In 2009, Clemson ranked sixth in the country in punt returns and did so thanks to two of the best in the game.
C.J. Spiller, the ACC’s All-Time leader in career all-purpose yards, averaged 26.3 yards on eight returns that season for 210 yards, including a 77-yard touchdown. Jacoby Ford had 10 returns for 143 yards while averaging 14.3 yards per return, including a 61-yard touchdown.
However, since Spiller and Ford left campus, the Tigers have not even come close to matching those numbers. And though the Tigers have won 70 games, three ACC titles and one national championship in the last six years, it has nothing to do with what has happened on punt returns.
In fact, since 2011, Clemson has ranked no higher than eighth in the ACC in punt return average. Three times in the previous six seasons, the Tigers failed to total 100 return yards for an entire season.
In other words, Clemson has not just been bad at returning punts, but it has been downright awful at them. It has been the weakest link in what has otherwise been one of the best overall programs in the country.
Last year, the Tigers seemed like they might turn that corner when Ray-Ray McCloud got off to such a good start against Auburn and Troy. He even returned one punt 74 yards, but it was blemished because replay showed he actually dropped the ball at the one-yard line before crossing the goal line.
From there, things kind of went downhill, though as a team the Tigers finished with 278 yards on 35 returns for a 7.9-yard average. Though it was an improvement from the 63 yards totaled in 2015, Clemson still ranked 11th in the ACC.
“We probably would have been second or third, but certainly the upper four in this league if we didn’t screw it up last year,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said.
But the Tigers did screw it up. McCloud fumbled two more times after the Troy game and was eventually replaced by Artavis Scott, who primarily just fair caught the ball.
“We did as good of a job as we have ever done up front with our scheme and things, but we were just undisciplined in taking care of the ball,” Swinney said. “So the first guy who is going to do it is the first guy that we can actually count on to possess the ball. That’s number one because, at the end of the day, if you don’t get the ball it’s (their) ball going that way.”
Right now Hunter Renfrow, Amir Trapp, Amari Rodgers and Tavien Feaster are working at punt returns. McCloud could be back in the mix once he gets back from his injured wrist, which was still in a cast on Saturday.
Swinney admitted Renfrow can do the job because they know he can possess the ball and will be reliable. However, he wants the person who wins the job to me more than just a guy who fair catches it all the time. The coaches want the punt return team to be more of a factor this season, especially considering Clemson will be starting a new quarterback.
“We have to possess the ball,” Swinney said. “The guys we have can all make plays with it in their hands so it is going to be a competitive position and it will probably be one of those things where two or three guys get the opportunity as we get closer to the season.”
Clemson’s punt return numbers under Dabo Swinney
Year returns yards avg. long TDS
2009 26 374 14.4 77 2
2010 30 331 11.0 41 0
2011 13 90 6.9 20 0
2012 23 99 4.3 14 0
2013 29 242 8.3 45 0
2014 35 199 5.7 72 1
2015 27 63 2.3 16 0
2016 35 278 7.9 74 0
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