Quick Pre-Camp Assessment--The Running Backs

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - JANUARY 04: Andre Ellington #23 of the Clemson Tigers runs for a 68-yard rushing touchdown in the first quarter against the West Virginia Mountaineers during the Discover Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium on January 4, 2012 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

We briefly discussed the Quarterbacks yesterday and move on to the running backs today. We reviewed Tony Elliott and his backs' performance over the '11 campaign back in February. The recap shows four backs receiving significant touches: Andre Ellington, Mike Bellamy, D.J. Howard, and Hot Rod McDowell. Their respective stats are found below.

NAME

CAR

YDS

YPC

TD

Andre Ellington

223

1178

5.3

11

Mike Bellamy

57

343

6

3

D.J. Howard

41

230

5.6

1

Roderick McDowell

14

63

4.5

1

Totals

335

1814

5.41

16

The good news here is clearly Ellington's return for a final season in Tigertown. Followers of this site know that I love Ellington's playing style, particularly his vision and ability to accelerate to and through holes at the line of scrimmage. Since Ellington's '10 injury, I am not confident we've seen him at 100%, and I am eager to see if he is back to his form from two years ago and what his numbers look like being the feature back for an entire season. All that said, nearly 1200 yards and 5+ per carry was nothing to scoff about a year ago.

Clemson lost the explosive yet error-prone Mike Bellamy. Bellamy showed flashes of brilliance in his lone season here but also put Clemson in some tough situations by putting the ball on the ground. His poor decisions off the field were nothing positive for the team. From a talent perspective, this was indeed a loss, though I am not sure of the overall significance given last season's circumstances.

Clemson's other two backs must contribute to give Ellington needed breathers and take the load off the senior. Howard looked impressive against Auburn and seems destined to start as the #2 back. McDowell really hasn't gotten it going since arriving on campus-reportedly spending time in the coach's doghouse for a time-and disappeared after Christian laid him out one summer. The word is that he's done much better this offseason and might be ready to take some role.

Aside from the backs mentioned above, Morris relies on his receivers and the quarterback for rushing production and to take some pressure off of the traditional running back. Last season, Sammy contributed to the rushing attack with 230+ yards and Tajh with 218. Morris is not scared to orbit a man from outside the tackle box into the backfield and will likely still show some of those same looks to spread out carries and keep defenses more honest with possibilities of fakes.

Incoming Freshman Zac Brooks has many people talking about his potential role in the running game with Bellamy's departure. We think Brooks will be a playmaker who can slide into the hybrid 2 role but are cautious to throw too much pressure on a first year guy-it'll likely be '13 or '14 before he can live up to the large expectations most have placed on his Clemson career. This is especially true following staff comments about him needing to bulk up.

The passing game is a double-headed monster for this group-pass protection and pass receiving. We've used the back out in the passing game and have seen Ellington as a capable target. That being said, both the QB and the backs have some work to do to become more productive in this area. Some of the most difficult items for a running back to master include pass protection techniques, particularly when opponents bring extra defenders. Ellington clearly is the best here and likely could have given up snaps last season if the other backs were better blockers. We'll be looking to see if the others progress in this area. This would give The Chad more choices and increase Ellington's production solely through basic 2-3 back substitution patterns.

Whomever learns how to block the best will end up receiving the most playing time in 2012. We have long argued for Ellington to get his 20-25 carries per game, like we did for Spiller and JD before him, but that doesn't mean he can play 70+ plays per game at this position. Somebody else has to be able to pick up blitzes in definite pass situations, and be able to spell him with a few carries.

Keeping AE fresh all season is a necessity and, consequently, getting other backs in the game is important. Clemson has to have one or two other guys step up and provide a valid rotation. That being said, Clemson (obviously) is in great shape with the starter here but will go into the '12 campaign with quite a few questions about the guys filling in behind Andre.

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