If it feels like a lifetime ago since Alex Spence committed to play football at Clemson, that is because it almost has been. Part of the 2014 recruiting class, Spence was attending Dabo Swinney’s football camp in June of 2013, fresh off of his junior year of high school when he received his offer. For him, there was nothing to think about. He had the offer he wanted and committed to coaches on the spot.
A product of West Florence High in Florence, Spence was considered the number one kicker in the state of SC in 2014 and a Shrine Bowl selection. Per the 247 Composite rankings he was the 12th best kicker in the nation and a 3-star prospect. With Chandler Catanzaro departing after the 2013 season and no depth at the position, it was widely speculated that Spence was capable of coming in and beating out Ammon Lakip for the job outright.
Having resided in Florence for most of my life, I was able to watch Spence kick in several games during his junior and senior years. He handled the kickoffs, did the punting, and the placekicking. As a junior he was 11-13 on FG’s, and 14-17 as a senior, plus he averaged over 40 yards a punt. His kickoffs were high, booming kicks that usually resulted in touchbacks and routinely were kicked out of the end zone. I recall him drilling a FG from around 45 yards one night that would have easily been good from 55. Like many others, I was convinced the Tigers had an elite level kicker that would be a major weapon for the next few years.
For many kickers, the transition from high school to college can be tough. It is hard to even fathom the pressure associated with going from kicking in front of a few hundred fans on Friday nights to over 80,000 on Saturdays. The first time Spence kicked in a spring game it was fairly obvious he wasn’t quite ready for a stage that size as he would go onto redshirt his freshman season in 2014.
When the 2015 season arrived and with the staff having to go out and find another kicker in Greg Huegel, it had become clear Spence was still having difficulty making the transition. He made only two appearances that season, kicking a PAT in the opener vs Wofford and then kicking off once against App St.
Once the 2016 season rolled around, Huegel was firmly entrenched as the Tigers placekicker, with Ammon Lakip set to be the kickoff specialist. Then, when Lakip was suspended for an off field incident, it was Huegel, not Spence who took over the kickoff duties. Spence kicked off 3 times vs SC State, twice vs Syracuse, and twice against BC, recording a tackle on one of those kickoffs vs BC. Off the field, he was the recipient of the Danny Lee Ford Scholarship that year.
With Huegel still the guy come 2017, it looked as if Spence would spend another season watching from the sidelines, getting some spot duty here and there in games in which the Tigers are up big. Then, with the team getting ready for a week 3 matchup against BC, Huegel suffered a torn ACL after a teammate accidentally rolled up on his leg at the end of a practice. After 3 years, ready or not, Spence was suddenly the starting primary kicker for a team most had already penciled into as one of the four teams in the playoff.
It wasn’t the best of starts for the veteran kicker. Through his first three games, he hit on just one of his three FG attempts, as well as a missed PAT. Then came the Thursday night game against Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. Spence missed FGs of 35 and 38 yards, as the Orange pulled off the shocking upset 27-24. After 4 games, he was just 2 for 6 on FG’s, had missed a PAT, and had struggled at times on kickoffs. The following week, Dabo Swinney reopened the competition for the job, and even brought in a walk-on kicker to join the team.
Spence kept grinding. He didn’t like the thought of letting his teammates down and reached out to Jeff Davis in an effort to right the ship. After talking with Davis, the director of player relations, Spence took the advice he was given and worked on improving his craft. He cleaned up his technique, and made adjustments to ensure he was consistent with his routines and processes. In turn he became less nervous, more confident, and the results were visible on the field.
He would miss on only one FG the rest of the season, never relinquishing the job. Over the final five regular season games he was 4 of 5 on FG’s. In the Tigers rout of Miami in the ACC Championship Game, he hit his only attempt, a career long 46 yarder. He then ended the season hitting on both of his FG attempts in the 24-6 loss to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, keeping the Tigers competitive as long as he could and giving him 7 makes in his final 8 tries of the season.
With Greg Huegel healthy, Spence was once again relegated to backup status in 2018. He got on the field for 5 PAT’s, hitting them all, and was named Academic All-ACC. His career at Clemson could probably be viewed in many different ways. Hopefully most choose to see it as a lesson on how to deal with adversity of all different kinds, how to handle it in a healthy way, and how to keep going and not backing down in the face of that adversity.
Former West Florence head coach Trey Woodberry still raves on Alex, telling me recently “He is a wonderful kid! One of the hardest working individuals that I have ever coached. At West, he was always working on his craft. If you drove by the school, he was usually out there kicking balls through the goal posts. I don’t know that I could be more proud of him. Things didn’t always go perfect for him, but he always battled through the adversity. Just so proud of him!”
For Clemson fans, that should just about say it all. His career didn’t go according to script, but he is leaving with two CFP National Championship rings. I’m guessing the unexpected way it played out helped him become the man he is today, a better man leaving Clemson than he was when he arrived.
Thank you Alex. It has been a pleasure watching your career unfold. From that old, outdated field at Legion Stadium in Florence, to one of the most electric gameday atmospheres in all of college football, Clemson's Death Valley. It has been a privilege watching you grow as a Tiger, and we wish you all the best in the future.