John Butler is the newest addition to the South Carolina coaching staff, officially joining the program on Feb. 23. Two weeks prior, he had been hired by the Houston Texans as a defensive assistant.
Butler has made his mark as a special-teams coach over the last decade, including stints at Minnesota (2007-10) and Harvard (2003-06), where he first met Craig Fitzgerald, then the Crimson's strength and conditioning coach.
During Butler's time in Minneapolis, the Golden Gophers had one of the top special-team units in the Big Ten, averaging better than 22 yards per kick return in three of his four years at Minnesota. Butler was hired for one key mission - transform USC's struggling return teams, both of which finished near the bottom of the SEC in 2010.
Butler spoke with reporters on Thursday following USC's ninth workout of preseason camp and addressed each aspect of special teams.
KICKOFF RETURN: Junior safety D.J. Swearinger is probably the toughest player, pound-for-pound, on the team. He backs down from no one and is constantly in attack mode. Butler loves using players with those qualities as kickoff returner, which explains why Swearinger is No. 1 on the depth chart.
Butler demands his kickoff returners run north-south on the gridiron and attack straight ahead, and Swearinger is the best candidate to do that consistently. He returned four kickoffs last season for an average of 21.8 yards per return.
"What I like about D.J. as a football player is that he is tough, physical, fast, fearless and all of those qualities you need to have as a kickoff returner too," Butler said. "Most of our schemes are going to be schemes where you have to attack vertically. We are not going to do a whole lot of running to the perimeter. He has that skill set. He is a strong runner. He can play in contact, so that will help."
Even when a kick returner starts moving horizontally across the field, Butler said he always wants him thinking about driving straight ahead.
"We will get some stuff on the perimeter, but even when we attack the perimeter it's vertical cuts," Butler said. "Everything we are doing is about angles. We are not going to be doing much running to the sideline. There is a lot of speed in this league and we have a lot of speed.
"Speed can a lot of times chase down some people. We are going to try to split holes in their coverage and a guy like him can do it. There are some other guys too. We have a lot of guys with good potential here. I've been excited about our return game both kickoff and punt return. I think we are going to have some opportunities."
Newcomers Bruce Ellington and Damiere Byrd have also worked as kickoff returners, but experience is important to Butler, so it is Swearinger's job to lose right now.
PUNT RETURN: Butler isn't as certain about identifying USC's top punt returner as he is about the kickoff returner. Three primary candidates have emerged - Stephon Gilmore, Ace Sanders and Byrd. The first two players shared the job last season, with each one returning nine kicks. In addition, Butler said he wants to take a look at Akeem Auguste when the senior cornerback returns from the arch injury that has forced him to the sidelines.
Saying USC's punt return team struggled last season would be a massive understatement. The Gamecocks were last in the league in punt returns, averaging a meager 3.4 yards per return. Five SEC teams averaged better than 10.0 yards per return, so USC yielded plenty of ground on punts.
"We have a good group of guys and there are some younger guys that just have to get more (experience)," Butler said. "You need more experience catching punts than you really do kickoffs. Kickoffs you have time but with a punt you have someone in your face right away. Guys that have experience are going to be the guys that we put out there early because, obviously, the games are very important."
Does that make Gilmore the "leader in the clubhouse?" Butler said that would be a "safe guess."
PLACE-KICKER: Whoever wins the job will have tough shoes to fill. The last two place-kickers for the Gamecocks have been Ryan Succop and Spencer Lanning. Succop is now kicking for the Kansas City Chiefs, while Lanning signed a free-agent contract with the Chicago Bears. Last season, Lanning connected on 17-of-24 field goals, including 8-of-9 in he final three regular-season games.
This year, Jay Wooten and Adam Yates are battling for the job in camp. Both kickers have handled kickoffs in the past, but neither has attempted a field goal for the Gameocks. Right now, Butler said, Wooten holds a slight edge over Yates.
"(Wooten) is obviously in the lead, but there is still a pretty good competition going between him and Adam Yates, who has had a couple good days. Like anything else, we are going to keep pushing until we get a little closer until game day. We still have 20 practices."
During practice, Wooten has exhibited the ability to consistently make field goal attempts within 45 yards. But his range extends beyond that.
"We have tried anything up to 46- or 47-yarders in camp and he has had the leg for that," Butler said. "I feel comfortable the general range is inside a 50-yard field goal. Based on the situation, he should have the ability to go for it."
KICKOFFS: Although the opening game is still more than three weeks away, Wooten has been declared the winner. He served as USC's primary kickoff specialist last season, averaging 63.6 yards on 65 kicks with five touchbacks. Once opponents' returns factored in, USC averaged 43.7 net yards on kickoffs, seventh-best in the SEC.
"He is doing a nice job. He has a good leg," Butler said. "A couple of those other guys are going to get work too, but right now Jay is the guy that's going to be kicking off for us. He has done it here before. He has kicked in the stadium. He is pretty consistent. I have a good feeling about Jay. I know what he is and what his limitations are and what his strengths are."
What has been the difference for Wooten? What every college football coach craves.
"The best thing about Jay Wooten is his consistency," Butler said. "I've told all of the specialists, I would love to have a guy that could kick the ball 75 yards out of the back of the end zone or a guy that punts the ball 50 yards, but whatever you are will be whoever you are all the time. Jay Wooten is probably our most consistent guy, meaning if he misses, he misses by a little bit. He is never really going to have a bad kick. He's got a good leg and he pretty much stays within the ballpark."
PUNTER: Two days after coach Steve Spurrier told reporters the USC punting job was "up in the air a little bit," Butler confirmed the race was even after nine practices between redshirt freshmen Patrick Fish and senior Joey Scribner-Howard, a former kicker at Dutch Fork High School. Neither one has punted in a game for USC. The winner will succeed the dependable Lanning, who averaged 44.1 yards per punt in 2010.
"It's a pretty dead heat between Fish and Scribner-Howard," Butler said. "What Fish brings to the table is some consistency. He has been punting for a long time. I think what Scribner-Howard brings to the table is that he has a pretty strong leg. If he gets his fundamentals down, he is a guy that has some talent and some ability. We're not asking them to do much. It will come down to the guy we trust the most and who I think can execute the scheme we're asking them to do."
Which punter would USC utilize if they had a game this weekend? He would have to "sleep on it" and "make a decision based on a little bit of gut," Butler said.
Butler added USC could try some rugby punts this season because "in this scheme there is a probability that will come up."