CLEMSON -- In an alternate history, long-snapper Matt Skinner never double-clutched the snap on Chandler Catanzaro's game-tying field goal at Auburn last season. Clemson prevented Auburn from going undefeated. And Catanzaro gained confidence by tying the game, in overtime, inside a raucous Jordan-Hare Stadium.
In reality, Skinner was called for an illegal snap. Forced to re-kick, Catanzaro's attempt sailed wide left. Auburn won and went on to a national title. Clemson went on to its first losing season in 12 years in part due to Catanzaro missing eight of his final 20 kicks, including key misses in losses at Florida State and at Boston College.
The re-kick at Auburn illustrates how one snap, one kick, can swing a season's trajectory. Kicking woes are a persistent problem Clemson is trying to correct during spring practice, which concludes with the spring game at 4 p.m. Saturday.
Since 2001, the Tigers are 7-16 in games decided by three points or less and in 10 of those losses the Tigers missed at least one field goal. To compare, division rival Florida State is 11-7 in games decided by three points or less during the same span, making 75 percent of field goals. Clemson's 10-year rate is 69 percent.
While much attention has been paid to the performance of a new-look offense this spring, perhaps a more important storyline is the development of Catanzaro. "I'm striking the ball well," he said. "I'm stronger."
As for getting over last year's struggles, the sophomore has been schooled in the psychology of kicking by two experts in the craft: NFL kicker Matt Stover and former North Carolina kicker Kenny Miller, a family friend. Catanzaro plans to work out with Stover this summer as he did last year.
"I'm lucky to have them as a resource," Catanzaro said. "Stover missed a field goal in the Super Bowl (XLIV) … Process over outcome. They tell me to focus on the big picture."
The big picture also includes a new holder and snapper. Catanzaro, who said the unit was "inconsistent" early last year, has praise for new long snapper Phillip Fajgenbaum.
Like last fall, the staff raves about Catanzaro's accuracy in practice this spring. He made 4 of 5 field goals in last Saturday's scrimmage and connected from 53 yards in a practice last week. But last fall the performance did not always translate to games.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney hopes Catanzaro's follows the path of another Tiger: punter Dawson Zimmerman.
"I would tell you all the time how well Dawson is doing in practice and then he had a terrible year (in 2009) but he got better," Swinney said. "It was (Catanzaro's) first year to be the starter. It's a process. He's talented. We've seen him do it. ... He finished last year making six out of seven so I think that gave him a little bit of momentum going into the offseason.
"When you've been through something and lived to tell about it you usually get better."
While Swinney talks of a strong belief in Catanzaro, he signed his first scholarship kicker, highly regarded Ammon Lakip, in February. Despite its kicking game woes the last decade, of the 228 players Clemson has signed to letters of intent since '01, only five have been kickers. "You only have 85 scholarships," Swinney said. "Most teams probably commit four to five (scholarships) to specialists, and last year we had two kickers on scholarship and a walk-on won the job.
"It's an inexact science."
Follow Travis Sawchik on Twitter @travis_sawchik