2010 Position Analysis: Running Back and Special Teams with Andre Powell

Note: We do these every year and prefer to wait until after Signing Day to finish them because we are taking recruiting into account, but with the firing of Powell and Napier we have moved this one earlier. We will evaluate each coach, whether he is here or not, as if he were still here and we rate them based on their entire body of work - not just one single year.

Andre Powell was named RB Coach and Special Team's Coordinator in February 2007, following the 2006 season which saw our ST unit attempt to keep every opponent in games and even give them away. Special Teams was never a core focus of Tom Bowden, though he did somehow manage to have a few teams that were solid in this critical department. Powell did fix the issues with the 2006 team, but its hard to imagine a team being worse at defending returns than that squad was. Any coach with attention to detail there could've succeeded at some improvement.....except maybe Jack Hines.

Powell, an Indiana grad from Lockhart, SC, had been on the staff at UNC and Virginia for years, coaching Willie Parker, Tiki Barber, and Thomas Jones. He had UNC 2nd in the ACC in kickoff coverage in 2006, a sore spot for Clemson that same year

Powell replaced an outstanding RB coach, Burton Burns, who took the same job at Alabama. Burton Burns was an extremely good recruiter and coach, but to be honest, the RB Coach position is more of a recruiter than a coach, as the RB is the easiest spot on the field to coach.....A player either has it, or he doesnt. It is a position that is comparatively light on technique. As such, with WRs, this is the key offensive recruiting position on the staff. There is not much technique to teach a runner. Vision, speed, ability to cut and hit full speed instantly...these are things a player will just be gifted with. Drills can and do improve these gifts, however.

There is more than just running though, or just knowing which hole to hit. A RB must be taught to count blitzers to help the QB, know when to release and when not to, how to hold the football against his body, and how to block.  Blocking is probably the #1 thing that a RB has to be taught in college, and most don't do it that well.  Most Juniors who could leave for the NFL will be told by the Advisory Board that they should stay to perfect either their blocking or ability to catch the football. The routes that a back runs in passing sets are not high on technique, at least compared to other positions on the field, and are usually short stop routes, crosses, flares, or wheels. I think of a RB coach as a guy who just polishes a diamond finish. If you give him coal, he can't make the diamond.

When we evaluate the RB Coach, as well as Special Teams we look at the following:

  • Recruiting, a primary responsibility.
  • Rushing statistics and trends, keeping playcalling and OL performance in mind
  • Blocking
  • Ability to catch out of the backfield
  • Fumbles/Turnovers
  • Kick and Punt Coverage/Returns and placekicking

Coach Powell had a reputation as an average recruiter coming in, and with 4 years of evidence at Clemson, we can't say that he has advanced that reputation any further. Powell was added to the staff too late to help out for the 2007 class and set to work on the 2008 class when Clemson/NCAA approved the background check. Having coached for Virginia and UNC, his territory was assigned to those areas, as well as his hometown area of Lockhart SC. These territories are readjusted each year, but for the most part his territory has been roughly the same: eastern VA and northeast NC/Triangle, his hometown area in the upstate/Cola and local area to Clemson, along with parts of Georgia since we reaffirmed our commitment to work on that state heavily. Powell has a good relationship with Hargrave Military and recruits this school heavily (with Pearman) for Clemson.

In 2008, Powell did not bring in a single recruit-of-record in his territories. In 2009 he got SS Jonathan Meeks from Hargrave and pulled in RB Roderick McDowell from Sumter, both 4-star recruits. Per the record, he got only 3 official visitors to Clemson out of his prospective offers that season. Last season, Powell recruited DeAndre Hopkins from next-door Daniel HS and OT Gifford Timothy from Delaware. We were in late enough in the process on RB D.J. Howard that the effort was strongly-influenced by Powell, so we'll give him credit there. For the 2011 class, he has pulled in OT Isaiah Battle from VA, DT Kevin Dodd from Greer, C Ryan Norton from Mauldin (Greenville), and DT DeShaun Williams from Daniel HS.

If Clemson doesn't get a guy from Daniel then either he really wants to move away from home or we have a serious problem. Mauldin/Greer might as well be home territory in just the same way. We would say Powell has been painfully average given the results he's put forth. He does not have the reputation as a tireless recruiter like Harbison/Brooks/Swinney and we don't think he puts forth nearly the effort required for the recruiting-intensive RB coach position. Going by feedback received from recruits through various Rivals and Scout articles, an upgrade could certainly be made in this department.

