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Clemson Spring Position Primer: Running Back

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NCAA Football: Clemson Spring Game Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

“It’s been probably one of the best competitions I’ve been around in coaching.”

That’s what Tony Elliott had to say to the Independent Mail when discussing this offseason’s competition to replace two-time 1,000 yard rusher RB Wayne Gallman.

In addition to the departure of Wayne Gallman, reserve RS junior Tyshon Dye who had just 53 snaps last season, will seek graduate transfer. Dye’s career at Clemson was hampered by injury which caused him to fall behind some of the Tigers other options on the depth chart.

Those options include CJ Fuller (167 snaps), Adam Choice (120 snaps), and Tavien Feaster (72 snaps). Those three are now competing for spots on the depth chart. Additional depth is provided by Darien Rencher and incoming freshman Travis Etienne.

CJ Fuller (Rs. Junior)

There was a time when onlookers could complain that CJ Fuller put his head down and ran into the backs of his offensive linemen. No more! In 2016, Fuller tallied 47 carries for 211 yards and 7 receptions for 62 yards with two TDs including a big one in the Fiesta Bowl.

Fuller had his season high for receptions (3) and receiving yards (45) in the win over Ohio State. That 30 yard TD reception was his longest play from scrimmage of the season. Other notable games from Fuller include the home win over NC State in which a helmet-to-helmet hit knocked Gallman out of the game. Fuller had a career-high 16 carries in the contest against the ‘Pack totaling 56 yards. He also had 46 rushing yards and 18 receiving yards with a TD against the Gamecocks and 40 rushing yards against Virginia Tech.

In the Spring Game, CJ Fuller rushed 13 times for 51 yards (TigerNet), a solid performance considering how much more depth Clemson’s defensive front has than does the offensive line. David Hood noted his solid pass blocking and Quacking Tiger said “Fuller keeps running better than expected, showing a nice burst.” The one particular play that stood out to me was a toss to Fuller where he showed great acceleration in turning it up-field. I like what he brings as an all-around back with toughness between the tackles, some burst, and great hands.

In a season where Clemson’s offense may be more run heavy than recent years, CJ Fuller is the early favorite to lead the team in carries. He may not reach Gallman’s 2016 mark of 232 carries (which took 15 games if you include NC State), but he may push past 150 carries.

Adam Choice (Rs. Junior)

It’s easy to forget that a knee injury to Adam Choice pushed Wayne Gallman into a starting role in 2014. Before that, Choice was the staff’s preferred back. He had strong showings games against NC State and Louisville that season before getting hurt against Boston College and then redshirting in 2015 to provide more recovery time since Gallman was emerging as a star by that point anyway.

Choice doesn’t have top-end speed or proven pass catching ability, but makes simple cuts and gets up-field. If Clemson’s offensive line fails to open up big holes for Fuller or Feaster to burst through (especially if a run-first offense becomes predictable), Choice’s tough mudder style could be the best option.

Tavien Feaster (Sophomore)

Feaster is the running back that gets fans excited, and that’s totally fair. He was a high-four star recruit from Spartanburg, SC and the #1 player in the state (Rivals). He chose Clemson over offers from all the big powers in the Southeast, so the pedigree is certainly there.

Last season, Feaster only saw carries in blowouts like the Fiesta Bowl. His big highlight came in Clemson’s dominant showing at Boston College when he broke off a 45-yard touchdown run.

He has the speed and receiving ability to offer great upside as a running back and kick returner. With QBs who could struggle to attack defenses deep, breaking off big gains on the ground becomes even more key. Hitting RBs in the passing game becomes more important with the departure of TE Jordan Leggett.

He was rather hesitant in a couple opportunities as a kick returner last season, but the hope is that with more seasoning his athleticism will take over and he’ll be electric in that role.

He’ll need to offer competent pass blocking and make positive yardage out of minimal openings in the run game, to be heavily relied upon in the run game. Hopefully more experience and time away from a shoulder injury allows him to make the improvements to begin reaching his potential. The future is bright for this Spartanburg speedster.

Darien Rencher (Rs. Freshman)

Darien graduated from T.L. Hanna High School in Anderson, SC and earned a preferred walk-on spot last season.

The 5’8” 190lbs RB redshirted and served as a scout team RB and QB last season. He received praise from coaches left and right for his work on the scout team and his general attitude.

With Gallman and Tyshon Dye departing there may be a role for Rencher beyond the scout team. He won’t compete for a significant amount of snaps, but with just three scholarship running backs on roster who have played college football, he will provide depth in case of injury, and possible see time in blowouts or special teams.

Travis Etienne (Freshman)

Travis Etienne was a late addition to Clemson’s most recent recruiting class. After Memphis prospect Cordarrian Richardson de-committed (possibly due to academic issues), Clemson scrambled, and was able to pull the #8 RB (24/7) in the country.

Etienne is not an early-enrollee which puts him behind the 8-ball to get significant playing time in 2017. Since he’s not yet on campus, it’s hard to say if he will redshirt, but that would be ideal. With just four other running backs in the mix, an injury or some struggled could thrust him into the mix though. He’s was a critical get for this recruiting class in both the long-term and in the case of injuries the short-term.

Wrap

We started this article with a Tony Elliott quote so I’ll use another to wrap up.

“Last year Wayne distanced himself from the other guys and it was noticeable, but here there’s not much change [between RBs]... One will have to run on the field first, so we’ll have a pecking order.” -Tony Elliott (Anderson Independent)

It’s a true position battle with three talented guys who will vie for playing time. At this moment, CJ Fuller appears to offer the most well-rounded package, but regardless of who “runs on the field first,” we’re likely to see a more equitable distribution of snaps and carries. There will likely be some drop off, at least in the early going, from now NFL-er Wayne Gallman. Fortunately, the Tigers have a handful of solid options annd running back shouldn’t be a weakness for your defending National Champions.