February 28, 2008

2008 Spring Preview: Special Teams Makeover

If South Carolina's special teams weren't broken, Ray Rychleski wouldn't be currently employed as an assistant coach with the Gamecocks.

Rychleski gained an impeccable reputation as a special teams guru during his seven successful years at Maryland when the Terrapins never had a single punt blocked.

Heck, USC had two punts blocked in just over one half of play against Clemson on Nov. 24. One of the blocked punts was returned for a touchdown.

At the end of last season, Steve Spurrier decided to dismiss Fred Chatham, who shared special teams coaching duties with Shane Beamer, and hire Rychleski as the sole special teams coordinator with total authority over that area.

Rychleski's philosophy regarding special teams is that they're as much of a mental endeavor as a physical one.

"The first thing we need to get across to the players in the meetings is that we have to get our attitude right," Rychleski said. "Here's how we can win games on special teams, here's how we can not lose games on special teams. We need to get an attitude about us that we're going to help this team because it's real important. Everyone is going to play special teams, so they might as well get their mind right."

Poor special teams performances proved costly to USC in at least two defeats last season - Tennessee and Clemson. Next season, USC has an equally challenging schedule. The first three games against North Carolina State, Vanderbilt and Georgia could all go down to the wire with a play here or there making the difference.

"As Coach (Spurrier) has said, every game next year is going to be close," Rychleski said. "Nobody is going to blow anybody out. It's who wins those (special teams) battles that makes a difference. From that standpoint, we're going to focus on the proper attitude early."

While South Carolina struggled again in some aspects of special teams, they showed improvement in others. USC was third in the SEC in kickoff returns with an average of 22.4 yards per return. Only Tennessee and Georgia were better in that area.

USC's high ranking is attributable mostly to the talents of sophomore Chris Culliver, who averaged 23.8 yards per return and broke of a pair of 44-yard returns, one of them coming against LSU, as a true freshmen in 2007.

"He was probably thrown into the fire faster then he should have been," Rychleski said. "But he has talent. We'll see what he can do."

With his blazing speed, Culliver should return kickoffs again this upcoming season, but that doesn't mean Rychleski is putting all of his eggs in one basket.

In addition to Culliver, he'll try to coach up a number of other possible kickoff returners when spring practice starts, including Akeem Auguste, Eric Baker, Charles Whitlock and Moe Brown.

"Moe Brown intrigues me with his speed," Rychleski said. "Now, will he hit it up in there? We had a guy at Maryland with Olympic type speed but he didn't have a knack for kick returns, so we didn't use him. But if you have speed, we'll try to find a spot for you."

Rychleski utilizes a scheme with one main returner in the deep middle of the field with two "halfbacks" on either side.

Believe it or not, USC was also third in the league in kickoff coverage. However, a major breakdown on a kickoff late in the game against Tennessee after USC had taken a 24-21 lead stole the headlines.

USC finished sixth in the conference in net punting with an average of 34.4 yards per kick. The Gamecocks were also fifth in punt returns, averaging 9.4 yards per return.

Captain Munnerlyn served as USC's primary punt returner last season, and had one return for a touchdown called back due to a penalty. His longest return covered 46 yards.

While Munnerlyn may return punts again next season, the micro-fracture in his foot suffered in the Arkansas game may prevent him from showcasing his skills to Rychleski this spring.

"I'm very excited about Captain but he's coming off a foot injury," Rychleski said. "He just got his screw out. We're not sure how much he's going to practice in the spring."

As a result, Rychleski expects to put a group of seven or eight punt return candidates through the paces starting March 19 when spring practice begins. The group includes Auguste (Rychleski said he has "great feet"), Kenny McKinley, Whitlock, Baker, Antonio Allen, Mark Barnes and Culliver.

Rychleski hopes to quickly cut the list to four candidates when workouts begin.

"We have to find out, first of all, who can catch it," Rychleski said. "Then we have to find out who can make somebody miss and finally who wants to do it. Some of these guys are young and that scares the hell out of me. Right now, we have a big list and we're going to cut it down as we go."

Dion Lecorn, who was indefinitely suspended from all team activities following his recent arrest for simply possession of marijuana, will also get a look if he's available.

