Notre Dame faces off on Saturday against its third opponent with orange as a team color, and its first feline opponent, the Clemson Tigers.
Clemson features some great skill athletes at the special teams return positions and decent specialists. Obviously, considering the weather forecast, this entire preview could be one big facade, as if there is driving rain and wind, the specialists and return teams will suffer, and not have the success that they could have in normal conditions. Hopefully it stays relatively dry. For our visiting Clemson readers, I give you a hearty welcome to the madness that is my special teams previews. Let's get to it.
While Clemson has used several kickers this season, the one who will likely get much of the work will be returning kicker, senior Ammon Lakip, returning to the field after serving a three-game suspension for an off-season drug arrest. Last season, Lakip made 21 of 28 field goals, going 1/1 from 1-19, 7/8 from 20-29, 7/9 from 30-39, and 6/10 from 40-49. He attempted no field goals over 50. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney stated that Lakip will be handling the kickoff duties, however it remains to be seen if he will be taking field goals from Greg Huegel, a 5'11'', 185 pound (finally, not a BFK) redshirt freshman, who has been Clemson's primary kicker through its first three games. Huegel is 4 of 5 on the season, good enough for a 80% average. His attempts have all been relatively short, save for his long of 47 yards against App State (additional makes from 39, 36, 27). His lone miss, also against App State, was from 37 yards. He has not really been tested from distance, but that is also a testament to Clemson's offense, as they have likely not needed to use him from distance. I'll be interested to see how he does from 40+ if given those chances on Saturday. It would not shock me if he missed, considering the expected weather forecast and the possible mental aspect of losing part of his kicking responsibilities to Lakip. Still, if he's kicking and the ball is within the 30ish range, I would expect either kicker, whomever it may be, to make it.
It is no surprise why Clemson is moving to Lakip on kickoffs. On the season, from the kickoff tee, Huegel has 19 kickoffs for 1,181 yards, an average of 62.2 yards per kick. He only has 4 touchbacks, good enough for a 21% touchback percentage, the lowest of any kicker the Irish have faced this season. In more good news for the Irish, Clemson's kick coverage unit is spotty, having allowed 17 returns for 478 yards, an average of 28.1 yards per return, including a 100 yard return for a touchdown in their last game against Louisville. That ranks Clemson 120 out of 127 FBS programs in kickoff return defense. It is unknown how well Lakip will do from the kickoff tee as opposed to Huegel; He only had 5 kickoffs last season and only touched-back 1 of them.
Now, I say this means good things, but that comes with a caveat; Notre Dame's kick return has been nothing more than inefficient this season, and that's being nice. They do not block well, at all, period. The scheme is poor, and on replays, they look lost. I really feel bad for Amir Carlisle, as I feel like he hasn't had much of an opportunity to show what he can do, simply because he's running into areas with unblocked coverage players. I REALLY hope that they watched some film and did some work in practice this week, because this is a huge area that they could take advantage in come Saturday. It all boils down to blocking well and playing smart.
Clemson's primary punter is Andy Teasdall, a 5'11, 190 pound redshirt junior. A former walk-on, Teasdall has 16 punts for 609 yards, an average of 38.1 yards per punt. He has a long of 52 (his only punt over 50 yards), 7 placed inside the 20, and 0 blocked. Clemson has allowed 5 punt returns for 22 yards, an average of 4.4 yards per return. This places Clemson's net punt at 35.88, good enough for 91st in the country.
Because Clemson has only allowed 5 returns and the fact that Teasdall is averaging only 38 yards per punt, I do not think CJ will have many chances this weekend. Short punts usually mean a lack of return chances. I really hope I am wrong, because as we saw against UMass, CJ can change a game with one play. That said, Clemson is only allowing returns on about 1/3 of their punts. That, coupled with the low average, the weather predictions, and their possible fear of CJ makes me think that there will be lots of balls out of bounds or downed. Like I said, I hope that I am wrong.
As for the Clemson punt formation, here's what they ran against Louisville:
I checked this to make sure it wasn't just where they were punting from, but this is Clemson's primary punt formation. They utilize a max-protect spread. This would explain the 4 yards per return they are allowing, as there are no gunners to get down there quickly. If ND utilizes the same return they had against UMass against this formation, CJ could possibly have a big day. Considering Teasdall's low average, however, I would be surprised.
Kick and Punt Return
On the season, Clemson has 9 total punt returns for 12 yards, a 1.33 yard average, good for another 120 out of 127 ranking. Sophomore WR Artavis Scott is Clemson's primary punt return, having taken 4 returns for 29 yards, an average of 7.3 yards per return. 22 of Scott's 29 yards came against Wofford. In their last game against Louisville, Clemson returned no punts at all.
On the kickoff return, Clemson has only returned 5 kicks all season. The bulk of those have been taken by Artavis Scott, 3 for 61 yards, an average of 20.3 per return. The most prolific returner was Ray-Ray McCloud, who took his lone return, vs. App State, for 73 yards.
I am not sure how to feel about this. On one hand, Clemson's return players are incredibly skilled and fast. Scott and McCloud rank 2nd and 3rd on the team in all purpose yardage. They are Clemson's top two wide receivers. On the other hand, they have had little work against top competition, and the work that they have done is not that successful. I would point to McCloud's 73 yard return as proving me wrong, but App State has the 100th ranked kick return defense, so I don't know what to make of that. I mostly repeat myself week-to-week in this but I'll say it again; Clemson has players returning kicks who can take them back all the way. ND needs to play smart. If Louisville and Wofford can hold Clemson's return men back, then there is no reason that the Irish cannot do the same.