CLEMSON - Clemson fans, and perhaps its coaching staff, were spoiled each of the last two years.
In Derrick Hamilton and Justin Miller, the Tigers sported two of the most dynamic kickoff return men in college football. Great field position following their returns was the norm. Occasionally Hamilton or Miller would take one the distance, electrifying the crowd and helping solidify places for both in the NFL.
My, how times have changed.
Heading into Saturday's game with Boston College, Clemson's 17-yard per return average is ninth in the ACC - a far cry from where the Tigers are accustomed to being.
"The baffling thing about it is, basically, we have the same guys up front who were there last year," said assistant coach Burton Burns, who handles kick return duties for Clemson's special teams.
"The returner always makes a great difference, but it's a thing where the guys have to get some confidence again. We don't have Derrick Hamilton. We don't have Justin Miller. (But) we do have the same guys who have been blocking for those guys the last two years. It's just a matter of them bearing down and getting refocused and just executing."
The kickoff return is the one of few exceptions to football's rule of forward motion.
In virtually every other facet of the game players are moving forward at full speed, either pursuing a block or pursuing the ball. Only the cornerback, and perhaps at times another defensive player dropping in pass coverage can understand the plight of the blockers on kickoff return.
But then again, cornerbacks don't run backwards for 20 yards or so, turn around, and face 11 men bearing down on them who have been sprinting at full speed for 40 yards or more.
"I think that's one of the toughest things to do on special teams," Burns said. "You've got to find a point where you've got to turn back around, find your block and execute your block. That's what we've worked hard on. We've made a few personnel changes, but nothing major. It's just a matter of execution."
Of course, the argument could be made that Hamilton and Miller were so outstanding that each was able to use incredible athleticism to make plays and, perhaps, at times cover for missed blocks by the forward wall.
And while Burns agrees there may be something to such an argument, he remains steadfast in his belief that Duane Coleman and C.J. Gaddis are good enough for the Tigers to average better than 17 yards per return.
"Last year there were some times Justin, and the year before, Derrick, made us right," Burns aid. "Right now we're not fortunate enough to have that situation. So, we have to do a better job up front as far as our execution is concerned."