At the end of last season, Clemson had to learn the hard way how special teams can be the difference in a win or a loss, the difference in a national championship or a runner-up finish.
Special teams, of course, were one of the primary reasons Clemson came up short in the national title game against Alabama. The Crimson Tide turned the tide of the contest by recovering a pivotal onside kick in the fourth quarter with the score tied at 24, before scoring the go-ahead touchdown two plays later.
Then, after Clemson answered with a field goal to cut its deficit to four points, a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown gave Alabama a 38-27 advantage with a little more than seven minutes left.
So, it’s no surprise that special teams has taken a front seat at Clemson over the offseason, with the coaching staff emphasizing and prioritizing them.
In fact, special teams play was the first thing mentioned in the defensive meeting room prior to the start of fall camp.
“That’s the very first thing we talked about as a defense when we got together,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said in early August.
Clemson linebacker Dorian O’Daniel, one of the better performers in kickoff coverage, echoed Venables’ statement, saying there has been much more focus on special teams compared to last year.
“I would say that has been the change, and just because of how important it is,” O’Daniel said. “As you saw in the national championship game, some of the few plays that we gave up were on special teams and were the determining factor. So, just knowing how important each rep on special teams is, and guys taking pride in it.”
Kickoff coverage wasn’t just Clemson’s bugaboo against Alabama. The Tigers also allowed kickoff returns for touchdowns in close games at Louisville and N.C. State.
Overall, Clemson finished last in the ACC in kickoff coverage by a sizeable margin behind 13th-ranked Georgia Tech.
O’Daniel said that standing is unacceptable for a team that played as well as it did in other phases of the game during a storybook run in 2015.
“It’s pretty pathetic for the kind of season we had,” O’Daniel said on Tuesday.
After an offseason of work to improve on special teams, Clemson is fully aware that it has to be better.
O’Daniel said the team is determined to do so heading into the 2016 season that begins at Auburn on Saturday night.
“It’s definitely motivation to take pride in what we do,” O’Daniel said, “how far we’ve come this offseason and how much we’ve been working on special teams.”