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Position Analysis: Running Backs with RB/ST Coach Andre Powell

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. However, Parker languished deep on the UNC depth chart and somehow made it on the team at Pittsburgh, and then became a Super Bowl MVP. Parker was never a star at Norkerlina.

Powell replaced an outstanding RB coach, Burton Burns, who took the same job at Alabama. Burton Burns was an extremely good recruiter and coach who got the whole Thunder & Lightning deal going in the first place, 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. 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 improve these gifts, however.

There is more than just running though, and 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 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 that they should stay to perfect either their blocking or ability to catch the football. Spiller needed to work on his this year. 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 wont make the diamond.

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

  • Recruiting, number one responsibility
  • Rushing yardage/statistics, keeping in mind our OL performance.
  • Ability to block
  • Ability to catch out of the backfield
  • Fumbles
  • Kickoff Returns/Coverage, Punt return/coverage, and kicking game.

Andre Powell had a reputation as an average recruiter coming to Clemson, and since 2007 I cannot say he's really changed that perception. He did not contribute to the 2007 cycle, as he officially joined the staff around signing day (recall that you can't recruit until youre official, and have been cleared by the NCAA). In 2008, Powell did not bring in any prospect for which he was the recruiter of record. His territory was in Virginia with a portion of SC. His territory now includes the Triangle area and northeastern NC. In 2009, he brought in Roderick McDowell from Sumter and Jonathan Meeks from Hargrave, both 4-star recruits. For 2010, he brought in DeAndre Hopkins from Daniel and OT Gifford Timothy from Delaware. He isnt listed as the record recruiter for DJ Howard, but we came on so late for Howard that by that point the position coach is the man involved, and he was mentioned many times during Howard's recruitment. .

If Clemson can't get a kid from Daniel, who shows us interest, then we have a serious problem. Other than that, I would say Powell is painfully average in the recruiting department, at a position whose primary job should be recruiting. Woody McCorvey is a former RB and WR coach with a long track record of excellent recruiting at Clemson, Tennessee, and Alabama. He recruited and developed many of the best backs in the SEC at Tennessee during his time there. Woody would be a tremendous upgrade in recruiting at RB Coach. Dabo could even take a chance on a young guy we've heard good things about and many of you may remember, former Clemson WR Tony Elliott, though he may be better suited for the WR Coach job.

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

* - we arent including minor players with less than 10 carries, QBs, or WRs in the totals.

As you can see, Clemson's primary backs: Spiller, Ellington, and Harper, all averaged higher than 5ypc this season. Spiller was a special talent that comes once in a decade at best. Rendrick Taylor rarely touched the ball from scrimmage after the opening two games of the season, and was moved to H-back/TE as a blocker. Chad Diehl only got 3 carries, which is a tragedy. BRING BACK THE FB DIVE. Other minor guys like Ronald Watson or orbit plays to Jacoby are not counted here.

Theres no need to review C.J.'s performance this season. He was injured in game 1 and wasn't quite up to full speed again until Kentucky. Many times you would see him lose a step or be run down from behind because of his turf toe. I believe that if it had not been bothering him so badly, that he would be over 1600 yards with another 5-6 TDs, conservatively. It seemed like he would aggravate the injury every other game, and spend crucial minutes on the sidelines. If CJ is not hurting, I cannot say that we would've won the games we lost, but we stood a very good chance of getting one or two of them back. He deserved to be in New York for the Heisman, and if not for that injury I'm certain he would've been, and definitely a Top 3 vote winner.

Looking back over Spiller's career, I would say he had a great freshman year and showed so much promise that I thought there was no way Bowden could fuck up winning the ACC with both him and Davis together. But when Burns left, both Davis and Spiller did take steps backwards. Davis 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 regression however, or from Bowden's stupidity. Still, why neither of them ever got 25 carries a game is beyond my comprehension.

But most of Spiller's runs in 2009 were inside zones that were cutback, Isolations, and stretch plays. At the beginning of the season, Napier ran the Power O Right quite often, and all the RBs would have to cut it back, or be tackled at the line. The holes on the right side were never opening up and Austin rarely got over into the hole from LG. Then it appeared that we recommitted to the Zones, which we were actually forced into because of the GAM defense that Boston College/Wake Forest tend to run, and there was limited success. Only when we went to the Iso and mixed it up with Zones and other off-tackle plays did our running game get moving. Between that and our PA passing game, we became a more efficient offense as the year went on.

Most runs that you would see out of the zones were gains of 2, 2, 1, 3, 2, then Ellington or CJ would bust a 15 yarder. Then another 2-3 yard carry, and someone would break a 50 yarder. That pumps up the average quite a bit. Always keep that in mind. These two guys are both special. To me, Harper is the true indicator of the Line's performance, and he took half the year to get things right.

Andre Ellington began the year with spot duty, but showed an amazing ability to go from 0-60 mph in 2 seconds. He hits the hole like the Backs of the 80s. Spiller never hit a hole consistently as fast as Ellington does. CJ waits on the crease and then hits the jets when he's through. Ellington hits the jets when he touches the ball, but doesnt have the elusiveness that CJ displays. I expect Ellington to be over 1000 yards next season, and only a great performance by Harper would dull that expectation. Barring injury, he could be one of the best RBs to ever come through Clemson. Ellington benefits from seeing some zone blocking in high school at Berkeley, and may end up being a better RUNNING BACK than CJ was here.

