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July 29, 2009

Pre-camp Preview: Special Teams

One of the biggest criticisms of Pete Carroll during his tenure at USC has been the lack of a special teams coordinator.

That's not going to be a problem any more.

Instead of having the aspects of special teams divvied up among the coaching staff, Brian Schneider takes the reigns this season, and he's already implemented changes.

What was

USC had a very underrated weapon in David Buehler's big leg, as USC's kicker made an impact on kickoffs and on field goals.

Buehler connected on 65-of-66 extra points and nine-of-13 field goals, but the most damage was done after USC scores.

Helping add insult to injury after USC touchdowns, Buehler pounded kicks deep into the end zone, forcing opponents to start inside the 20-yard line close to 75 percent of the time.

Greg Woidneck didn't have a great year, averaging 36.9 yards per punt. He was adequate, though he didn't have to punt all that often - just 47 times all season.

Ronald Johnson and C.J. Gable both did a good job on kickoff returns, with Gable bringing one back against Stanford for 93 yards and a touchdown.

Joe McKnight began the season as the punt returner, but problems taking care of the ball opened the door for Stafon Johnson. Stafon Johnson hung onto the job for the rest of the year, averaging 9.2 yards a return.

The coverage team did a better job on kicks, holding opponents to 19.9 yards on kickoff returns. Teams were able to get 10.2 yards on punt returns, though.

What is

With Buehler and Woidneck gone, Schneider has to find two new kickers.

Over the spring, Jordan Congdon and Joe Houston battled for the placekicking job while Billy O'Malley emerged as the punter without any real competition.

The return game got a lot of work during spring practice as Schneider introduced a lot of new drills dealing with coverage and returns.

"He's a great drill instructor, and he's getting a ton out of this," Carroll said. "The kids are really responding too. They're working they're butts off for him.

"That's huge."

Garrett Green, a special-teams star, said the changes this spring gave the players more opportunities to work.

"Last year we'd do maybe three or four live full reps. Now, we're doing up to 10 partial reps. We're really getting extra work, and I think it's going to pay some big dividends for us," Green said. "It's great. It's awesome. You can tell that it's not like we're staying out here any longer doing special teams work, but we're getting so much more done with so much more intensity. That comes from Coach Schneider. He's got us doing awesome stuff."

While the returners - Stafon Johnson, Ronald Johnson and Gable - all are back, Curtis McNeal and McKnight both are in the wings, hoping to get a chance.

"That's a main thing for me, getting back there for returns. I feel like if I get back there and catch the ball, everything will take care of itself," McKnight said. "I think it was mental, but I need to grow up and put it out of my head. I need to catch the ball.

"That's not easy to do, but everybody's got to do it sometime."

What will be

The kicking battles will pick right back up this fall with junior-college transfer Jake Harfman on campus. Harfman is a big-legged kicker and punter in the Buehler mold, and Schneider said it shouldn't be too tough for him to step right in.

"The one thing with kickers and punters, it's easier than a normal position player coming in. He doesn't have to learn a whole lot. He just has to go out there and perform," Schneider said. "We'll work on his technique a little bit once we get film and work with him, but he (Harfman) is a pretty polished guy right now. The best thing he does is he has strength on kickoffs."

He could win either the kicking or punting job - maybe even both.

McKnight seems focused on re-winning the punt returner job, and as he's the most explosive player on the team, he could overtake Stafon Johnson.

Ronald Johnson and Gable seem entrenched as kick returners, but McNeal could find his way onto the field.

With Schneider at the helm, the Trojans will have a strong identity on special teams, giving them a strong plan to go with their superb athleticism.


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