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.