While we would've certainly preferred Powell to be replaced by Woody McCorvey, one of the best recruiters in the southeast, the appointment of Tony Elliott to the staff is a good one. He has strong connections in Atlanta and managed to get guys to Furman who had Div 1 offers. Clemson must recruit Atlanta better than we have in prior years and this is a big step. One fair question is why we put a former WR as RB coach, but McCorvey coached both positions and did both admirably well, and no one asks this question about him any longer.

Rushing

2009 Clemson RB Rushing Statistics*
Player Carries Gain Loss Net YPC TD 10+ runs 20+ runs LG
C.J. Spiller 216           1271     59 1212     5.6        12       31 12 66
Andre Ellington 68 495 4 491 7.2 4 13 5 55
Jamie Harper 80 424 6 418 5.2 4 8 4 69
Rendrick Taylor 13 37 0 37 2.8 0 1 0 10

2010 Clemson RB Rushing Statistics*
Player Carries Gain Loss Net YPC TD 10+ runs 20+ runs LG
Jamie Harper 177           783        57    726     4.1        6        16 3 63
Andre Ellington 118 718 32 686 5.8 10 17 6 71
Roderick McDowell     32 177 16 161 5.0 1 4 3 39
Daniel Barnes 14 91 0 91 6.5 0 3 1 30

 

*-we are not including QBs or WRs in the rushing statistics

As you can see, Clemson's RBs have not underperformed on the whole statistically over the last two years. Unfortunately statistics never tell the whole story and its difficult to divorce them from the perception of OL performance. C.J. Spiller is a miracle talent that does not come along often, I think we can all agree on that. Give him a crease when he's healthy and he's gone. Andre Ellington would've probably gotten to the 1000 yard season we predicted him to get last year had he played more than 9 games, or for an offensive staff who had a clue. Jamie Harper doubled his carries but his YPC really tells more of his story. I think it is fair to say solely from the statistics that Ellington is the more talented back, given the same blocking effort.

Looking back over Spiller's career at CU, I would say he had a great freshman year and showed so much promise that I thought there was no way Bowden could not end up winning the ACC with both him and James Davis together. But when Burns left, both Davis and Spiller did take steps backwards. Davis really regressed as a runner, and Spiller, at the time, would fall down at first contact. Its difficult to separate their performances from the O-Line's marked regression however, or from Bowden's stupidity. Still, why neither of them ever got 25 carries a game is beyond my comprehension.

We can complain of the same problem this season. Coming into this year we returned two 400+ yard backs and 4 starters on the offensive line. Both of those backs averaged over 5 ypc in 2009, and neither improved in that area in 2010. As early as the Auburn game, it was apparent that the staff decided to give both backs roughly equal carries instead of adjusting this to each back's performance in the game. Jamie Harper and Ellington both played well initially, but as the game progressed it was apparent that Andre was killing Auburn (22 carries, 140 yards) and Jamie was not (19 carries, 44 yards), yet Jamie was getting the bulk of the carries as Auburn pulled ahead of us late in the game. This trend continued until it finally became apparent to the staff that one back could do it and the other wasn't. (We do point out that Statsheet stats do occasionally contain small differences when compared to CU's official statistics used above.)

 

One can easily see that Jamie Harper's season stats are somewhat misleading. 800 yards is good when you have two backs sharing carries throughout the year, and last year we did predict both would get to this level, but looking at each game individually you can see he was really bad until Ellington went down. Only 4 games would meet the criteria of 4.0 ypc.

Overall, in Harper's time at CU, he has not developed. He was a top recruit coming into Clemson and only planned to stay 3 years before going pro. Harper's body is prototypical for an I-back and is not suited to zone running, yet he prefers zone running. Jamie's problem is that he is a 230-240lb back who thinks and plays like a scatback. His physique is suited to bulldozing people, which he can and has done at times here (e.g., FSU this season) but he routinely tiptoes into holes and tries to juke guys who are lighter.  These defenders adjust easier to tackle someone with such a mass disadvantage, especially when Harper won't lower a shoulder to hit a tackler. Last season he fell down at first contact until the N.C. State game, and halfway through this season he played exactly the same. We think Harper's conditioning and overall shape have not been developed anywhere near the level where he needs to be to succeed here or in the NFL.

