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Clemson Football Season Review: Running Backs

The Question Became the Anchor in 2021

Syndication: The Des Moines Register Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

If you asked me what concerned me most about the 2021 Tigers in August, I would have said running back. I felt like quarterback was set, wide receiver was set, tight end was set, and offensive line was mostly in good shape. This was the general consensus after the Tigers said goodbye to the record setting Travis Etienne. While there was the hope of talent in the system, only Lyn-J Dixon had ever really done much of note in his career and most of that damage was prior to his disappointing 2020 campaign. Clemson was also breaking in a new running backs coach, albeit a hall of fame Clemson legend in C.J. Spiller.

The season started with a profound offensive dud against a UGA team bound for the National Championship. The running game was virtually non existent. The struggles continued during the disappointing 2-2 start to the season and some folks on the message boards began questioning if Spiller was qualified to handle the job (among other criticisms levied against the offensive staff as a whole). Things came to a head when Lyn-J Dixon, clearly unhappy with his diminished role, put himself into the transfer portal.

However, instead of things falling apart, the room came together and talented young backs Will Shipley and Kobe Pace essentially took the offense over. Most folks thought D.J. Uiagalelei would be throwing it all over the yard the way he did in 2020, Justyn Ross would rekindle his 2018-19 magic, Joseph Ngata would become the 5 star stud folks had been expecting, and Frank Ladson would be taking the top off of defenses. Instead, the team leaned on the running game and featured the backs more and more in the passing game as the WR corps eroded into a collection of true freshmen and walk-ons. By the time the Cheez-It Bowl came around, the biggest question (at least for me) in August was the only true answer the offense had. New OC Brandon Streeter just built on what Tony Elliott and the staff had been working towards as the Tigers featured 32 rushes and 9 receptions between Shipley, Pace, and freshman Phil Mafah. The Tigers finished 2021 at 10-3 despite some of the lowest rated QB and WR play in the ACC. It might not always have been pretty, but the name of the game is winning and credit should go to the staff and these players for finding ways to do that despite the warts this team possessed.

I said in the fall that a clear RB1 needed to emerge by seasons end. You can argue that Clemson finished with an RB1 and RB1A in Shipley and Pace. The duo combined for 253 carries, 1380 yards, 5.6 yards per carry, and 17 TDs despite both players missing at least 2 games. For comparison, Travis Etienne and backup Lyn-J Dixon combined for 210 carries, 1104 yards, 4.95 yards per carry, and 16 TDs without missing any games (12 total). It really is pretty impressive considering how badly the season started and how much the passing game struggled all season long. The 2020 team at least had teams afraid of Trevor Lawrence, Amari Rodgers, and Cornell Powell who made people pay for loading the box more often than not. This year’s running back group had no such luxury. It also should help you respect the job the offensive line did this season despite serious injuries affecting depth all season long.

Turns out the two most concerning areas of the offense coming in were the strengths of the unit by year’s end.

The best news is that Clemson is set to return its entire three deep at running back. Super senior Darien Rencher moves on and Lyn-J Dixon of course, but Shipley, Pace, and Mafah give the Tigers an impressive group to work with going forward. The staff is looking to add a running back signee to this class, and Travis Etienne’s little brother won’t be it after committing to Florida. We will see if it is a high school guy or perhaps even someone from the portal. The 2022 offensive line is poised to be the best Clemson has seen in quite some time in my opinion. If the QB/WR play can revert back towards the norm for the program in the last decade, 2021 should be that year folks around the league say, “well, that was the time to get Clemson if there ever was one.”

I have to give C.J. Spiller high marks for his job this year, especially being year one. You rate coaching on growth and improvement, which was undeniable for this group. The Dixon move was a classic “addition by subtraction” that helped the chemistry of the unit and allowed the young backs to freely emerge as leaders. Step two for him will be on the recruiting trail. As for the offensive staff as a whole, they really played with one hand tied behind their back most of the season, if not all of it.

Clemson’s offense didn’t light it up in the bowl game but effectively controlled the ball most of the game and did what it needed to win against a good defense. I thought Streeter got the ball to the right guys and didn’t expose DJU to situations where he had routinely made mistakes this season for the most part. His true evaluation should start now heading into the spring where guys are returning from injury, new signees are added to the mix, and a true quarterback competition will be underway.