With Clemson’s recent run of stellar offenses during Chad Morris’ tenure and its potentially stout defense this season, it’s no surprise those two units are at the forefront of every fan’s mind as the 2014 season approaches. But there is typically little talk regarding special teams when breaking down a team’s potential, when in reality it can be the difference between an average season and a great one. Let’s take a look at the key losses and returners in Clemson’s special teams units.
Clemson loses several important offensive playmakers from last season’s 11-2 team, and you could be forgiven for spending time wondering how the Tigers can replace all-time greats like Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins. But lost in the shuffle of a retooled offense is the departure of the school’s all-time leading scorer, kicker Chandler Catanzaro. After a shaky freshman campaign, Catanzaro was incredibly consistent over his final three seasons, knocking in 53 of 60 field goal attempts and missing just once from inside 40 yards. Junior Ammon Lakip is the first man in line to step into the placekicking role, and while he has only attempted two field goals and eight extra points in his Clemson career, Dabo Swinney sang his praises during spring practice. Lakip went 1 for 2 on field goals in the spring game, with the miss coming from 53 yards out. He was the No. 7 kicker nationally (Rivals) coming out of high school, so he should be competent if nothing else. No one can be certain how he will perform this season, but asking him to replicate Catanzaro’s production is probably expecting a little too much.
Bradley Pinion has a comfortable hold on both the punting and kickoff duties, but that doesn’t mean there’s not room for improvement. Pinion was serviceable in both areas last season, but it’s fair to demand more from the former No. 4 kicker prospect (Rivals) in his junior season. He should certainly be commended for sticking 24 punts inside the 20-yard line without a touchback, which is quite impressive. But a sub-40 yards-per-punt average is, frankly, not very good—especially with as highly touted a leg as Pinion possesses. As for kickoffs, he put nearly every kick into the end zone for a touchback against Georgia, but that consistency fizzled as he booted less than 50 percent of his kickoffs for touchbacks on the season. I won’t throw out an arbitrary number regarding how often you should expect your kicker to achieve a touchback on a kickoff, but I feel pretty safe saying fans should expect more out of Pinion this season.
Adam Humphries served as the primary punt returner last season, and he enters the fall as No. 1 on the depth chart again. Humphries certainly isn’t flashy, but he is strong in the most important facet of punt returning—possessing the football (I’m overlooking the fumble against South Carolina, as this was a fumble during the return and not a muffed punt). He actually averaged more than 10 yards per return when he chose to try to advance the ball, which is more than the average fan may have guessed. With all that said, however, fans should expect to see Mackensie Alexander get some opportunities and be given a fair chance to win the job because he is a more dynamic return threat than Humphries. He will have to prove that he can be trusted to reel in the kicks consistently though because, again, that is the primary concern when your team is receiving a punt.
This is one area I really believe Clemson has nowhere to go but up. Sammy Watkins, for all his greatness, was simply not a good kick returner. And that’s fine. The problem was the coaching staff continuing to put him back there to return kicks when it clearly was not strength of his. Watkins didn’t have the elusiveness in tight spaces necessary to excel as a kick returner, and he lacked the kind of lateral quickness that made C.J. Spiller such a threat in that phase of the game. The only times he had quality kick returns were when he got around the mass of humanity in the middle of the field and got to the edge to use his speed, or when there was a hole you could have driven the team bus through (a la Maryland in 2011) that allowed him to accelerate upfield. You also had to wonder about his vision on kick returns, as he seemed way too willing to just run into the pile instead of searching out a potential opening. Charone Peake is listed as the first-string kick returner on the summer depth chart, which I’m not crazy about, but with no significant experience returning he deserves a shot as much as anybody else. If Germone Hopper gets his act together, he could get a look. My choice would be T.J. Green, as this was something he excelled at in high school. I expect him to get a fair chance and would not be surprised to see him claim the job at some point this season. We may also see Alexander get a shot here if others don’t perform well enough to hold down the spot.