Ask head coach Buddy Pough to describe South Carolina State’s performance on special teams last season and his blunt response mimics his description of the offenses and defenses.
“Subpar,” he said.
From a statistical standpoint, the Bulldogs were ranked near the middle in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in special teams’ categories such as punt return average (8.9 yards per game — fifth), kickoff returns (21.4 yards per game — fifth) and kickoff coverage (37.7 yards allowed per game). In the kicking department, however, S.C. State suffered a setback in the post-Blake Erickson era as successor Nick Belcher ranked eighth in field goals made (8-15) with opponents blocking four.
“I think it was an understatement that our kicking game struggled last year — something that had been a positive for us, a weapon for us, something we can hang our hat on,” running backs coach and special teams coordinator Danny Lewis said. “But then you go through the season we went through, everything comes to a head.”
Much like offense and defense, accountability and ownership is the mantra this spring on special teams. In the first half of every practice, the Bulldogs have addressed all phases of special teams from kickoffs, punt returns, long snapping and especially field goal protection.
No game more personified the team’s “feast or famine” play on special teams than the 17-7 loss at North Carolina A&T. Jakar Hamilton’s 96-yard opening kickoff return for a touchdown accounted for S.C. State’s lone offensive points of the game as Belcher missed three field goals, two blocked by the Aggies’ D’Vonte Graham.
“There are times when we struggled in the kicking game and at times we embarrassed ourselves,” Lewis said. “Coach Pough and our staff have done a good job in making sure we don’t have to suffer through that again.”
“We’ve done a little bit of everything so far,” Pough said Tuesday. “All of our return games. We’ve done all of our kick games, kickoff games, our punt games. We’ve actually worked on it all this past spring and feel really good about the progress we’ve made. We just need to continue to work hard for the next couple of odd days, to make sure that we’ve got a good foundation of fundamentals and practice in a way where our guys can go out and replicate it all over again.”
During conditioning drills held over the winter, Lewis was impressed by the work ethic and commitment displayed by Belcher and Will Roper.
“They’ve taken some ownership and have had the best off-season training since I’ve been here,” he said.
Belcher, who was 24-26 on extra points, is expected once again to handle both field goals and punts, while Roper will be utilized on kickoffs. With the graduation of David Davis, center Tristan Bellamy is handling the long-snapping responsibilities on punts and field goals.
“We feel like he’s an above average guy,” Pough said. “On short snaps in particular, field goals and PATs, we think he’s as good or better as David was. Plus, he’s so much a bigger body that he gives us a lot different kind of perimeter that way as far as the setup is concerned. Punt-wise ... we hope to work him pretty hard this summer. Hopefully, by the preseason he’ll get to the point where he’s up to standard. But as far as a blocker, all that kind of stuff within the special teams’ game, he’s a little bit above what we had.”
There’s currently a competition for kickoff return duties between Julius Pendergrass, who led the team last season with nine for 25.6 yards a return, Austin Smith and Caleb Davis. Punt returns will once again be the domain of defensive backs Darius Drummond and Steven Murphy, both of whom were on the College Football Performance Awards preseason “Watch List.”
In the end, Pough believes improvement on special teams will only be aided by the team stepping up in the other phases of the game.
“We put so much pressure on ourselves,” he said. “What you’ve got to do is play better on offense, play better on defense, which takes some of the pressure off of our kicking game which at that point, you can relax a little more where you don’t necessarily have to make a life-or-death decision every time you go on the field.”
Bulldogs complete 12th spring workout
The Bulldogs completed the 12th of 15 scheduled spring workout sessions Tuesday morning at Oliver C. Dawson Stadium.
During the two-hour workout, the Bulldogs continued installation of offense and defense schemes as well as work with special teams, according to Pough.
“We had great practice with wonderful football weather today,” he said. “We’ve had 12 productive days and got a lot accomplished with the players giving their all so it is exciting to be working with these guys during the spring drills.
“Also, it’s important that get all the fundamentals and techniques down during the spring. Depth is always a concern in college football, whether you got enough players to get things done but we feel that we have enough young guys that can help us in the fall.”
Pough added both quarterbacks, junior redshirt Richard Cue and redshirt sophomore TeDarius Wiley, have had really good spring practices and seem to be coming along and he’s comfortable with putting either in the game knowing they have a chance to win.
In injury news, running back Dondre Brown (concussion) remains sidelined following this past Saturday’s scrimmage. Offensive lineman Jairon “Shaq” Harrison (ankle) could possibly return for Thursday’s practice, according to Pough.
Change in schedule
S.C. State will close out its spring practice schedule on three consecutive days. The Bulldogs will hold practices at 6:50 a.m. Thursday and Friday. Instead of a final session Tuesday, the Bulldogs’ spring practice will conclude with the Garnet and Blue Game set for 1 p.m. Saturday at the stadium.
Season tickets now available
The South Carolina State Ticket Office is now accepting applications for season tickets to the 2013 football season.
There are three packages available for purchase:
Season football package — (One reserved seat for all five home games) $130
Football/basketball package — (One reserved seat for all home football and basketball games) $185
Youth/alumni football package — (One general admission seat for all home football games for the classes of 2009-13) $100
Individual game tickets against North Carolina A&T at the Georgia Dome, as well as basketball season tickets ($75) and season parking passes ($80) tickets for the Palmetto City Classic contest against Benedict at Williams-Brice Stadium and the Atlanta Football Classic, are also on sale. For more information, call 803-536-8579 or 1-800-298-9157.
Contact the writer: email@example.com or 803-533-5547. For more information about S.C. State athletics, read Grant’s blog, “Following the Bulldogs.”