Spencer Lanning's frustration during the 2007 season wasn't limited to not getting on the field much.
Much of it came from watching South Carolina's special teams play so badly.
"The formation we had had a lot of holes," said the Gamecocks' backup place-kicker/punter, while home on holiday break. "I think after time, just watching the tape, it sort of became obvious."
The Rock Hill native and former standout at York Comprehensive High School just finished his second season at USC. His agony at not playing was somewhat eased when he got to kick one extra point in a 38-3 win over S.C. State and booted an onsides kick at LSU, but the joy was short-lived.
As the Gamecocks' season spiraled downward, the special teams were a big part of it. Three punts were blocked in the final two games, USC's returners hardly ever broke a significant gain and the shoddy return coverage contributed to an overtime loss at Tennessee.
Following the season, coach Steve Spurrier hired special teams coach Ray Rychleski from Maryland, a guru whose teams never had a punt blocked in seven years with the Terrapins. Lanning and the Gamecocks' other special-teamers meet with Rychleski today, the beginning of classes and conditioning.
There's a new regime in town, and Lanning, at least, is extremely optimistic to what the future holds.
"He's a firm believer in basic punt formation, with a gunner on each side," Lanning said. "That's what we ran in high school. It's what I'm comfortable with."
When Rychleski was introduced at a press conference a week ago, he detailed the changes he was planning. Among them were fixing the punt protection; perhaps moving last year's co-special teams coach, Shane Beamer, into the press box to offer a bird's eye view on opposing formations; and eliminating the running rugby-style punts USC has employed over the past few seasons.
"Once he takes off, he's free game," Rychleski said, illustrating his distaste for the running kicks. "Now you have a chance to knock the crap out of him legally.
"The punt team needs to be addressed."
Hearing that, Lanning said he felt hopeful about increased playing time in 2008. As the backup to heavy-legged Ryan Succop for the past two years, Lanning has watched the rising senior handle all three of the Gamecocks' kicking chores.
Not anymore. Rychleski mentioned he loved Succop's talent but wanted to take some of the strain off the kicker's leg.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm better than the competition, sometimes I feel like the competition's better than me," Lanning said. "I just want the opportunity to prove myself. To prove to myself I can do it."
Lanning is the backup to Succop at punter and place-kicker and the two other kickers on the roster, walk-ons Nate Spurrier and Steve Huegel, are considered backups at kickoff duty. The Gamecocks have a verbal commitment from kicker Ryan Doerr (Katy, Texas) for next year but spring practice, which begins in March, could be a chance for Lanning to get a step up on one of the positions.
"I feel like I can help the team with punting," Lanning said. "Just a matter of getting out there and competing."
David Cloninger • 909-4218