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2021 Football Season Preview: Running Backs

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Looking At How Clemson Tries to Fill the Etienne Void

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

1998, 2002, 2014, 2017, 2021...What do these years have in common? These are years where the Tigers had to replace a highly productive running back with an unproven group of backs. Some of these years saw a young back emerge as the future alpha, such as Travis Zachary in 1998, Wayne Gallman in 2014, and Travis Etienne in 2017. These ascensions did not come without some bruises and growing pains for the offenses, however. In 2002, no alpha back truly emerged and the team was forced to sling it all over the yard with freshman Charlie Whitehurst for the second half of the season.

Clemson faces another one of those years where the next guy up is not clearly set going into fall camp. The good news is there is a lot more overall talent fighting for the position than we saw in all those other years mentioned. You didn’t really worry about the next guy at this spot in the Ford days because somebody always emerged who was very good. Cliff Austin gave way to Kenny Flowers who gave way to Stacy Driver who gave way to Terrence Flagler who gave way to Terry Allen. Hopefully, Clemson is returning to that as far as running backs go.

Travis Etienne leaves a huge void in production after leaving school as the most decorated back in school history and the ACC’s all-time leading rusher. The gap between Etienne and his backups at running back was perhaps the biggest on the team, especially on offense. The offensive line should be improved thanks to much better depth and a full offseason to prepare, but for Clemson to reach the mountaintop of college football once again, the team MUST run the ball at a much more efficient rate than in 2020. Clemson had Gallman in 2016 and Etienne in 2018 to provide the necessary balance to allow transcendent quarterbacks Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence to shine. This year’s position group is shaping up to look at lot like 2017 did in my view, so let’s dive in.

VETERANS:

Senior Lyn-J Dixon returns for what SHOULD be his Rod McDowell year. Folks should recall how Hot Rod went from Andre Ellington’s backup with limited touches to an 1,000 yard rusher for the 2013 Orange Bowl champions. This was a huge deal that kept 2013 off that list of years I noted above. Dixon had a very strong and promising 2019 as he stepped into the void left by Tavien Feaster’s transfer. Dixon stayed in town even after Etienne’s somewhat surprising decision to return for a senior season, but his production dropped significantly, and he posted career lows in carries, yards, yards per carry, and touchdowns. Even the great Travis Etienne saw dips in production due to the growing pains of the interior offensive line, but not nearly to the degree that Dixon did.

It wasn’t a secret that Chez Mellusi, who has since transferred out to Wisconsin, had all but beaten Dixon out towards the latter part of the season as the #2. To Dixon’s credit, he improved his play at the end of the season and didn’t go running to the transfer portal. He should get the customary veteran’s nod early in the fall to take the RB1 reigns, but the leash will no doubt be short with new position coach C.J. Spiller. There are several talented young guys waiting in the wings to usurp him the way Gallman did to D.J. Howard and Etienne to C.J. Fuller. Dixon brings borderline elite lateral quicks and above average speed, which helped him put up gaudy yards per carry numbers until last season, but he has struggled with pad level and consistent toughness. Can he turn the corner and at least warrant 60% of the running back carries? If so, the team can afford to bring the youth along at a much more comfortable pace. With the toughest game being game one, having the veteran truly ready is even more important than usual.

Super Senior Darien Rencher is on track to be one of the most decorated former walk-ons who never really became starters in college football history. His off the field contributions have already landed him the Disney award and, more recently, a South Carolina Community MVP along with the watch list for the Wuerffel Trophy. Rencher got his first career TD in highlight fashion up at Virginia Tech last season. Rencher should also see some action here and there, though it is a stretch to believe he will truly threaten the RB1 role. More importantly, there is no question he is the leader of the running back room and his leadership will be essential to the growth of the younger backs.

