Before this summer, Greg Huegel’s name was not rolling off any coach’s tongue. It was not slotted in anyone’s depth chart or stored in anyone’s Microsoft Office dictionary.
“I’ve learned his name. I even know how to spell it,” Clemson University coach Dabo Swinney said Thursday, just before announcing that Huegel will start at placekicker when the Tigers open the season Sept. 5.
Huegel was not even listed on Clemson’s official roster before June 6. However, early that morning, Clemson’s incumbent starting kicker Ammon Lakip was arrested and charged with driving under the influence and possession of cocaine.
Swinney initially suspended Lakip and instantly opened the starting job to all comers. A walk-on stepped in.
Huegel, a redshirt freshman from Blythewood, joined the team this offseason. He beat out expectant successor Alex Spence.
Huegel drilled all four of his field goal attempts, from 21, 36, 42 and 48 yards, during Clemson’s final preseason scrimmage Thursday. He also converted a 53-yarder during a simulated last-second situation.
The performance exhibited at least a sliver of resilience in Huegel. Swinney expressed disappointment in the kickers after the previous scrimmage. He cited concerns that the kickers did not handle the adjustment from the practice field to the stadium.
Huegel responded to that challenge flawlessly. However, he is still kicking in front a sparse audience. The stands at Death Valley will not be as gray in two weeks.
Huegel’s leg strength is undisputable. His resolve is unproven.
The problem for Swinney is there is no way to replicate gameday beyond adjusting the down, distance and time remaining. He can huddle the team around the holder. He can blast music or crowd noise. He can file the entire student body into the stands.
That still will not duplicate the pressure of kicking in front of 80,000 fans, even if most of those fans are rooting for Huegel. The most mundane tasks— driving, eating, walking in a straight line— would be exceedingly unnerving if 80,000 people were watching us. There are few other plays in football during which the attention is solely on one player.
No one will know if Huegel can handle it until he handles it.
Swinney revealed Thursday that Lakip will be suspended for the first three games of the season. That includes home dates against Wofford and Appalachian State and a Thursday night visit to Louisville. That provides Huegel ample time to prove his clutch. It took Lakip that long.
Lakip converted four of the seven field goals he attempted through the first three games last season. The three misses occurred in high stakes contests against the University of Georgia and Florida State University.
Lakip rebounded and closed the year 21-for-28 on field goals and 43-for-44 on extra points. He led Clemson in scoring with 106 points.
The field will still be 100 yards long once the season starts. The uprights will not contract. The hash marks will not shift.
Huegel’s form and routine should not change either. He must rely on the same resolve that propelled him through the preseason position battle.
He must ensure his name continues to roll off Swinney’s tongue for the right reasons. Otherwise, his name will not stay at the top of the depth chart very long.