Clemson's depth to be tested after injuries


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Alex Spence, shown here kicking against Kent St., will get the chance to replace Huegel
Alex Spence, shown here kicking against Kent St., will get the chance to replace Huegel

On the way back from Louisville Sunday, we stopped at a restaurant in Knoxville to listen to head coach Dabo Swinney’s weekly teleconference, and Swinney mentioned that the Tigers were as healthy as could be expected through three games. That all changed in just a few days.

The Tigers have been fortunate when it comes to injuries the last few seasons and made it through all of fall camp without a significant injury to a starter (which is a rarity in college football these days). Defensive end Richard Yeargin was injured in a car accident over the summer, but the Tigers exited August with a healthy roster.

The Tigers have played more than 70 players twice this season and have been lauded for their depth. That depth is about to be tested because if there were two positions on the field the coaches didn’t want to see an injury it would have been defensive end and kicker.

Reserve defensive end Logan Rudolph left Tuesday’s practice with a shoulder injury and will have surgery to repair a torn labrum. He’s out for the season, further thinning an already-thin rotation at end. Yeargin’s injury, coupled with the transfer of LaSamuel Davis, meant that defensive coordinator Brent Venables was already looking for extra bodies, and the coaches hoped that Rudolph would make it through the season before needing surgery.

Swinney told us Wednesday night that highly-touted redshirt freshman Xavier Kelly and true freshman Justin Foster will have to take up the slack.

The news started to filter out early Thursday that kicker Greg Huegel suffered a knee injury in Wednesday’s practice. It was confirmed Thursday evening that Huegel suffered a torn ACL and will miss the rest of the season.

“We lost Huegel is practice this week. He tore his ACL, which is just disappointing, really disappointing for him,” Swinney said. “He’s such a good young man and has had a heck of a career. He was a walk-on that earned a scholarship and has had three great years for us. He’s going to be out, but fortunately, he does have another year so he’ll be able to come back. I don’t have any doubt he’ll come back better than ever.

“It was a two-minute drill and we had a player coming off the edge. It was unfortunate and just bad timing. It caught him right in the perfect spot. We were hoping it was just bruised or something but it turned out to be more significant. Just a tough break, but we’ve got to keep moving forward.”

Huegel had two field goals in Clemson’s win over Louisville, including a career-long 49-yarder. Ranked as the No. 7 kicker in the country by Lindy’s entering the 2017 season, Huegel has made an All-ACC team each of the last two years. He was a second-team All-American by Sports Illustrated as a freshman in 2015 when he led the nation in made field goals with 27. He set a Clemson single-season record with 138 points that year.

Huegel also handled kickoffs and had nine touchbacks in 17 attempts in the first three games. He had 37 touchbacks in 97 kickoffs last year. He was a big reason Clemson opponents averaged just 19 yards per kickoff return so far this year.

Next man up is Alex Spence, a redshirt junior from Florence, S.C. In the August 12th scrimmage in Memorial Stadium, Spence was 4-4 on field goals, including a 51-yarder. Spence kicked off twice in the Kent State game, the only game he has appeared in so far this season. He played in three games last season, and two games in 2015. He had seven kickoffs in 2016 with one touchback. He is 2-2 in his career on extra points but hasn’t attempted a field goal.

“We turn to Alex Spence, who is a redshirt junior. He’s also a good kicker, but hasn’t had the opportunity,” Swinney said. “He lost the job as a freshman when Huegel came in and won it. Now, it’s his opportunity to step up. What I appreciate about Alex is how he’s continued to work, so I look forward to seeing him. I hate it for Greg, but I’m excited for Alex to step in and demonstrate the hard work he’s put in. We have Christian Groomes, as well. That’s where we are and I think those guys will do a good job for us.”

Groomes also kicked off twice in the Kent State game, will see more action in practice. He is 1-1 on extra points in his career.

The lone bright spot – if there is one – is that the schedule is manageable until either Spence or Groomes get comfortable. The Tigers have to play at Virginia Tech in nine days, not the best spot for a new kicker, but three of the next five are at home and the Hokies are the toughest road test until a November 4th date in Raleigh with N.C. State.

At kickoff, Swinney could turn to sophomore linebacker James Skalski, who kicked off in high school and has worked at the spot since he came to Clemson. Skalski would likely need a few weeks to get his leg back in shape, but might be another option if the kickoffs are an issue.

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