The much anticipated follow-up to last year’s BEST EVER 15-0 season is rapidly approaching. The time has arrived for STS to break down the position groups and try to deliver some of the best previews you will find on the internet. I’m shifting gears from my traditional linebacker coverage to check on the offensive side of the ball and the running back position. It is certainly a luxury when the depth chart starts with the reigning ACC player of the year. Let’s take a look!
1st Team: Travis Etienne (Jr.): 204 carries, 1658 yards, 24 TD’s, 8.1 yards per carry, 12 catches, 78 yards, 2 TDs, 6.5 yards per catch.
At this stage, there is little doubt that Travis Etienne is the most talented carrier of the football Clemson has ever had. This is a lofty hill considering the rich history of running backs who have donned the Paw over the years. Travis is like taking the best version of James Davis and adding an afterburner to it. Davis had tremendous balance and good physicality, earning the nickname “Thunder”. Etienne is a very similar runner in my eyes except his suddeness is akin to C.J. Spiller’s. Etienne’s final stage of development will be his ability to be a bigger receiving threat, and more sound pass protector. It’s a rare thing indeed when a running back averages more yards a rush than a catch, but that is the case for #9. Of course, when you average a ridiculous 8.1 yards a carry, it is a little more understandable. To put that in perspective, the greatest college running back season I have ever witnessed was Barry Sanders in 1988, and he averaged 7.6 yards a carry that season (albeit on 344 carries!). This is likely the final season we will get to enjoy “Run ETN”, and he has to know that Todd Gurley type money could await him if he can add that final component to his game and be a true every down back in the NFL’s eyes. College football hasn’t probably seen a RB/QB tandem like Travis and Trevor since Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart took home back-to-back Heisman Trophies at the height of the Southern Cal dynasty. If we see Travis get a wheel route call, we will know he has become fully armed and operational. A healthy season from Etienne should see him break every running back record Clemson has in just three years. My favorite player of the 1990s, Raymond Priester, may finally be usurped. (credit ACC DN for the videos).
2nd Team: Lyn-J Dixon (So): 62 carries, 558 yards, 8.8 yards per carry, 5 TDs, 1 catch, 41 yards.
The departure of Tavien Feaster clearly paves the way for Dixon to be the clear-cut #2 back for the 2019 season. It would have been a very intense and interesting battle had Feaster elected to stay, but now Dixon should be the beneficiary of a much higher workload with only true freshmen and a former walk-on to challenge him. Tony Elliot and the staff sent a clear message last year that they will save as much tread on Etienne’s tires as possible during the season, as he rarely eclipsed 14 carries in games. Dixon is an exceptional pure runner in his own right, and his lateral cutting ability is elite, which allowed him to bust multiple huge runs and put up a gaudy 8.8 yards per carry and one huge 41 yard reception. Dixon had a long way to go with his pass protection last year, so we rarely saw him get much action unless the Tigers were in firm control of a game and were not going to throw much if at all. All accounts I have seen have shown that Etienne’s fall camp load has been kept light so more emphasis could be made to work on Dixon’s overall game and find more depth behind him. Dixon has not yet shown the physicality Etienne possesses, but he certainly is in the same league as a home run hitter at the second level. He should see his carries approach 150 this season should he stay healthy, and he will no doubt provide more moments like these:
3rd Team Candidate: Darien Rencher (RS Jr.): 15 carries, 65 yards, 4.3 yards per carry.
No one may benefit more from the departure of Feaster than former walk-on Rencher, who is definitely one of the most well-spoken young men on the team. Rencher possesses the best upper body strength in the group and has drawn praise as a dependable pass protector. While he isn’t the dynamic running threat of Etienne or Dixon, Rencher’s ability not to get Lawrence or Brice killed and be assignment sound makes him my vote to win the #3 job and see by far his most action as a Tiger in 2019. I would suspect that at least one of the Dukes/Mellusi combination will only see four games and redshirt (barring injuries), making the 5’8” 195 pounder likely to see between 35-50 carries this year.
FRESHMEN: Chez Mellusi and Mikey Dukes
Mellusi arrived as the more heralded of the running back recruits and has a reputation of being a Wayne Gallman-type one cut power back. While Etienne has proven to be plenty physical enough to get tough yards and finish in the red zone, the heir apparent in that regard is up for grabs among the remaining backs on the roster. It will be interesting to see which of the two freshmen get put out there first, or how the staff will approach their workloads with the four game rule now in effect. Mellusi is not the all purpose threat that Dukes is just yet, so his workload beyond garbage time will be very much dependent on his ability to pick up pass protection.
There were questions about the late decision to take Mikey Dukes out of First Baptist High School in Charleston. I will admit to being biased in his favor, as I’ve had to coach against him in basketball. I’ve also run up against Mike Williams, A.J. Green, Bruce Ellington, Brandon Ford, and Cameron Heyward among others over my career on the hardwood, and Dukes is up there in that echelon as an athlete in my opinion (above Brandon Ford). In fact, Bruce Ellington might be the best comparison in terms of build and athleticism, so I think Dukes will end up a steal when it is all said and done. I certainly feel his star rating and buzz would be totally different had he played at Fort Dorchester or Summerville or Wando, as opposed to First Baptist of SCISAA. Dukes has already flashed ball skills reportedly better than Andre Ellington, who had a run as a slot receiver during his time in the NFL. He’s also gotten looks at punt return and kick return which tells you more about how the staff feels about him as an open field runner. While token praise of freshmen who are likely struggling a bit adjusting to their first college fall camp is common, it normally comes from Coach Swinney more so than Tony Elliot.
Overall: The depth and talent in this group would have been about as ridiculous as the wide receiver room had Tavien Feaster stayed, but even still, the best back in the nation is still in town bigger and stronger than ever. They used to say the only person who could keep Michael Jordan under 20 points was Dean Smith, and you can almost say the only guy who can keep Travis Etienne from 150-200 yards a game is Tony Elliot. The lack of an established #3 back will likely add carries to Etienne’s load this year, and anything approaching 300 carries should have him knocking on 2000 yards. While I won’t put Lyn-J Dixon on the lofty ground of a C.J. Spiller, he offers a similar quick cut style and first step that makes you hold your breath on his every touch. A more mature Dixon should see a healthy increase in touches, especially when games are in doubt, and we will be able to fully assess his overall game a lot better going forward. I have full confidence that Clemson can win it all with either of these backs being featured, especially Etienne of course, but last year’s luxury of three veteran talents is gone, so staying healthy is a must.