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2023 Clemson Football Season Preview: Running Backs

This position has been the best on offense two years running.

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Clemson at Tennessee Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Clemson running back position has been the strength of the offense for the past two seasons. PFF grades support what the eyes already have told us, but despite an improved offense in 2022 and a return to the familiar throne of the ACC, the running game fell a little short of what my hopes for it were going into last year. I thought that 200 yards per game could and should be the target, but the unit finished at 177.9 yards per game. While a respectable number, it ranked just 5th in the ACC. Clemson returned the bulk of its offensive line (and it stayed pretty healthy compared to 2021), the quarterback, and its impressive three deep at running back. Despite this, Clemson had a hard time consistently imposing its will with the run game on folks. All three Clemson losses featured either the running game being stymied or abandoned for some unknown reason. If Clemson is going to return to the playoffs and the realm of the CFB elite, the running game needs to find an even higher gear. There is plenty of optimism that it can and will seeing what Garrett Riley’s “Dirt Raid” system was able to do at TCU last year (3,290 yards at 193.3 per game). Factor that with the return of Clemson’s top two running backs and 4 starters on the offensive line and it is easy to get excited.

RB 1: Will Shipley (Jr); (210 carries, 1182 yards, 5.6 yards per carry, 15 TDs, 38 receptions, 242 yards, 6.4 yards per catch).

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Clemson at Tennessee Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Shipley followed a solid freshman campaign with an All-ACC worthy sophomore year where he emerged as the clear starter at running back. He certainly was Clemson’s best offensive player last season, but had a frustrating final stretch of the season when Clemson’s offense allowed the Gamecocks to coerce them out of running the ball in the second half and then hoisted 54 passes against Tennessee in the Orange Bowl. Shipley is certainly sounding like he’s very hyped for what Riley’s system can do to feature his skill set in a draft-able year.

Shipley is a very hard nosed runner and plays more like a power back than you would think at his size. His best quality is his nose for the endzone when the Tigers can get down deep. Shipley has long been regarded as one of the faster players on the team and the fastest of the running backs, but he has yet to really be able to break the type of home run TD’s that Clemson fans saw from guys like CJ Spiller, Andre Ellington, and most recently Travis Etienne. If Shipley can mix in that 50-60 yard TD run in some games, his YPC should get north of 6 and his draft stock should take another step up. He’s certainly been close several times the last two years only to get tripped up and stopped just before breaking clean.

Shipley’s pass catching numbers should hopefully increase as well, but I’m more interested in his yards per catch improving vs. having a lot more receptions. Ideally he’ll be at 10 yards or more per reception vs. the 6.4 he averaged last year. For reference, Spiller was at 14 yards per catch in 2009 and Travis Etienne averaged 12.3 per catch in 2020.

Shipley is in the discussion as a player of the year candidate and will be a factor on both offense and special teams. A healthy season from #1 should be a special one.

RB2 Phil Mafah (Jr): (98 carries, 515 yards, 5.3 yards per carry, 4 TDs, 9 catches, 48 yards, 5.3 yards per catch).

NCAA Football: Clemson Tigers Spring Game The Independent Mail-USA TODAY NETWORK

It was always going to be hard to hold onto all three running backs featured on the 2021 Clemson team. Mafah remains a Tiger while Kobe Pace has moved on to UVA after being pushed to third team in an injury plagued 2022. Mafah has taken on the #7 jersey number that Pace vacated and had another strong spring as Shipley was held out of the Spring Game. TCU #2 back Emari Demercado put up 681 yards and 5.6 yards per carry last year. The hope for me is that Mafah can eclipse 750 yards provided Shipley is able to go all year as the lead back. He certainly has the goods to deliver though not as much of a threat to break a really long TD.

Both Mafah and Shipley should also benefit from having a more natural run threat with Cade Klubnik at QB vs. the departed D.J. Uiagalelei. While D.J. certainly improved as a run threat in the zone/read game and the occasional QB power or counter call, Cade is a much faster, much more natural runner of the ball. A lot of teams were likely happy to give DJU “keep” reads and take their chances with him vs. Shipley or Mafah. Klubnik is much more capable of hurting teams with longer runs should they overcommit.

RB3 Domonique Thomas (RS Jr) (7 carries, 31 yards, 4.4 yards per carry)

NCAA Football: Clemson Tigers Spring Game The Independent Mail-USA TODAY NETWORK

Clemson has four young scholarship running backs waiting in the wings, but I would still favor “Quadzilla” as the third back going into the fall. Thomas is a load and flashed his power some in the Spring Game. With Pace now at UVA, Thomas has a great chance to make an impact if he can hold off the younger backs behind him. Clemson fans should hope that the Tigers are able to put more games to bed earlier to allow Shipley and Mafah to watch the other backs close out games.

Coach C.J. Spiller has four young guys looking to be the next thing at Clemson. Keith Adams, Jr. returns after a redshirt year where he saw a small bit of action. Swinney has hailed Adams as a guy who makes defenders make “business decisions” when they come up to tackle him. This isn’t surprising knowing the hard hitting pedigree of his legendary father.

The Tigers also have brought in signees Jarvis Green (who was arguably the best offensive player in SC last year if it wasn’t LaNorris Sellers), Jay Haynes out of Alabama, and preferred walk-on Peyton Streko who reportedly turned down service academy offers to come to Clemson. I was happy to see Clemson add Green to the class because of how dominant he was at Dutch Fork. He might not have the 4 or 5 star measurables, but he was worth the take in my opinion.

I was really, really excited about the potential of Clemson’s run game last year and, while good, wasn’t as good as I expected. I want to see explosive passing plays back in this offense as much as anyone, but Clemson’s deadliest offenses became that way because the running game consistently forced defenses to commit numbers to stop it. Riley’s TCU running game was a force against everyone except the ridiculously talented UGA defense. Clemson sports better overall talent and depth across the board than what the Horned Frogs had, but all the credit goes to Riley and Dykes for how they maximized that talent. That was a hallmark of Clemson’s initial run to the playoffs when the Tigers really made the most of their personnel.