The Big Board: Very special teams

There were two missed field goals, a holding penalty, and a fumbled punt against Clemson. In other words, Dustin Hopkins said, it wasn't a good day for Florida State's special teams.

Indeed, the miscues played a big role in Florida State's early deficit, but as has been the case all season, the special teams also helped turn the tide.

Looking back on the Seminoles' win against the Tigers last Saturday, two of the game's biggest plays came on special teams.

The first was a shoe-string tackle by Ronald Darby, saving a sure touchdown by return man Sammy Watkins.

FSU has had few problems on kick coverage this year, but Watkins is more dangerous than virtually any other returner they'll face.

"I've tackled a handful of return guys, and it's like, OK, they're athletic guys, but they're just players," Hopkins said. "But when Sammy hit the hole, and I was in the gap, there was no hesitation. It's just -- boom!"

But just as Watkins was about to break free into the open field following a kickoff in the third quarter, Darby reached out and grabbed Watkins' leg, bringing him to the ground after a modest 26-yard gain. Clemson settled for a 50-yard field goal on the drive to take a 31-21 lead, but it was a crucial moment.

Clemson's ensuing kickoff went to Lamarcus Joyner, and the FSU junior brought that kick back 90 yards to the Clemson 10-yard line. It was, as Clemson coach Dabo Swinney referred to it Wednesday, the turning point in the game. FSU scored on an EJ Manuel pass to Rashad Greene two plays later, and the Seminoles never looked back, reeling off 28 unanswered points.

"That ignited us," Jimbo Fisher said. "That was tremendous special teams. In the second half, we took control of special teams."

That's been the norm for Florida State this season, and while the dominant defense garnered early headlines and the ferocious offense keyed Saturday's win, it's been what the guys on the coverage and return units have done that have set the tone.

Despite the fumbled punt and the near-miss for Watkins, Clemson's average starting field position Saturday was still its own 27. Florida State, meanwhile, began its drives, on average, at its own 36. In the previous three weeks, the difference had been even more noticeable.

Start with kickoffs.

The new kickoff rule, which moves kicks up 5 yards and brings touchbacks out to the 25 rather than the 20, has had a clear impact around the country, with touchbacks up 141 percent overall. At Florida State, however, the Seminoles are kicking just 33 percent more touchbacks compared to last year, and the results have been outstanding.

"We have an athletic team, and the guys that line up next to me on kickoff are fast and physical," Hopkins said. "I couldn't line up a better squad nationwide. Doing that pop-up kick, trying to hang it up there, has definitely benefited us a lot."

Meanwhile, all the concern over the loss of All-American punter Shawn Powell has been a bit overstated, in part because FSU simply hasn't had many drives that ended with a punt. The Seminoles average just 2.8 punts per game, seventh-best in the nation. But despite just 11 punts through four games, five of freshman Cason Beatty's kicks have pinned the opposition inside its own 10-yard line.

To sum that up a bit better: FSU has the 14th fewest punts in the nation this year, and it has the fifth most punts downed inside an opponent's 10-yard line.

On the flip side, Florida State ranks third in the nation in yards per kick return (33.86) and 20th in the nation in punt return average (16.4 yards), while being one of just six teams in the country with multiple special teams touchdowns this season.

Add it all up, and you get a huge advantage in starting field position.

(*Stats courtesy of ESPN Stats and Information.)

Want to know what makes an offense look impressive and a defense appear stout? Start every drive with a 17-yard advantage in field position.

In the second half against Clemson, as FSU built its lead and the lingering image of Watkins nearly breaking free replayed in Fisher's mind, the Seminoles' kickoff plan changed a bit.

"Sammy almost broke one and they said, go ahead and let it eat," Hopkins said. "It's good to every once in a while have that deep kick in your arsenal."

Hopkins booted the next four kicks for touchbacks. All four of those drives ended in Clemson punts.

And that sums up FSU's special teams approach perfectly: The Seminoles are able to adjust, their weapons diverse, and the end result has been exceptional.