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A Look Back on How Clemson Running Backs Performed in 2017

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NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Clemson vs Miami Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Following the 2016 National Championship season, starting running back Wayne Gallman was selected by the New York Giants and headed to the NFL. With him, 61% of Clemson’s carries (by RBs) had to be replaced. At the outset of 2017 the depth chart looked like this:

  1. C.J. Fuller (RSJr.)
  2. Adam Choice (RSJr.)
  3. Tavien Feaster (So.)
  4. Travis Etienne (Fr.)

Things would change dramatically as the year progressed. CJ Fuller got 21 carries in the first three games of the season (KSU, AU, and UL). He had just 26 in the nine remaining regular season games and then 11 carries in garbage time against Miami for only 5 yards and zero carries in the Sugar Bowl.

One of the reasons for this shift was the incredible explosiveness of the younger backs, Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne. Etienne in particular made his case with this play at the end of the Louisville game.

These younger backs would eventually become an explosive 1-2 duo that lead Clemson’s RB corps, each receiving 107 carries. Adam Choice received 67 carries and CJ Fuller 58.

Fuller’s drop down the depth chart was largely due to fumbles, but he also lacked the explosiveness of the younger backs. His longest run on the season was 26-yards. Choice similarly was not particularly explosive. His longest run of the year was 39-yards. He’d settle into a role as the short-yardage back.

Both Feaster and Etienne were responsible for long-game changing runs throughout the season. This 89-yarder from Feaster at NC State was his longest run and one of the biggest plays of the season.

Etienne had a backbreaking run against BC where his explosiveness was on full display.

The running ability of these two backs played a major role in Clemson’s ACC championship and lends great optimism moving forward. Etienne averaged 7.2 YPC while Feaster posted a nearly as impressive 6.3 YPC. This is a big improvement from Gallman’s 4.9 YPC in 2016. A lot of credit goes to the increased QB-run threat and improvement from the offensive line. Nevertheless, running backs get credit when a jump is that dramatic.

Still, the position missed the pass protection Wayne Gallman provided a season ago. This weakness is to be expected from such young backs. See Tony Elliott discuss below:

While the 89-yard run by Feaster in Raleigh was one of the best plays from this group, the below play was one of the worst.

Watch #9 Etienne climb too far up the pocket and allow the blitzer behind him.

#73 Anchrum misses the block on #33 Anfernee Jennings here. If Etienne can chip him, it likely buys Bryant enough time to deliver the throw on a potential big play. He is out of position to make the play and Bryant is hit, causing an errant throw and an INT.

As you may remember, on the seemingly easy pass to Hunter Renfrow to win the National Championship last year, it was Wayne Gallman who picks up a blitzer and allows Deshaun Watson to get the ball out at the perfect time.

Blitz pick-up is the clear area of improvement for this group. They’ve proven to be dynamic and dangerous runners who can change the game in an instant. I believe they have NFL-level talent, but to thrive at the next level and to help Clemson’s offense progress they’ll need to become better aids in pass protection.

With another year of experience, pass protection should improve. When that is coupled with their already excellent running ability, running back should be an position of strength for Clemson next season.