2011 Position Analysis: Running Backs with Tony Elliott

Tony Elliott was a WR at Clemson from 1999-2003 and a guy who came from a tough background who walked-on the team in 1999 and earned a scholarship as a starter during his later years. While Elliott was not a star, he was pretty clutch that last year in orange. He earned his degree in Engineering and went on to the normal world as an engineer at Michelin for two years, but came back to coaching at S.C. State. After that, he got the WR coaching job at Furman under Lamb, and while he was there we started to hear more good things about his recruiting ability, especially in Georgia. That ability, coupled with being a Clemson graduate, is why his name started coming up as a potential replacement on the Tiger staff a year before Dabo hired him to replace RB/ST coach Andre Powell.

Powell himself 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 WR coach, 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. In zone running, there isn't even a defined hole to hit either, just an aim point. 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.

Many questioned hiring a WR coach as the new RB coach, but I do believe the fundamentals are largely the same, aside from some specific issues. In fact, most RB/WR coaches on staffs around the country have had experience coaching both positions.

When we evaluate the RB Coach 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

Elliott had built himself a fine reputation as a recruiter at Furman but in all fairness he joined the Clemson staff a bit late to make significant headway in the 2012 recruiting cycle. Combine that with the relative quickness in which we filled up our spots this year, and I think you have to give Elliott a bit of a pass this time around. However we will not be so lenient on his recruiting in future cycles.

During the 2012 cycle he recruited parts of Atlanta, SW Florida, and the low country, specifically his hometown of James Island and those areas surrounding Charleston up through Goose Creek/Summerville. Dan Brooks also has a hand in the low country due to his long-standing relationships with local coaches. Clemson was not in the running for many prospects in these areas for the cycle and the offer list he went after is not impressive. He did get a commitment from Goose Creek LB/SS T.J. Burrell, the only LB signee Clemson landed in the class.

If he retains these territories for 2013 we'll be expecting much more out of Coach Elliott. These are all talent-rich areas in Clemson's recruiting footprint, especially Atlanta. We have to make much more headway in the state of Georgia.

Rushing Performances

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 do not count WR or QB rushing stats for the RB coach.

While we don't think a true 1:1 comparison should be made between statistics under two different styles of offense, we do point out that Morris' style is a spread-you-out-to-run offense with Wing-T roots, so for comparison and completeness' sake we have posted all the stats from previous years.

As you can see, Clemson's RBs have not underperformed on the whole statistically over the last few years. Unfortunately statistics never tell the whole story and its difficult to divorce them from the perception of OL performance. 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.

2011 Clemson RB Rushing Statistics*
Player Carries Gain Loss Net YPC TD 10+ runs 20+ runs LG
Andre Ellington 223 1218 40 1178 5.3 11 29 11 74
Mike Bellamy 57 360 17 343 6.0 3 11 2 75
D.J. Howard 41 235 5 230 5.6 1 5 2 37
Roderick McDowell 14 66 3 63 4.5 1 3 0 14

Coming into this season we made the same predictions that AE would get into the 1000-1200yd area easily if he remained healthy. Unfortunately he was clearly not 100% in 2011, and I imagine we'll hear more about that this Spring. We hoped for better production from Hot Rod and were disappointed in his performance. Notice that his carries got cut in half. After the spring game, it was apparent that Howard was the better RB out of the backup group, but even he had his ups & downs.

Much of the fatigue that anyone could see watching Andre run came from the fact that he basically had to play every play in 2011. While his 17 car/gm average is not high, he was still in there in pass situations because Bellamy, Hot Rod, and Howard could not block and/or catch passes. AE played a whopping 754 snaps in 2011, and that is without even playing against GT and missing a chunk of the UNC game after an early injury. Nuk Hopkins played in every game and came in at 751, while Sammy played 656 total after missing one game.

We want the starter to get his 20-25 carries per game, but 754 snaps is just too high. Only the QB and OL should register those counts.

