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2020 Clemson Football Preview: Running Backs


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

We continue to hold our collective breath awaiting the 2020 college football season. One thing is for sure: this will be a season unlike any other in the modern era. Clemson is in prime position to take another shot at a national championship if things do not go off the rails with COVID-19 this fall. Travis Etienne’s return to college for his senior season, and then subsequently NOT opting out of it, is a major reason.

Etienne leads a now packed and loaded running backs room as the greatest back the school has ever had. I don’t say this lightly given my enormous affinity and respect for C.J. Spiller, but you just can’t argue with the numbers #9 has put up. Etienne’s ability to break tackles and then hit an afterburner to be a house call threat at any moment has led to two straight ACC Player of the Year awards. In my preview for last year’s running backs, I said how Etienne essentially blended the best part of James Davis’s game with Spiller’s top gear. His final evolution had to come in the passing game, and we saw Etienne emerge as a major factor late in the season on passes, most notably against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl Playoff Semifinal.

Many Clemson fans were frustrated in the LSU game when an effective Etienne was basically abandoned once LSU’s offense got it going. Chances are that mistake won’t happen again, especially with Clemson’s WR group potentially experiencing some growing pains with the loss of Tee Higgins to the NFL and Justyn Ross to injury.

This Clemson team is built to run the ball probably better than any since the 2015 team leaned on Wayne Gallman and Deshaun Watson to carry the offense missing an injured Mike Williams. Unless the Tigers have a dominant 9 man emerge to complement Amari Rodgers on the inside, the offense will likely lean a lot more on the running game and getting Etienne increased touches. I’ve longed for Etienne to get 20 touches a game, which sometimes gets derailed by the Tigers blowing people out, but that has to be a minimum in the competitive games in my opinion. Etienne’s records with another season of work will likely never be broken. I certainly hope to enjoy what should be the best year yet from Etienne as he looks to cement his place at the top of a very storied running back tradition at Clemson.

The primary backup role will go to Lyn-J Dixon for the second year in a row. Dixon stuck it out after Etienne’s decision to return and by all reports is better than ever. ixon had a strong season last year posting 635 yards with 6 TDs on the ground and another 121 on 14 catches. Dixon didn’t have as many long runs as the previous season but still posted a strong 6.1 yards per carry.

It is certainly very nice for Tony Elliott to have a guy like Dixon as Plan B, and Dixon should see at least as many touches as the previous season before likely ascending to RB1 in 2021. While Dixon doesn’t have Etienne’s insane leg power through traffic or as much top end speed, he likely has the best lateral cutting ability on the team and isn’t slow by any stretch. Dixon also leads the way for locker room dance skills.

Things were murky last year past Dixon as the other dependable backup, Tavien Feaster, decided to suffer more losses at the U of SC. Darien Rencher, whose off-the-field polish is impressive, became the third team back at the beginning of the year while Chez Mellusi and Mikey Dukes learned on the job as true freshmen. Both Mellusi and Dukes ended up with more carries than Rencher by year’s end. Rencher’s contributions to Clemson’s respectful approach to social change, along with his work alongside Trevor Lawrence to help save the fall season, far outweigh whatever on-field production he finishes with.

NCAA Football: Clemson Football Players Protest Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

There is a logjam of underclassmen who will have a real fight to see who gets some meaningful snaps. You have to think at least one of the group of Dukes, Mellusi, Kobe Pace, and Demarcus Bowman would have gotten a redshirt before the NCAA granted a free year of eligibility for all 2020-2021 season participants.

Bowman is the most likely to have a role due to his next level speed which is getting him looks at kick returner as well as at running back. Both Dukes and Mellusi showed promise in year one, but neither possesses the pure running talent of Bowman. Pace is the program’s true power back, but Etienne has been extremely effective as a goal line and short yardage runner which could allow Pace to just play the four games to “redshirt.”

The Tigers should be in position to get any back the staff really wants to see some action versus the largely overmatched opponents on the schedule. Iron sharpens iron, and the Tigers have serious competition up and down the roster. I think back to 2014 and just laugh now when contrasting the running back situations then and now. Luckily, Wayne Gallman learned quickly enough to emerge by that year’s end, but it was underwhelming up to that point.

#WETOODEEP continues to pretty much cover just about every position group Clemson has on campus. Running back is certainly no exception, and when you have your ultimate alpha horse back in the stable, you just grab the popcorn and get ready to enjoy. I leave you with the staggering career statistics of Rumbalaya, recently dubbed “Heat Lightning” by C.J. Spiller.

518 carries, 4038 yards, 7.8 ypc, 56 TD’s; 54 catches, 567 yards, 10.5 ypr, 6 TD’s

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Ohio State vs Clemson Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports