Like many punters and kickers, South Carolina junior Kai Kroeger is pretty good at golf.
And he didn’t let the unseasonably cool temperatures stop him and other Gamecock special-teams players from getting in 18 holes at least once this week, on Monday at the Julington Creek Golf Club following their first practice in preparation for the TspanxSlspanyer Gspantor Bowl on Friday at TIAA Bank Field against Notre Dame (3:30 p.m., ESPN).
No. 19 South Carolina and No. 21 Notre Dame are both 8-4.
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“Not [TPC] Sawgrass, unfortunately,” Kroeger said on Wednesday after the Gamecocks practiced at Episcopal High School of his dream of teeing it up at the home of The Players, just down a driver, 7-iron from the Sawgrass Marriott Resort that is South Carolina’s headquarters this week.
His group played a scramble at Julington Creek and Kroeger reported they shot 67 … not bad for a bunch of guys who haven’t been able to do much beyond football since July.
Kroeger hinted that he and the other kickers and long snappers might have stolen away from a round or two back in Columbia, which might explain why they keep a lot of the rust off their golf games — and the Gamecocks as a team had another chance to swing the sticks with a trip to Topgolf on Wednesday afternoon.
“Typically, we normally have the most time outside of practice to play,” he said. “So that’s probably why [kickers and punters are good golfers]. We don’t have to worry about all the meetings. We have our times where we got our work in but otherwise, we can go out and do what we want.”
Gamecocks kicking game among tops in nation
However, Kroeger assured everyone that when it’s been time to work, the specialists get serious and that’s the prime reason they’re good at their particular craft — maybe as good as anyone in the nation.
According to Football Outsiders, a website that tracks college special teams, and ESPN college special-teams rankings, the Gamecocks are first in the nation when it comes to kicking the ball, returning it, and stopping the other guys from returning it.
Special teams coordinator Pete Lembo is a semifinalist for the Frank Broyles Award for the top assistant coach in the nation.
Kroeger is one of the key players. He averages 46.8 yards per attempt, which leads the SEC, is second in the nation and is second in South Carolina history. More than half of his attempts (27 of 52) have been downed, fair-caught or stopped inside the 20-yard line and 13 of his kicks have been kept inside the 10.
His 79-yard punt against Georgia State is the third-longest in the nation this season. In the Gamecocks’ 31-30 victory over Clemson, he averaged 53.7 yards on seven punts, with three downed inside the 5-yard line.
Kroeger got lost in the shuffle when it came to post-season awards. Although he made the All-SEC team and was second-team Walter Camp All-American, he didn’t make the AP All-American team or the final three for the Ray Guy Award. Bryce Baringer of Michigan State, Tony Taylor of Iowa and Mason Fletcher of Cincinnati received the AP honors, and Adam Korsak of Rutgers won the Guy Award.
However, Gamecocks coach Shane Beamer wouldn’t trade Kroger, who has averaged 44.4 yards per attempt in three years at Carolina, for anyone. After the Ray Guy semifinalists were announced, Beamer took to Twitter and responded: “Do the people that vote on this actually WATCH football? What a joke.”
South Carolina is fifth in the nation in net punting (43.27), third in punt returns (18.33) and sixth in kickoff returns (25.05). The Gamecocks have blocked five punts tied for second in the nation behind … the Irish, which leads the nation with seven blocked punts, a school record.
“We love it,” Kroeger said of the clash between special teams. “You always want to go up against great competition and we feel like we’ve got up against the best being in the SEC. Coach [Pete] Lembo’s on the edge of his seat. That’s been fun.”
Kroeger a threat on fakes
Kroeger is also the team’s holder for placekicks and can still pick up a post-season award: he’s one of the four finalists for the Peter Mortell Award, named for the former Minnesota holder who as a prank of sorts, created the award and gave it to himself in 2015.
Don’t laugh too much. Kroeger has already completed a pass to defensive tackle Tonka Hemingway out of a field-goal formation that led to a touchdown this season and he’s 2 of 2 on fake punts, including a 48-yard touchdown pass against Florida.
Kroger has completed all five of his pass attempts on fake punts or field goals for 150 yards and two touchdowns.
“I’m always down for it,” he said. “Obviously I love making those plays.”
Kroeger said that the threat serves a purpose even when Beamer doesn’t dial up those plays — opposing punt return and field-goal defense units tend to back off on their pressure.
“It definitely helps us in terms of the opposing team’s pressure,” Kroeger said. “That gives me a little bit more time to slow it down, and also the coverage time to get downfield.”
That will be important against the Irish, who feast on blocked kicks.
“We know they’re going to be coming every single time,” Kroeger said of Notre Dame’s punt- and field-goal-block teams. “If I just get it off at the right time, I know our protection will hold up.”