Huegel describes his journey back to being Clemson’s starting kicker once again
When a football player suffers a season-ending injury, the mental aspect of the injury is often overlooked from those outside the program.
After working and preparing all year to play in what is a guaranteed 12 games, and then to find out that is not a reality for the rest of the season can be a devastating blow to the psyche of a football player. All of sudden, everything he worked for at that time comes to an abrupt halt. Anxiety, depression and all of those things can set in.
Clemson’s Greg Huegel knows all too well what that can be like. In just a few seconds, his 2017 season came to an end abruptly when a teammate fell into his planted leg during a live drill the Wednesday prior to the Boston College game last September.
The All-American kicker tore his knee up. Not just his ACL, but every ligament in his knee. The recovery was going to be a long and hard process. It was not an easy thing to accept, especially with the Tigers in the process of having another great season at the time.
“The toughest part would just be going in there with a positive mind set every single day,” Huegel said. “Just because there were some days where you don’t really want to go out there or go into rehab and lift all the weights by yourself when everyone else is out there practicing. That is the toughest times.”
However, instead of getting down, the Clemson kicker used those moments as motivation. He drew strength from it all. It gave him a new appreciation for the game. It was not just about starting anymore it was about getting another opportunity.
“Being able to start the first two years, that is an absolute blessing and even if I don’t get the starting job coming back, I thank God every day for those opportunities,” Huegel said. “Being able to work back to that would mean the absolute world to me. Just having to sit in my apartment during the away games and watching (the team) compete without me … that was pretty tough.”
Huegel’s road to getting back on the team was a long one. However, he knew he could do it. Remember, he is the same guy that walked on the team his freshman year and by season’s end, was an All-American and was kicking in the national championship game.
His first goal was to get himself in position to where he could at least kick before the end of the spring. Before the Tigers started spring drills he was upgraded to a yellow jersey, which means he could get back on the practice field, but he could not practice. It was a small step, but it was a big mental hurdle.
By the end of the spring, he was upgraded to wearing a green jersey, meaning he could participate in individual and non-contact drills. In other words, he could start kicking again. That’s when Huegel knew he turned the corner.
Though he did not play in the spring game, he did get to participate. Head coach Dabo Swinney brought him out during one of the breaks so he could experience the feeling of kicking in front of the crowd at Death Valley.
Huegel missed on one long kick, but he made the others, and the 55,000 fans in attendance let him know how proud they were to see him back on the field.
“I didn’t know how I completely felt about it at first, to be honest because I hadn’t kicked in a long time, but just being out in front of the Clemson family for the first time in a while was a good feeling,” he said.
Those good feelings carried over into the off-season workouts and then into fall camp where he has been competing with fellow senior Alex Spence, who took over for Huegel after his injury. After struggling early on, Spence eventually found his confidence and made seven of his last eight kicks to close the year, including a career long 46-yard kick in the ACC Championship game.
Spence’s confidence has continued. First in the spring and then into fall camp, where he has made close to 80 percent of his kicks, according to Swinney.
“Alex has had a good camp and (B.T.) Potter is right there, doing a nice job. But Greg has separated himself right now,” Swinney said.
Huegel has separated himself by making nearly 90 percent of his kicks in camp. He was feeling so good and so confident in his ability he decided he did not need to wear the brace on his plant leg anymore.
“I felt back to one hundred percent probably like two weeks before fall camp,” he said. “That’s right around when I ditched the brace and ever since then I haven’t looked back. I felt confident that day and I was hitting the ball well. I wanted to see what it was like without the knee brace.”
Though it has not been officially announced, Huegel has won his job back. He is thankful the coaches did not give up on him during the whole process and for the way they treated him when he came back.
“They’re coaching me the exact same way,” he said. “I’m honestly thankful for that just because they’re not looking at me like I’m injured like I’m maybe not back yet. From day one, once I started kicking again, it was like I was never injured and now they’re cool with me pushing myself harder.”