Sammy Watkins hoping to kick-start Clemson's punt return game

The Clemson Sports Blog

Clemson Tigers wide receiver Sammy Watkins looks at Maryland Terrapins linebacker Mario Rowson while running for a touchdown on a kick-off in the fourth quarter in the 2011 matchup.

Photo by Nathan Gray

Clemson Tigers wide receiver Sammy Watkins looks at Maryland Terrapins linebacker Mario Rowson while running for a touchdown on a kick-off in the fourth quarter in the 2011 matchup.

One of Dabo Swinney’s first moves as Clemson’s interim head coach was to put the ball in the hands of the Tigers’ most dynamic playmakers.

In that regard, not much has changed.

With an increase in touches in mind, the Tigers plan to utilize Sammy Watkins in a featured punt-return role alongside DeAndre Hopkins next fall.

Watkins has been lobbying for the job for a while, and on Monday Dabo Swinney said that Watkins will get his chance. “We want to get him the ball as much as possible,” said Swinney, who added that Adam Humphries may get a chance to work his way into the mix.

Watkins served as the Tigers’ primary kickoff return man last season, when he handled 33 of Clemson 63 returns and averaged 25.0 yards per touch, with one touchdown.

He also handled five punts, and returned two, for a 6.0 average. Hopkins, meanwhile, had 10 punt returns for a 4.9 average.

Overall, Clemson returned just 13 of the opposition’s 78 punts and averaged 6.9 yards per return – which ranked 78th nationally and seventh in the ACC. Clemson’s 13 total returns ranked 11th in the conference.

With C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford handling punts in 2009, Clemson returned 30 of 78 kicks and averaged 14.0 yards per return.

Marcus Gilchrist took over as the Tigers’ primary return man in 2010 and Clemson averaged 11.0 yards on 26 punt returns (out of, again, 78 chances).

Clemson special teams coordinator Danny Pearman says that while there are similarities in what he’s looking for from kickoff and punt returners, there are also differences.

“In a punt returner, you're looking for a guy who can make somebody miss,” Pearman said. “In a kick returner, you don't have to make anybody miss as much as you have to be able to hit it at full-speed. It's a blessing if those guys are interchangeable, but a lot of time you're looking at two different type animals – a guy who can catch it, wiggle and hit it, as opposed to a guy that just goes and has great straight-line speed.”

Another essential attribute of a punt returner is the ability to make high-pressure fair catches in traffic.

Watkins has all the physical tools – speed, elusiveness, excellent hands and, perhaps most importantly, the will to take one of the most difficult jobs in the ball-skill game.

“I think it will help our offense, me being back there returning punts, and it could help the defense out with field position,” Watkins told ESPN earlier this spring. “I want to be more known as a great athlete not just at receiver, but as a kick returner and special teams, also.

“My coach talked to me about it last year, but I was a little shaky about it. I said, ‘Let me get used to it.’ I never really played it. This year, I said, ‘Coach, I want to take over the starting punt return job.’”

Now he’s going to get his opportunity.

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Comments » 4

columbiabill writes:

Not sure if this a good move or not. A real risk if an opponent wants to take him out of the game with a late hit on a fair catch. I think it is a better situation if he is an every down player with a touchdown opportunity every time he touches the ball.

brookesdad729 writes:

in response to columbiabill:

Not sure if this a good move or not. A real risk if an opponent wants to take him out of the game with a late hit on a fair catch. I think it is a better situation if he is an every down player with a touchdown opportunity every time he touches the ball.

I have to agree. I think that there is too much of a chance of injury and he is too important to us in other aspects of the game. I believe that he will be keyed on in that aspect. Too much of a chance to get caught with with your guard down! Prayerfully they will reconsider this move.

lhaselden writes:

I am trying to remember the last time a PR was injured. I do not remember one last year. I think they have to know when to fair catch and when do go for it.
What I did not like with Spiller and Ford were how many punts hit the ground. What I liked about Nuke Hopkins last year is he caught most of them. I think you lose an average of 10 yards simply by letting the ball hit the ground.
Last year Watkins returned 2, Hopkins returned 10, so 12 hits in 12 games does not significantly raise your risk of injury.
A few years ago GaT had a kid named Rhino, he never fair caught the ball that I remember, the other team would cream him, he would pop up and catch the next one, I never saw him fumble one either. The kid was tough and fun to watch.

brookesdad729 writes:

in response to sennmanthetigerfan:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

It's not a matter of "what-ifs", it's just at Sammy is not Superman and the more roles you put him in, the chances for injury become greater. He's an outstanding receiver and kick returner. Although punt returning is important, there are other guys that can fill those roles. PR is not necessarily a matter of speed like kick returning is, it's more of being elusive. I do agree though that the "muffed" punts have to be non-existent in order for it to be effective. I don't believe the PR stats kept us from winning games, because the games we lost were a lack of defense and they were blowouts...GT,NCSt,SC,WVA..the teams we lost to were not punting that much because we weren't stopping them and forcing punts! I accept whatever the coaches do since I have no say so in the matter but I don't have to agree with it and neither do you! That's what makes us arm chair QB's great...we can debate with the best of 'em! Have a blessed day my friend!

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