's done OK. I don't know if he punted in high school. He was more of a field goal and extra point guy. But he's done pretty well. He shanks one every now and then, but he does pretty well back there."
Scribner-Howard has been asked to punt rugby style a few times this year, but the results haven't been encouraging so far.
"Every football player on our team has to be able to execute what the coaches ask them to do," Butler said. "Everybody nowadays has to be able to run the rugby punt or else everybody will run seven or eight guys up inside like Vanderbilt did on the play that roughed our punter. He executes that in practice flawlessly, but then came out in the game, took his eye off the ball and punted it into the stands. He can't do that. He has to be able to do what we ask him to do - punt the ball in that situation.
"If he gives us a 40-yard punt, that thing is going to roll an extra 10 yards. We had Antonio (Allen) and Marty Markett in his (the returner's) face. Joey has done a very good job. He's really had three punts this year that have been severely substandard. That's hurt our stats, but hasn't hurt the outcome of our games. He also had four punts over 4.5 hang time and four over 40 yards (in the last game), so he's helped us."
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