Mike Bellamy's major malfunction, aside from smoking weed and setting off the fire alarm in Charlotte, has been his lack of work ethic. It is probably because he never had to work enough in HS or growing up. While I've heard some horror stories of his background, they do not justify or excuse bad behavior. We knew he was a small back who wouldn't scare anyone physically this season, but his speed is unreal. Unfortunately he exudes a "me first" attitude common of 5-star recruits who think they are automatically better than everyone else around them on the team. When you tell your teammates "Yall lost, not me" or "if they wanted to win they'd play me", then you don't have your shit straight. He had to be told where to line up nearly every time he stepped onto the field and never knew what route to run. If our playbook was a complex Spence-like encyclopedia, we might take issue with Elliott on this, but any idiot who actually opens the notebook we have now should know a limited subset of plays and work up from there. As such, he only really seemed to master the Counter H we run often. I do not think the blame falls on Morris or Elliott here. Not knowing plays against Troy is one thing, but not knowing where to line up every week thereafter is something else entirely.

D.J. Howard does not have the open field speed of either of these guys, but he does run harder inside than Bellamy, and breaks a few more tackles than AE, and I really hope he gets double the carries to spell Andre in 2012. Overall I hope that the OL is good enough so that the evident shift towards passing in this offense gets shifted back to the rush a little.

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 inside leverage technique and effort. As our offense is now spread formation, with usually only 5 linemen to protect, and since we threw the ball 30-40 times each game, their blocking acumen becomes more apparent.

Andre's blocking got much better this year compared to last, and he often stays in to protect rather than run a route. If he releases, he does it later as a checkdown. Unfortunately none of the others were any good at it. Bellamy is too scrawny at the moment and looks lost. Howard and McDowell try, but if they were good they'd both have pulled more snaps just for the sake of pass blocking.

Receiving

Ellington is a capable receiver (22 catches, 109 yds) but will need to improve his hands this offseason. That would probably raise his draft stock more than anything aside from staying healthy for a full season. Tajh does not throw pretty balls to the flats so Andre was often struggling to pull them in, but there were several games where passes hit AE squarely and he could not pull them in.

None of the other backs showed substantial promise here either in 2011. Elliott will need to concentrate on this going forward because this offense requires a pass-catcher at RB to really open up the flats. A guy like Bellamy would be lethal out of the backfield because of his speed, quickness, and superb ability in space. Elliott/MB have to shore this skill set up for the former 5-star to reach his full potential.

The addition of Zac Brooks should really help in this area.

Turnovers

Turnovers, specifically fumbles, were a major concern coming into the season. When you switch from a pro-style offense to a spread option system, there will be more situations where balls are put in jeopardy, and it will really showcase itself during the year following the transition. When I reviewed Tulsa film last offseason, what stood out to me was the alarming number of fumbles by Tulsa. That team was certainly capable of winning every game they played, and fumbles really hurt that squad.

Clemson's underclassmen showed poor technique here with the correct points of contact between the ball and body/forearm and you could often see air between the ball and their ribcage. That should not happen. The ball must be held high and tight, and with two hands in high-traffic. As a defensive guy I can promise you that other teams see it on film, and they know to attack the ball when Bellamy touches it. I know I got really nervous at times watching him sling the rock all over the place. Such sloppiness has to be corrected. This is another area we're looking at for improvement by Coach Elliott.

Clemson fumbled 25 times in total in 2010, losing 9 of them. We lost 11 in 2009. In 2011 Clemson finished 66th in turnover margin and lost 12 fumbles to go with 12 INTs. 12 lost fumbles is a bit high but within reason, as most squads cluster in the 8-11 range. Not every fumble is by the RBs obviously. Still, nearly every one of our fumbles came back to bite us this year.

The Verdict

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 felt that Powell deserved to be let go. Swinney made the correct decision in this removal. We wanted McCorvey more at RB but he doesn't want to come back into coaching, and we had heard many good words about Tony Elliott as a recruiter, so we fully supported the idea to hire him on staff.

After his first year on the job, we aren't going to be as tough on him as we are for some other guys. We don't discount the offensive switch and the more precarious situations it causes with ball security either. However, we do expect to see much better blocking from someone other than Ellington and better receiving skills from all of them in 2012.

Ultimately, as RB coach, his value will show itself in the recruiting arena, or we won't support keeping him at that position on the staff. The recruiting upside potential was a core reason to bring him on staff and will eventually make or break him early in his career in big-time college football.

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