South Carolina special teams coordinator Joe Robinson knew he was going to have a hard time this offseason replacing field goal and kickoff specialist Adam Yates.
What he didn’t anticipate was replacing the most electric punt returner in all of college football last season.
Ace Sanders opted to enter the NFL Draft after a spectacular junior season and left Robinson with a huge void to fill.
Sanders finished the season ranked fourth in the country in punt returns. The junior had 28 returns for 429 yards for a 15.32 average.
He scored two touchdowns — a 70-yard return that sparked the 35-7 route of Georgia, and a 63-yard return in the first quarter in the 33-28 victory over Michigan in the Outback Bowl.
His best return, though, might haven been against Missouri. He bounced off several would-be tacklers and survived a collision with one of his teammates during the 49-yard return inside the Tigers 5-yard line.
Robinson said Sanders had that special something he looks for a punt returner. He also thinks Sanders grew comfortable with the blocking in front of him, so that made securing the catch and getting upfield an easier process.
“I think if you look at some of the guys that aren’t successful, they’re chasing the ball sideways and aren’t able to burst north and south because they’re not sure of the catch,” Robinson said.
“The confidence in the ability to catch the ball and get that immediate first 10 yards makes the magic happen. Some of that confidence comes from the fact that he thinks we’re going to protect him. If you don’t believe you have the proper protection, it’s hard to stand back there and catch it. It all goes hand-in-hand.”
There are a number of players competing to replace Sanders.
Junior Vic Hampton is the most experienced, but Chris Moody, Nick Jones, and Shaq Roland are among others who will be given long looks this spring.
Pharoh Cooper, a 2013 signee, and Ahmad Christian, who is playing baseball this spring but who is currently out with a back injury, also could play a role once preseason camp rolls around.
“We’re going to look at a ton of guys this spring,” Robinson said.
Bruce Ellington is expected to return as kickoff returner, but Robinson will look at a number of guys at that position as well. Robinson didn’t name potential candidates, but he did say the guys up front were going to have to do a better job of opening running lanes.
“We’ll try a lot of guys back there and see if we can find some that will make an impact,” Robinson said. “We didn’t do a good of job of helping Bruce. We have to do a lot better job protecting Bruce so he can be effective.”
While the return game is wide open, the kicking duties looks to be a two-man competition. Landon Ard and Nick St. Germain are in a battle to replace Yates, who was 11-of-17 on field goals and became a weapon on kickoffs late in the season.
“We’ll have a very spirited spring,” Robinson said. “I think Landon Ard and Nick St. Germain are extremely talented and they will push each other very hard. It’s a very good competition.”
Tyler Hull returns at punter, but he is being challenged by Patrick Fish. Hull averaged 39.4 yards per punt last year but he came in late to preseason camp so Robinson wasn’t able to spend much time on making adjustments.
“He’ll be a lot better if he can become consistent,” Robinson said. “He worked as hard as I’ve seen a young man work to try and improve. He came in here late and didn’t have the chance to make the improvements that we’d like to see. If he can become consistent with his footwork, he can become a good punter and we’ll see better results.”