Tigers focus on special teams

Field position, momentum - and touchdown chances - are at stake when the Tigers' ramped-up special teams take the field

pstrelow@thestate.comSeptember 24, 2009 

  • Special moments

    • C.J. Spiller returns the opening kickoff of the season 96 yards for a TD against Middle Tennessee
        Jacoby Ford follows up against Middle Tennessee with a 61-yard punt-return score
          Against Georgia Tech, Richard Jackson boots a career-long 53-yard field goal
            Spiller opens Clemson's scoring against Boston College with a 77-yard TD on a punt return
              Jackson ties the school record with six field goals against the Eagles

CLEMSON - For as long as some Clemson players can remember, they have been hearing coaches preach that special teams is important because it's one-third of the game.

This past weekend, the maxim carried some weight.

Michael Wade - holder, punt protector and a member of all the special-teams units - played 33 snaps, more than defenders Da'Quan Bowers and Ricky Sapp logged in Saturday's lopsided victory against Boston College.

"Guys really have bought into that special teams can win or lose you a game," returner C.J. Spiller said. "It creates momentum, and we've seen that the last three weeks."

With field position expected to be at a premium in Saturday's anticipated defensive slugfest with No. 15 TCU, the Tigers hope the the ball still is rolling in their special teams' direction.

Clemson's special teams have had a significant impact on the team's 2-1 record - for better and worse. It would be exclusively better if not for two plays at Georgia Tech on which the blame could be spread among coaching strategy (a fake field goal pooch punt returned for a touchdown), team awareness and varying interpretations of the rule book (Georgia Tech's fake field goal touchdown pass, which the ACC later said was illegal).

The Tigers are one of two FCS teams (along with Stanford) to have three special teams touchdowns. The Tigers' offense has scored five touchdowns.

Spiller (second) and senior receiver Jacoby Ford (11th), both accomplished track sprinters, are among the nation's punt-return leaders, with Spiller fifth in kickoff returns as well.

Coach Dabo Swinney's biggest preseason concern was at place-kicker, where junior Richard Jackson leads the nation with 11 field goals, including 52- and 53-yarders.

Clemson is also in the top third in the country in kickoff return coverage (36th) and would be 37th in net punting if not for the field-goal pooch gone awry.

Only one of Dawson Zimmerman's 13 punts has been returned, for 8 yards. The longest kickoff return against Clemson has been 29 yards.

All of which have given the Tigers a huge edge in field position and figure to have reduced the pressure on a young offense.

After kickoffs, Clemson has started drives, on average, at its opponent's 43-yard line - 20 yards better than its foes. Overall, the Tigers' average starting field position is their 40-yard line, with opponents beginning at their 30.

"Three years ago our kickoff coverage was terrible, then punt coverage versus Virginia Tech killed us, and so on," senior tight end Michael Palmer said. "I just don't think people understood (the importance of special teams) that much. Some of that is on the players, myself included.

"It's obvious that's something guys have started taking serious and to heart."

Palmer credited much of the turnaround to running backs coach Andre' Powell, who is in his second season as special teams coordinator.

Powell, though, rejects comparisons between Clemson's formula for success and "Beamer Ball" - the reliance on special teams big plays and stout defense that has served Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer well the past two decades.

While the Tigers picked up on kickoff and punting tendencies that spawned the design of their three return touchdowns, their defining plays have come courtesy of the speed at Powell's disposal.

"It's been a combination of getting good effort and who we played, how we've matched up," Powell said. "It's like checkers. When they have regular checkers and we have three or four kings, we have an advantage."

For that matter, Powell said Clemson's first special-teams test comes Saturday against the Horned Frogs, whom he contended have as much athleticism on special teams as anyone the Tigers will face.

TCU has had the Mountain West Conference's all-conference specialist all four years it has been in the league; reigning winner Jeremy Kerley, a junior receiver, helped the Horned Frogs to the fourth-best kickoff return average in the country last season. Furthermore, TCU has blocked seven punts in its past 32 games.

Powell said he isn't worried opponents will start steering clear of Spiller, though, going so far as to predict the Horned Frogs will kick the ball where they want regardless of the returner's identity.

"If I was playing against C.J., I wouldn't kick to him," Powell said. "But some people may think that sends a bad message to their team.

"And we're going to play some teams that think they match up pretty good, and they're going to kick it, and whoever catches it, catches it. These guys have a different scheme and some cats that can run."

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