Andre Ellington was given more than 20 carries just twice this season (Auburn and Georgia Tech) and missed the final 5 games (got one carry against SC). I believe Andre could be a fantastic RB, if he was given those carries. It always seems that at Clemson, we save the best players for next week, next year, or the next coach. This must stop if we are to ever get where we want to go. I saw Andre at Sumter, and he has always hit a hole at 100mph. This doesn't come from Powell's coaching, but Andre has not regressed either. Spiller would be patient and wait for something to open or cutback, and Spiller had a 5th gear and elusiveness that no one else can touch, but Andre accelerates to his full speed and hits a crease faster than Spiller did.

It is obvious Andre fits into zone blocking schemes better than his counterpart, Jamie Harper.  If you watch Ellington run a base zone play (inside or out), he adheres to the base concepts required to be a good runner in such an offense:  head up scanning as he takes the handoff, glide towards where he is "supposed to go" (head and eyes still scanning), quick decision making abilities, ONE CUT at the maximum, and acceleration through the hole.  We pointed out these competencies in Ellington's freshman year and our only concern with Andre was him putting the ball on the ground, which he did improve upon in 2010.  Ellington doesn't have the raw speed of a Spiller, but he is no slouch.  His core ability to capitalize on opportunities through zone schemes, Ellington's quick feet, and his explosiveness (particularly to and through the LOS) lead us to fairly high expectations for next season.  Andre could be a better pure running back than CJ, if he were given the carries to prove it. Even with incoming recruits, Andre should get a bulk of the carries next year and should be over 1000 yards.

It was revealed to us over season's course that the staff would let the two backs decide who was in the game, or at least gave them the option of when to play or start. That debate has not and probably will not be totally cleared up to the public, but the fact that Powell noted that he let the players decide something about their playing time disturbs us, particularly when only one is performing to his ability. Andre Powell defended the staff's decision to play both equally to us, and a week later completely changed his tune in a press conference that made him look unfit, and then defended the staff's boneheaded decision to throw the ball so much earlier in the season as "self-scouting".

Powell Post-UNC Press Interview - Everyone should listen to this.

Blocking

All RBs have to work on blocking technique. Most are going to always be at a size disadvantage as blockers and must focus on proper technique and effort. As our offense shifted to more and more spread formations, and threw the ball 30+ times in each loss, their blocking acumen becomes more apparent.

Clemson is in general not a bad pass blocking team. Part of this is due to Kyle Parker's happy feet and preference to roll right and throw it to the feet of a receiver. We use screens and draws and the RBs are active in the passing game also, which keeps defenses from blitzing us too heavily.

We did not get a good enough opinion of Andre's blocking ability this season. He went out and it did affect the playcalls (run vs. pass). When Jamie was in, he would sometimes really deliver a shot and many times just barely chip a guy he should cut block or flatten. Effort was hit/miss.

Receiving

Ellington is a capable receiver, showing it against Auburn and Miami, but Jamie Harper is the better one here. On the season he has 37 rec for 320 yards and 3 TD, giving him over 1000 all-purpose yards in 2010. One included this fantastic catch against Auburn. Powell has certainly done his job in this area.

Turnovers

Clemson fumbled 25 times in total in 2010, losing 9 of them. Most teams cluster in the 8-11 range. We lost 11 last year. These are not all from our RBs obviously. Powell coaches the special teams/returners and RBs and teaches a rather unorthodox way of holding onto the football: they keep it in their primary hand and don't shift the ball to the outside shoulder (to the sideline). Harper's crucial fumbles against Alabama and SC have colored opinions of him, but he's not that bad at holding onto the ball. Andre has a slightly weaker hand, but again it hasn't been a big issue.

Last season we had an issue with people not hearing a "Peter" call on returns and subsequently fumbling the ball to the opposition, but this was corrected this season and hasn't been an issue.

Next season, with the new offense coming in that uses more misdirection in the backfield, we do believe the fumbles will increase.

Special Teams

Clemson ranked 7th in Punt return yardage and 24th in Kickoff return yardage in 2009. 66th and 34th in 2008, which shows an improvement, but look who we had returning kicks in 2009.

