By Heath Bradley.
Over the next few weeks TheClemsonInsider.com will unveil a new feature focusing on the Tigers standings at each position following the conclusion of spring practice in 2012. The feature will focus on the Tigers depth chart and what we expect to see entering fall camp. In the first installment we will take a look at the Tigers special teams unit.
Depth Chart- 1st Team: Spencer Benton, 2nd Team: Bradley Pinion
What We Know- The Tigers will return all but one of their specialists from the 2011 season, with that one loss being punter Dawson Zimmerman who averaged 41.8 yards per punt as a senior. Clemson will look to replace Zimmerman with either redshirt senior Spencer Benton who replaced an injured Zimmerman in the FSU game in which he averaged 33.0 yards per punt on two attempts, or true freshman Bradley Pinion. Pinion, an early enrollee, is a 6 foot 5 inch punter from Concord, North Carolina who was a top-10 ranked punter in the nation by all services and is the first USA Today All-American kicker to sign with the Tigers since Chris Gardocki in 1988.
What We Expect- At the conclusion of spring practice Benton is still listed ahead of Pinion on the depth chart. This is no surprise; very rarely will a freshman be named the starter during their first spring practice as an early enrollee. However, reports of Pinion’s leg strength as well as his impressive hang time on punts lead us at TheClemsonInsider.com to believe Pinion will be the starter in game one versus Auburn. The last time the Tigers started a true freshman punter in the season opener also took place in the Georgia Dome when Dawson Zimmerman started against Alabama in 2008. If Benton can continue to improve his consistency, his ability to make tackles as part of the special teams unit will make this position battle one of the Tigers most heated during fall camp.
Depth Chart- 1st Team: Chandler Catanzaro, 2nd Team: Ammon Lakip
What We Know- Second-Team All-ACC placekicker Chandler Catanzaro returns after a 2011 season that saw him hit 22 of 27 field goals and lead the Tigers in scoring with 118 points. He was named a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award, an award given to the nation’s top placekicker In his second year as the Tigers placekicker Catanzaro made his final eight field goal attempts including a 43-yard attempt as time expired to defeat Wake Forest and clinch the ACC Atlantic Division for the Tigers.
What we Expect- Barring the unexpected, Catanzaro will be the starting placekicker for the Tigers when they face Auburn in Atlanta. Coach Dabo Swinney continually raved throughout spring practice about how well Catanzaro was kicking the ball, stating that he rarely, if ever, missed any kicks in live action. This is what everyone hopes to see in the 2012 season. If the increase in Catanzaro’s consistency from his redshirt freshman to sophomore season was any indication of what could be seen in the upcoming season, then Catanzaro is well on his way to another great and potentially award winning season. Catanzaro will be backed up by redshirt freshman Ammon Lakip, who was a highly recruited kicker in the 2011 class out of Chattahoochee HS in Johns Creek, Georgia. This is the same high school that sent the Tigers former placekicker Mark Bucholz and quarterback Charlie Whitehurst. If the Tigers are leading this season, do not be surprised to see Lakip get the opportunity to take some kicks in order to gain experience.
Depth Chart- 1st-Team: Spencer Benton
What We Know- Spencer Benton will return as the Tigers Kickoff Specialist (KOS) for the 2012 season. Benton, with 21 tackles, is already the Clemson leader in career tackles by a kicker. In the 2011 season he recorded six tackles in 10 games. In 2011 Benton appeared in 10 games, missing four due to a shoulder injury suffered at Virginia Tech. In 2011, Benton had 54 kickoffs, including 12 touchbacks on the season. Benton was named special teams player-of-the game following the FSU game, a game that saw him record three touchbacks in six kickoffs, punt the ball twice (including one, which was downed inside the 20), and record a special teams tackle.
What We Expect- With the kickoff rules for the NCAA changing for the 2012 season, the kicking game plan for many teams may also be changing as well. The NCAA has decided to move kickoffs to the 35-yard line. This means kickers will have to kick the ball five yards less for a touchback. However, the NCAA also decided that after a touchback the ball will now be moved to the 25-yard line and not the 20-yard line. This will give the receiving team a five-yard increase in starting field position from previous years. With field position being so important in the game of football do not be shocked to see many teams ,potentially even the Tigers, work on kicking the ball just short of the goal line and forcing teams to return the kick. Following the movement of kickoffs from the 30 to the 35-yard line in the NFL last year many teams began to kick the ball short of the goal line in hopes of stopping teams short of the 20-yard line. This could very well be the same game plan used in the college game, as it was often more successful with teams frequently not reaching the 20 yard line. With Benton’s ability as not only a kicker but also a special teams tackler, it will be interesting to see if the Tigers take on this plan of kicking the ball short in hopes of tackling the returner short of the 25-yard line. If Benton is unable to kick or if the Clemson coaching staff decides to rest him late in a game the potential replacements will be Chandler Catanzaro, who kicked off during Benton’s injury in 2011, or true freshman Bradley Pinion.
