Since 2015’s memorable run to the National Championship, Clemson has earned a reputation for a lot of things: excellent quarterbacking, dominant defensive line play, stealing signs, beating SEC teams, and so much more. Unfortunately, none of those superlatives are about great special teams play. In fact, during the Prowl & Growl in Atlanta before the 2016 season — back when they let attendees ask coaches questions — I asked Coach Swinney if they were putting any extra focus on special teams following the onside kick recovery and kickoff return TD that hurt Clemson in the National Championship Game vs. Alabama. He was rather displeased with my question, but I’m happy to say special teams have markedly improved since then. In fact, they performed reasonably well last season.
Clemson ranked 32nd in Football Outsiders’ special teams metric that combines “kickoff return, kickoff, punt return, punt, and field goal efficiency into one overall rating, represented as the team’s standard deviation above or below average.” It was still far from a superlative, but definitely not a problem.
Leading the charge for Clemson’s special team was senior kicker BT Potter. He became Clemson’s kickoff specialist as a true freshman back in 2018 and has been the primary placekicker since 2019. After a poor season as a sophomore making just 13/21 (62%) of his kicks, he was excellent as a junior in 2020 going 18/23 with most of the trouble coming in one game (vs. Miami). He was even better last year connecting on a career-high 21 field goals in 26 attempts (81%). He was also a perfect 38/38 on extra points. He tied for second in the country in field goals of 40+ made going 12/14 from long distance. Only Missouri’s Harrison Mevis made more (14/16). BT Potter used his COVID-waiver to come back for a fifth year and a big season could propel him to be one of the very few kickers that get drafted and become a long-term NFL kicker.
Super senior Will Spiers will finally depart Clemson after five years as the starting punter at Clemson. He had 63 punts last season as Clemson led the ACC in punts (66, with three from Aidan Swanson). Spiers averaged a net punt (subtracts return yards) of 39.7 yards — good for sixth in the ACC. While his average punt distance (41.5 yards) was slightly below average in the ACC, he avoided punt return damage and was good at pinning opponents inside the 20-yard line, something he did 27 times (2nd in the ACC) last season.
Now he is gone and Clemson has to find a replacement. BT Potter, Aidan Swanson, and freshman Jack Smith are competing for the role. Based on the initial Fall Camp reports, this is a wide-open battle with one TigerNet article saying Jack Smith had been the best so far. While it is hard to project punter as a strength for Clemson, they seem to have some options that should prevent it from being a weakness. First and foremost, we hope the offensive improves enough that it isn’t as critical as it was last season.
As for returning those kicks and punts, it’ll be familiar albeit young faces. As of this writing, there have not been reports of any changes at kick return so I expect Will Shipley and Kobe Pace to be the primary kick returners. Since the 2012 rule change that moved kickoffs from the 30 to the 35-yard line and touchbacks from the 20 to the 25-yard line, there has been a decline in kick returns. On top of that, Clemson’s dominant defense didn’t allow many scores thus there were especially few kickoffs for Clemson to kneel or return. Clemson only returned 21 kicks (1.62 per game). I expect Shipley and Pace to be above-average kick returners, but with the team’s excellent defense and conservative approach on returns, it should not be a key part of the game for the Tigers.
Punt return may be a different story. The Tigers’ defense will surely force a lot of punts. Last year, Will Taylor won the job as a true freshman out of Fall Camp and started against Georgia. He averaged an impressive 10.7 yards over six punt returns (although a lot of the damage came against SC State). After his knee injury, former walk-on Will Brown eventually became the primary punt returner. Interestingly, Will Taylor had six punt returns and six fair catches while Will Brown had 12 punt returns and 27 fair catches. Taylor is still wearing a knee brace in Camp but expects to shed it soon and says he is faster than before. He could be a major weapon in the punt return game (and in the slot).
At a high level, Clemson should have the advantage on most opponents with Potter handling kickoffs and placekicking. Punting is a clear question mark, but with three potential options, there’s reason for optimism. Shipley and Pace give Clemson good options at the potentially unimportant role of kick returns while Will Taylor could be an electric punt returner — a role of importance that is only heightened by Clemson’s elite defense.
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