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Fall Camp Preview: Special Teams

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Special Teams are kind of an enigma heading into fall camp. We've got a suspended kicker, a new punter, a new punt returner, and renewed focus by the coaching staff on special teams improvement.

Hump to the House!
Hump to the House!
Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

I would've posted this sooner but, we had such an onslaught of thought provoking articles and good recruiting news by the staff that I didn't want to bump any of them off the top of the page. Kudos to my STS brethren for dropping science from all angles this week.  ...and now on to something perhaps a little less pleasant:  Clemson Tiger Special Teams.

I feel Debbie Downer's pain right now:

That's because the Tiger Special Teams' performance last year was...and you've never heard this one before... Anything. But. Special. (oh snap, where's my Pulitzer Prize? Wordplay on fleek, yo!). Sorry, couldn't resist.

I really believe in having very strong special teams and especially a great kicker. I believe in using scholarships to attract elite level legs at both Kicker and Punter. For the most part, this is what we have done and it has worked.

However, there is more to special teams than just a kicker and punter.  Our coverage units have been very average for about as long as I can remember and our return units were just downright awful last year. The return units were the main culprit in Clemson's overall special teams ranking of 103 by FEI.  We had the 9th worst special teams for a P5 Team (55th overall out of 64 P5 schools).

I believe that special teams performance is mostly about repetition and motivation.  You have to want to do your job and you have to take pride in it.  You can't be thinking that you'll just run out there and go through the motions. Believe me, that temptation is there.  I don't know why but for some reason, special teams lends itself to a little what I would call "half-a$$ing" out there.

The good news is that the Tiger Special Teams received immediate attention from the coaching staff in the spring.  Dabo made the decision to emphasize Special Teams in the spring and that has generated hope with me that things will improve in a lot of areas this year.  I also commend Dabo for making the right decision to go live on kickoffs and punts in the spring game.  That is a real rarity because it increases the likelihood of injury at some level, but man did we need it.

More good special teams news is that the brightest spot on special teams is set to return this year.  We just don't know when.

Stressful Teams

Ammon Lakip made the wrong decision partying one night, and because of that, the entire team will pay for it.  Lakip really came on after the FSU game last year and solidified himself as a consistently good kicker and a dependable beacon of light in our poor special teams unit.   We now await word from Dabo on what should be a multiple game suspension for Lakip.

I have only minimal confidence in Alex Spence, Lakip's likely replacement, to perform on Lakip's level.  It's a "when I see it, I'll believe it" situation.   I will say though, that even with the Lakip suspension, the prognosis for special teams remains, "improved."

We averaged 4.30 yards per punt return last year which was bad enough to rank 109th in the nation.  A lot of that was by design and it goes back to that heartbreaking 5th loss in a row to South Carolina.

During that South Carolina game in 2013, Adam Humphries muffed two punts that ended up being a major factor in the SC victory.  Dabo and Special Teams Coach Pearman seemed to be shellshocked by the events of that game, along with their attempt to make Sammy Watkins their primary punt returner earlier in the year. Watkins muffed a return against Georgia in game one.  Dabo and Pearman seemed to sort of throw their hands up in the air (and wave ‘em like you want to catch it fair) and we became what I sarcastically like to call: "Fair Catch University."

We elected to minimize the chances of a bad outcome instead of trying to maximize the chances for a great outcome.  A great punt returner is someone that can secure the ball, is fearless, and has the quick-twitch muscle coordination to make the first man miss.  It is just hard for me to accept that with all of the talent we have at WR, RB, and DB, we can't develop a single player on the roster than can return a punt.

"WR U" should be punishing teams for having to punt.  With players on our roster like Artavis Scott, Germone Hopper, Mackenzie Alexander, Marcus Edmond, Zac Brooks, C.J. Davidson, and now, Ray Ray McLoud, Deon Cain, and Shadell Bell, I will be disappointed if we spend another year as "Fair Catch University."  We have too many guys that could shine in the role if given the green light.

As far as personnel goes, my thoughts pre-spring remain the same, I would really like to see Deon Cain and Ray Ray McCloud get an opportunity to compete for the punt return job.  I do, however, think that our best upperclassman option is most likely Artavis Scott. He is the most dangerous player we have with the ball in his hands.  Germone Hopper is also dangerous, but for other reasons along with his speed.  He drops a lot of balls and I'm not sure we can trust his hands (ditto C.J. Davidson).    We all know that Dabo puts a premium on ball security so I prefer not to see a guy out there who is likely to fumble and influence Dabo to return to the "Fair Catch University" ways.   I would rather see us attempt to get Deon or Ray Ray's athleticism on the field from day 1 without them having to memorize the offensive playbook.

I'm slightly less concerned with kickoff returns this year.  Kickoff returns were also horrific until Dabo made some personnel changes on the kick return team. Those changes worked and we raised our kick return average from 17.4 yards per return in September and October to 23.8 yards per return in November/January.  23.8 ypr would rank 17th nationally over an entire season. Is there anyone who wouldn't take that right now?

I prefer that T.J. Green and Artavis Scott do the honors this season.  I feel like Artavis Scott should get the first return every game.  Why?  T.J. Green has the straight line vision if we can block somebody, but Scott has the wiggle to make something out of nothing.  Green is also a solid blocker to lead Scott on the return.  If we can block ‘em, I want Green with the ball though.  He has the vision to see things develop , anticipate blocks, and get up field.  I think we finally break the TD drought which dates back to the 2011 Maryland game and signs point to a significant increase in average return yards as well.

Unfortunately, signs also point to an increase in opponent kickoff return yardage this year. If you saw the spring game, you may have noticed that Alex Spence's kickoffs landed at about the 7 yard line consistently.  Spence was unable to get one to the endzone, but he did get a couple inside the 5.  If that's going to be the norm, then our coverage team needs to be sound because we are going to do a lot of covering if we're kicking the ball off as much as I think we will be.

We'll likely have the same issue punting as well.  With the loss of Bradley Pinion, I expect our punting to be a little sketchy.   Andy Teasdall has the ability to boom one, but couldn't do it consistently in the spring game.  He was hitting them about 35-37 yards which would rank in the 100 range nationally in punting.  Again, I'm just glad that Dabo allowed him to be under duress in the spring.  The last thing you want to see is some sort of panic back there that leads to a shank or fumbled snap.

I think that's why even if Teadsall improves his consistency, you'll see us go for it on 4th down this year a little more than we have in the past, especially while Lakip is out.  If I was Dabo in a 4th and short situation from the opponent 49 to the opponent 25, I'm going for it.

All in all, we have nowhere to go but up.  I suppose it could get worse but at least the squeaky wheel is getting the grease.  That, plus an increase in overall talent, points to improvement this fall.

Kraken Pre-Camp Depth Chart:

K:  Ammon Lakip, Alex Spence
P: Andy Teasdall, Hunter Renfrow
LS: Jim Brown
H: Seth Ryan (Rex's kid)
PR: Artavis Scott, Germone Hopper
KR: Artavis Scott, T.J. Green, Wayne Gallman
IncomingRay Ray McCloud, Deon Cain
Veteran Talent Grade (Lakip, Scott, Green, Hopper, Gallman) :   B
New Talent Grade (Spence, Teasdall, Renfrow): D
Could Surprise This Year:  Germone Hopper

Alright, and so ends this pre-camp series.  Fall Camp begins in about 8 days.  When it starts, it's going to be all-football all the time here at STS, if it isn't already.  Congratulations!  You have survived another offseason.  Let the countdown to Wofford begin.