It's no secret to anyone that watched the Clemson football team play this season that special teams were largely the bane of the Tigers' existence. Despite its talent and athleticism advantage against nearly every opponent it faced, Clemson finished a deplorable 126 out of 128 nationally in special teams efficiency — ahead of only Purdue and Tulane, and behind the likes of Old Dominion, Georgia State and Kansas. It seems masochistic to delve into this phase of the game for Clemson, but somebody's got to do it.
Place Kicking — Clemson fans were understandably distraught when Dabo Swinney announced that returning starter Ammon Lakip was suspended for the first three games of the season. This left kicking duties in the hands of unknown freshman walk-on Greg Huegel. They couldn't ask for much more than they got from Huegel, however, as he made 27 of 32 field-goal attempts for 84.4% — including a perfect 17 for 17 in regular-season ACC play. While he turned into a bit of a headcase on extra points the latter half of the season, his field goal efforts were superb all year. Huegel did not miss a field goal under 40 yards after the Appalachian State game.
Punt Coverage — Sure, much of this can be attributed to Andy Teasdall's lackluster punting yardage numbers (which will be addressed), but it is worth noting that Clemson allowed just 16 punt returns for 97 yards this season.
Kickoff coverage — Clemson overcame allowing kickoff return touchdowns in the Louisville and N.C. State games, but a clear weakness the entire season finally bit the Tigers against Alabama in a game that didn't have nearly the same margin for error, as Kenyan Drake's fourth quarter kick return was an absolute backbreaker. Even aside from the touchdowns, opponents were able to spring big returns on kickoffs virtually the entire season to set themselves up with excellent field position. Clemson was unable to consistently force touchbacks and allowed nearly 25 yards per return to opponents. It's hard to pinpoint one thing as the cause for Clemson's struggles in the department, as a combination of poor lane integrity, containment issues and at times just a general lack of effort all contributed to create an unfathomably bad kickoff coverage unit on a team that simply doesn't have an excuse to perform that poorly.
Punting — Teams rarely expect to lose a punter early to the NFL draft, but such was the case for Clemson when Bradley Pinion surprisingly left after the 2014 season. Pinion's decision was validated when he was drafted by the 49ers, but it left the Tigers with limited options at punter. Andy Teasdall assumed the duties and averaged a less than stellar 39 yards per punt. As mentioned above, this helped limit returns, but Teasdall wasn't flipping the field with his punts very often. He also was responsible for one of the worst fake punt attempts in history against North Carolina but managed to redeem himself with a well executed fake against Oklahoma that resulted in a long completion to Christian Wilkins.
Kickoff Returns — When Artavis Scott and Ray Ray McCloud got their hands on kickoffs, they were certainly effective at times, but Clemson basically went the entire season without a game-breaking kick return. Couple the failure to open holes with the puzzling choice to put bruising running back C.J. Fuller back there as a receiving option, and you can pretty much negate the few quality returns Scott and McCloud produced. There were also onside kick fiascoes against both North Carolina and Alabama that didn't make this unit look any better.
Punt Returns — We know Clemson is typically Fair Catch U when it comes to punt returns, and that didn't change this season. Artavis Scott returned the ones he was able to, but the Tigers simply do not set up effective punt returns — while somehow also never threatening to block punts and still being vulnerable against fakes.
Losses for 2016
Clemson returns its punter, kicker and all return specialists and loses only Lakip, who largely handled kickoff duties. There will be some attrition on coverage teams with players like Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green leaving for the NFL, but it's hard to see that having a negative effect as those units really can't get much worse.
Danny Pearman holds the title of special teams coordinator, but it's hard to know exactly how much accountability he has for Clemson's special teams problems considering specific phases of special teams are delegated among several members of the staff. For that reason we will grade these simply on a unit-by-unit basis.
Brent Venables and Marion Hobby (Kickoff Teams): D
Danny Pearman (Punt Team): B
Mike Reed (Punt Returns): D
Dan Brooks (Field Goal Block): A
Robbie Caldwell (Field Goals): A
Special teams holding back the Clemson football team is nothing new, but this year was especially gut-wrenching. The Tigers overcame a clear deficiency in the third phase of the game (with the notable exception of field-goal kicking) to amass a 14-0 record. It's almost impossible to go undefeated and reach the national championship when you are as abysmal on special teams as Clemson was this season. You simply don't see elite teams that don't excel (or at least hold their own) in special teams, so the Tigers' campaign was a testament to just how good they were on offense and defense. It really makes what the team accomplished this season even more incredible, but it also makes you wonder what could have been, as two critical special teams plays went against Clemson in the national title game and led directly to 14 points for Alabama. These certainly weren't the only two plays that contributed to Clemson's loss, but they were both gigantic momentum swings that proved too much to overcome.
We have consistently harped on Clemson's need to improve its special teams, but watching the unit arguably cost the Tigers a national championship should lead to some serious soul-searching and self-examination from Dabo Swinney and his staff. There is too much talent on this roster and too many bright coaching minds for this program to continue to hold back its own progression with special teams failures. Whether it's new strategy, reassigning duties, staff changes, different motivational tactics, increased commitment and focus, or some combination of these, Clemson has to fix its broken special teams if the program wants to reach the heights we know it is capable of.