Jamie Harper also pissed many of us off, myself especially, by falling at first contact. He tiptoes into holes. He's not a prototypical back for the Spence zone-based offense. He is more of an I-formation back: big and strong with the ability to break tackles and run over people. He doesnt have the cutback ability of Ellington, and hasn't showcased the vision either. The problem is, he takes so long to get to full speed that he must have an OLine to hold a hole open, and this year it took him 5-6 games to really show that he wasn't going to fall down at first contact. I personally believe he gained too much weight as a freshman, and it cost him some speed, and since losing the weight he's lost muscle and fitness. He needs to be in better shape, cut 10-15 lbs, and become a harder runner. If he does that, I could see both him and Ellington with 800+ yards next year.

We should also go over the trends of our backs under Powell. We point out that our OL did deteriorate after injuries at VT 2006, which was Burton Burns' final year at CU.

James Davis
2006 203 carries 1187yds 5.8 ypc 17 TDs
2007 214 1064 5.0 10
2008 171 751 4.4 11

CJ Spiller
2006 129 carries 938yds 7.3 ypc 10 TDs
2007 145 768 5.3 3
2008 116 629 5.4 7
2009 216 1212 5.6 12

Its quite clear that the backs statistically regressed after Burns left. I personally believe either of these two should've been given the ball 25 times each game and they weren't. Perhaps if Tom was that smart then he'd still be here.

None of our RBs impress with their ability to block one on one. Without going through each game review I've done this year, I will say that a few plays stand out to me as great blocks, and it goes for all of them. They are adequate. None is a terrible blocker, though Ellington will always need to work on his technique because of his small size. Harper was lost last year blocking, and did improve this year. CJ is also adequate but isnt a guy you want staying in to block unless you absolutely have to go max-protect. Chad Diehl is simply outstanding as a lead blocker and should be in the game more often. Rendrick Taylor is 50/50 whether hes going to maul someone or just be left in their dust, but again I'd count him as a TE.

2009 Clemson RB Passing Statistics
Player Rec. Yds YPC TDs 20+
C.J. Spiller 36 503 14.0 4 8
Andre Ellington 11 55 5.0 0 0
Jamie Harper 11 49 4.5 0 0
Chad Diehl 2 20 10.0 0 0

There appears to not be much evidence to show that Ellington will be the better receiver, but by virtue of his quickness you can expect him to catch the ball over 25 times next year. He is a guy, like Spiller, that you want out in space. Most plays to Harper are going to be screens unless his quickness improves, but I cannot say he's a bad receiver in his own right. I expect Diehl's number of touches out of the backfield to go up with Palmer and Taylor both gone at TE.

As far as turning the ball over, Spiller rarely did. ESPN's stats say he never fumbled in his career as a RB, but thats wrong, and they say neither Harper nor Ellington did either. Typical halfassed ESPN research skills. Clemson lost 11 fumbles this year. The kick return against GT actually counts as a fumble return in stats, so thats 10. A couple were on kick returns as well. The NCAA leader in fumbles lost has 17 (Troy), and nearly everyone clusters around the 8-11 mark. Andre Ellington is the only RB with a weak hand, but after midseason this appeared to be corrected well enough. Harper's fumble against SC and Alabama last year looms large in everyone's memory, but in reality he's not a big fumbler. Andre Powell teaches an unorthodox way of carrying the football in that he teaches his backs to use their primary hand instead of switching the ball to the outside arm. I don't like it because it leaves you open to a game-changing turnover with a right-handed back/returner going left down the sideline. Statistically though, Clemson is not a big fumbling team.

Special Teams

In addition to being RB Coach, Powell heads Clemson's 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 have returning kicks. I see no reason to assume it'll be roughly equivalent in 2010.

Dawson Zimmerman averaged 39.15 yards/punt in 2009, which is not particularly great. Ideally you want 42yds per punt average and over 38 Net punting. Clemson finished 115th in punt coverage defense, and 88th in kickoff coverage defense. All weak.

Richard Jackson went 20/31, a 64.5% clip, and missed 2 XPs. This should be over 85%. Benton went 4/7 on XPs. YOU SHOULD NEVER MISS A FUCKING EXTRA POINT. 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.

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 rushing stats are good, and throughout the year our backs did improve, as did the OLine. 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.

I find it hard to believe that the RBs would've been worse with anyone else coaching them however, and I believe that Woody McCorvey could do the job better. He's one of the best in the South, and he's not even visiting recruits.

On special teams, Clemson is poor in coverage all-around. In kicking, we're barely sound. In punting, we're woefully average. We can't get out of the way of punts because no one listens for a "peter" call, and we fumble it away. We botch snaps late in the season in the placekicking game, which there is no excuse for. Game 1 or 2, I can forgive somewhat, but not Game 6, 7, 8, etc. Clemson's kick return stats look impressive, but we also had CJ Spiller and Ford, both All-American track stars, running back the kicks. Who wouldn't look good statistically with those 2?

We believe that Powell should go. McCorvey should be moved back to the staff, where he belongs. Danny Pearman, who has significant ST experience with Beamer at VT, should be given Special Teams.