Clemson has fielded elite offenses and defenses at times in recent seasons, but special teams has become a hindrance to the program's progression. The Tigers ranked an abysmal 121 out of 128 FBS teams in special teams efficiency in 2014, and if they want to make the final push toward becoming an elite program, improving this often overlooked facet of the game is of the utmost importance.
Starting kicker Ammon Lakip was expected to be a reliable weapon this season after finishing as a Groza Award semifinalist last year, but his offseason arrest and subsequent suspension has turned placekicker into a serious question mark for Clemson. The competition to start in Lakip's place saw walk-on Greg Huegel win the job over Alex Spence and Christian Groomes. Lakip could be back as early as the Notre Dame game but will have to earn the starting job back upon his return. The Tigers hope Huegel has performed well enough through three games to make winning the job back a tough assignment. Hey, Chandler Catanzaro began his career as a walk-on — so you never know.
This was a role Clemson coaches knew they were going to have to fill after losing Bradley Pinion's booming leg to the NFL, and it sounds as though Huegel will get the first crack at kickoff duties as well. It's hard to project how well he will perform there, but limiting returns for opponents is obviously critical to success. Hopefully Huegel has enough leg to help keep big kick returns to a minimum.
Pinion's early departure to the NFL also leaves a hole at punter, and Andy Teasdall will look to fill the void left by the fifth-round draft pick. Teasdall punted seven times in the spring game for a 41.4-yard average and a long of 47. That 41.4 average would rank relatively low on a national scale, but Clemson coaches could live with that number if the hang-time is consistently good enough to negate big returns. We'll have to take a wait-and-see approach on assessing Teasdall, much like with Huegel.
This hasn't been a strength for this team since the days of C.J. Spiller, and there is no question Clemson simply has to do a better job returning kickoffs. It appears the Tigers might feature a host of players on kick return until a player or two separates from the pack. Swinney recently mentioned that last year's first-stringer T.J. Green will continue to get work, along with Wayne Gallman, C.J. Fuller, and Artavis Scott. He also said true freshmen Ray Ray McCloud and Deon Cain would be options on kick return as well. Green has proven to be a decent option but isn't exactly a gamebreaker, so hopefully we will see more of guys like Scott and McCloud that have a little more wiggle and elusiveness.
In recent years, Clemson has put a premium on possessing the ball on punts, even if it means sacrificing big-return ability. Nuk Hopkins and Adam Humphries both fit that mold, but it sounds as though the staff wants to try to get more out of this unit from a return yardage standpoint. Hopper, Scott and McCloud will all likely get their share of opportunities here, but Hopper's propensity for dropping passes is a bit worrisome for a role that requires that you possess the ball. However, all three could be dynamic playmakers in this spot with their ability in the open field.