In 2010 we finished 29th in Punt return average at 11.03 per, and 10th in PR yardage. In terms of PR defense we finished 41st at 7.2. Clemson finished 39th in KR average at 22.62, 2nd in the ACC, and 29th in KR defense at 20.33. The national leader (Washington St) allowed 17.0, so I think we did pretty well here. We finished 115th in punt defense in 2009 and 88th in KR defense. This shows improvement.

In Net punting the goal is to get over 38.0, and we finished 24th with 38.24. Dawson Zimmerman improved from 39.15 yards/punt to 42.64. This is quite good. Powell did his job in these areas.

The problem is, of course, placekickers. This is what we said last year:

Our place kickers were plagued by terrible snapping down the stretch, YOU SHOULD NEVER BOTCH SNAPS IN THE PLACEKICKING GAME. You cant touch the Long-Snapper as a defender until the ball is gone. Now you can say, "well whats he supposed to teach a kicker? you either make it or you dont" but somewhere along the line the Coach is responsible. Bowden never had particularly strong kicking games, though Dean was a contender one year for the PK award, while Danny Ford always had a solid kicking game. Danny would call the soccer team over and pluck one if he had nothing, and somehow they'd do admirably well. There is coaching in this part of the game, there is technique. If you see a trend of weak kicking, it doesnt just go to recruiting, it goes to the emphasis on Special Teams by the Head Coach and the man running the ST squad.

Placekicking went from a high excitement level (watching Jackson boom the ball 50+ early on) to intense frustration that culminated in tourette-like cussing spree during the FSU game, then in the ACC Championship.  Games are won and lost with a good field goal team.  Watch a game from the 80's and you will see coach Ford took intense interest anytime we kicked the ball.  Championship teams consider field goals inside 45 yards guaranteed points.  When is the last time anyone has heard of a championship squad missing three extra points in one game?  The inconsistency in this area hurt Clemson in at least two of the losses early (UMd and TCU), is unacceptable, and must become more reliable.

What was improved in this respect in 2010? Only that we missed just one XP. We have a scholarship long snapper who does nothing but snap the ball for his scholarship, and he can't execute the snaps. We have a Sr. Kicker who got beat by a walk-on, who can't kick either. Catanzaro finished 14/22 on the year, 63%.

Bad. Awful. No excuse for having 3 Kickers (2 on scholarship) who can't kick and a scholarship long-snapper who can't snap it.

I don't like to argue that we would've won this game or that had a kick been made, because it changes the strategy in the rest of the game if that kick is hit. However, I do feel like we would've won 2 more games with a competent kicking game. Clemson missed 2 FGs against FSU (lost 16-13), 2 against BC (lost 16-10), and one against Auburn (lost 27-24 OT) in close games.

The Verdict

Andre Powell as a RB coach is average overall. His history shows nothing to make one think he's an outstanding recruiter, when the RB coach should be (together with WRs) the best recruiter on the offensive side of the ball. Clemson's RBs have talent, but injuries greatly affected their final statistics this year as well as poor gameplanning and playcalling choices. Jamie Harper made progress last year, and regressed to start this year.  He did improve in the 2nd half of this season again, but I see nothing to make me think he'd do any differently in 2011. Its hard to separate the impression of the RBs themselves from that of the OL for a fan. You have to admit that either way. If the line does well, the RBs will get their yards. If the RBs are outstanding, the OL can look better than they really are. We had 4 returners up front this year, and we'll have 4 returning next year.

Here we know what to look for with technique and fundamentals, though we don't highlight it in many posts. I find it hard to believe that our RBs would be any worse with anyone else coaching them. I find it similarly hard to think that our kickers would be any worse either. Botched snaps are intolerable and this has not changed in the last few years.

In kick coverage we did improve over an awful effort in 2009, Powell deserves his credit there. Marcus Gilchrist didn't make people forget about CJ Spiller and Jacoby Ford in Returns, but he did the job well.

Ultimately, considering that our offense was atrocious in 2010, the weak placekicking game, the lack of development of Jamie Harper or Roderick McDowell, and since the RB coach position should be manned by a good recruiter, we feel that Powell deserved to be let go. Swinney made the correct decision in this removal.

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