Clemson's undefeated run through its first 14 games of the 2015 season was accomplished despite special teams that ranked an unfathomable third worst in the nation in efficiency. Unfortunately, that ineptitude reared its ugly head again in the Tigers' 15th contest, and they came up an agonizing five points short of winning the school's second national championship. For all its improvement and success on the recruiting trail in recent years, Clemson has been unable to parlay its depth and athletic ability into anything resembling competent special teams play. The Tigers have finished worse than 120th out of the 128 teams in the FBS the past two seasons, and while they have been stellar on each side of the ball at one point or another, they continue to come up well short of their potential in the game's ever-important third phase. Let's take a look at Clemson's various special teams units, as we hold out hope that the program can turn around a facet of the game that has hindered it for so long.
Consistently the saving grace that keeps every element of Clemson's special teams from being a total disaster, placekicking was once again a strong suit for the Tigers last season. Greg Huegel began the season as a little-known walk-on and finished as one of the most sure-footed kickers in the country. He didn't miss a field goal of less than 40 yards after the second game of the season and enters the 2016 as a player with all-conference potential. Oddly enough, he struggled with extra points occasionally, but it's hard to foresee that being a serious concern moving forward. Clemson fans hope Huegel can follow a similar path to former kicker Chandler Catanzaro, who began his career as a walk-on and turned into a career starter and future NFL placekicker.
Speaking of Huegel, he has reportedly improved his leg strength enough this off-season to lock down kickoff duties to begin the season. It sounds like he has consistently booted kicks several yards deep in the end zone, which would be a welcome change after a season without Bradley Pinion. The question remains, however, whether he can replicate his supposed practice success in actual games. Interestingly, Clemson's second-best option in this role may be freshman linebacker Jamie Skalski—though it's hard to envision him getting many, if any, opportunities.
Miraculous completions to defensive tackles aside, the 2015 season was not a stellar one for Clemson punter Andy Teasdall. A sub-40 yards per punt number is certainly in the bottom half of the major-college ranks, and the Tigers' punter will look to improve upon that number as the team's returning starter. Dabo Swinney has spoken highly of Teasdall despite his struggles last season, even touting him as a player with professional potential. He will have to take a major step forward this season to live up to that kind of lofty billing.
With all the playmakers and dynamic athletes Clemson has brought in over the years, it's worth noting the Tigers haven't returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2011. And to be honest, it's hard to remember more than a handful of particularly effective ones in that timespan. While it's clear that blocking as a whole must improve on kickoffs, the coaching staff also needs to show a commitment to putting players deep that are actually effective kick returners with the wiggle to get loose and make their way upfield on occasion. There's no reason to have players like T.J. Green and C.J. Fuller in position to return kickoffs when you have myriad other explosive players that would pose a much greater threat with the ball in their hands. Artavis Scott is a reliable option who has handled this role in the past, but injury concerns led to fans seeing less and less of him returning kicks as last season wore on. While nobody would argue with putting him back there, most would prefer not to have to use a first-string wide receiver in that spot if you don't have to. With players like Ray Ray McCloud, Tavien Feaster, Cornell Powell and others at his disposal, Dabo Swinney certainly has other choices and could opt to use Scott sparingly.
Similarly to kickoff returns, Clemson has plenty of options when it comes to returning punts. The difference is that the Tigers have traditionally put a premium on possessing the ball (Not that there's anything wrong with that), so that propensity would likely keep them from rotating too many bodies here. Scott has done a good job in that regard and also has the ability to spring big returns, so the Tigers likely won't try to fix something that isn't broken. McCloud, Feaster and Powell could also get a look in this role, as will Hunter Renfrow, who may actually enter the season as Scott's primary backup.