The best way to classify Clemson’s play on special teams this year is solid, which after the way the group played last season is a big improvement.
The Tigers still have their issues from time-to-time such as shanked punt or a blocked field goal, but all in all, the special teams units have had a much better season than they did in 2015.
“It’s a lot better,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “That was a big goal of ours in the spring. We wanted to be greatly improved in that area and we are.”
The Tigers have especially improved on kick coverage. Though they rank just 37th nationally in covering kicks, opponents are averaging just 19.1 yards per return. And unlike last year, when they gave up three returns for touchdowns, including a costly one in the national championship game, they have not allowed a touchdown this year.
The longest return they have allowed heading into their Fiesta Bowl matchup with Ohio State is 68 yards.
“Kickoff coverage has been tremendous,” Swinney said. “We were obviously poor last year and that has been a major, major improvement. The personnel we have there have done a great job. We have some guys like (James) Skalski and Chad Smith. Those guys have showed up and made some plays for us … J.D. (Davis) and Judah (Davis), Tre Lamar, Denzel (Johnson).
“There are a lot of guys that have taken a lot of pride in that role so I have been really pleased.”
Swinney has also been pleased with the other aspects of the kicking game. Though his average is not anything to write home about, punter Andy Teasdall does have 18 kicks downed inside the 20-yard line and has forced 25 fair catches.
Opponents are averaging just 5.5 yards per return against the Tigers.
“We have done a good job positioning the ball punting wise all year,” Swinney said. “We are an offense that does not stay backed up very often so we are always moving the ball. So we have a lot of punts to the other side and a lot of punts inside the twenty. We have had a lot of no returns so I have been pretty pleased with our efficiency there and our coverage.”
Kicker Greg Huegel has 36 touchbacks this year, and 51 other times his kickoffs have reached the opposition’s goal line. He has also made 13 of 17 field goal attempts with a long of 47, including a big 46-yard field goal late in the game at Florida State.
“Huegel has been steady all year long. He has been very steady in every regard,” Swinney said.
As for returning punts and kicks, Artavis Scott had a 77-yard kick return that changed the momentum and helped Clemson rally to beat Louisville, while he also had a 28-yard punt return this year. Ray Ray McCloud had a 74-yard punt return.
“We probably have had more return yards this year than we have in the last few years. The guys have done a great job with that. We have had some big plays,” Swinney said. “The return that Artavis had in the Louisville game was a major momentum change.”
The Tigers have also blocked a couple of kicks this year as well.
“It’s a good spot to be in, but now we have to go take all the things from the season and go and apply them to the postseason,” Swinney said.