2012 Position Analysis: Running Backs with Tony Elliott

Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE

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.

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 trends, keeping playcalling and OL performance in mind
  • Blocking
  • Ability to catch the ball out of the backfield
  • Fumbles/Turnovers

During the 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. In the last class he's credited with T.J. Burrell. In this class he picked it up a little more and Clemson did make some headway in Georgia, and specifically Atlanta. We know for a fact that he sends personalized text messages to HS coaches in his areas of Georgia almost daily. That will pay off eventually, despite Michael Carvell's efforts.

In this cycle, his efforts in Florida paid off with Safety Jayron Kearse. Elliott played a role in recruiting Mackensie Alexander, made follow up visits to Tyshon Dye and helped land Wayne Gallman, I'd expect 3 of those to make serious impacts at Clemson in the coming seasons.

Rushing Performances

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
2012 Clemson RB Rushing Statistics*
Player Carries Gain Loss Net YPC TD 10+ runs 20+ runs LG
Andre Ellington 212 1104 23 1081 5.1 8 28 9 68
Roderick McDowell 81 461 11 450 5.4 5 14 6 32
D.J. Howard 35 142 4 138 3.9 2 6 0 14
Zac Brooks 26 125 6 119 4.6 0 4 1 25

* - we are not counting the QB rushing for the RB coach, but Tajh ended up with 186 carries for the season.

The first thing to comment on is Andre Ellington. He started out this season on fire against Auburn, but the staff saw the lack of depth behind him and basically took him out as soon as we got a big lead on anyone. However, it was clear to me and many others that something was not quite right with Andre this year. The word out of Clemson was very little, and no one knows how banged up he really was. He wasn't quite 100% most of last year either.

Andre had one area that everyone knew he needed to work on in 2012: receiving. In 2011 Tajh's throws to the flats were often sent over the head of his receiver or into the grass, and if not for having tall TEs, we would've had more issues than we did. Andre wasn't doing a good job at catching anything close though. This year, he did improve, but I'm not sure he improved as much as he needs to for more NFL play. Andre is a small back and goes from 0-60 amongst the best we've ever had, but in the NFL he won't be an every-down guy. They'll see the injuries that he's battled for years as being evidence he can't take the beating, so he needs to continue to improve in this one area to have a long NFL career.

I do still think its a travesty he can't get over 20 carries per game average. I can make the same case for James Davis and Spiller as well over their careers. Ellington should have the Clemson rushing record, even though Raymond Priester is one of my favorite players. Andre is just more talented than Raymond was. In any event, Ellington will become a 2-4th round NFL pick.

Hot Rod has always shown flashes of his ability, going back to Sumter HS when I first saw him. He was coming on here early, but a couple Springs ago he had his bell rung by Quandon Christian and fell off the map thereafter. I don't know what happened this year that caused his light to come back on, but he provided much-needed relief for Andre when it was clear that AE wasn't 100%. He will slide into the starting spot in 2012, but he needs to raise his game further to hold onto it. He's a tougher runner now but he would do better if he lowered his pads.

D.J. Howard was banged up for large parts of 2012. We were really disappointed in his performance when he was out there. I had expected him to double his carries over '11. He's a stronger runner but apparently not any faster than McDowell. His pad level is an even more acute problem for him than McDowell. His pads are wayyyyy too high when he carries the ball, and he doesn't keep 3 points of contact with the football. I feel that if D.J. were 100%, he'd become a better pure runner, but Elliott has work to do here.

We were skeptical of the staff decision to play Zac Brooks. They said they'd need him for the number of carries they projected. I'm still wondering why they'd project that based on 2011 numbers. It was quite apparent that he needs to gain 20lbs. You could see that in his first game. He's just too thin, particularly in the lower half of his body, to play full-time RB right now. They feel like he'd grow into a Darren McFadden, so why did they play him for < 30 carries and lose a year instead of redshirting him and having him lift and eat to gain at least 10 of those pounds?

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. This points to a need for bigger backs that can do a little more than chip DEs.

I thought last season that Howard was the better blocker, but his injuries kept him out of several games this season. Hot Rod doesn't exactly excel here, but he is getting much better. He was good enough this year to let Andre have a breather instead of having to stay out there every snap to pass block too. AE's total snap count went from 754 to 606. Towards the end of the season they were heavily splitting time at RB.

Zac Brooks was too wiry in his limited action (65 total snaps) to be of much use in this critical area. Gallman and Dye are not going to get a ton of carries unless they can do this part of the job either. Its just too important in our offfense.

Receiving

This was the single most important area where AE needed to improve his game for the NFL. His catch total went down from 22 to 14, but his receiving total yardage went from 102 to 232. Was that enough for the NFL to pick him higher? I'm not sure, but I doubt the fewer receptions helped his stock. Boyd rarely took his checkdown and often decided to run it himself. Generally that isn't a good sign. It also seemed like we didn't intend for many passes to go to the check valves.

Zac Brooks was hoped to be a help here, and I still think he will in the future, but he managed only 3 receptions in limited action. Hot Rod had much more action and had only 3 himself. Howard managed only 1 reception for the season.

Clearly this is one area where we require some improvement, but each game has to be evaluated on its own. For instance, more blitzing means more plays where the RB stays in to protect or releases late. Tajh takes it himself a little too much as well, and the effects aren't going to show well in statistics.

Turnovers

Clemson lost 12 fumbles in 2011 overall, and improved that total to 7 in 2012, ending up tied for 18th nationally. Not all fumbles are by a RB obviously. Ellington has not had a big problem with it, but at times he can have the ball stripped out due to sheer strength. He does hold the ball high and tight with 3 points of contact.

Some of the backups do not, and many times Tajh doesn't hold it correctly. Brooks in particular held the ball a little too loosely amongst the backs, which is not unexpected. Howard still holds the ball loosely but McDowell seemed to be a little more consistent in this area. Trust me, it does stand out on film when other teams break it down. Overall though I do think we've improved here over the last 2 years.

The Verdict

As stated, this is more of a recruiter's position on a staff and someone who polishes a diamond finish, not someone who can make diamond out of coal. That said we were still happy with the RB position, but you could point that perception towards Andre, because we didn't have a solid backup for him in the first half of this season. Chad's playcalling tendencies have to be taken into account as well, because he definitely quits with the running game at times, or has his QB run it by design too often. Now we have two more RBs for Elliott to work on and we'll see how he develops this group further. Much of Brooks' development needs to be in the weight room, i.e., Batson.

Last year we pegged two areas for improvement: blocking and receiving. We got better at one and not much better at the other. Elliott is a former WR and we have some room to improve here, assuming Chad is telling Tajh to take his checkdowns instead of carrying it himself every time.

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. He did that job this season and improved some others.

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