CLEMSON - Welcome back to Whose Line, where everything's made up and the points don't matter. Just like the punter at Clemson.
Right? Wrong. So wrong.
Let's go back to College Park, Md. on Oct. 26, the last Saturday of last October. Clemson 9, Maryland 7, under four minutes to play in the first half. Kicker Chandler Catanzaro had knocked through field goals from 31, 29 and 25 yards - and even those weren't usual chip-shot distance as heavy winds swirled through Byrd Stadium.
Clemson's drive stalled with a 4th-and-19 on Maryland's 34-yard-line; on a calmer weather day, Catanzaro would be the man again. Instead, the Tigers went strategic, hoping to pin the Terps deep in their own territory.
The punt went 26 yards, which in a box score looks unimpressive. But it was perfectly placed on the Maryland 8-yard-line.
The Terrapins went three-and-out, forced to punt back to Clemson with 2:06 left in the half - and the Tigers took over in great field position, their own 42.
Seven plays, 58 yards and 104 seconds later, Clemson took advantage of that field position with a 5-yard touchdown pass from Tajh Boyd to Jordan Leggett. A 9-7 slugfest became a 16-7 cushion at intermission, and Clemson went on to prevail 40-27.
Bradley Pinion matters. That critical, if overlooked, punt was one of his 24 in the 2013 season that died inside the opponent's 20-yard-line.
And not one of his 56 punts infiltrated the end zone. Not one touchback, amidst 24 boots inside the 20. Of those 56 punts, 40 either were fair caught, downed or out of bounds; the 16 returns attempts yielded a paltry 87 yards.
"The percentages of an offense driving the ball 90 yards on any defense, much less our defense ... you gotta make them earn it, make them go the hard way," special teams coordinator Danny Pearman said. "Bradley did a great job last year in creating that field position for us."
Which is why his punt average of 39.4 yards - ranking 91st in the country, and 12th in the ACC - is one of the most useless statistics you'll see in sports.
Pinion is not on any preseason all-ACC teams - he wasn't even one of the well-researched Phil Steele's top four ACC punters; punters from UNC, Duke, Virginia Tech and N.C. State had 2013 punt averages above 42 yards - and was not one of the 25 punters on the Ray Guy Watch List.
Underrated everywhere, basically, except inside his own locker room.
"Not underappreciated to me, man, or those defensive guys. He's a gifted talent," head coach Dabo Swinney said. "He can hang that sucker up there five seconds and create a lot of fair catches, but if you get anywhere near midfield, you can almost bank on it being inside the 20. He has the ability, with that crazy kick he does, to make that thing dance inside the 20."
That "crazy kick" is called an Aussie punt, a secret weapon Pinion works on constantly with the knowledge Clemson's offense will give him plenty of looks from midfield.
"It goes end over end. It usually bounces backwards," Pinion said of the Aussie punt. "I like to call it the American punt, because I think we're better at it."
Pinion said he'll usually take one day per week and exclusively work on the Aussie punt - "I don't even hit a regular punt that day," he said - so he can pinpoint a landing inside the 10 without the ball lurching forward through the back of the end zone.
"(Field position) is such a huge part of the game now," Pinion said, "with teams more fast-paced and moving up and down the field so much."
Yes, Pinion does work on his distance punts in practice, but admits he doesn't have to boom it very often. Other than season-opening and season-closing wins over Georgia and Ohio State by a combined eight points, Clemson had few close games last year, and therefore few crucial pressure punts for Pinion to strike.
"Every time I have a chance to pin it (inside the 20,) I think that's a high opportunity for me to show what I'm capable of," Pinion said.
Pinion also handles Clemson kickoffs - those are more plentiful with the Tigers, as he kicked off 78 times for 38 touchbacks - and earns intangible praise from his head coach.
"Probably one of the better leaders we have on this team," Swinney said. "He's one of the specialists who can cross over and challenge other guys. He might underappreciated to some other guys, but not me."
Pearman would like to develop another kickoff man to take strain off Pinion, who in all swung his leg in a game 134 times in 2014. He's also Clemson's backup placekicker.
"When you're kicking the ball off eight, nine, ten times a game, that's a lot of time hitting the driver," Pearman said. "It doesn't affect you maybe in week one two or three, but by weeks seven, ten, twelve, it can get long on you. If we can develop another guy that we have confidence in kicking the ball off, it would probably serve a purpose to save his leg some."
And perhaps make a run at college's top punting honor. Even if that goal's difficult, overshadowed by a top-10 offense.
"Every punter wants to win the Ray Guy," Pinion said, "so I'm doing all the little things right so I have a chance to win the Ray Guy."
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