Gamecocks special teams impressive through two games
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS FOOTBALL
"This is by far the best special teams group that we've played - specialists and special teams - certainly this year, but really ranks right up there with anybody that we've ever played against."
That was Alabama head coach Nick Saban's mouthful of a statement about South Carolina's special teams units leading up to this Saturday's matchup between the two schools.
Coachspeak and hyperbole aside, Saban has reason to be complimentary of South Carolina's special teams, which have excelled through the first two games of the season.
Using Pro Football Focus as a guide, the Gamecocks have the second-best special teams grade in the conference, a 78.9, behind only Georgia's 80.9. For comparison purposes, Alabama ranks ninth in the conference with a special teams grade of 67.9.
Shi Smith's kickoff return grade of 83.9 ranks seventh in the country while Bryan Edwards' 91.5 punt return grade is tops in the country. While there's certainly a limited sample size at play, both grades lead the SEC and the duo has been dangerous when given opportunities.
Punter Joseph Charlton continues to be one of the best in the country and has an average hang-time of 4.45 seconds, according to PFF, tied for ninth in the country. Kickoff specialist Will Tommie has a PFF grade of 79.9, good for sixth in the country, while place-kicker Parker White's 71.6 is No. 26 in the country.
"It's come a long way," head coach Will Muschamp said Tuesday. "When we first got here, starters didn't think they were supposed to play special teams and now they've realized the importance of the vertical field position, of the momentum of the game, changing the field position, how important that is."
A look at the more traditional stats tells a similar story.
Smith and Edwards lead the SEC in kickoff return average and punt return average, respectively - again with a limited sample size. Smith has returned three kicks for 100 yards total while Edwards has returned three punts for 66 yards.
White has hit three of his four field goal attempts, the lone miss a 53-yarder against North Carolina, while Tommie has produced a touchback on eight of his 11 kickoffs.
Add in a punting unit that has downed two inside the 20, a kickoff coverage unit that's tops in the SEC in return yardage allowed, and a blocked field goal from Javon Kinlaw, and maybe Saban has a point.
Through two games this season, South Carolina's special teams have been consistent and efficient and have produced big, momentum-changing plays.
"You look at our punt team, Shi and Jaycee (Horn) are our gunners, that's two of our better football players on our team," Muschamp said, detailing the importance of special teams. "Bryan Edwards is our punt returner. You look at our starting kickoff team, they're all starters across the board, same with our punt team.
"So, our guys understand the importance of (special) teams and understand that a third of the game is involved in special teams and the importance of that. Coleman Hutzler and Kyle Krantz do a fantastic job with our players and preparing them for games."
The Gamecocks will need more great plays in that facet of the game as they look to find any advantage against Saban's No. 2 Crimson Tide.