Mobley: Improvement needed in several areas

Commentary by Phil Mobley.
There's no doubt that the 2005 incarnation of Carolina football has been, on the whole, a superior product to what's been seen in Columbia since the 2001 season. For one thing, the team is just a lot more fun to watch. For another, its improvement from the beginning of the season to the end was extraordinary. The Gamecocks learned a little about what it takes to win, and that's a nice opening act to the Steve Spurrier era.
Beyond that, there were particular aspects of the team's play during the regular season that were measurably better than before. Finally, Carolina figured out how to sack a quarterback. The Gamecocks also generated a positive turnover ratio and capitalized on opportunities created by turnovers and drives into the red zone. And, despite what anyone's interpretation of the numbers might suggest, the offense was much more capable of scoring when it really mattered due to a vastly improved passing scheme.
Not everything was wine and roses, however, as I noticed during a brief gander at some team statistics on the SEC's Web site. A few of the glaring deficiencies on this team are as familiar as a mother-in-law and twice as irritating (just kidding, Mrs. M!). If Carolina realistically wants to compete for a title next season, then these things will need to be addressed pronto.
The Running Game
The Gamecocks ranked 11th in the SEC in rushing offense (netting 91 yards per contest) and rushing defense (giving up 172). There's no question that there was improvement on the offensive side, and in the last two games, Carolina did more than enough on the ground to win with its pass-oriented offense. Still, the loss of the senior anchors of the line will be a lot to overcome in 2006, even with the potential return of Cory Boyd and Syvelle Newton to the Gamecock backfield. Carolina got better on defense as well, and they did it mostly with heart. A personnel shakeup and a knack for making big stops when it really mattered helped mask the 4-yards-per-carry average that kept the team on the brink for most of the year. It's a testament to their conditioning that the Gamecocks' stop troops didn't crumble late in games during November, but they're going to have to work hard to help put and keep the ball in the hands of the offense for more than 27:33 per game next year. Numbers to watch for next year: 150 yards (both offensively and defensively) and 30 minutes.
Kick Returns
Doesn't it seem like the Gamecocks are always fighting poor field position? Part of that is because they can't do much more than fall forward with the ball after the other team punts or kicks off. Carolina ranked dead last in the conference in punt returns, with an embarrassing average of 3.5 yards per attempt. Folks, that's just sick, and not in a good way. While they weren't last in kickoff returns, the Gamecocks still averaged less than 20 yards per effort, which is also pretty bad for a team with so many ostensibly fast players. Numbers to shoot for next year would be 10 and 25 for punts and kickoffs, respectively.
Kickoff Coverage
Another aspect of the field position problem is that Carolina did an especially poor job of covering the kicks that Ryan Succop didn't manage to send through the end zone. Opponents' starting field position was, on average, the 25-yard line after Gamecock kickoffs, once again last in the conference. Since slightly less than half of these were touchbacks, that means that the typical returnable kick put the bad guys somewhere north of the 30. This is an unacceptable neglect of detail for a team that aspires to bigger and better things. By comparison, LSU's opponents started inside the 20, and that includes touchbacks! Anything past the 25 should be regarded as a failure of the coverage team in 2006.
From a yardage perspective, the Gamecocks were in the top half of the league in terms of penalties per game. In an average game, Carolina committed six penalties at 7.6 yards per violation. The good news is that there weren't a whole lot of big ones, like pass interference, personal fouls, or holding. From that standpoint, the Gamecocks were fairly disciplined. The other side of that coin is that at times they could hardly break the huddle without committing some form of procedural infraction, be it an improper shift or an illegal formation (not to mention a few delay of game calls for good measure). Against Georgia, specifically, Carolina wasn't good enough to overcome this tendency, and I don't think they will be next year either. Bowl practice, spring practice, and another fall camp should help familiarize the young skill players with where they need to be and how they can and cannot get there before the snap. These kinds of mistakes need to become a distant memory in future seasons.
Nobody's Perfect
Speaking of needed improvement, my performance as a columnist this season certainly left a lot to be desired. I should've learned my lesson by now. This season, in spite of myself, I came up with such gems as:
· Alabama is over-hyped
· Chris Leak is far and away the best quarterback in the SEC
· Tennessee is a lock to win the SEC
· Carolina won't win a single road game, but will roll over Clemson
I'm sure there are others, but you get the idea. As a sign that I have changed my columnist culture, I pledge to the six of you who are still reading that I will right the ship. I commit myself to grueling 7 p.m. Internet research sessions as part of my off-season program. Furthermore, I plan to install the remainder of my football analysis package in the spring. Finally, I hope to bring in a great class of top-notch writing talent for next August's camp. Hey, I realize that isn't the AP, but my performance didn't merit a better column. There will be no more excuses or "moral insights" in this space. I have been blessed with great facilities and a strong base of support, so when people talk about the future of great sports writing, I emphatically ask "Why not ME?" You don't deserve any less.
Wait, there's another game? You mean a BOWL game? Wow! That should be fun to talk about next week…
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