It’s been a long time (ever?) since Clemson excelled in football’s oft-overlooked third phase of the game — special teams. Sure, there have been times when the Tigers were great in an aspect or two, but when was the last time you heard anyone talking about the vaunted Clemson special teams? Exactly. Dabo Swinney’s squad ranked a paltry 84th nationally in special teams efficiency in 2018, and marked improvement in some of the relevant components of that metric could go a long way in giving Clemson an extra edge in its quest for another national championship.
While seemingly every other FBS team in the country is able to consistently blast kickoffs into or out of the end zone, this is a facet of the game Clemson has struggled with mightily in recent seasons. It’s an issue that doesn’t affect every game — or even most of them — in a noticeable way, but it’s something that has burned the Tigers on the biggest stage before. That experience alone makes it a problem worth remedying, and the answer to Clemson’s prayers may have arrived in freshman kicker B.T. Potter. The strong-legged freshman simply gives Clemson a much better option than returners Greg Huegel and Alex Spence when it comes to limiting kickoff returns, and it would be surprising not to see him seizing that job from the very first kickoff of the season.
While Potter should immediately take over the first-team position on kickoffs, the battle for field-goal duties has proven to be much more competitive. You really couldn’t have three more different participants in this competition — Potter is an untested true freshman with undoubtedly the best leg strength; Huegel is a former established starter returning from injury with decent leg strength; and Spence, while inarguably possessing the weakest leg of the three, did perform dutifully in Huegel’s stead last season — Syracuse game notwithstanding. The guess here would be that Huegel — provided he is back at full strength — will assume the starting role once again and maintain control unless he falters considerably. It is worth noting that after a stellar freshman season in which he made 27 of 32 field-goal attempts, Huegel has made just 16 of his last 23. So while he is the likely starter, the leash may not be as long as one would normally think with a super-recruit like Potter waiting in the wings.
Will Spiers ranked in the bottom half nationally in yards per punt in his freshman campaign, and the Tigers will hope for more consistency in his second season as the team’s punter. Spiers has had his share of impressive punts, so gradual year-to-year improvement shouldn’t be too much to ask.
Clemson settled in with the dynamic Travis Etienne as its primary kick returner last season, but with the sophomore presumably taking on an increased workload in the offensive backfield this year, it stands to reason that the Tigers may look elsewhere in order to preserve their most talented running back. As exciting as Etienne is, it’s not like they are lacking other options. Cornell Powell could be a leading candidate, with Derion Kendrick and Amari Rodgers also looking like players that might get an opportunity to contribute. All three players have qualities you look for in a kick returner and each could have ample opportunity to seize the role if the staff moves away from Etienne. Odds are we will see Tavien Feaster or Adam Choice as the primary back-end lead blocker paired with one of the above players.
Ray Ray McCloud was an absolute natural at punt returner, and he became the weapon we all knew he could be last season after finally figuring out how to hold on to the football. Replicating his efforts is a tall task, but with Clemson’s fair-catch-heavy policy it’s fortunately not something the team relies on particularly heavily. Rodgers seems to be the likely replacement and certainly has some wiggle and elusiveness in his own right. He has the potential to be a sneaky effective return man, a la Artavis Scott perhaps. We’ll see if the staff continues to use Hunter Renfrow as the deep man in “safe punt return” situations or if they trust Rodgers for full-time duty.