Clemson’s struggles on special teams last season — especially in kickoff coverage — were well documented.
In 2015, the Tigers ranked second-to-last among 128 FBS teams in total yards allowed on kickoff returns with 1,764 and third-to-last in yards per game allowed on kickoff returns with 117.6.
It’s been a different story so far this year, though.
Through eight games, third-ranked Clemson has allowed just 16.1 yards per kickoff return, the fourth-best mark in the nation.
In addition, Clemson hasn’t allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown after allowing a nation-high-tying three last season, including a pivotal one in the national championship loss to Alabama.
“This year coach (Dabo) Swinney has definitely made an emphasis in the offseason to really improve on special teams, especially on the kickoff unit, and we’ve rose to the occasion,” Clemson standout special-teamer and linebacker Chad Smith said on Tuesday. “We take a lot of pride in special teams, and it has definitely shown this season. We have put in a lot of work and we have a lot of guys on that team that take pride in their job.”
As much as anything or anyone, Smith has been a difference maker on special teams for the Tigers.
Starting on Clemson’s kickoff and punt coverage units as a redshirt freshman, Smith is tied for the team lead with five special teams tackles.
“I’m somebody that’s trying to make an impact on special teams,” Smith said. “I understand that this year that’s probably where my role is going to be most used at, so I’ve just tried to do my best to make an impact.”
Smith’s impact was felt during Clemson’s 37-34 win at Florida State on Saturday night in Tallahassee.
Smith recorded a pair of tackles on kickoffs, including a touchdown-saving tackle late in the fourth quarter following Greg Huegel’s go-ahead field goal with 5:25 left.
Clemson named Smith co-special teams player of the game along with Huegel.
“It was pretty cool, especially for FSU at FSU,” Smith said of earning the honor. “That’s like a dream come true for me. I’m living the dream. Just being able to make some plays was awesome.”
Smith has thrived in his role by embracing the opportunity and physical toll that comes with it.
The 6-foot-4, 235-pounder knows there is going to be bone-jarring hits on kickoffs, and he doesn’t shy away from the physical contact.
“You have to have a mindset that you’re just going to go down there and blow up something,” Smith said. “That’s what a lot of the guys on the team have, and I’m just glad I was able to have that job. I’m looking forward to being on that team next year and hopefully years to come.”
Redshirting last season helped Smith’s adjustment process to college football by allowing him to spend extra time in the weight room and playbook as he learned what it takes to play at the collegiate level.
Teammates like Ben Boulware and Kendall Joseph took Smith under their wing, too.
Boulware is familiar with Smith’s situation, having also played primarily on special teams as a freshman before becoming an anchor on Clemson’s defense.
“He told me his freshman year, he played a lot of special teams,” Smith said of Boulware. “He told me to keep it up because (defensive coordinator Brent) Venables pays close attention to that and will definitely be looking at that. He told me that it will help me a lot into next year in getting on the field on defense.”
A highly touted recruiting coming out of high school, a bigger role is in store for Smith in the future.
Still a young player right now, though, Smith is biding his time and quietly playing a key role in Clemson’s success.
“I think the experience playing and having success on special teams has really expedited his development,” Venables said. “You’re really seeing it, and a lot of times it’s not so profound, particularly during the middle of the season. But it’s extremely profound, and that says a lot to me.”