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2017 Clemson Football Season Preview: Running Back

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

For three solid years, Wayne Gallman was arguably the most underrated element of an offense headlined by Deshaun Watson and a plethora of weapons in the passing game. “The Wayne Train” rushed for 2,647 yards and 30 touchdowns in two seasons as the lead back. Now among the departed Tigers fighting to establish an NFL career, the Tigers have an open spot at running back. As is the case at quarterback Clemson has a good trio of guys in position to succeed.

However, whereas Gallman was used as the primary workhorse back, 2017 could see the Tigers use a by-committee approach, or until one of the main competitors separates themselves from the bunch.

As it stands, the Tigers have three realistic options vying for the starting job: CJ Fuller (167 snaps), Adam Choice (120 snaps), and Tavien Feaster (72 snaps).

CJ Fuller

As it stands, Fuller is at the top of the current pecking order. He has held that spot behind Gallman since 2015, so it’s only natural that he runs on the field first.

At first, Fuller appeared to show a lack of vision and burst, always seeming unable to find the holes and running into the backs of his linemen first. But playing time and comfort in the offense earned him some valuable snaps last season, showing a knack for something that hasn’t been seen previously: an ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.

Many (myself included) figured Fuller would be eclipsed by the highly touted Feaster (more on that in a second), but he held his ground all season long. Even when Gallman went down against NC State, Fuller carried the rock 16 times for 56 yards, displaying a hard nosed grind to pick up tough yards on the ground.

Next to Gallman, Fuller was often called into the game for pass protection, and was solid at picking up blitzers and making the proper reads. Tony Elliott recently stated in an interview with Tigernet that the starting running back needs to “give up their life” so their quarterback doesn’t get hit. Based on last season, Fuller best exemplifies this right now, and should be the early favorite to lead the team in carries. In the Spring Game, Fuller displayed nice burst and running between the tackles, which bodes well for what could become a more run-heavy offense compared to season’s past.

Tavien Feaster

The guy that many Clemson fans still have their eyes on, the former five-star is brimming with potential and is easily the fastest and most explosive of the group from an athletic standpoint. However, playing only 72 snaps in mostly blowout games last season, it was unfortunate that he couldn’t have had more meaningful playing time.

While he was put on kick return duties, he seemed hesitant as a returner and was even pulled for Artavis Scott in some cases. As a good receiver out of the backfield and a home run threat, Feaster has the tools to be an All-ACC caliber running back. The problem appears to lie with his willingness to block in pass protection, which is a necessity for more playing time.

In his small sample size, Feaster is averaging close to five yards per carry, and even scored a 45-yard touchdown run in last year’s blowout win against Boston College. If Feaster can prove he can run well in-between the tackles and show he can hold up in pass protection, it’s a viable possibility for him to earn not only increased playing time alongside Fuller, but even the starting position as the season goes on.

Adam Choice

Once the starting running back in 2014 before an ACL injury, Choice became a more forgotten name in the ranks. Prior to his injury, he had put together solid performances against NC State and Louisville during his short stint as the starter. Many forget that, had Choice not gotten hurt, Gallman wouldn’t have gotten his opportunity so quickly. Despite this, he remains one of the primary contenders at running back this year.

In playing style, Choice is a one-cut back capable of hitting the hole and churning out yards after contact. While he doesn’t possess top end speed and his ability to catch out of the backfield is an unknown quantity, he’s shown the potential to be a productive back for the Tigers if provided the opportunity. Should the Tigers become more run-oriented, Choice could prove a worthy commodity, especially in short-yardage situations.

Travis Etienne

The lone running back taken in the 2017 class, Etienne was the last minute pickup for the Tigers after the de-commitment of Memphis product Cordarrian Richardson (possibly due to academic eligibility issues).

Ranked as the No.8 back by 247 sports. Etienne chose Clemson over the likes of Texas A&M, LSU, and Tennessee. The Louisiana back is a balanced running back, showcasing an ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, and good burst in the open field and enough physical ability to run in-between the tackles. He was a very nice last-minute addition for the Tigers, who gravely needed one after entering spring practice with only three scholarship backs.

However, it is unclear as to whether Etienne will be able to catch on enough in fall camp to contribute immediately. With Fuller, Choice, and Feaster as the primary contenders, the coaches may see fit to save Etienne for later down the line. Plus, there is almost always an adjustment period for freshmen running backs when it comes to learning the offense, especially when it comes to pass protection.

Darien Rencher

A former walk-on last year from T.L. Hanna in Anderson, SC, Rencher saw time last season as a scout team workhorse, earning tremendous praise from the coaching staff in the process. The son of a former Clemson track and field star, Rencher is now looking to become the next big walk-on phenomenon.

While there won’t likely be a major role for Rencher, how his performance in fall camp goes could decide whether the coaches redshirt Etienne or not. With only three other scholarship backs on the roster heading into the season, a fourth is needed. It’s uncertain how comfortable the coaches would really be with Rencher as the fourth guy, especially if injuries hit the position.

Final Verdict:

Heading into fall camp, the pecking order stands as thus: Fuller holding the top spot, Choice as the primary backup, and Feaster holding down the third spot. Elliott recently summed up the standing of this current crop of backs:

“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)

The pecking order of this position is always fluid, and this year will be no different.

Fall camp will tell a lot about how far Feaster is from becoming the main guy and just how Fuller can hold up as first-team running back. Don’t be surprised by a by-committee approach early in the season. Fuller/Choice should get the first crack at it, but, given Feaster’s higher ceiling and skill set, should eclipse Choice for that other spot sooner rather than later. Etienne might find himself in a Zac Brooks-situation where coaches avoid redshirting him for the sake of having four true scholarship guys on hand at the position. Regardless, it’s a position with plenty of capable bodies that shouldn’t be a position of weakness for the defending national champions.