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July 19, 2012
HOOVER, Ala. - Ace Sanders has had two more special-teams coaches than career returns for touchdowns. Asking him if South Carolina was going to be improved in special teams in 2012 was a question that had to be asked, although there won't be a full answer until November.
Sanders, though, has already seen a change.
"We got a good special teams coach that actually came from LSU a couple of years ago," Sanders said on Tuesday at SEC Media Days. "His game plan is one of the best I've ever seen. Really, it just starts with the coaches, and then it starts with players who actually want to be on special teams, even if they're not returning."
Joe Robinson took over the Gamecocks' special teams during the offseason, replacing John Butler. Butler had just replaced Shane Beamer a year earlier. A long-time troublesome spot for USC football, coach Steve Spurrier said during an interview with Robinson that he wanted to stay aggressive on special teams. The Gamecocks had seen some improvements under Butler but still finished last in the SEC in net kickoff returns, causing plenty of headaches for the offensive coaches. It's very tough to do anything consistently when every possession starts inside the 25-yard-line.
Robinson, who was contacted by Spurrier two years ago about replacing Beamer but was already committed to North Carolina, accepted the job. After coming from Arizona (where he worked with Steve Spurrier Jr.) to LSU, to UNC and then to USC, Robinson has returned to the SEC and hopes to make an impact.
USC is going through changes, unsure of who will kick the ball in any phase of the game and really unsure if one coach can make a major difference in an area that's been lousy for years. Sanders, though, says he's already seen a difference.
"The attitudes are different," he said. "We have guys excited just to play the roles of blocking. If they actually want to do that, we can have some good special teams."
Sanders broke one severe drought last year, when he took a punt return to the end zone against East Carolina. That was the first time a Gamecock had done it since 2003.
Another drought - USC's zero in the kickoff return for a TD - remains in effect. Matthew Thomas is still the last Gamecock to do it, way back in 2002. While the Gamecocks' opponents have seemingly all found a way to run past USC's coverage to paydirt during that span, USC has been unable to find any kind of answer.
The preseason depth chart has some talent listed on it. Bruce Ellington is at the top of the kick return chart, followed by Victor Hampton and Damiere Byrd. Sanders is the only listed punt returner.
Robinson didn't have a lot of time to work with the special teams, just the allotted 15 practices in the spring.
"I've watched a little bit of film just to see the explosive athletes we have on the team," Robinson said in a radio interview before spring practice. "I know the tools are there in terms of the coverage game and the return game to make plays.
"I haven't had a chance to study the specialists themselves very much. I got a chance to meet a few of them this past weekend. I know we have a group of specialists where we can improve every day."
The kickers will determine some of the special teams' prowess but much of Robinson's impact will be judged by the return game. It's been so long since USC had a consistently dangerous returner that if Ellington, Sanders et al can burst for a long gain on Aug. 30, Robinson might be in line for a contract extension before halftime.
Sanders, at least, was excited to show that USC won't be picked on in special teams this year.
"I'm really looking at opening it up in the special teams game," Sanders said. "Special teams really give a team a big boost. I'm looking at being that return man and the slot man."
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