Junior Michel Dukes returns as the forgotten man in my view. Dukes has open field shake similar to Dixon but has been buried on the depth chart to this point. It should be noted that Dukes had to transition from SCISAA ball at First Baptist, so the jump was higher for him than most players coming into college. Dukes is more likely to contribute as a kick or punt return guy, and I’ve often wondered if he’d be a good candidate for the slot, but it appears he will stick at running back. I thought he was more of a threat to depart than Mellusi, but he’s back to compete another year. Dukes is a very high level athlete who was a stud basketball player in high school and probably tops this position group in some measurables.

Sophomore Kobe Pace is listed as the co-starter with Dixon heading into fall camp. Pace had a decent freshman season in limited action and flashed in the spring game. Pace has a real shot at running out there first against UGA, and the entire position group got more or less a fresh start with Spiller taking over for Tony Elliott. Sometimes, as we saw with Cornell Powell and Tyler Grisham last year, a change in position coach will click really well with a veteran player.

It will be interesting to see if Pace or Dixon or even Dukes blossoms with Spiller in a way they didn’t with Elliott. This is no slight to Elliott or Jeff Scott as position coaches, just an observation of human nature of players with different personalities and coaches with different voices and approaches. Pace doesn’t seem to possess any one elite trait but brings above average size, speed, and balance to the equation. I get a very Adam Choice feel from him from what I’ve seen so far.

ROOKIES:

Freshman Will Shipley enters the fall with growing hype and five star credentials. I always try to temper my expectations of freshmen, even the 5 stars. I’m wary of the on the record talk you get from coaches and sometimes a name getting circulated is more for a confidence boost to a guy who may be struggling with the adjustment a bit or a pat on the back for an improved effort rate than a true indication of a breakout. Nevertheless, after having a chance to mingle with some staff last weekend I feel confident that the Shipley talk is real.

Shipley is the guy in this room that can bring Etienne’s ability to break it from anywhere and not just when the play hits just right with the second level out of position. He’s more advanced for this offense than Etienne was at the same point even with a year off from high school football. There is no doubt we are going to see his role increase as the year goes on, the question becomes just how long it takes for him to truly contend for the RB1 role. It would certainly be nice if he can come on in a backup role the way we saw his position coach do in 2006. Spiller had the luxury of having James Davis and Reggie Merriweather to take some of the pressure off having to be the guy too soon. Look out for this guy down the stretch this season the way we saw Etienne come on in 2017. Shipley could also be an X-factor on special teams.

Freshman Phil Mafah certainly caught my attention in the spring game. This is a true power back like we haven’t seen in a long time in Clemson. Mafah showed surprisingly good feet for a man his size, reminding me of former Pitt star James Conner. I’m sure we’d all sign up for a guy as good as Conner was. Mafah will have to battle Pace for the big back role and could redshirt, but it is nice to know that D.J. Uiagalelei won’t have to serve as the exclusive short yardage back the way Tajh Boyd did, particularly in 2013. We’ve heard the “Thunder and Lightning part 2” talk regarding this class of running backs, and it will certainly be huge trouble for the ACC and beyond if that should come to fruition, especially considering how much better the Tiger quarterback room is now compared to 2006-2008.

I approach this season with cautious optimism regarding the running backs. While there is no equivalent of the transcendent Travis Etienne and very unlikely a back who will start every game, there is competitive depth as good as we’ve seen in a while. I feel a lot better about the offensive line right now than I did at this point last season. Even still, the quarterback depth situation requires the running backs to be as protection sound as absolutely possible, particularly in game 1. D.J. must be protected as much as possible even if it means the lesser runner is in the game most of the time. I don’t forget the two very bad protection whiffs from Etienne against Alabama in the 2017 Sugar Bowl which contributed to Kelly Bryant’s very poor night. There is plenty of time to bring the young guys along after the UGA game and the future of the position should be defined by game 5. The best case scenario is 2006, but that will require Dixon and/or Pace really exploding in a way we have yet seen while Shipley comes along. What we don’t want is 2014 where issues at running back were a major factor in losses early in the season to UGA and particularly FSU.