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2022 Clemson Football Preview: Running Backs

Behold the three-headed monster!

Syndication: The Greenville News Ken Ruinard / USA TODAY NETWORK

We are mercifully reaching the end of the “Dark Territory” and will soon have live football to analyze. Before that, we will take our best shot at evaluating and projecting each position group for the 2022 Clemson football team. The first hope is that everyone stays healthy, which was a major issue for the running back room last year.

It was ironic that this position group was one of the biggest question marks entering last season, but emerged as the strength of the offense by year’s end. Lyn-J Dixon was the only guy who really had done anything with a game in question, but he was coming off a disappointing 2020 and had been a routine visitor to the coaching staff’s dog house. There was a lot of buzz around five-star Will Shipley, but I noted that counting on a true freshman is difficult until you see him when the bright lights are on. To that point, Shipley admitted in a recent interview that he was pretty lost in the early part of the season. You don’t know what you don’t know, this is why experience is so valuable and why it is such a remarkable thing to see true freshmen be major contributors immediately.

2021 started poorly, of course, and by the fourth game, Lyn-J Dixon was in the transfer portal. The Tigers hadn’t been able to run the ball much and there was some negative buzz around new running backs coach CJ Spiller. Fortunately, the young trio of Shipley, Kobe Pace, and Phil Mafah (with a bit of Darien Rencher sprinkled in) just got better as the offensive line settled. It all came together when eventual Atlantic Division Champion Wake Forest came to Death Valley and proceeded to get the ball run down its throat. Then the Tigers dominated South Carolina in Williams-Brice using the same formula.

Now, fans can look at this position group as perhaps one of the best four or five in the nation. Will Shipley has been placed on several preseason All-ACC squads, but Kobe Pace was sometimes the more effective player last season. Mafah got all the first-team work in the spring as Pace and Shipley worked back from injuries and will no doubt have a significant role this season. I feel this group could rival the 2006 unit of James Davis, Spiller, and Reggie Merriweather. Now, that 2006 OL was one of the best run blocking groups in program history and the jury is out for 2022, but the dynamic is pretty similar in terms of talent and diversity of skillsets.

Any of the three main guys could start a game, but I’m projecting the depth chart as:

RB1: Will Shipley (So.): 149 carries, 739 yards, 5.0 per carry, 11 TDs; 16 catches, 116 yards, 7.3 per catch.

Syndication: The Greenville News Ken Ruinard / staff / USA TODAY NETWORK

Shipley returns as the likely starter after a strong freshman season, particularly in TD production. While he lacked the huge explosive runs fans enjoyed from Travis Etienne (Ship’s longest run was just 42 yards), Shipley still averaged a healthy 5 yards per carry and flashed the goods that made him a five-star recruit. I fully expect to see Shipley’s speed flash more with a few more home run plays. Shipley’s ability to run through trash makes him a very effective red zone threat. He certainly projects to be a weapon on wheel routes and some of the other plays we saw used with Wayne Gallman and Etienne. He had a sure TD go through his hands at Pittsburgh last year, but you have to think a more seasoned #1 will make that play when it comes around again.

RB2 Kobe Pace (Jr.): 104 carries, 604 yards, 6.2 yards per carry, 6 TDs; 12 catches, 131 yards, 10.9 yards per catch.

Syndication: The Greenville News Ken Ruinard / USA TODAY NETWORK

Pace did not come to Clemson with the same hype as recruiting classmate Demarcus Bowman, but while Bowman has transferred twice, Pace has put together a solid career and a very good 2021 season. Pace is more noted for his power than his speed, but he led the team in yards per carry and outpaced Shipley in yards per catch. Both Pace and Shipley dealt with some injuries (as did the majority of the 2021 team), so fans should be excited as to what these guys can do if fully healthy.

For reference, I averaged Travis Etienne’s rushing output from 2019 and 2020 and put that against Pace and Shipley’s combined numbers from 2021.

Etienne 2019-2020 average: 187.5 carries, 1,264 yards, 6.7 YPC, 16.5 TDs

Shipley+Pace 2021: 253 carries, 1,380 yards, 5.45 YPC, 17 TDs

Not bad at all for a true freshman and a lightly used sophomore running behind multiple OL combinations while working with spotty QB and WR play.

It is extremely unlikely one player alone can match on Etienne’s insane level, but the hope is that these two guys together can approach it, and based on last year’s effort it may not be much of a reach.

RB3 Phil Mafah (So.): 68 carries, 292 yards, 4.3 YPC, 3 TDs; 7 catches, 50 yards, 7.1 yards per catch

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Clemson Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

The “Mafah Man” was originally on the redshirt plan and was only going to see a little work in four games or less, but attrition and injuries changed things. I said last year that Mafah reminded me of James Conner with his combination of size and nimble feet. Mafah and Rencher were called upon to carry the load against UConn last year as Shipley and Pace were held out for injuries. Unfortunately, the Clemson OL easily played its worst game of the second half of the season so the sledding was tough, but there is little doubt that Mafah is a gifted player who should easily surpass his numbers in 2022.

The rest of the running back room consists of true freshman Keith Adams, Jr. and walk-ons. You have to think Adams will be on the same redshirt plan that Mafah originally was last year, especially considering that Adams joined the program in the summer and not the spring. The four game rule still allows the staff to use Adams in spots should the game and situation warrant, so we should see a little of what the “Termite’s” son brings to the table. If he is wired anything like his legendary father, fans can expect a player who far outperforms the fairly modest recruiting hype.

“Quadzilla” Domonique Thomas (RS So.) is an intriguing prospect to watch as a potential RB4. This kid is built like a fire hydrant and could allow the staff to keep Adams on the redshirt plan even if something befalls one of the top three backs. Thomas served as RB1 for the White team in the spring game.

Overall, I love the top three backs on this roster and fully expect this team to run the ball at 200 yards per game or better. That certainly should be the case if this team is going to be a playoff caliber unit. This year’s ACC is full of quality quarterbacks, and it is easy to see at least four being better than Clemson’s QBs, but no team in this league can match Clemson’s RB room. As a result, I expect new OC Brandon Streeter to lean very heavily on this strength to help his QB out.