CLEMSON - Last season at Miami, Clemson possessed a special teams trump card in C.J. Spiller.
Less than a minute before half, Spiller found a seam on the left side of the Miami coverage team and accelerated like an orange-and-white Ferrari through a gap and down the sideline for a 90-yard touchdown.
This season, Miami has the advantage with punt returner Travis Benjamin and freshman kick returner Lamar Miller.
The last time Miller ran the 40-yard dash, he told the Miami Herald he posted a time of 4.32 seconds in high school. Benjamin, a junior, set the program’s freshman record with a 4.26 time.
They have done their best Devin Hester impersonations this fall, leading Miami to a seventh overall national ranking in kick return average (29.3 yards) and a 10th overall mark in punt returns (16.3).
"Those guys can do it," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "They are very dangerous. (Miller) can fly. They are No. 1 in the conference.
"We’ve done a pretty good job there, too. We have punted it well, covered well and returned it well. - A huge challenge for both teams is special teams."
Clemson ranks 100th in kickoff return average (18.6) this season after fishing 23rd last season. The Tigers’ average starting field position has declined by five yards this season.
Clemson has done a better job this season of punting the ball. Dawson Zimmerman ranks 10th nationally in punting average (46 yards per punt).
"We have to do a great job of punt coverage on (Benjamin), really net it up properly," Swinney said. "Kick coverage, you have one guy doing it wrong, you create alleys, and with this guy (Miller), a (small amount) of room and he’s gone."
For a firsthand account of Miami’s speed on special teams, just ask Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, whose No. 2 Buckeyes allowed punt and kickoff return touchdowns earlier this month in Columbus, keeping Miami in the game.
Marcus Gilchrist is Clemson’s punt returner, leading the team to a No. 22 ranking in punt return yardage (13.8) after Clemson ranked seventh in 2009. Gilchrist has also served as the gunner on punt coverage teams.
"You can’t do a lot of dancing," said Gilchrist of getting off the line as a gunner in punt coverage. "Average hang time is only 3½ to 4 seconds."
Once Clemson gunners Byron Maxwell and Coty Sensabaugh get off the line, Gilchrist said the key is to freeze the returner, "to get him to stop moving his feet."
Feet are the key in special teams work, and for Miami, the advantages extend to the place-kicking game, where the Hurricanes boast last season’s first team All-ACC kicker and second-team All-ACC punter in Matt Bosher. The senior has made 15 of his last 17 field goal attempts.
Clemson’s freshman kicker, Chandler Catanzaro, is coming off an overtime miss at Auburn.
"You are going to miss kicks, and he just happened to miss a big one," Swinney said. "Hopefully he’ll respond the way we hope. We’ve kind of re-created that situation a couple of times and he’s been on the money. He’s a tough young man. When you sign up for that job, there are going to be days like that."
Check out the Clemson blog at postandcourier.com/blogs/tiger_tracks and follow Travis Sawchik on Twitter (@travis_sawchik).