March 28, 2008

Rychleski Stirring Up USC's Special Teams

When it comes to the South Carolina coaching staff, 50-year old Ray Rychleski is one of the new kids on the block.

It's been over three months since the former long-time Maryland assistant was hired away from the Terrapins and named USC's special teams coordinator and tight ends coach.

His no-nonsense approach has been a hit with nearly everyone associated with the Gamecock football program, including the person Rychleski needs to impress the most.

Head coach Steve Spurrier recently described Rychleski as the most organized special teams coach he's ever had. Without question, Spurrier believes all of the special team units will be much improved this season under Rychleski's guidance.

They certainly must get better if USC wants to win the games they let slip away last season. Special teams blunders proved costly in heartbreaking losses to Tennessee and Clemson.

Rychleski has set about trying to bolster USC's special team units with an energetic coaching style. His methods might differ from what USC fans have seen in the past, but there's no denying they're effective.

"In coaching in general, you should have energy," Rychleski said. "You don't have to be a yeller and a screamer. I yell once in a while, obviously. When guys do things well, they should be patted on the back. But when they do things wrong, they should be told about it. With special teams, you do have to have a high energy level. The players have to think it's very important."

Rychleski likes what he' seen so far in spring practice. USC has spent the first week focused on the punt block and punt coverage teams.

"We have some good team speed," Rychleski said. "What I've noticed is the want-to and the desire of our team in all phases. They want to be good. I see a desire to get last year's bad taste out of their mouths and they can't wait to get going. They've just gone after it. They're competing."

Rychleski says that when he arrived in Columbia he was told a lot of past USC players were reluctant to play special teams. But so far Rychleski hasn't seen evidence of that.

"I haven't seen that," Rychleski said. "I think they're all chomping at the bit just to be successful. They want to be successful. When they have that attitude, they'll do whatever the team needs."

Rychleski was hired by Spurrier largely because of his track record. Maryland didn't have a single punt blocked in his seven years with the Terrapins, the longest current streak in Division I-A.

There's a good reason for that, Rychleski has one rule that stands above all others - protect the football.

"We always feel we have to protect the football first," Rychleski said. "Our coverage teams are the most important in my mind. We ended up first in the country last season in kickoff coverage at Maryland. And the punt team was pretty good too. Hopefully, we're going to have real good protection and coverage teams here."

USC opened spring practice with eight candidates battling to become the primary punt returner, a role filled by Captain Munnerlyn last season.

Munnerlyn averaged 9.2 yards for 18 punt returns until suffering a broken bone in his foot against Arkansas. Kenny McKinley, the main punt returner in 2006, filled in after that.

The list of candidates has dwindled to six, including Munnerlyn, who's resting the foot this spring, and McKinley, who's bothered by bone spurs in his toe.

Rychleski plans to soon cut the list further. Chris Culliver, Charles Whitlock, Dion Lecorn and Akeem Auguste are the other four players battling for the job of returning punts.

"That's the area where we have some really good competition," Rychleski said. "That's something everyone wants to be. They want the keys to the castle, as I say. We have six guys who can take it to the house on any given occasion."

Auguste and Whitlock, both true freshmen, enrolled at USC in January in order to participate in spring practice. Both players have impressed coaches and teammates with their speed.

"Auguste has quick feet, but he's a football player," Rychleski said. "He's young. That what makes me nervous about him and Whitlock. I like Lecorn because he's been around. He's a tough guy. We have some good players at that position."

In the first several practices, Rodney Paulk and Pat DiMarco have lined up at the all-important "personal protector" position on USC's punt coverage team. Their responsibility is to keep the rushers away from USC's punter and give him room enough to get the kick away.

"Rodney reminds me of a kid I had at Maryland named D'Qwell Jackson who's now with the Cleveland Browns," Rychleski said. "He's a football smart guy. He wants to do it. He has good quickness. He's a guy that can make plays. Pat DiMarco is a throwback. He should be playing for the Green Bay Packers of the Vince Lombardi era. Those two guys are smart, tough football players."

Ryan Succop and Spencer Lanning have engaged in a spirited battle for the punting job that's expected to continue into fall camp in August. Succop handled all three major kicking chores last season, but some people feel it took a toll on him by the end of the season.

Rychleski stated soon after he arrived in Columbia that he would prefer someone else handle the punting, freeing up Succop to focus on what he does best, kickoffs and field goals.

"Right now, we have a battle for the punting job between Lanning and Succop," Rychleski said. "Lanning has started to impress me. We also have Ryan Doerr coming in here, but he'll be behind. I just wish Lanning were a little bit tougher. I like his height on the ball and he gets it away quickly. It would be outstanding if Lanning were our punter. But we don't have a starting punter right now. I would say it's dead even."

Sophomore linebacker Melvin Ingram has surprised Rychleski with his ability to deep snap. Charles Turner, last season's deep snapper, has struggled in the early going.

"Melvin's got a little freakish in him," Rychleski said. "He's a 270 pound guy that could possibly be a tight end or fullback. He runs 4.65. He's strong. He can snap. He can be on kickoff coverage. He doesn't know how good he could be. We just have to get his mind right and make football very important to him. But Melvin is an outstanding athlete. But there's a lot of guys who are athletes. This guy's going to be phenomenal."

USC plans to do some live punting in Saturday morning's scrimmage at Williams-Brice Stadium, Rychleski said.

"Let's see who can block kicks, let's see if we can protect the punt, and let's see if we can get the punt off," Rychleski said.

In addition to overseeing the hoped for renaissance of the special teams, Rychleski also serves as USC's tight ends coach. If the first four practices are any indication, sophomore Weslye Saunders is primed for a breakthrough season as a pass catcher.

Saunders had 12 receptions for 151 yards last season.

But here's the question Rychleski is most concerned about - can he block?

"Everyone wants to catch passes, but we also have to block," Rychleski said. "Now we have to get Weslye to block Eric Norwood and Cliff Matthews."

Here's a sign of progress Rychleski was searching for - the tight ends held their own blocking against the defensive players Monday night in the Oklahoma drill.

"I was pleasantly surprised," Rychleski said. "I didn't think they'd do as well as they actually did. They did pretty well."

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