I vividly recall the last time I felt like Clemson’s running game was scary good. Clemson’s 2006 team, which has come up a little recently due to the three 100 yard rushing performances from three different running backs in Winston-Salem, featured a crazy deep running back stable and a very good run blocking OL. That team exploded after finally winning a game in Tallahassee on September 16th with rushing performances surpassing even the numbers put up in the Danny Ford days. The five game stretch after the FSU game, the Tigers put up 317.8 yards per game on the ground at 7.84 yards per carry. The culmination of that stretch was the glorious night game against Georgia Tech when Gameday visited Clemson for the very first time. The Yellow Jackets had a pretty strong defense coming into that game, but James Davis and C.J. Spiller ripped them for 321 yards rushing and 8.4 yards per carry.
Clemson’s 2006 offensive line was senior laden. Jr. Barry Richardson was a mountainous left tackle, and the other starters were redshirt seniors Dustin Fry, Roman Fry, Nathan Bennett, and true senior Marion Dukes. The team suffered a big blow early in that Georgia Tech game when Roman Fry blew out his knee. Redshirt Jr. Chris McDuffie was an adequate replacement, but some of that team’s struggles down the stretch can partially be attributed to losing the very physical Roman Fry. Before Fry went down, Clemson’s OL was performing as well as any in Tiger history. Even more impressive was the way that line was blocking coming from the infamous 2 point stance that Rob Spence insisted they use exclusively.
The problem for the 2006 team, which was painfully exposed in Blacksburg against a very salty Virginia Tech defense, was a quarterback who couldn’t threaten people vertically. A lot of what folks griped about with Kelly Bryant paled in comparison to senior QB Will Proctor’s issues. Proctor had a strong game against Boston College early in the season where he threw for 343 yards and 2 touchdowns, but that proved to be an aberration of sorts as the season went on. I was in Winston-Salem that year when Clemson miraculously recovered to beat Wake, and the warning signs of future trouble were evident.
Will Proctor had two play action opportunities where Clemson had a man wide open behind the defense. The first was a wheel route to James Davis who was wide open by easily ten yards. The ball was so weakly thrown that by the time Davis caught it, Wake’s secondary had recovered in time to level him after the catch. The other was a play action post route to Aaron Kelly which again looked more like a punt Kelly had to field vs. what should have been an easy TD. Georgia Tech wasn’t able to force Proctor to beat them, but Virginia Tech was. The Hokies sat down hard on the short to intermediate throws Proctor could execute while loading the box against the run. It was an ugly result, and the wheels came off what was a very promising season.
Clemson’s 2018 running game has begun to look as unstoppable as that 2006 team’s did during that five game run. The running back group of Travis Etienne, Tavien Feaster, Adam Choice, and Lyn-J Dixon is every bit as daunting as the 06 group of James Davis, C.J. Spiller, Reggie Merriweather, and Demerick Chancellor. Etienne in particular matches the power and balance which made James Davis special with the breakaway speed Spiller possessed. The 2018 OL is a veteran group with a redshirt senior, true senior, and three juniors in the starting lineup.
The most exciting part of the 2018 team, of course, is the presence of a quarterback who most certainly can threaten teams deep who want to fully sell out against the run. The 2018 team features a much deeper stable of threats on the perimeter than the 2006 team did. You can make a pretty easy argument that the Tee Higgins/Justyn Ross combination is better than Aaron Kelly, Hunter Renfrow is better than Tyler Grisham, and Amari Rodgers is a more complete player than the true freshman version of Jacoby Ford was in 2006. All this looks very good on paper right now, but history shows the Tigers will face at least one opponent where the passing game will have to deliver beyond the one clutch throw Chase Brice delivered against Syracuse. The two touchdown passes Trevor Lawrence ripped to Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins against Wake were a stark contrast to the two wounded ducks I described from Will Proctor in that stadium in 2006. Those reminded us why Lawrence ultimately unseated Kelly Bryant and further hinted at the impressive capabilities the 2018 offense possesses.
Clemson caught Wake’s safeties up tight time after time which is why we saw most of those long touchdown runs. A team without the DL to really challenge Clemson’s OL is forced to bring help from the back seven to deal with the run game. Alex Craft is one of many who has stated the Tigers are in a position to lean on the gap scheme runs and inside zone plays even when teams appear to give the cushion on the perimeter to invite the screen game. The early part of Saturday’s game at Wake made me feel like the Clemson offensive coaches were treating it like a practice. There was no reason for the Tigers to show empty formations and the little fake counter, TE dump play, among other things, except to work on them live and put them on film. The Clemson defense has afforded the staff the luxury of using the run game to play come from behind football vs. Syracuse and to toy with formations and personnel with Wake. The Tigers have the open date to prepare for the undefeated N.C. State Wolfpack.
STS will get a lot more into the Wolfpack matchup next week. The known commodity for the Wolfpack is their star quarterback Ryan Finley who is the best pocket passer the Tigers will face in the regular season. The Wolfpack defense remains a bit of a mystery since they were not able to play the game against West Virginia due to Hurricane Florence (and their refusal to travel to Morgantown to make the game happen). So far the Wolfpack have faced FCS James Madison, a bad Georgia State team, Virginia, and Boston College without A.J. Dillon. It remains to be seen if the Wolfpack have enough strength on defense to truly force the Tigers to throw to win, but you would have to imagine it will be their foremost priority in two weeks.
History shows that Clemson doesn’t lose when the run game eclipses 200 yards. The last time Clemson lost after running for 200 or more was the 2009 ACC Title game loss to Georgia Tech. Before that, you had to go back to 1991 when Clemson tied Virginia despite running for over 200 yards as a team. This Clemson team is as poised as any to surpass 200 in every remaining game, especially if Trevor Lawrence continues to develop his recognition skills to pair with his elite arm talent. This team hasn’t gotten the love some of the other contenders have, especially Alabama who has been an offensive juggernaut, but I don’t feel much anxiety about this team as it rounds into shape. This defense has made some good offenses look bad and really has only had one poor quarter at Texas A&M or it would easily be #1 in total defense right now (currently #3). As long as the team doesn’t get in its own way with turnovers, busted assignments, or getting too cute on offense, the Tigers should be poised to make a run at the big prize. The game with the Wolfpack will be a very good indicator as to how close this team has gotten to its potential.
As a child of the 1980s, I have spent a lot of time thinking of the what-ifs from that decade. Most of the what-ifs involve imagining those Clemson teams with a game changer at quarterback. Almost every great team in history runs into a game or two when things don’t go to script and strange things happen with injuries or turnovers. The special teams find a way to climb out of the fire when those games happen.
Alabama’s decade of dominance has been built on the back of a powerful running game, dominating defense, and just enough quarterback play. This year is the first in the Swinney era where I feel Clemson’s run game could be on par with those Alabama has had (not to mention the defense). Oh, and no more 2 point stances.