"In the return game, we want to have Culliver and Munnerlyn, but we also want to find a couple more," Rychleski said. "At Maryland, we were down to our fourth kickoff returner and our fourth punt return guy. You have to have more than one guy at each spot. Those two guys (Culliver and Munnerlyn) give us experience coming back and they did well. Now let's find out about the guys behind them."

One player Rychleski is reluctant to discuss is Whitlock, a true freshman from Chester, S.C. that enrolled at USC in January and will participate in spring practice. Whitlock has struggled with a shoulder problem in winter conditioning, however.

"Let's wait on guys that have never played a down of college football," Rychleski said. "That's just speculating on guys coming in. He's just getting back into workouts. He had a shoulder problem there for a while. Let's see what he can do just getting onto the field. He's a talented young man, but let's see what he can do first before we put him anywhere."

Rychleski proudly proclaims he used the same punt coverage formation for seven years at Maryland - two gunners on either side - with spectacular success. He doesn't plan to deviate from that scheme.

"We're a NFL-type punt protection scheme," Rychleski said. "We do what nearly every team in the NFL does. From that standpoint, if you're a cornerback and you want to go to the league, you'd better be a great gunner because you have to do more than one thing to make it in the NFL."

What makes a great gunner? Someone with the combination of quickness and toughness to beat double teams on the outside. But, right now, Rychleski is looking for players who can beat a single blocker.

"If you can't beat the single press, you can't play and you're out," Rychleski said. "We have to find another gunner. Those guys have to be special. Again, it's about attitude."

Rychleski identified Carlos Thomas, Munnerlyn, Addison Williams, Stoney Woodson, Jamire Williams, Auguste, Whitlock and Culliver as the top eight gunner candidates.

Thomas is one player, Rychleski said, who must prove to NFL scouts during his senior season that he can do a solid job on special teams.

"(Thomas) talks about the league but he'd better start producing, the way I see it," Rychleski said. "He has all the talent in the world. He's quick as a cat but he has to make plays on special teams. He sees himself going to the league. Beat double pressure, and he'll go to the league. Until then, he's not going to the league."

Ryan Succop enjoyed a solid year with field goals by connecting on 13 of 17 attempts, including 8 of 8 inside 40 yards. He also averaged a respectable 41.6 yards per punt.

"Ryan should try to be All-SEC and be an All-American," Rychleski said. "They're both very attainable goals. Ryan works his butt off."

Succop made six of his final seven field goal attempts last season. The only miss? The 40-yarder in overtime against Tennessee.

"We have a very good (field goal) kicker, a very good holder in Tommy Beecher, and a very good snapper in Charles Turner," Rychleski said.

Rychleski insisted soon after he was hired that he didn't want Succop handling all three of the major kicking chores in 2008. So, he's looking for someone to step up as the punter.

Since new signee Ryan Doerr of Katy, Tex. won't arrive on campus until the fall, that leaves walk-on Spencer Lanning of Rock Hill, S.C. as the only serious challenger to Succop in that specialty.

"Based on what I've heard about Spencer Lanning, I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do as a punter," Rychleski said. "Spencer has been around for a couple of years. Ryan Doerr is going to be a freshman. The first time he steps onto the football field in August, I'm just hoping he catches the snap first. He's going to have to prove to me he's a tough guy. He was a receiver also in high school, so he has good hands."

If Rychleski has his way, the punt job will turn into a battle between Lanning and Doerr in the fall. Hence, Lanning has the advantage of making an early favorable impression.

Succop will very likely retain his kickoffs and field goals responsibilities in 2008.

"From a kickoff and field goal standpoint, I'd be lying if I said I thought somebody is going to take Ryan's jobs," Rychleski said. "But if he goes into a slump or something happens, there's always the possibility (of someone else taking the job)."

2008 SPRING SPECIAL TEAMS ROSTER:

Punt Returners: Captain Munnerlyn, Akeem Auguste, Kenny McKinley, Charles Whitlock, Eric Baker, Antonio Allen, Mark Barnes, Chris Culliver.

Kickoff Returners: Chris Culliver, Akeem Auguste, Eric Baker, Charles Whitlock, Moe Brown.

Kickers: Ryan Succop, Spencer Lanning.



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