This is one of the tougher season reviews to write because it means saying goodbye to the best running back in school history, Travis Etienne. Perhaps Clemson should focus on getting softer spoken, small-town talents because both C.J. Spiller and Etienne share those qualities. As we all know, the season ended on a sour note once again in the Sugar Bowl, which has become a house of horrors for the Tigers, ironically in Etienne’s home state.
Be that as it may, #9 still produced at a high level despite a serious decline in offensive line play this season and an even stronger effort by the opposition to take him out of the offense. Running back will be one of the major question marks heading into 2021, but that is a story for another time.
Starter: Travis Etienne (168 carries, 914 yards, 5.4 YPC, 14 TDs; 48 catches, 588 yards, 12.2 YPR, 2 TDs).
Normally, putting up nearly 1,000 yards and over 5 yards a carry in a 12-game season would be counted as a roaring success, however, these numbers fell short of the extremely lofty standards Etienne established in his previous seasons. Only a small percentage of the blame can be placed on him, however, as the interior offensive line experienced growing pains and depth problems where none of the starters graded above a 64.9 for the season according to PFF. The only major black eye falling on Etienne would be the critical fumbles that led directly to scores by the opposition, most notably the one in South Bend that ended in a double OT loss. Travis still struck big on the ground in two of the biggest games of the season against Miami and then in the ACC championship game rematch with Notre Dame. His performance against UVA in particular was incredibly impressive.
Etienne came back this season to get his degree and improve his draft stock. He worked tirelessly on his hands and emerged as the nation’s best receiving threat from the backfield. That alone should be enough to see Etienne be, at worst, the second back off the board in April’s draft. There is really nothing Alvin Kamara, a star in the NFL and a prototype most teams want in an NFL running back, can do that Travis cannot do. Etienne has proven to be an elite red zone touchdown maker as well as a home run threat at any part of the field. If he can run his customary sub-4.4 40-yard dash at the combine and/or his pro day, it very likely will lead to his being the first back taken in April.
Etienne saw his reception impact diminish as the season progressed, which was no doubt impacted by defenses working to adjust to that element, but still put plenty on tape to help his cause. While it never seemed Travis got as many touches in games as he probably deserved, save a couple of games like Syracuse in 2018, the staff clearly showed a willingness to craft ways to get him the football and feature his growing skill set during his career. Etienne finished with over 700 rushing yards more than the next guy on the team, who was quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
Backups: Lyn-J Dixon (42 carries, 190 yards, 4.5 YPC, 2 TDs; 3 catches, 21 yards, 7.0 YPR).
While Etienne experienced a drop in rushing production, it paled in comparison to what we saw with the returning backups. Dixon saw his production dip well below his first two seasons and posted career lows in every category. While Dixon showed improvement in the latter stages of the season, after his low point of being benched at Notre Dame, it was hardly enough to inspire confidence that he can be the clear RB1 for 2021. Clemson’s run game is built around the inside zone, and Clemson could never get that play working consistently this season. The production drops across the position group cement where the majority of the blame rests - the offensive line.
Dixon now has his shot to be the lead back going into the spring and will have a new running back coach in C.J. Spiller. It will be interesting to see how he responds and what potential adjustments are made to reignite the ground attack.
Chez Mellusi (27 carries, 151 yards, 5.6 YPC, 3 TDs; 5 catches, 38 yards, 7.6 YPR, 1 TD).
Mellusi, like Dixon and the other backups, had a relatively quiet season, but it should be noted that Mellusi made a clear run at the RB2 position as the season went on. Mellusi is a one-cut, downhill runner whose style contrasts with Dixon’s enough to make this an interesting battle to watch going forward. 2020 was such a strange year due to COVID, and it seemed like Clemson just didn’t have as many “garbage time” moments as the years before to give backups more touches. When it did happen, the inexperienced backup OL was often in the game and not as effective as backup groups the previous two seasons. Mellusi put up a 5.6 yards-per-carry number without the benefit of a run longer than 38 yards and only lost 3 yards all season.
Darien Rencher (24 carries, 140 yards, 5.7 YPC, 1 TD; 2 catches, 15 yards, 7.5 YPR)
Rencher took home the 2020 Disney Spirit Award and made his lone touchdown run a magical moment when he exploded for a 50-yard score at Virginia Tech. Rencher announced his return for the 2021 season and will instantly add much-needed leadership in the running back room and for the team as a whole as fellow team leaders Trevor Lawrence, Cornell Powell, Amari Rodgers, and Travis Etienne depart for the NFL. It is unlikely Rencher will be more than a role player, but the undersized former walk-on can be trusted to provide quality snaps should his number be called. The positive press Rencher brings is alone worth his roster spot, and his leadership will be a great value to what will be a young and relatively inexperienced running back group in 2021.
Kobe Pace (18 carries, 75 yards, 4.2 YPC; 5 catches, 26 yards, 5.2 YPR, 1 TD).
Pace entered the season with much less fanfare than the now-departed Demarkus Bowman. It was hard to expect much impact from any of the young backs considering that Etienne and Dixon were both back. Pace showed some of the toughness between the tackles he was recruited to provide with his limited touches, and it will be interesting to see how the spring shakes out for this crowded position group.
The Tigers should see an improvement up front with all but one of the two deep OL slated to return, but the back who can make something out of little or nothing will always have an inside track to the RB1 slot. It certainly is too early to assess if Pace is a hit or miss on the recruiting front.
Michel Dukes (8 carries, 55 yards, 6.9 YPC).
Dukes had a very quiet sophomore campaign and often found himself on the unavailable list for games. Nevertheless, Dukes has shown some of the best open-field running ability on the team and averaged nearly 7 yards-per-carry despite the already noted issues up front this season.
Dukes was a late offer/take in his class and has had to adjust from playing at the SCISAA level in high school, but he certainly has the athleticism for this level. Hopefully, there will be a full spring practice to allow some of these younger backs to show what they have, and you certainly have to think one or two will be candidates for the transfer portal at some point. I will echo Quacking Tiger’s thoughts that Dukes could be a guy to look at in the slot, though it is unclear what kind of hands he brings to the table as he didn’t have a catch-all season.
It is hard to deny that it was a disappointing year for the running backs. Clemson topped 200 yards rushing just twice all season, and the two losses featured rushing totals under 50 yards. Getting the run game back to standard has to be at the top of Tony Elliot’s to-do list in the offseason. If the Tigers hope to climb to the top of the mountain once again, there has to be a more consistent rushing attack than what we saw in 2020. We are likely to see a lot more running back by committee next season, but it would be best for someone to emerge as the alpha in the room the way Wayne Gallman did late in 2014 and Etienne did down the stretch in 2017.