By William Qualkinbush.
By William Qualkinbush
Over the next couple of weeks, TheClemsonInsider.com will be breaking down the impending Clemson-Georgia matchup position by position. Today, the analysis begins with a look at the team’s specialists.
Neither the Tigers nor the Bulldogs could be described as “elite” on special teams. In fact, both teams had legitimate struggles in the kicking game at times last season that they hope will be rectified with another year of experience for some young players.
The elder statesman for the Tigers is senior placekicker Chandler Catanzaro. “Catman” hit 18-of-19 field goals last season, including the memorable game-winner against LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.
The former walk-on has earned the trust of the coaching staff with his consistency; he has connected on 79.4 percent of his career field goal attempts. If the game comes down to a clutch kick, Clemson fans can breathe easier knowing Catanzaro has what it takes to convert.
The Georgia situation is a bit more tenuous. Rising sophomore Marshall Morgan went just 8-for-14 last season on field goals, making placekicking a cause for concern for the Bulldogs. To make matters worse, Morgan was arrested on June 29 and charged with boating under the influence. If a suspension results, then Mark Richt might have some tough decisions to make on fourth down in Death Valley.
Neither team punted very well a season ago, and both teams return contributors in the department.
Sophomore Bradley Pinion punted nine times last season for Clemson and split time with now-departed Spencer Benton on kickoffs. Pinion has a rocket leg but was underwhelming in his limited chances.
Similarly, sophomore Collin Barber handled the punting duties for Georgia last season and finished in the bottom half of the league in yards per punt (41.5). Expect both players to be improved, but it bears watching how these teams handle the field position battle when the opportunities arise to do so.
The return game is where Georgia has a definitive edge. Both Malcolm Mitchell and Todd Gurley should serve in this capacity. Gurley is the only player on either side with a score on a kick return, and Mitchell’s explosiveness is well documented.
Punt returns were not particularly strong for the Bulldogs last season, as they averaged fewer than nine yards per return.
The Clemson coaching staff was displeased with the output of the return units last season and has gone back to the drawing board to try to enhance their big-play capabilities. Look for redshirt freshman Germone Hopper to get a chance on the return teams in an attempt to save Sammy Watkins’ energy. Adam Humphries could also be an option.
The bottom line: There are several unknowns in this area, but I think the widest gap between the teams is at placekicker. Catanzaro’s reliability and the pending legal issues—coupled with the concern that already existed—for Georgia at the position gives the Tigers more answers on special teams than questions.