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Clemson Football: Running Back Review

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NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Clemson running game was surprisingly mercurial this season. Some games it was a run away freight train, leveling all in its path. Some games you wondered if someone forgot to print out the run game play sheet. When the run game was working, or at least being attempted, Clemson was able to control the ball and wear down the opposition. When the run game was ignored, we tended to get into shootouts, putting all our eggs in the Deshaun Watson basket, granted, generally to good effect.

In my preseason preview, I touted our depth at running back. I was, unfortunately, way off base. While Wayne Gallman was his usual beastly self when we decided to give him the ball, the rest of the running back stable was generally uninspiring, with a few key exceptions, leaving the running back situation completely up in the air for next season. This, however, isn’t about next season, it’s about last season, and the running game did enough to help us to a National Championship, so, in the immortal words of Biggie Smalls, “it’s all good.”

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Wayne Gallman

Att: 232

Yds: 1133

Avg: 4.9

TD: 17

Rec: 20

Yds: 152

TD: 0

Wayne had a strange season. He started the year with 30 attempts for 123 yards against a killer Auburn front, looking every bit like an All-American. Clemson looked like they were going to lean heavily on the running game to control games in the 2017 season, and then, that didn’t happen. Wayne would only break the 100-yard barrier 4 times the rest of the season, and would only break 20 carries twice the rest of the year.

There were breakout games along the way. He gutted Louisville for 110 yards on 16 carries (which makes me wonder why he only received 16 carries). He destroyed both Boston College and Wake Forrest, putting up an absurd 109 yards on 9 carries against B.C. and personally eviscerating the Wake defense to the tune of 161 yards on 22 carries. He ran over a hapless South Carolina defense, putting up 112 yards on 19 carries. Gallman scored at least one touchdown in 13 out 15 games, so while his carries and yards were down from last year, his touchdowns were up.

Strangely, there were some real duds from the Clemson running game as well. The Troy game probably should have set off alarms. The Tigers decided to go full air raid against Troy, only handing the ball to Wayne 9 times in a surprisingly close game. Per the Dave Doeren game plan, Wayne was knocked out of the NC. State game by an obvious helmet-to-helmet hit by a head hunting safety, which led to Clemson abandoning the running game and requiring a miraculous finish to win against a garbage NC. State team.

Pitt was the obvious low point for Gallman and Tigers running attack. Baited by a stout Pittsburg defensive line and a pathetic Panther secondary, Clemson once again forgot about Gallman, and paid the price. In a game where Clemson needed to keep their offense on the field and give the defense a break, Wayne only received 18 carries for 36 yards (3 of those runs were stopped by the endzone). The endzone interception that pulled Pitt back into the game was a direct indictment on the lack of faith in Clemson’s running game.

All in all, the running game, and subsequently Wayne Gallman’s performance, was frustratingly erratic during the regular season. I expected a balanced attack this year, and rarely saw it. I feel like Wayne was physically capable, but the combination of a sluggish offensive line and Clemson’s embarrassment of riches on the outside, led to the Tigers relying heavily on the passing game, even when the running game seemed to be the better choice.

The post season saw the return of the Clemson running game I expected to see all season. The shackles were taken off Deshaun, and the running game thrived. Wayne didn’t break the 100-yard mark in any of the 3 post-season games, but his presence as both a rusher and blocker for Deshaun helped pave the way for victory. Wayne found the endzone in all 3 post-season games, putting up his best numbers (18 carries, 85 yards) in Clemson’s annihilation of Ohio State.

Running against Alabama in the National Championship game was always going to be a tough task. Wayne and the Clemson line struggled early to make any sort of progress, but the Tigers didn’t abandon the run game, and every rush was like a body shot to the Tide defense, softening them up for later.

While he only ran for 46 yards on 18 carries, and had what looked to be a backbreaking fumble, Wayne managed to score a crucial short yardage touchdown, and often helped pave the way for Watson with good blocking. He also contributed in the passing game, picking up 39 crucial yards on 3 receptions, helping the Tigers stay on the field, and eventually gas the vaunted Tide defense,

In summary, Wayne had a somewhat of a disappointing season when compared to expectations, but it wasn’t his fault most of the time. He was the explosive, physical runner Clemson needed, and whoever attempts to fill his shoes next season has a difficult task ahead of him. We might not truly appreciate Wayne’s abilities until next season, when he is gashing NFL defenses instead of running the rock for the Tigers.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Adam Choice

Att: 45

Yds: 158

Avg: 3.5

TD: 0

Rec: 4

Yds: 38

TD: 0

I was high on Choice’s ability to provide a solid number 2 option for the Clemson running game in the preseason, and I was totally wrong. Adam seemed to play at one speed this year. The burst we saw as a true freshman was nowhere to be found, and his ability to break tackles with his compact frame and giant legs was missing.

