Clemson Football: Special Teams Preview (Photo by USAToday Sports)
Now that we have looked at the Tigers offensive and defensive squads let’s look at what many would call Clemson’s “weak link.“ Special teams for the Tigers were below average last season and the Tigers have chosen to play it safe for a number of years in the kicking game and the return game.
Junior B.T. Potter returns as Clemson’s place kicker after an inconsistent 2019. Potter converted all of his extra points but made just 13 of his 21 field goal attempts. He did show a lot of promise though.
From beyond 50 yards he was a perfect three for three on field goals and ended the season with the longest field goal in College Football Playoff National Championship history with a conversion from 52-yards out.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney says he is confident with where his veteran place kicker is at this point and that Potter’s confidence is up too.
“B.T. is in another place confidence wise,” Swinney said. “It is always great to see guys mature and grow into their role. To handle the adversity, to handle the success and really just both of those things to develop, and he’s done that.”
Potter did face some adversity last year, even getting benched at one point, but was able to power through and come back to regain his starting job. If Potter can improve from inside of 40, the Tigers could have a valuable weapon on their hands.
“I thought his momentum to finish the season last year really carried over into spring,” Swinney said. “Prior to spring being canceled he had only missed one field goal. He’s been really good, and I think he’s 80-something percent (in camp).”
Potter has been money on his kickoffs and has done a fantastic job of not allowing very many returns from opposing teams. That is an added bonus that you can not place a value on.
The Tigers also have Jack Maddox, who takes over a long snapper. The redshirt junior out of Massachusetts enters this season after appearing in 11 career games.
He snapped in nine games a year ago and recorded first career fumble recovery on a muffed punt at NC State. That fumble recovery and his National Championship game stood out as the highlights of his Clemson career heading into August when Swinney awarded Maddox with a scholarship.
Will Spiers, a fifth year senior, is back as the punter. Usually veterans are looked at as a good thing to have, but keep in mind that Spiers, while having his best season to date last year, has been average at best over his career.
Last season, Spiers averaged 42.3 yards per punt, good for 66th in the country. Spiers has rarely been able to flip the field or pin opposing offenses inside their own 20, which is another example of exactly how good Brent Venables defenses have been..
As far as the punt return game goes, Amari Rodgers was 21st in college football with a return average of 8.4 yards per punt, which was good enough for fourth in the ACC.
Generally, every time there is a punt return for Clemson, fans at home and at the game hold their collective breathe until Rodgers, or whoever is back there, secures the ball. There have been plenty of muffed punts over the years and Rodgers hasn’t been immune to that.
Clemson could have other options at punt returner in 2020. Derion Kendrick, DeMarkcus Bowman, and E.J. Williams could all get opportunities, but Rodgers will be the main guy to start the season.
The Tigers had three players average more than 23 yards per kick return in 2019, Joseph Ngata, Travis Etienne, and Derion Kendrick. Both Etienne and Kendrick averaged more than 25 yards per kick return and had either of them had more opportunities to return the ball, they would have both been in the top 20 of returners last season.
As great as his teams have been and as many great players as Swinney has coached, the Tigers have had just three players return a kick off for a touchdown since he was hired full-time. Sammy Watkins in 2011, Andre Ellington in 2010, and C.J. Spiller who had four in 2009.
The Tigers have had the luxury of knowing the offenses and defenses are so good that they can afford to play it safe on special teams over the last few years. However, there are enough play-makers on this 2020 team that playing it safe could become a thing of the past.