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2021 Clemson Football Season Preview: Special Teams

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Can’t kick off with out them! *taps temple*

Photo by Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On the depth chart, it seems like Clemson’s special teams will be exactly the same as 2020. Broadly, it’ll give us more of the same play we’ve seen over the last decade in general.

Out-of-the-endzone kickoff specialist B.T. Potter is back to ensure Clemson doesn’t have to deal with the threat of a long kick return from a Kenyon Drake-clone often. Potter remains the placekicker for the third-straight season as well, where he’s steadily improved year-over-year.

In 2020, he was one of the more efficient kickers in the country, and further, when he missed, it was usually on unimportant kicks. (or, as we will see, they were blocked — not a kicker’s fault a lot of the time.) If he keeps up the trend then Clemson can definitely count on him as a reliable safety valve when drives stall.

Plus, thanks to the 2020 eligibility exemption, Will Spiers is back for what feels like his 15th season. He’d been a somewhat average punter for years, but last year he jumped up to averaging 44 yards per punt, getting punts inside the 20 with regularity, and not getting touchbacks too often (under 10% of the time).

With Amari Rodgers now in the NFL, Justyn Ross is listed as the main punt returner as of July, which should be interesting to say the least. But the rest of the return group is basically a who’s who of the RB room.

Of course, there’s plenty of turnover in coverage and blocking, too, but if you were to just glance at the team, you’d have no reason not to expect Clemson’s kicking and punting units to just be more of the same. That’s the good news!

Former tight ends coach Danny Pearman took over the special teams unit in 2011, and it didn’t take very long for me or Brian to get on the “fire Pearman” train. Earlier this year, we essentially got what we wanted with the announcement that Pearman moved to an off-field role.

I was mainly perturbed by the dramatic drop off in the returns department under Pearman, be they punts or kickoffs. Sure, there was going to be a step backwards after C.J. Spiller left for the NFL — he was an other-worldly return man — but Clemson had really found a niche with its strong return game setting up good field position and scores on a regular basis. From 2001-2010 Clemson brought back a total of 22 kicks and punts for touchdowns. Take Spiller away and the number drops to 14 — still a decent figure over a decade for an above average program.

Following Spiller’s departure and in the ensuing decade with Pearman taking the helm the decline was stark, there were only FOUR total return touchdowns, three were punts. The only kickoff return touchdown in that span? Sammy Watkins’ 89-yarder in 2011 versus Maryland.

Obviously, some of that drop off can be attributed to the rule changes to how returns work in order to mitigate their danger — most notably the kickoff touchback rules moving the ball to the 25 on any fair catch within the 25.

A team with a strategy to fair catch the ball every time could deem themselves a success if they manage to do it. To that end, touchdowns also aren’t close to being a perfect measure of return game success. A team that returns it all the way to the redzone every time but never scores would be overjoyed with the result.

But neither is the case for Clemson. Clemson’s main return man has averaged at or under 25 yards a return every year since 2010, good for middle of the road in the ACC most years. Last year Clemson managed to rank near the bottom of the country (93rd) in kick return efficiency. Before 2011, Clemson was usually near the top in the ACC (stats are scarce for this kind of thing) and was atop the ACC at least three times. Presently there’s a big return every once in a blue moon, but at this point it’s not enough to even justify running a deep kick out.

It’s not all on the return-men, though. Clemson has had more than enough athletes in the past decade that are more than capable of returning the ball for a score. Blocking for both returns and kicks has left a lot to be desired, the opening kickoff vs Ohio State put Clemson behind schedule, Syracuse’s blocked punt in a mistake-filled game, and the Miami three blocked field goals debacle come to mind. And that’s just last year!

Potter solves a lot of the issues with kickoff coverage by kicking a touchback 86% of the time in 2020, but that’s not 100%. The kick and punt coverage is still susceptible to an embarrassment from time to time.

The aforementioned Kenyon Drake threat (not linking that video, it still hurts) comes to mind often because it cost Clemson a title, but don’t forget about Louisville’s late-game spark in 2017, BC’s punt TD in 2018, or Georgia’s game breaking kick return in 2014. (Fun fact: Georgia was one of the most efficient kick returning teams in the country in 2020.) Oh, and the running joke/proven theory that “every punter turns into Ray Guy vs Clemson” happens because punters aren’t worried about Clemson blitzing hard on punt coverage.

Replacing Pearman at the helm of the special teams is safeties coach Mickey Conn, who came to Clemson in 2016 after a 16-year run as the head coach at Grayson High School, where he produced legendary players such as Robert Nkemdiche, Wayne Gallman, and of course, Dr. Schuess. As safeties coach, Conn’s been able to do a lot to develop players, so hopefully that translates well to special teams.

I can’t speak to exactly what scheme changes Coach Conn will make to the way the units operate, special teams aren’t exactly a “sexy” thing to ask a safeties coach about, but I can say that changes will happen in 2021 and beyond with Conn. They have to happen.