Clemson fans lamented the play of the Tigers’ special teams units after the team fell just short of a national title in 2015, and most believed if they could simply be decent in this facet of the game in 2016 that the next step would be within reach. While there were still deficiencies and the Tigers certainly didn’t skyrocket to the top of the special teams rankings, they were steady enough in the third phase of the game to ride great offensive and defensive units to the national championship win that escaped them a season ago. Clemson even managed to win that game despite abandoning all conventional kicking methods with their kickoff and punt teams. Hey, whatever it takes. Let’s take a look at how each special teams unit performed.
Greg Huegel was a revelation as a freshman in 2015 but wasn’t quite as efficient a season later. He posted a middling 14 of 19 season on field goals in 2016, but he made them when it mattered. While there were six games in which he didn’t even attempt a single field goal, he was a perfect 8 for 8 in one-score wins over Auburn, Troy and Florida State. He missed two extra points, but when you attempt 74 in a season it makes it more forgivable. While there is certainly room for improvement here, Huegel’s job as placekicker isn’t in jeopardy.
Kickoffs, on the other hand, are a position where Clemson would love to see somebody step up and seize the job from Huegel. He has still not shown any consistent ability to kick the ball out of (heck, even into) the end zone, while it seems every other team in the country can do this on command. As mentioned above, the Clemson staff elected to simply have Huegel pooch the ball to the 30 every time the kicked off in the national championship game rather than risk a game-breaking return. Where Clemson did improve drastically was in its capacity to cover kickoffs. The Tigers ranked a seemingly impossible 116th nationally in yards allowed per return last season and allowed three kickoff returns for touchdowns. They shot up to No. 48 in 2016 and did not allow a single touchdown return. This was an area the team absolutely had to take step forward from a season ago, and they did that successfully.
Despite Dabo Swinney’s claims to the contrary, Andy Teasdall showed over the course of the season that he is just not a great punter. Clemson ranked 117th in the nation in yards per punt. There’s not much more to say. To his credit, he managed to perfect the rugby punt in time for the national title game, where it proved to be a useful weapon for the Tigers. The last couple of seasons, however, have shown that Clemson may want to consider addressing its kicking positions through recruiting the way they did with Bradley Pinion.
Clemson’s kickoff returns were handled almost exclusively by Artavis Scott after the Tavien Feaster experiment failed early in the season, and the Tigers ranked a run-of-the-mill 53rd in the country in yards per return. Holding blocks and opening holes remains something Clemson struggles to do on a consistent basis, making the potential for big returns low. The biggest highlight from this unit may have been Scott’s determined return that positioned Clemson for its fourth-quarter comeback against Louisville, but let’s not forget C.J. Fuller’s sneaky-good return that set up perhaps the greatest drive in Clemson football history.
Ray Ray McCloud’s dynamic ability as a return man when he has the ball in his hands is undeniable. The problem this season was ... keeping the ball in his hands. McCloud muffed or fumbled too many punts to count, and the one time he broke completely free, he committed the cardinal sin of dropping the ball before he crossed the goal line on his electric return against Troy. He was eventually replaced by the sure-handed Scott, who was adequate but - more importantly - always put the ball back in Deshaun Watson’s hands rather than the opposing quarterback’s. Clemson would love to see McCloud get things figured out, as his upside is sky-high, but his problems this season were ultimately too constant to ignore.