Questions dominate special teams

CLEMSON - There will definitely be some serious questions needing answered when spring practice kicks off next Monday, especially at quarterback, wide receiver and at safety.

But perhaps two of the more important questions to be answered over the next six weeks at Clemson are hardly even being spoken about.

Who will the Tigers replace Mark Buchholz with at kicker, and can Dawson Zimmerman be the man Clemson will need him to be at punter?

"They need to be consistent. Even if they are consistently average, then we know what we are getting in preparing for them," special teams coordinator Andre Powell said. "I think being consistently average is a lot better than being really good some days and really poor on others.

"We just have to get those guys to train that muscle memory. Find their stroke, stay with it and put the ball, if it is punting, where it is up high enough to where we can cover it after they get it off quick enough so we can protect it, or kickoff and placing it where we need it to be and placing it high enough so that we can cover it."

Richard Jackson and Spencer Benton will battle it out for placekicking chores. Jackson, a Parade All-American out of Riverside High School, has spent the last two seasons behind Buchholz as the backup kicker and has played in three games, handling two kickoffs and making two extra points. He has yet to attempt a field goal in a game. Benton was redshirted last fall. He was a two-time all-state kicker out of Myrtle Beach.

"Early on, both guys will probably get equal reps as we get closer to the end of spring," Powell said. "If one guy is taking the lead, we will try to get him more reps."

Spencer Benton will challenge Richard Jackson for the starting placekicker spot vacated by Mark Buchholz this spring.
Zimmerman, who will also see some work on kicking the ball off, has a little more experience at punting than both Jackson and Benton do in kicking. The rising sophomore spent much of last season in an intense battle with Jimmy Maners, before Maners finally won the job late in the season.

Though he pulled his hamstring in warm ups prior to the start of the Tigers' second game last season, Zimmerman ended up with 12 punts for a 38.5-yard average with a net of 36.3. One of those punts was a 54-yard boot.

Though Powell agreed that Zimmerman's hamstring injury could have hammered his production, he said more than anything his ability to compete brought out the best in Maners.

"I think that's what it was, but let's give Jimmy some credit too," Powell said. "Jimmy competed back. He competed. Maybe it was his hamstring or maybe Maners just got better.

"The fact remains, we really have to improve in our punting. The last couple of years, statistically, we finished in the bottom half of the league punting. We need to make more money with our punt team."

How much money will depend on who is snapping the ball? Besides trying to find a new kicker and punter, Powell is also looking for a new long snapper.

"We have a couple of guys I think can snap, but I think who I really want to concentrate on, and I think there is a good chance, (Matt) Skinner will be our snapper and he needs to get all the reps or at least the great majority of them," he said.

With the graduation of Tyler Grisham, Clemson is also looking for a second-team holder to backup Michael Wade. Powell hopes Zimmerman can be that guy because he would hate to have to take up a roster spot for road games for a backup holder.

"We have several issues we have to get fixed," he said. With the return of C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford there will be very little to fix in kickoff and punt returns, however, there will be some new faces returning kicks this spring in hopes of finding suitable backups.

The coverage teams have been much improved since Powell came on board in 2007, but he says there is still plenty of work to be done in both areas.

"You look at two years ago on how many fair catches we forced and how many plays our gunners made, it was minimal, I mean very minimal," Powell said.

"Last year, our punt team coverage got better and we produced more fair catches and our gunners made more plays. Of course, the last two years we have had four punts blocked and one snapped over our head so those are the type of things that kill your average.

"We have work to do there and of course kickoff coverage. You think you lead the league in kickoff coverage, man that is pretty good, but there is a lot of room for improvement."

Powell believes those improvements will continue this year, considering he has guys in place that have been training under his system for two years and understand the concepts of what they are doing.

"As I look at the majority of the depth chart, the majority of those guys have had the training at this for a couple of years," he said. "Some guys have been training for two years and have not had a rep yet, so now it is their turn so hopefully these guys can continue to learn how we teach the coverage and what role they play in it.

"Our goal is to be in the top three or four in the league in every category. A couple we got and a couple we didn't, but we will keep working until we get everybody in there."

CUTigers.com Top Stories