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August 6, 2010

Kickoff Spot in Open Competition

Most positions are close to sewn up. This is the advantage from having so many returning starters.

One is still very much open.

"I don't know if it's wide-open, but it's definitely up for competition," kicker Jay Wooten said after South Carolina's third practice of the fall on Thursday. "Joey (Scribner-Howard) and Adam (Yates) have been kicking the ball great. Just part of football, part of sports. It's what you play for, what you compete for."

Wooten was referring to the Gamecocks' kickoff man spot, a source of trouble throughout 2009. One long return became too many more long returns, until it seemed as if the best option would be to just boot it out of bounds and take the penalty.

USC only put one ball into the end zone last year, the second-lowest total in the SEC (Mississippi State had none). Yates handled most of the kickoffs and averaged a healthy 61.8 yards per kick, but only recorded one touchback.

It came to a head during the regular-season finale against Clemson. Yates kicked off, C.J. Spiller caught, the Gamecocks tackled him, no problem.

Except there was a flag on the field. Re-kick.

Yates lined up again, Spiller caught again and was barely breathed on as he sped 88 yards to the end zone. Special-teams coordinator Shane Beamer said afterward that Yates kicked to the wrong side, and Spencer Lanning pulled triple duty for the rest of the game with kickoffs, field goals and punts.

That TD hurt, but didn't end up losing the game. The Papajohns.com Bowl had Connecticut getting two kick returns for a combined 39 yards -- Yates and Lanning kicked one apiece with no damage.

Still, the sour memories of a long season on kick return lingered. "We need to kick it where we're supposed to," Beamer said last year, "because if we don't, we'll give up long returns. I still have nightmares over that Georgia game, along with Vandy, Clemson ..."

The Gamecocks feel they have the options for sweeter dreams.

Lanning returns for his senior year, but will probably stick to field goals and punts. He can kick off in a pinch, but concerns of overuse will probably hand the job to one of a few candidates.

Yates returns while Scribner-Howard and Wooten are each eligible after sitting out last year. Scribner-Howard, a transfer from Carson-Newman, handled kickoffs during his time there and was listed as the starter on the preseason depth chart; Wooten, a transfer from North Carolina, was a place-kicker with 23 points scored in 2008.

Whoever wins the job will be the one who can consistently put the ball where it needs to be. Touchbacks surely won't hurt, but the focus now is to coordinate with the coverage team and make sure the other 10 guys aren't running to the wrong spot.

"It's not something I'm going to sit here and tell you," Wooten answered, when asked if he could put the ball in the end zone several times per game. "You watch NFL games, that doesn't happen very often. I think David Buehler for the Cowboys is about the only guy that can do that.

"I'm going to try my best. I feel good. I worked pretty hard over the summer, I'm in good shape and my leg's feeling pretty well."

The objective is to get off to a fine start and stay that way. Last year, the season-opener wasn't bad -- two NC State returns for a combined 39 yards.

But that Georgia game.

The Bulldogs had seven returns for 252 yards, including Brandon Boykin's 100-yard touchdown that negated a quick 7-0 USC lead. It snowballed from there as it seemed the Gamecocks' kickoff crew was being targeted by every speedster on the opposite sideline.

This year, the special-teamers mostly work on field goals and punting situations while they're at the Bluff Road fields, until adjourning to Williams-Brice Stadium for work while the offense and defense take over at Bluff. That eliminates any public viewing of how the kickoff game is going, but Wooten said it was going well.

"It's been good so far," Wooten said. "Definitely early. There's definitely a lot to go, a lot to accomplish, but it's started out well. Kickoffs, I'm definitely giving my best shot. Got a ways to go, work hard and see how it goes."



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