CLEMSON – Used to be, the Clemson football team could count on having at least one player wearing orange and white return a kickoff for a touchdown at some point during the season.
The Tigers had at least one kickoff return for a touchdown 10 times out of 11 seasons between 2001 and 2011 but haven’t enjoyed such a special-teams moment since Sammy Watkins took one back 89 yards for a score at Maryland in 2009.
While Clemson has reached tremendous levels of success despite lacking such big plays of late, coach Dabo Swinney would like to see that seven-year drought come to an end this season.
Enter Cornell Powell.
“We’ve worked hard on kickoff returns, and we think we’ve got some guys that are ready,” said Swinney, whose team opens defense of its national title on Saturday by hosting Kent State. “Cornell is one of those guys.”
Powell, a sophomore wide receiver, has yet to return a kickoff at Clemson but packs quite a resume in that regard.
As a senior at J.H. Rose High School in Greenville, North Carolina, Powell averaged 36 yards per return on kickoffs and took four back for touchdowns. He also averaged 35.3 yards on punt returns and turned another four of those into scores.
In the 2015 Shrine Bowl, Powell had four kickoff returns for 203 yards, including a 99-yard touchdown, so he’s proven to have the vision, speed and mindset to emerge as a threat every time he touches the ball.
“We think he’s got a little knack for it,” Swinney said. “He certainly did in high school, but will that translate? We’ll see.”
Powell is listed atop the depth chart as Clemson’s primary return man on kickoffs and will line up alongside either C.J. Fuller and Tavien Feaster in most instances.
Last season Artavis Scott handled the majority of kickoff returns and averaged a nifty 23.3 yards per effort, but he’s now with the NFL’s Los Angeles Chargers. Feaster averaged 20.1 yards on seven returns and Fuller came up big in the National Championship Game, returning three kickoffs for 53 yards, including a 25-yarder and a 20-yarder to jump-start Clemson’s game-winning drive.
“We’ve got a slew of return guys,” Swinney said. “But you can obviously only put one out there at a time and we’re going to start with Cornell and see if he can take that job and run with it.”
While kickoff and punt returns weren’t an Achilles heel for the Tigers last season, Clemson didn’t exactly maximize its benefit from either. The Tigers ranked near the middle of the pack statistically in both categories in the Football Bowl Subdivision, but ranked 10th in the Atlantic Coast Conference in both.
The Tigers also have gone two full seasons without a punt return for a touchdown, dating back to Adam Humphries’ return against Louisville in 2014. Ray-Ray McCloud had a 75-yard punt return that should have been a touchdown last season against Troy, but dropped the ball before crossing the goal line and lost his job.
Armed with a new approach, McCloud will get the nod again this season.
“I just don’t think he brought the right mindset to it last year,” Swinney said. “I think he’s a great athlete who just kind of took that for granted a little bit as far as how really hard it is. He lost his confidence and we made a change there, but he could be as good as anybody in the country if he’ll just be consistent guy for us.”
Swinney said that fellow receivers Hunter Renfrow and Amari Rodgers also may get opportunities on punt return.
“You’ve got to possess the ball – that’s No. 1, whoever’s going back there, that’s going to be job No. 1,” Swinney said. “Anything after that, hey, that’s gravy. We’ve got to get the ball back. We can’t have turnovers from a return standpoint. Just can’t happen. We won’t have much tolerance for that, and we don’t have to because we’ve got a bunch of guys who can do it. It will all work itself out and at some point I think you’ll see all those guys get an opportunity, but we’ll definitely start out with Ray-Ray.”
When he kept possession of the ball, McCloud proved a threat, averaging a respectable 8.4 yards per return last season.
Scott Keepfer, The Greenville News