CLEMSON — He has never been so excited to run again, never so thrilled to put down a Nerf ball and pick up a real football.
But as of now, both are part of Greg Huegel’s reality as Clemson’s star kicker continues to work his way back from a season-ending knee injury in September, which stemmed from a freak accident on a normal play in a normal practice.
There is still much to be done, still loads of rehabbing to complete before he can suit up for the Tigers with a 100-percent healthy right knee. But Huegel is making progress. And that bodes immensely well for Dabo Swinney’s 2018 group.
“I’m feeling good, I’m feeling good,” Huegel said Monday, after Clemson completed its fourth spring practice of 2018. “I’m running now, I’m doing one-step (drills) with a normal ball.
“That’s a relief because I’ve been kicking Nerf balls before then and I’m happy to feel the normal ball on my foot again. But in terms of full steps, kickoffs — we have no idea. We’ll just play it by ear.”
Huegel, who came to Clemson as a student in the crowd in 2014, then walked onto Swinney’s team in 2015, then became the first walk-on in Clemson history to earn All-American honors while still a walk-on that same year, has had an emotional five months. With six months left until the 2018 regular season begins, it appears he will be ready to roll once Clemson starts playing normal competition again, but questions still linger.
And he admits: at times it hasn't been easy.
When he suffered the injury, the Blythewood native remembers lying on the ground in writhing pain for about 15 seconds. When he noticed the pain was starting to subside, he tried to stand up, but when his knee began to buckle, he knew something was wrong. Clemson trainers were blunt with him.
“They were like, ‘We need to get an MRI, we’re not feeling too confident about it,” he said, later revealing that it was a torn ACL and MCL. “A couple weeks in, I think that’s when it really hit me: it’s not ideal.”
Leaning on anyone and everyone he could for support, Huegel decided to talk to teammates, both current and former, for any sort of advice. He spoke with running back Adam Choice, who has torn his ACL, and he also called up good pal Stanton Seckinger, the Isle of Palms native-turned Clemson tight end who is all too familiar with the mental toll surgery can take on an athlete. Seckinger had five different operations while he was at Clemson.
“All of a sudden, it’s like ‘OK, boom, you’ve been climbing the stairs of a 150-floor building and you just fell back 75 floors ... it’s a really demoralizing thing as an athlete,” said Seckinger, who now works in medical device sales and helps coach Porter-Gaud’s football team.
“Greg and I are good friends anyway. We’re good buddies. So he called me and was like, ‘Dude, this happened I'm about to start have to go through all this rehab and what not.’ I pretty much just talked about the whole rehab process. It’s just hard to be doing one thing and then all of a sudden it’s taken away and you have to work your way back up to it.”
Getting Huegel back into the mix will be crucial for the Tigers, who struggled there last year after backup Alex Spence took his place. Spence was nine of 14 with field goals and was just one for four on field goals between 30 and 39 yards. That Huegel is expected to be back in the mix to compete with Spence and incoming freshman B.T. Potter gives Clemson the edge it initially had before Huegel was hurt.
“It’s going to be a beautiful thing,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Are you kidding me!”
It’s all falling into place.