Depth Chart- LS -1st Team: Phillip Fajgenbaum, 2nd Team: Michael Sobeski / H- 1st Team: Spencer Benton
What We Know- The Tigers will return both long snappers and a holder that saw action in the 2011 season. Last season, the Tigers used two long snappers. Phillip Fajgenbaum started the season and played five games as both the long snapper on punts and placekicks. However, for the final nine games he only appeared as the long snapper for punts. Fajgenbaum was named the special teams player-of-the-game following the Auburn game after his outstanding performance on all nine of his snap attempts. In game six of the season versus Boston College, Michael Sobeski took over the long snapping duties from Fajgenbaum on placekicks. In Sobeski’s first collegiate game, placekicker Chandler Catanzaro went 5-5 on field goals and 3-3 on extra points. Sobeski remained the long snapper for all placekicks the remainder of the year including the UNC game in which he snapped the ball on all 10 placekicks and was named special teams player-of-the-game. The Tigers are also returning their original holder from the 2011 season, Spencer Benton. He was the holder for the Tigers until suffering a shoulder injury during the Virginia Tech game. He returned as the kickoff specialist after four games but not to the lineup as the holder. He will resume the duties in 2012 after the graduation of punter Dawson Zimmerman.
What We Expect- The staff at TheClemsonInsider.com expect to see no changes in the way the Tigers handle the snapping and holding duties. We fully expect to see Fajgenbaum remain the snapper on punts with Sobeski snapping on placekicks. With no true 2nd Team holder listed, one must believe that the Clemson coaching staff is still trying to determine who this player would be in case of emergency, players you could potentially see holding in case of emergency. Fans could potentially see backup quarterback Donny McElveen or punter Bradley Pinion holding on placekicks.
Depth Chart- 1st Team: Sammy Watkins, 2nd Team: Martavis Bryant
What We Know- The staff here at TheClemsonInsider.com, everyone at Clemson, and college football fans around the country know who Sammy Watkins is, and what he can do on the football field. As a freshman, Watkins returned 33 kicks for the Tigers for 826 yards and one touchdown. That one touchdown came with the Tigers trailing 45-42 in the fourth quarter at Maryland. Watkins took the kickoff down the Clemson sideline 89 yards for a touchdown to give the Tigers a 49-45 lead that the Tigers would not relinquish en route to a 56-45 win. The victory gave the Tigers a 7 and 0 on the season. Joining Watkins on the current depth chart for kick returns is fellow sophomore Martavis Bryant. Bryant, who only returned two kicks during the 2011 season for an average of 22.5 yards, is an explosive play maker who has great elusiveness and top end speed. One of the fastest players on the team, Bryant has the ability to take the ball the distance if teams are trying to stay away from Watkins.
What We Expect- Andre Ellington will be back at full strength in the fall. We believe that after hearing back from the NFL draft advisory board that he needed to become a more valuable receiver and kick returner that Ellington would want to become a more vital part of the kick return game in 2012. His place in the kick return game is up for debate, but one could see him replacing Bryant alongside Watkins on kick returns. Ellington was a big part of the kick return game in 2010 before being sidelined by injury, averaging 34.0 yards per return with a touchdown in the Maryland game. Jaron Brown also could see time as a kick returner in 2012. He was the second leading returner in 2011 with 308 yards on 15 returns. Here at TheClemsonInsider.com we expect to see Watkins and Ellington back to return that first kickoff in Atlanta.
Depth Chart- 1st Team: DeAndre Hopkins, 2nd Team: Sammy Watkins
What We Know- The Clemson coaching staff places great emphasis on ball security, and this means making sure that the Tiger offense has an opportunity to get on the field. This leads to the Clemson punt returners often signaling fair catch as soon as the ball is in the air. The Tigers only returned 13 punts on the entire season with DeAndre Hopkins returning 10 of those. On his 10 punt returns Hopkins only averaged 4.9 yards per return. However, he gave the Tigers sure hands as a returner and gave the record setting Tiger offense a chance to take the field.
What We Expect- We fully expect the Tigers to take the same mindset in the punt return game in 2012. Expect to see Hopkins back for most punt returns with Watkins back in certain situations. The main goal of punt returns for Clemson will be to give the offense a chance to take the field, so do not expect anything too risky from the returners on the field. Hopkins and Watkins are both big play threats as return guys but expect them to be signaling for a fair catch more often than not, so that Chad Morris can get Tajh Boyd and his fellow playmakers on the field.