Ace Sanders’ early departure to the NFL obviously left a big hole in South Carolina’s wide receiver group.
Sanders was essentially the co-No. 1 receiver last season, along with Bruce Ellington, who is back. Sanders had 45 catches (five more than Ellington), 531 yards (69 fewer) and nine touchdowns (two more).
As USC looks for more this spring out of Nick Jones (12 catches last year), Damiere Byrd (14) and Shaq Roland (five), as well as new No. 1 tight end Rory Anderson (14), there is also another void left by Sanders that needs to be filled.
As good as Sanders was as a receiver, he was an elite punt returner. He had 28 returns last year for 429 yards and two touchdowns. The year before: 16 for 149 and one. Last season, he ranked No. 6 nationally with 15.32 yards per return.
The Gamecocks’ most experienced option now is junior cornerback Victor Hampton. His only college punt returns came last season. He returned two punts for minus-2 yards, with a long of 12. Hampton is very fast, as are the other players USC is auditioning at punt returner. But all punt returners are fast. What does a fast guy have to do in order to become a great returner?
“Judge the football, catch it and be able to get north and south right now,” said special teams coordinator Joe Robinson. “I think if you look at some of the guys that aren’t as successful, they’re chasing the ball sideways. They’re not able to burst north and south because they’re unsure of the catch. I think the confidence and the ability to catch the football and get that immediate first 10 yards, and then let all the magic happen.
“I think a little bit of that confidence comes when (the punt returner) believes we’re going to protect him. If he doesn’t believe he has the proper protection, it’s kind of hard to stand back there and be confident. I think that all goes hand in hand. We won’t get as many live looks (in game situations) in the spring, but we will be able to find out who can judge it and who can catch it and who can set their feet. That’s one of the things we’ll be looking for this spring.”
Hampton was listed as USC’s No. 2 punt returner last season, so he will obviously get a look this spring. Among the others who Robinson is considering early on: Jones (junior receiver), Chris Moody (redshirt freshman No. 2 strong safety), Roland (sophomore receiver) and Ahmad Christian (sophomore No. 2 cornerback behind Hampton).
“I’m forgetting a couple, to be honest with you, and I hate to do that,” Robinson said after listing off those names. “We’re going to look at a ton of guys this spring. That competition is not nearly as focused as the kicking competition (where sophomore Landon Ard is listed ahead of redshirt freshman Nick St. Germain).
“The punt return competition, we think we’ve got a lot of guys back there that deserve a look to see how well they catch it, how well they judge it, how well they burst after they catch. We think we’ve got a lot of talented guys. We’re going to have to narrow that one down. But obviously, the guy with experience right now is Vic Hampton.”
Once Ellington is done with basketball, he will come back to football. He was the primary kickoff returner the past two seasons. He had 18 returns for 406 yards last year (22.56 per return) and 20 for 463 (23.15) in 2011. Byrd was listed as the No. 2 kickoff returner last season, as he is entering this spring. He had two returns last year and one in 2011, as a true freshman.
Robinson said he will continue to look at other guys on kickoff return besides Ellington and Byrd, but that the issues with that unit stem largely from blocking for the return men. USC was No. 10 nationally in punt return average last season (14.23 yards per return), but No. 62 in kickoff return average (21.65).
“That’s a place where I’ve got to do a better job,” Robinson said. “We did a good job protecting our punt returner last year. We didn’t do as good of a job helping Bruce out. We’ve got to do a lot better job this year (of) helping Bruce be more effective.”
USC’s issues with kickoff coverage last year were well-documented. The Gamecocks finished No. 99 of 124 teams nationally with 23.24 yards allowed per kickoff return. Their punt coverage, though, was No. 18, with 4.73 yards allowed per return. So kickoff coverage will certainly be another area that Robinson will try to shore up this spring.