There was a lot to like about Carolina’s thrashing of SEC newcomer Mizzou on Saturday. But for longtime Gamecock fans, perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the game was the progress that seems to have been made on special teams. Kicker Adam Yates has been perfect so far this season, and the amount his leg strength has improved on kickoffs is nothing short of eye-popping. The punters have been serviceable, but fortunately haven’t been needed all that often so far. And what more can be said about the return game? Ace Sanders and Bruce Ellington both were magnificent returning kicks. It was the first time in a long time that Gamecock fans have seen how special teams can flip a game in Carolina’s favor.
But those same fans are also wary. We know what a blight special teams have been in years past. Thankfully, none of the culprits from years past are on this year’s team. But the fact remains that, for over a decade now, special teams have been especially vexing for the Gamecocks. We haven’t been truly good on special teams since before Lou Holtz was the coach. Ace Sanders returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown last season against East Carolina, South Carolina’s first such touchdown since Chavez Donnings returned a punt 73 yards on the final play of the first half against Florida…in 2003.
The stats are even more depressing for kickoff returns. Do you remember the last time Carolina returned a kickoff for a touchdown? If you said yes, you’re lying. The answer is all the way back in 2002, when Matthew Thomas ran one back from 95 yards away against Virginia.
There have been plenty of horrifying special teams moments since then. Two losses to Georgia immediately come to mind. A missed extra point, the only missed extra point of Josh Brown’s career, forced the Gamecocks to go for two after a late touchdown between the hedges in 2005 in a game they lost 17-15. Four years later, another missed extra point after a pick-six by the legendary Eric Norwood forced the Gamecocks to try for a fourth down conversion inside the final minute rather than kick a potential tying field goal from inside of 30 yards, and Georgia came away with a 41-37 win.
Kickoffs have also been problematic for the Gamecocks. They gave up a 99-yard touchdown return to Vanderbilt’s Warren Norman in a 14-10 2009. Andre Debose ran the opening kickoff back in 2010 in Gainesville, giving the Gators their only positive highlight in the game that clinched the SEC East for South Carolina. Arkansas’ Dennis Johnson (who?) ran one back from 98 yards away last season. C.J. Spiller had one in 2009, as did Brandon Boykin of Georgia. I think you’re beginning to get the picture.
But unfortunately, that picture gets even uglier. Anybody remember The Jarvis Moss Game? Florida was ranked #6 in 2006 when the Gamecocks went to Gainesville. They would go on to win a national championship that season. The Gamecocks played them tough, but had a field goal and an extra point blocked. Carolina drove down the field and attempted a long field goal as time expired that would have won the game. But Jarvis Moss, already responsible for one of Florida’s blocks on the day, had other plans. He blocked Ryan Succop’s kick (viewed here from the student section, but be warned, it’s as loud as it is painful) to preserve the 17-16 victory.
We’ve even seen flashes of brilliance from the Gamecocks, only to see them fade away just as quickly. In 2009, Stephon Gilmore appeared to have broken Carolina’s long punt return drought, but a block in the back penalty negated the touchdown. Chris Culliver had a masterful day returning kicks against Kentucky in 2009, only to see Carolina’s return game fade back into dark oblivion from whence it came the following week.
I don’t say all this to depress you. In fact, I’ve been more encouraged by Carolina’s special teams play these last few weeks than at any time I can ever remember. It just begs the question: before we all get too excited about our progress in this important facet of the game, is that progress sustainable?