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Steve Spurrier is branching out.
South Carolina's offense-centric coach spent much of his time last week focusing on the No. 17 Gamecocks' struggling pass defense. As South Carolina prepares to host Tennessee on Saturday, Spurrier is turning his attention to the return game.
"I'm going to try to help out that punt return team a little bit," Spurrier said. "I think we had minus yards on punt returns (against Vanderbilt). That's pretty sad, minus yards on punt returns. We can't catch it and run forward a couple yards. We fair catch it or run backwards. That doesn't make sense."
Freshman Ace Sanders replaced Stephon Gilmore as the punt returner against the Commodores in hopes of giving the special teams a spark. Instead, he returned three kicks for minus-4 yards. Spurrier put little of the blame on Sanders, though.
"He caught everything," Spurrier said. "What we had to do was give him an opportunity to return the punts. Vandy, they covered better than we did and held up better than we did. Either they have better athletes on special teams than us, or they're playing with more effort. One or the other. I don't know what it is, but we need to hold up the other team and give our punt return guys a chance."
None of South Carolina's special teams have been very special this season.
The Gamecocks are last in the SEC and 112th in the nation in punt return average at 3.6 yards per return. The Gamecocks are ninth in the SEC and 83rd in the country in kickoff return yardage (20.7 per return), eighth in the SEC and 60th in the country in punting (36.7 net average) and seventh in the league in kickoff coverage.
"We haven't had a big play all year," Spurrier said. "We have to see if we can make something happen there. We just have not made anything big happen. We just haven't had any big returns or blocked punts or anything like that. Just making a big play or something in special teams would be helpful."
Special teams have not been a factor in either of the Gamecocks' two losses, but poor play in that area can bite you at any time, Spurrier said.
Florida coach Urban Meyer echoed that sentiment, saying this week a lack of big plays in special teams is one reason his Gators are struggling.
"That is how we have won big games around here," Meyer said. "To win tight games, that has always been the difference."
The Gamecocks changed their edge punt blockers last week, but Spurrier did not say if there will be any more personnel changes. Kickoff returner Bryce Sherman is averaging 21.4 yards per return, which is not in the top 10 in the SEC, but he will remain in that spot, Spurrier said.
"He seems to catch it, get forward and so forth," Spurrier said.
The absence of big plays puts more pressure on South Carolina's offense and defense.
"You just keep playing and playing and try to get more points than the other guy," Spurrier said. "We have had the good fortunate to get touchdowns and not to have to get many field goals, but we still need to make some big plays special teams-wise."
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