It often starts with special teams.
To fans, usually 10 spots on each group are relatively anonymous. The running downfield, blocking, hitting, creating the lanes that produce big returns or holding up to block on field goal, these things, for the most part, don’t catch the attention of those in the stands.
To coaches like the Gamecocks’ Will Muschamp, they are vital.
“I always tell players that everybody has a role within the organization,” Muschamp said. “And if you don’t like your role as far as playing time, then do something about it, perform. A lot of times as coaches, we build confidence in a young player through special teams.”
That makes it an important tool for development, getting players work here and there, getting them used to blocking and tackling at college-level speed.
Muschamp likes to say he considers it a third of the game, and it’s played a notable role in USC’s first two wins. Beyond Deebo Samuel’s two kickoff return touchdowns that came in vital moments, USC’s coverage has led to a field position advantage of four yards a drive.
That last part is an emphasis for the staff, and Muschamp said his players understand that. But the opportunities provided on special teams go beyond that.
“That’s where sometimes those responsibilities are first given,” Muschamp said. “They do a good job then all of a sudden, their role starts to grow on offense or on defense.”
That stands in contrast to the way many fans tend to want to see young players thrown into the fire on both sides of the ball.
USC’s current lineup doesn’t have a ton of players who served an apprenticeship on special teams, in large part because of roster attrition and talent replacement with the last coaching change. Muschamp’s staff also isn’t shy about putting starters on those units, another facet of all that turnover.
But players such as Blake Camper, Chavis Dawkins, Evan Hinson, Caleb Kinlaw, Keisean Nixon, Kiel Pollard and Damani Staley have seen only special teams work thus far this season, and it’s likely a few of them will use that as a springboard to something more.