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2023 Clemson Football Review: Running Backs

Let’s see how things turned out vs. pre-season projections!

Syndication: Florida Times-Union Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Unio / USA TODAY NETWORK

It is time to take a look back at the 2023 season and see how the position groups shaped up. I did the preview for the running backs so I am checking back on that story and seeing how my projections fared.

I concluded my introduction to that piece with this:

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.

Obviously Clemson did NOT return to the realm of the CFB elite and did NOT win the ACC or make the final 4 team CFP. While the running backs remained the strength of the offense, the running game was actually slightly behind last year’s 177.9 yards per game average and definitely behind Garrett Riley’s 2022 TCU team’s 193.3 yards per game clip. Had the Tigers gotten to that level, it is very likely the team would have hit 11 and maybe even 12 wins. Running game problems directly led to losses against Miami and to a lesser degree NC State. It was good enough to beat Duke and FSU but catastrophic turnovers became the difference in both of those losses.

NCAA Football: Gator Bowl-Clemson at Kentucky Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

I projected Will Shipley as RB1 and he began the season that way before being injured and giving way, to a degree, to Phil Mafah down the stretch. Shipley had a solid year with 827 yards, but it did not match his 2022 sophomore campaign (1,182 yards) as his yards per carry dipped to 5.0 and rushing TDs went from 15 to 5. I had hoped his receiving skills would be better utilized. That was only slightly true as his catches went from 38 to 31 (with over 1 game less played) but his yards per catch improved from 6.4 to 7.9. That was still short of the 10+ yards per catch I was hoping to see that we got from C.J. Spiller in 2009 and Travis Etienne in 2020. Shipley again struggled with breaking explosive runs and his longest run of the season was just 33 yards. Will Shipley also had more ball security issues this season than in his previous two seasons, though he did take some brutal shots to the head that easily could/should have been flagged for targeting.

Some fans got frustrated with Shipley this year, but he stepped up to play in the Gator Bowl when after the fact it became evident he planned to declare for the NFL draft (which he has done). His final touch in a Tiger uniform was a tremendous 60-yard kick return where he was knocked out of the game with a knee injury that thankfully turned out to be not-too-serious.

Will will likely be one of those guys you appreciate more later and no doubt suffered by being the next five-star guy and having to follow the greatest runner in Clemson history, Travis Etienne. Shipley is a warrior and fierce competitor who will hopefully secure a good NFL career.

NCAA Football: Gator Bowl-Clemson at Kentucky Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

My projected RB2 for the season, Phil Mafah, stepped up to claim the RB 1 role after Will Shipley’s injury at NC State. He then proceeded to vastly surpass his sophomore year production and delivered huge games against Notre Dame and Kentucky (winning the Gator Bowl MVP). Despite not being credited as the fastest back compared to Shipley, Mafah averaged 5.4 yards per carry and boasted a long run of 49, which was best on the team. Mafah also delivered 13 rushing touchdowns, which was just 2 behind Will Shipley’s All-ACC 2022 total of 15. Mafah is poised to return as a favorite to be first team All-ACC at running back and the centerpiece of Garrett Riley’s offense in year 2.

Clemson did not have very many easy days at the office this season so the running backs behind Shipley and Mafah saw very limited action. RB3 Domonique Thomas however delivered some good moments in the Notre Dame game when he had to be the RB2 (with Shipley out). Thomas finished with just 18 carries and has since transferred to Georgia State where he should be a factor.

Young running backs Keith Adams, Jr., Jay Haynes, and Jarvis Green got a little bit of action in spots but only Adams appeared in a high leverage situation when he played fullback in the I-formation for a snap in the Gator Bowl. All three will battle newcomer David Eziomume to win the RB2 role behind Mafah this spring, summer, and fall ahead of 2024’s season opener against Georgia. The entire offense needs to improve its explosiveness so hopefully one, if not more than one, of these backs will emerge as a potential home run threat.

Clemson, on paper, returns a lot to like when you factor in the career OL snaps returning as well as the addition of Matt Luke as the OL coach, however the O-line has to improve its consistency. Will we get the unit that pushed Notre Dame’s top 15 defense around or the group that Miami’s defensive front abused? Cade Klubnik needs to take another step forward as a junior for sure, but having a strong running game to lean on will make everything much easier.