Choice’s best game was against Georgia Tech, where he ran for 26 yards on 4 carries. When Gallman went down early against NC. State, it seemed like a perfect time for Choice to make his mark, but he was held to 14 yards on 5 carries, with C.J. Fuller getting the bulk of the work.

I’m sure Adam would categorize this season as a personal disappointment. This spring will be crucial for Choice. He is still in the running to take over the position after Gallman’s departure, but he’s going to have to show that he is can be a decisive and powerful runner, something that wasn’t evident this season.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Ohio State vs Clemson Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

C.J. Fuller

Att: 47

Yds: 211

Avg: 4.5

TD: 0

Rec: 7

Yds: 62

TD: 2

In my preseason preview, I talked up Fuller, and got some push back. I’m not sure anyone saw Fuller as the guy who would take over the #2 spot in the running back rotation, but he ended up being just that, rushing 16 times for 56 yards in relief of Wayne Gallman in the NC. State game. He rushed for 40 yards on just 5 carries against Virginia Tech, made an incredible touchdown catch against Ohio State when the game was still very much in doubt, and was a shoestring tackle away from taking a kick return to the house against Alabama. Fuller vastly exceeded expectations this season.

Fuller’s ability to accelerate through a crease in the defense was what separated him from the other potential #2 backs this season. The coaches have often talked up the speed of the compact Fuller, but it was finally on display this season. Fuller has positioned himself nicely in the race to replace Gallman next season, and at this point, might be favored to win the starting job.

NCAA Football: Troy at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Tyshon Dye

Att: 21

Yds: 109

Avg: 5.2

TD: 1

Rec: 2

Yds: 11

TD: 0

On a positive note, Tyshon made it through the season injury free. On a negative note, he struggled with ball security, narrowly avoiding a crucial goal line fumble against Troy because of a whistle, and coughing it up against NC. State, costing Clemson an opportunity to possibly stick a fork in the Wolf Pack. After the fumble on his only carry against NC. State, Dye vanished from the limited running back rotation, only reappearing for the occasional garbage time carry.

Dye’s career at Clemson started with promise, but the burley back from Georgia was snake bitten from the start. He arrived with a broken ankle, then suffered a back injury, and finally, tore his Achilles tendon. After the series of injuries, he never looked like the dynamic back Clemson recruited out of high school.

Tyshon has announced that he is transferring out of the Clemson program for his final year of eligibility. I know I’ll be keeping tabs on his exploits next season, and wish him nothing but the best. He leaves Clemson with a degree and a National Championship ring, so while his career didn’t pan out the way we may have wanted, he is not leaving the Tigers empty handed.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Boston College Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

Tavien Feaster

Att: 37

Yds: 221

Avg: 6

TD: 2

Rec: 0

Yds: 0

TD: 0

In retrospect, it was a tough ask for Feaster to come in and contribute immediately to a veteran laden Clemson team, especially considering that Feaster spent his high school career in a system built around getting him the ball.

He had a difficult time with blitz pick up and blocking assignments. That’s not surprising, seeing as how he has probably never picked up a blitz or blocked anyone before in his life. If you can’t pick up a blitz, you can’t get on the field, and as a result, Feaster only saw the field in garbage time this year.

While you shouldn’t be disappointed on Feaster not making an impact in the running game, I am surprised he didn’t do much on special teams or in the passing game. Feaster actually played some receiver in high school, so I thought you might see him on some wheel routes or screens, but his 0 catches obviously show how much I know. He also failed to pick up any traction in the kick return game, not registering an attempt after his 5 returns for 98 yards against Louisville.

Overall, I don’t think this season went as smoothly as Tavien, or any of us, expected. That said, he’s still incredibly fast and athletic and another offseason paired with spring and fall camp should help get him on the field next season. I’m not sure he wins the starting job, but I would be shocked if he didn’t contribute in a meaningful way.

In Conclusion:

The Clemson running game wasn’t as robust as expected this year, but Clemson won the National Championship, so it doesn’t matter.