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Clemson Football Season Review: Running Backs

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Looking Back at the 2019 Running Back Position

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff National Championship-Clemson vs Louisiana State Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

There was a lot to be excited about with this year’s running back group when you consider that emerging GOAT Travis Etienne was back for his junior season. Even with the transfer of Tavien Feaster, Clemson brought back the capable Lyn-J Dixon along with true freshmen Chez Mellusi and Michel Dukes and veteran Darien Rencher. The group - especially Etienne - put up tremendous numbers and helped the Tigers average 240.4 rushing yards per game.

Many fans have lamented the relative lack of use of Etienne in the championship game even though he was effective with most of his opportunities. Etienne only exceeded 16 carries in a game once (vs. FSU) this season, despite putting up a ridiculous 7.8 yards per carry. I think this is something the coaching staff will reflect on and grow from with the great news that Etienne is returning for his senior season. While the Tigers usually enjoy an advantage on the perimeter against teams, LSU was able to mostly contain Clemson’s WR’s as Ohio State did in the Fiesta Bowl. Etienne was featured in the passing game to help defeat the Buckeyes and probably should have been leaned on a lot more against LSU. There is no reason why Etienne can’t get the J.K. Dobbins treatment in his final season.

Etienne won the ACC Player of the Year award for the second straight season even though he was laughably shunned by the Doak Walker Award folks. Clemson was just so dominant against the regular season schedule that Etienne really wasn’t even on the field for most fourth quarters. Many people, including myself in the season preview article, noted how Etienne needed to add pass catching to his resume to become fully weaponized. That came to fruition in the Fiesta Bowl and should be a dangerous feature to his game in 2020. Etienne finished with 37 catches for 432 yards and 4 TD’s. This was by far his best production in the passing game in his career. For perspective, Travis Zachary had just 27 catches in 2000 and CJ Spiller’s 2009 season featured 36 catches for 503 yards and 4 TDs. By the end of next year, Etienne should establish records that may never be broken as he’s already passed Raymond Priester’s all-time rushing record.

Lyn-J Dixon stepped into the RB #2 role and put up solid numbers as a sophomore. He finished 635 yards and 6.1 yards per carry while also catching 14 passes for 121 yards. While Dixon flashed his elite cutting ability, he did not break as many long runs as he did in his freshman season. There was certainly a drop off with him from Etienne, and we saw Etienne take a heavy percentage of the snaps in the few contested games during the season, particulary the playoffs. Dixon really didn’t have much competition for the #2 job with Feaster gone, but that looks to change as Mellusi and Dukes coming off their first springs and the arrival of heralded freshman Demarkus Bowman this summer. I will call out that Dixon was usually the star of the locker room dance celebrations, showing off some impressive skills in that department.

Both Michel Dukes and Chez Mellusi avoided redshirts in 2019. Each showed flashes as to why they got signed. Mellusi is a one cut guy with a nice burst, as evidenced by his TD against Syracuse, and Dukes flashed excellent lateral quickness in his opportunities, best seen with his TD vs. Charlotte.

Overall: Clemson has arguably the best back in college football and he’s incredible. The only thing holding Etienne back is that Clemson has so many other weapons on offense and has been so dominant in games. When the Tigers have leaned on him, he has delivered, and he has grown a ton as a pass protector and receiver during his stellar career. I had all but counted him gone to the NFL, but he will be back to make this running back room scary good in 2020. The depth only gets better with two new scholarship backs, most notably Bowman, to join the group. We will need to keep an eye on spring ball to see if there are any defections at the position, but as of now it appears Dixon and the others will be back. I’d give this position group an A+ grade for 2019.