The mandate for Ray Rychleski when he was hired last December was to do everything within his power to improve South Carolina's sometimes dreadful special teams.
Following the conclusion of his first spring practice with the Gamecocks after seven successful seasons at Maryland, Rychleski believes he's making progress.
But the job is far from finished.
"It's definitely a work in progress," Rychleski said. "The thing I'm encouraged about is I believe the kids took it very serious this spring. They were very much into it. I think they realize special teams is the reason they were sitting at home last Christmas with no bowl gifts. They're not going to let that happen again to them."
One of the first things Rychleski had to accomplish when he arrived in Columbia was change the unwilling attitudes of the top Gamecock players towards special teams. He believes he was able to do that.
"I'm encouraged by the enthusiasm and the way the players think about special teams," Rychleski said. "That's very positive. When things happened, the players had questions. That told me they were into it. Now we have to take that into game day."
Poor special teams play proved costly in two defeats last season - Tennessee and Clemson. USC has an equally challenging schedule next season. Special teams could be the difference between victory and defeat in the opening three-game stretch against N.C. State, Vanderbilt and Georgia.
While South Carolina struggled again in some aspects of special teams, they showed improvement in others last season. 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.
Sophomore Chris Culliver averaged 23.8 yards per return and broke of a pair of 44-yard returns as a true freshmen in 2007. Following spring, it looks like Culliver will be USC's top kickoff returner again this upcoming season.
"I think Chris Culliver can be very good," Rychleski said.
In addition to Culliver, Rychleski wants to take a further look at Captain Munnerlyn, Akeem Auguste and Moe Brown as kickoff returners in the fall.
Rychleski employs a scheme with one main returner in the deep middle of the field with two "halfbacks" on either side. Currently, the two halfbacks are Dion Lecorn and Larry Freeman.
Although USC was third in the SEC in kickoff coverage last season, a major meltdown on a kickoff late in the game against Tennessee helped the Volunteers score the game-tying field goal.
Munnerlyn was USC's primary punt returner last season, and will likely serve in that capacity again. However, he didn't practice this spring due to a fractured foot suffered in the Arkansas game.
Auguste, a freshman from Hollywood, Fla., took advantage of Munnerlyn's absence by impressing Rychleski with his punt return skills.
"Even though I didn't see Captain in the spring, that was good for us because we ended up finding Akeem August, who I think will be a very good returner," Rychleski said. "Right now, he's just a young guy."
Kenny McKinley will be the third punt returner if something happens to Munnerlyn and Auguste.
Although McKinley is USC's top receiver, Rychleski won't hesitate to use him as the punt returner if the occasion arises despite the risk of injury.
"You can get hurt walking down the street, you can get hurt riding a scooter, as we've seen," Rychleski said. "That's the crap that's gone on around here in the past. Everybody is worried about getting hurt. We're worried about winning football games. The bottom line is you have to win. If you're worried about getting hurt, go find another sport. This is a collision sport played by men.
"We're looking for the best players at the best position, no matter what."
Rychleski's preference for using first-team players on special teams extends to the line as well. The blockers on the top punt protection team include Emanuel Cook, Rodney Paulk, Eric Norwood, Jasper Brinkley, Gerrod Sinclair and Darian Stewart.
Charles Turner is the first-team long snapper, while Patrick DiMarco is the main personal protector.
The unit spent most of the spring trying to find the right chemistry, Rychleski said.
"We had some kicks blocked and I was disappointed in some things," Rychleski said. "But that's why you practice. Rome wasn't built in a day. We'll go back to work and look at the film all summer. We want to get the guys in the right spots. Once we start practice in the fall, we have to go."
Between kickoff returns with Culliver and punt returns with Munnerlyn and Auguste, Rychleski feels USC has the talent to do well. Now it's up to the other guys on the field.
"I'm excited about the returners, now let's see if we can get the scheme and block for them and make a difference in a positive way," Rychleski said.
Rychleski entered the spring with eight gunner candidates. He whittled the list to four: Culliver, Auguste, Munnerlyn and Carlos Thomas. Stoney Woodson is the first alternate.
"The gunners are really important because they're free to go down right away," Rychleski said.
Although just a true freshman, Auguste could play multiple key roles on special teams this fall.
"Akeem is a smart guy with talent," Rychleski said. "He's very coachable and he wants to be great. Is he great? Not yet. He has a long ways to go. But, I see something in him that's special. He has what it takes. But he's never played a down in the SEC. But from what I've seen, I like the kid a lot."
Larry Freeman won the Outstanding Special Teams Player award for the spring largely because of his knack for blocking punts. Rychleski said the decision to utilize Freeman on special teams has had ancillary benefits for the Gamecocks.
"Larry was down on the depth chart at wide receiver and then we started using him on some special teams, particularly the punt block team," Rychleski recalled. "He had a knack for blocking kicks. He took pride in it. He went hard every day. All of a sudden, he has some confidence and then he started playing well at wide receiver. He's a big body that can stay low and get to the block point."
After a solid year on field goals by connecting on 13 of 17 attempts, including eight-of-eight inside 40 yards, Succop carried over that consistency into the spring. He showed he's ready for an outstanding senior year by booming a 56-yarder in the spring game.
Succop was rewarded for his efforts by being named the Most Outstanding Offensive Player in the spring.
"That's the one position on the football team I can honestly say we're not going to change," Rychleski said. "It shows how good Ryan is. I don't think he missed a field goal all spring. He did hit the upright on an extra point and I got on him a little bit. Right now, Ryan is our kickoff and field goal guy."
While Succop is entrenched as the kicker on field goals, extra points and kickoffs, punting is another matter. After the spring failed to produce a winner, a three-way showdown between Succop, Spencer Lanning and incoming freshman Ryan Doerr is on the horizon.
"I wish we would have done a little better with punting this spring," Rychelski said. "We still have a wide open spot at punter. There's no definite punter right now. I won't say I'm disappointed, but I'm not encouraged either. We're looking for a punter. The job is wide open. All three guys will get a shot at in the fall. Right now, we don't know who the best punter is."
While Lanning is capable of booming punts, his consistency is a question, Rychleski said.
"He has the ability, now he has to show me," he said. "The first scrimmage he was very good and then he went downhill."
Rychleski will use Succop as the punter if he proves to be the best one, but he would still prefer someone else emerge.
Much of the spring was devoted to familiarizing the punt protection team with the kick-slide blocking technique, the scheme favored by NFL teams. Rychleski prefers the kick-slide because it helps the snapper block.
"They're getting better at the technique. They had never done a kick-slide technique before," Rychleski said. "By kick-sliding, you buy time on the inside gap but you still have to block your outside gap. You push off your inside foot and then you slide with your back foot. When your guy comes to you, you shotput them. If you watch any pro team, that's basically what they're using."
2008 FALL SPECIAL TEAMS ROSTER:
Punt Returners: Captain Munnerlyn, Akeem Auguste, Kenny McKinley.
Kickoff Returners: Chris Culliver, Akeem Auguste, Moe Brown, Captain Munnerlyn.
Placekicker: Ryan Succop.
Punters: Spencer Lanning, Ryan Succop, Ryan Doerr.
Gunners: Chris Culliver, Akeem Auguste, Captain Munnerlyn, Carlos Thomas.
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