In deciding to return to South Carolina football for one more season in 2021, kicker Parker White gave new special teams coordinator Pete Lembo a dose of stability and steadiness at a moment in which so much of the program was undergoing change.
But even as one of the top kickers in USC’s history, White has still more he can improve upon, Lembo said Thursday.
“Parker, I would say, continues to be a very accurate short- to mid-range kicker for us right now, and we need to keep challenging him on some of the longer kicks,” Lembo said as the Gamecocks continue with spring practices.
The stats back up Lembo’s assessment: After a rough freshman season, White has gone 41 for 49 on kicks inside 50 yards, a nice 83.7%. From 50 and out though, he’s a combined 1 for 8 in the last three years, with the only make coming from exactly 50 yards out.
Not long after he came on staff, Lembo had an idea to help with that discrepancy.
“Parker, and really for all the specialists, one of the things we did upon arriving and when (strength coach) Luke Day and his staff arrived, we decided, and I was 1,000% behind this, that our specialists were going to be in there lifting with everybody else on the team, doing the same exact strength and conditioning program for nine weeks, and that’s exactly what we did,” Lembo said. “They were in groups with O linemen, D lineman, linebackers, they were in the thick of things.”
That change has extended into spring practices, Lembo said. Kickers and punters have roles during practice that get them involved with their teammates, whereas on many teams specialists are often relegated to their own corner of the practice fields, working on their own drills and only interacting with other players infrequently. Some of the change is to encourage more camaraderie, Lembo said. But some of it is a physical thing as well.
“I think all of those guys will say they feel better about their bodies, because they had a true offseason with the expectations of putting on weight,” Lembo said. “And our nutrition staff does such a fabulous job in that regard, and our strength and conditioning staff, so I think our whole group feels like they’re bigger and stronger right now, and we’re hoping that that translates to a few more yards on those field goals, a few more yards on those kickoffs, a few more yards on those punts.”
PLENTY OF ATTENTION
While the kickers and punters are getting folded in with the rest of the roster some this spring, that doesn’t mean they’re getting forgotten or overlooked — quite the opposite.
“In general, with the specialists, I told them this on day one and I remind them of this quite often: The good news is, they’re getting a lot more attention. The bad news is, they’re getting a lot more attention,” Lembo said.
At South Carolina, Lembo is the first special teams coordinator to not also be charged with coaching a position group since 2015, before any of the current players showed up. With that comes a lot of change.
“They are adjusting to having a true position coach now, who’s coaching them through individual periods every day. We just did open field tackle out there today with the specialists for five minutes during practice,” Lembo said. “So, we’re trying to challenge them just like we’re trying to challenge everybody else. And I am pleased with the group. I would say we are a good group, but a group that can get a lot better and be a lot more consistent. So creating that competition is helpful.”
While White is a four-year starter and clear incumbent at the placekicker position, the Gamecocks also have a returning starter at punter, albeit a less experienced one in sophomore Kai Kroeger. Kroeger picked up SEC honors after last season, making the conference’s all-freshman team, but Lembo actually sounded more excited Thursday about his potential at another position.
“Very happy with Kai Kroger as a holder. Coming from the University of Memphis, I had a guy named Preston Brady who won the Mortell Award as the best holder in the country and he was phenomenal. Memphis was lucky to have him, and Kai Kroger can be that good as a holder,” Lembo said. “I’m very pleased with him in that regard. From a punting standpoint, we’re working on some things with him, in terms of accuracy and hang time, operation time. He’s a young guy, but he is a very hard worker and very committed to getting better.”