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October 12, 2009

Culliver Still Searching For Six

Of all the numbers to Chris Culliver's credit, there's only one total he's interested in.

Six.

"It is, kinda," Culliver admitted earlier this season. "I know I could have hit a few but I just haven't yet."

The question was maddening in its simplicity. Why, with Culliver being timed at 4.34 seconds in the 40-yard-dash, with NFL scouts already looking at him, with cuts and acceleration so elegant that he tried receiver for a year, has it never happened?

Through school-record totals of 84 kickoff returns and 2,039 yards, Culliver has yet to reach the end zone in two-and-a-half years. He's been close - his career-long is 67 yards and he hit the sideline for 61 yards during last week's 28-26 win over Kentucky - but hasn't yet found the seam/block/juke that can get him to the end zone.

With a year-and-a-half of his career to go (should he be around as a senior), Culliver could set his records so high they'll never be topped. But he'd gladly give all of that away just for that one time where he clears the first wave and sees nothing but grass in front of him.

"That'd be tight, man," he said with a shake of his head.

It's not like Culliver's not living up to any of South Carolina's standard. The last time any Gamecock returned a kickoff for a touchdown was seven years ago, when Matthew Thomas broke for a 95-yard score against Virginia. Before Thomas was Boo Williams in 1997, when he returned his second kickoff for a TD of the season against Florida.

But those guys didn't have Culliver's pedigree. Recruited as a defensive back who sparkled at wide receiver in a high-school showcase, Culliver's speed had him try wideout at first and then switch to free safety, where he's become a very good player.

He's always been at kick return, though, the Gamecocks' coaches wanting him to display the burst that had him forever cutting off long gains in the secondary. He had to learn to always move forward; he had to learn to forsake stutter-stepping to find a hole instead of tucking and running.

The records prove he's learned everything well. Against Kentucky, he had three returns for 130 yards, two of which set the Gamecocks up for scores and had Wildcats coach Rich Brooks hunting a roll of Tums.

The first was a catch of Craig McIntosh's kick at the 5-yard-line, slipping past one defender on the left side and finding the sideline. Culliver's sprinter speed kicked in, he out-raced the main wall of tacklers and headed for daylight.

One defender ran over to try and knock him out-of-bounds, Culliver ducked, got around him and kept going, but the delay gave Matt Lentz time to grab Culliver and wrestle him down. The Wildcats' 3-0 lead was erased four plays later on Alshon Jeffery's first touchdown catch.

"They like to kick it to the boundary and put all of their guys over there, so I knew if I made one cut and then hit it to the other side of the field, I could out-run a couple of guys and try to make a play," Culliver said.

The second was after Kentucky made it 10-7 in the second quarter. Again, McIntosh blasted one to the red zone and again, Culliver set up.

Catching the ball at the 12, Culliver ran left, then cut back to the middle. The tacklers swarmed around but Culliver danced, spun and turned his body into a kaleidoscope, running a mile while standing in place.

He somehow wormed his way to the other sideline and began his forward progress before Lentz again finally took him down. Lentz disgustedly shook his head and stalked to the sideline while Culliver rose into the arms of special-teams coach Shane Beamer.

"I'm glad I can help out," Culliver said. "That's just what I do."

That 49-yard return eventually became another USC touchdown. Culliver was one of the day's heroes.

"It was nice to see Chris Culliver set the school record for kickoff return yards," coach Steve Spurrier said. "Both of them set up touchdowns. We struggled early in the game, and those kickoffs put us in good position."

Even if they still never got Culliver those just-out-of-reach six points.

Culliver put his ballcap on and headed out the door, in search of a Gatorade and a sandwich.

And maybe another look at the end zone on the way.

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