CLEMSON - Few schools in the country have produced as many explosive athletes as Clemson in recent years, highlighted by Justin Miller, Jacoby Ford, C.J. Spiller, DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins.
All the more mind-boggling that the greatest game-breaking situations weren't kind to Clemson last year, ranking ninth in the ACC in punt return average and 12th in kick return average.
"We're trying to get better in every area," said senior Adam Humphries, the Tigers' leading punt returner the past two years. "We have too much talent to be ninth and 12th in the league in those areas."
Cheap scores in Clemson have gone the way of the huddle: the Tigers haven't scored a punt or kick return touchdown since Watkins brought back a kick 89 yards at Maryland on Oct. 15, 2011 - a drought of 33 games and counting.
Ford and Spiller each scored punt return touchdowns in 2009; none since for Clemson in the past 64 games.
"We definitely have to improve on that," Humphries said. "But we've got a lot of young guys who have a lot of speed and talent, so we're going to try a lot of guys out."
Watkins dropped and fumbled away a punt in the 2013 opener vs. Georgia, and that was the last of him at the position all year. Humphries took over, recording 20 returns for a respectable 212 yards (10.6 per punt return), including a season-long 45-yard runback in the Florida State loss.
Kickoffs were uneventful as well; Watkins led the way (14 returns, 293 yards, 20.9 average) but none of the Tigers' returns were longer than 35 yards.
The most notorious return moment of 2013 came in the South Carolina defeat, when two punt returns resulted in lost fumbles: one ball bounced off Martavis Bryant when Humphries was looking for a fair catch, and Humphries had a separate return jarred loose, recovered by the Gamecocks.
"It's mistakes I've learned from; you've got to protect the ball in those situations," Humphries said. "But I can't hang my head on that; I've just got to bounce back and respond."
Special teams coordinator Danny Pearman isn't yanking the job away from Humphries as a result of the USC debacle.
"He's been consistent. Just because he had one bad game or whatever, I'm not going to throw him to the curb," Pearman said. "In saying that, we worked some other kids there this spring."
Besides Humphries, Daniel Rodriguez (5 returns, 31 yards in mop-up duty in 2013) has taken punt return reps this spring and fall, along with the oft-injured senior Martin Jenkins and redshirt freshman Mackensie Alexander.
Kick return is open for business: only Germone Hopper (4 for 69) and T.J. Green (3 for 60) fielded true returns last year and are back on the 2014 roster. Charone Peake and C.J. Davidson have also gotten looks.
"It's mainly just confidence back there, making quick decisions and sticking to it, because everything's happening so fast," Humphries said. "You've got guys coming at you and the flight of the ball's taking you different places."
Because Clemson's offense has little issue moving the ball, the Tigers don't absolutely need a Devin Hester-type - or even a presence like North Carolina's Ryan Switzer, who scored on five punt returns in 2013.
The job description is fairly simple.
"Show it in practice that you can do the job," Pearman said. "One thing we've been for sure with Adam is fielding the ball and decisions back there. He may not be the most explosive guy to run away from everybody, but he's caught it. That's where it starts.
"If they show they can field the ball and be explosive, we'll use them."
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