With the offseason a couple of weeks old now, The Clemson Insider is pondering some of the most pressing on-field questions for Clemson’s football program as the Tigers wipe the slate clean and start fresh in 2022.
Clemson is coming off yet another 10-win season, but there’s still some uncertainty and room for improvement in all facets of the Tigers’ game heading into Dabo Swinney’s 14th season at the helm. After probing the offense and defense, here are some inquiries for the special teams.
Who’s the next punter?
The special teams unit got a major lift when veteran placekicker B.T. Potter decided to return for a sixth season, but Will Spiers is leaving after five years with program, meaning Clemson will be breaking in a new punter next season.
Who will that be?
Aidan Swanson is the betting favorite. The third-year sophomore has gotten some limited game reps during his time with the Tigers. He punted three times this season and is averaging 38.1 yards on eight punts so far in his career.
Clemson will need Swanson to take another step in his development is he’s going to be the guy, but newcomer Jack Smith could also get a look. A member of the Tigers’ 2022 recruiting class, Smith is coming to Clemson from Saraland (Alabama) High, where he was a four-year starter at punter and impressive enough for the Tigers to bring him in as a scholarship player.
Smith was ranked the nation’s No. 5 punter by Kohl’s Kicking.
Can the punt return game be improved?
Senior receiver Will Brown did his primary job filling in as the Tigers’ punt returner in the second half of the season by securing each catch and avoiding any muffs. But Clemson didn’t get much more than that.
Brown averaged just 2.1 yards on the 12 punts he got a chance to return as Clemson averaged just 4.4 yards per punt return as a team — 5 yards fewer than was it averaged in that department a season ago.
Of course, Brown, whose longest return went for 17 yards, stepped into that role for an injured Will Taylor, who provided the punt return game with a spark before tearing his ACL in the fifth game of the season against Boston College. Taylor averaged 10.7 yards per return and nearly made a house call against South Carolina State, breaking off a 51-yarder in that game, easily the Tigers’ longest punt return of the season.
But will Clemson keep Taylor as its primary punt returner coming off knee reconstruction surgery? Or might the Tigers opt for someone else — running back Will Shipley, perhaps? — in that role moving forward?
Whichever direction the Tigers decide to go here, they could use a little more after the catch.
Can Will Shipley become the next dual-role standout?
Speaking of Shipley, he didn’t just excel as a running back in Year 1 for the Tigers.
Yes, the former five-star signee stepped in and became Clemson’s leading rusher by the end of his freshman season, but he was also the primary return man on kickoffs. Shipley was pretty good at it, too, averaging 27.1 yards on his 14 kickoff returns.
About the only thing the speedy Shipley didn’t do was return one for a touchdown, though he came close against Louisville with a 75-yarder in that game. Shipley could be the latest running back at Clemson to double as a major threat in the return game, too.
Travis Etienne also returned kicks during his record-setting career. Of course, Shipley’s position coach, College Football Hall of Famer C.J. Spiller, is the poster boy for mastering both roles at Clemson, setting the record at the time (which he still shares) for the most kickoff returns for touchdowns in NCAA history when he played.
Fellow running back Kobe Pace also dropped deep on kickoffs and returned four of them this season. But if this season was any indication, Shipley is emerging as the Tigers’ next big-play weapon in that role.
Clemson Variety & Frame is doing their part to help bring you some classic new barware and help one of the local businesses that helps make Clemson special.
Order your Nick’s barware and do your part to help. #SaveNicks