It has been a while since Clemson was a team to fear when it comes to punt returns. Perhaps since the days of Jacoby Ford and C.J. Spiller were returning punts for the Tigers from 2006-’09.
Sure, the Tigers have had a few good returns here and there, such as Adam Humphries’ 72-yard return against Louisville in 2014, Ray Ray McCloud’s 77-yard return at NC State in 2017 or Amari Rodgers’ 62-yard return at Boston College in 2018.
But getting consistent punt returns has been an issue for more than a decade. However, that might change this year.
Currently, after two games, Clemson ranks fifth nationally in returning punts, averaging 17.8 yards per return.
“The biggest bright spot has been our punt returns,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “That is something we have been working on.”
In 2009, when Spiller averaged 10.5 yards per return, the Tigers averaged 14.4 yards as a team, the most in the Swinney era. Clemson also averaged 11.0 yards in 2010 and 11.1 2017. Those are the only three seasons in which it topped 7.9 yards in punt returns.
In 2015, Clemson averaged just 2.3 yards, once of the worst in the country. The Tigers were much better last year when they averaged just 5.6 yards per return.
That seems to be changing, though. Amari Rodgers had two punt returns of 21 and 16 yards against The Citadel, while Travis Etienne returned his first ever punt 44 yards to set up a touchdown.
“We averaged almost eighteen yards per return,” Swinney said. “Amari had two big returns and we were able to get Travis in there. That is something we have been working on and we all know what he can do with the ball in his hands. But it is just developing the trust in practice.”
Etienne took a punt at midfield, went to his right where he plowed over a couple of players and then went up the sideline before finally getting tackled at The Citadel six. Three plays later, freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei plowed into the end zone from a yard out. That gave Clemson a 35-0 lead at the time.
“(Etienne) has put the work in, so I wanted to give him an opportunity,” Swinney said.
Clemson has plenty of weapons on offense and are already hard to defend. However, if it can continue to get this kind of production in the return game, it’s going to be hard to stop.
“That can be a big weapon for us,” Swinney said.
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