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Dark Territory Time Machine Article: Mount Rushmore-Clemson Running Backs

Installment #2 is Dedicated to those who Toted the Rock!

Syndication: USA TODAY Josh Morgan via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Howdy folks, your friendly neighborhood STS historian is back for my summer series. This year I’m doing position group Mount Rushmore. This is where I have to try to pick the four guys who would be on a Mount Rushmore for their position from all, and I mean all, of Clemson football history. As usual, some positions are historically deeper than others and therefore more challenging. The fun is they become that much more debatable, particularly when you consider different eras and such. For example, it is quite possible that Kelly Bryant was better than every quarterback from Steve Fuller to Woody Dantzler but was only a starter for a year and four games. It just so happened a Rushmore guy came to town and took the job.

I discussed quarterbacks in installment one. As expected, there was some healthy debate over who the fourth guy should have been (and even the third!). I think this next edition will shake out in much the same way.

Clemson’s quarterback history has been very much a recently loaded deal. Much of the previous eras were marked by run heavy systems (as was all of college football for most of its existence) and three of my four Rushmore selections were products of the modernized Tommy Bowden-era and beyond Clemson offenses. Running back, however, is a different story as that was perhaps the most decorated position on the Clemson offense across the entire 20th century. I was a kid of the 1980s and my friends and I all dreamed of being the next Clemson running back, not quarterback or wide receiver. It is a very deep pool to choose from, but here is my best shot at it.

Again, this order is really more in terms of easiest to pick to hardest vs. ranking them 1-4. Any name on this list is an absolute Clemson legend. The debate should be more of who is on the mountain, so to speak, vs. who is the best among the four.

  1. Travis Etienne (2017-2020). This is a no brainer, in my mind, because Etienne checks every possible box you can check. All time leading rusher? Check (and not just Clemson’s, the entire ACC’s!). All Conference? Check (2 time POY!). All American? Check! National Champion? Check! First round draft pick? Check! Etienne even became a deadly recieving weapon in his final two seasons. I described him as a perfect blend of CJ Spiller and James Davis.
  2. C.J. Spiller (2006-2009). Speaking of Spiller, the current Clemson running backs coach was arguably the most important recruit in Clemson history. His signing cemented Dabo Swinney as an elite recruiter and changed the narrative of what was possible in modern Clemson recruiting. The five star recruit did not disappoint as he put together a four year career filled with ridiculous explosive plays in every facet of offensive football. He took handoffs for 50+ yard scores, caught passes for 50+ yard scores, ran kickoffs back for 50+ yard scores, and ran punts back for 50+ yard scores. He even threw for two touchdowns. Spiller and Etienne will be in the Ring of Honor one day or something is seriously wrong with how they select for that.
  3. Fred Cone (1948-1950). Going waaaaay back for this pick but considering Frank Howard coached Clemson football from 1940-1969 and called Cone the best player he ever had was enough for me to put him on the mountain. Cone is a Ring of Honor member and shockingly did not even play high school football before coming to Clemson, learning the position during the then-mandatory ineligible freshman season. He helped lead Clemson to two undefeated seasons in his three years of playing (the only two of Howard’s career). Cone was even before my father’s time but I have to include him here.

Now, I had little trouble with 1-3 here. The fourth was much harder for me to settle on. So many legendary backs weighed heavily on my mind. Terrence Flagler, Kenny Flowers, Terry Allen, Raymond Priester, James Davis, Lester Brown, Andre Ellington, Wayne Gallman, and Ronald Williams to name several. Clemson had so many great backs in the peak Ford years that it was difficult for one guy to have mind blowing stats. I really had to think long and hard to make a selection and not cop out with some co-selection type deal. There is no blending of faces on Mount Rushmore!

However, after much deliberation, I am going with:

4. Raymond Priester (1994-1997). Priester was the least regarded of Tommy West’s initial recruiting class of running backs after Anthony Downs and Lamont Pegues. Those of us who lived through the doldrums of the Hatfield and West eras had little offense to get excited about, but Priester emerged as a shining light behind the fog. By 1995, Priester was 1, 2, 3, 4, and probably 5 on every opposing team’s defensive scouting report, yet still pounded his way to the all time leading rushing total despite not having home run speed. His 263 yard performance against Duke remains the best single game total in Clemson history.

So, there you have it. I’m sure some of you will make strong cases for someone else or against one of these. I look forward to seeing what you have to say.