AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. – In his 10 years as Clemson’s head coach, the kickoff has been an important element to Dabo Swinney’s successes and failures at Clemson.
When he had C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford returning kicks early in his career, the Tigers were one of the most feared teams in the country when it came to kick returns. Spiller’s long touchdown return just before the half against Miami in 2009 turned the game around and led to a Clemson victory.
Sammy Watkins’ kickoff return also turned the tide at Maryland in 2011 as the Tigers rallied from one of the largest deficits in school history to beat the Terrapins that night.
The kickoff has also burned Swinney’s team. Actually, it cost him a national championship in the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship game. Kenyan Drake returned a fourth-quarter kick 95 yards for a touchdown in Alabama’s win over Clemson.
The Tigers were also burned earlier in the game when Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide executed a surprise onside kick because Saban knew his defense could not stop Deshaun Watson and the Clemson offense.
“I have always liked the kickoff play and kickoff return,” Swinney said to The Clemson Insider during the ACC Spring Meeting at the Ritz Carlton in Amelia Island, Fla. “I have lost some games, as we know, some big ones, but we have won some too.
“I have been on both sides of it.”
However, it is an issue Swinney will not have to worry about anymore.
In March, the NCAA Football Rules Committee proposed altering the game’s kickoff rules to allow the receiving team to fair catch the kick inside the 25-yard line and have it result in a touchback. The committee made the proposal to address player safety on the kickoff.
The proposal, which was approved last month, is the latest in a series of changes the committee has made in recent years in hopes of making the play safer. In 2012, the committee moved the ball from the 30 to the 35 on kickoffs to prevent more returns.
Obviously, the rule change to kickoffs was one of the items the ACC’s coaches talked about this week in Amelia Island as they try to get a better understanding of the rule.
“At the end of the day, it all comes back to player safety,” Swinney said. “If the data shows that is the most significant play where people are injured and so forth … they are looking to make the game safer.”
Swinney would not be surprised to one day see kickoffs removed from the game.
“Who knows what will happen down the road,” he said. “Tell me what the rules are and we are going to play. We are not going to set any polices. That stuff is all driven by other people. At the end of the day, as the coach, my job is to execute the rules so if that is what we are going to have this year, and it sounds like that is what it is, then we will have some things to talk about this summer as a staff.”
As a staff, Swinney will put a plan in place on how they will attack other teams with the new rule and a plan in place on how they can combat it.
“What’s our plan? Are we going to fair catch it or are we going to return it,” the Clemson coach said. “We have to make sure we all understand all the rules. Make sure we are all on the same page on how we coach on the kickoff and maybe even how you kick it. There is a lot of discussion there.”
The interesting thing is how teams will want to use the kickoff return against Clemson’s defense. The Tigers have been one of the best defenses over the last four years when it comes to defending its goal line when teams have to drive 75 or more yards to the end zone.
This year will be an even tougher task for opposing offenses considering the Tigers return nine starters on defense, including all four defensive linemen … Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant.
Returning a kick will at least give a Clemson opponent an opportunity to return the football past the 25-yard line and maybe on the plus side of the field a little more.
“I don’t know (what they will do). It is everybody’s own decision,” Swinney said. “It will be an interesting change to the game this year for sure. Then we will see what the data says. I think nothing is forever. We will see what the data says this fall, then, I’m sure we will be back here talking about it next year. So, I have no idea. I just know what we have to do this year…
“… That is really all I know so we will work with it and go from there.”