CLEMSON, S.C. — Over the last three years, Clemson has become known for Chad Morris’ high-flying, no-huddle offense and with good reason.
With Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins among others as primary targets, Tajh Boyd established himself as one of the most prolific passers in ACC history. Boyd finished his Clemson career with 58 Clemson and ACC passing records, finishing No. 2 all-time in ACC passing yardage and No. 1 in passing touchdowns.
But the success of Morris’ offense isn’t as simple as throw, throw, throw. Morris builds his system around a strong, physical running game and a tough offensive line.
Entering spring practice, that running game is as unsettled as it has been in Morris’ Clemson tenure.
1,000-yard rusher Rod McDowell has graduated, and he appears likely to continue the Tigers’ NFL tailback lineage started by C.J. Spiller and continued by Andre Ellington.
A crowded group of unproven veterans and promising freshmen stand ready to battle for carries this spring and summer. But Dabo Swinney doesn’t seem worried.
“I think Clemson fans are going to be excited about what they see out of this backfield for this year,” he said recently, “and for several years to come. I really do.”
There is no clear lead dog in Clemson’s backfield, but Swinney feels it is as deep as it has been in some time, thanks to the Tigers’ strong recruiting over the last three years.
Here’s a look at how it all breaks down.
Clemson returns a trio of upperclassman tailbacks, none of whom have truly distinguished themselves in their collegiate careers.
Rising senior D.J. Howard battled injuries last season, carrying 57 times for 213 yards and two touchdowns as a change-of-pace and third-down back.
Rising junior Zac Brooks has shown flashes of brilliance in his two seasons, but he has also had trouble staying healthy. He missed the last three games of 2013 with a shoulder injury that hampered him throughout the season. He had 48 carries for 246 yards and two touchdowns, adding six receptions for 83 yards and a touchdown.
He is capable of rushing and receiving as a multi-purpose back.
“Zac Brooks is a guy who’s got all the tools,” Swinney said. “We’ve just got to get him on the field.”
Swinney is also high on speedy former walk-on C.J. Davidson, who carried 34 times for 155 yards and four touchdowns. It might have been more had he not suffered a strained knee ligament at Virginia, sidelining him for multiple games.
“C.J. Davidson is a guy we feel like is on his way,” Swinney said. “You saw us use him a little more in the (Orange Bowl).”
Both Tyshon Dye and Wayne Gallman were considered among the nation’s top-20 tailback recruits when they signed with Clemson last February. The Tigers’ backfield depth allowed Morris and running backs coach Tony Elliott to redshirt both, although a back injury requiring surgery pushed Dye toward that status. He is expected to be healthy by preseason practice in August.
Both are powerful runners: Dye stands 6’1”, 205 pounds, and Gallman is 6’1”, 195 pounds. Dye rushed for 1,561 yards and 21 touchdowns as a junior at Elbert County (Ga.) High School and impressed with tough running in preseason practice before taking his redshirt.
“We’ve got two freshmen this year as a staff that we’re really excited about,” Swinney said. “I can’t wait for spring to see Tyshon Dye and Wayne Gallman.”
Expect both to play a major role in the backfield this fall following a year spent adding muscle in the weight room and learning Morris’ offense.
The New Guys
Clemson also signed a trio of talented tailbacks last week.
Thomasville, Ga. native Adam Choice, a cousin of former NFL tailback Tashard Choice, served as an option quarterback in high school and is a dynamic, versatile runner with great change of direction and vision. He rushed for over 5,000 yards in high school and would, of course, be capable of running the Wildcat in Morris’ offense.
“Adam Choice is as gifted a runner as we’ve had here with the ball in his hands,” Swinney said. “Very gifted. Strong, powerful, great vision. He has the ability to break tackles, make people miss. He has played quarterback, he’s very smart. I think he’s going to be a great fit for what we do.”
Jae’lon Oglesby, who played just up the road at D.W. Daniel High School, is the latest in a long line of Daniel stars to transition to Clemson (Davidson is also a Daniel alum). He led Daniel to a South Carolina Class AAA runner-up finish and is a versatile player who could fit in as a tailback or receiver.
“I played with a guy, I hate to compared him to people, but I didn’t think I’d ever seen a guy like him,” Swinney said of Oglesby. “He’s the spitting image of David Palmer. David wasn’t very big, Jae’lon might be a tiny bit taller, but he’s faster. It’s like the same guy all over again. Just a great football player. Explosive with a lot of things. He looks like he’s 6-4, 240, he’s a big-time football player.”
And don’t forget about versatile tailback C.J. Fuller, who suffered through an injury-filled senior season at nearby Easley High School but rushed for over 2,000 yards as a junior. Fuller could also fit in as a tailback.
“C.J. Fuller is a guy we watched grow up around here,” Swinney said. “He’s big, strong and fast.”
Clemson’s backfield will be a work in progress this fall. Without a clear lead back, competition will be fierce this spring and summer, with players knowing there’s no established favorite. Look for Brooks to shake off injuries and reach his potential as a junior, with a host of younger players battling behind him. Davidson could play a big role, and expect either Dye or Gallman to emerge as a talented, physical back.
As for the freshmen, Oglesby could carve out a Brooks-like role in the offense, and Choice is smart and talented enough to play early.
We might not know who’ll emerge as the Tigers’ top tailback, but know this: Morris and Elliott won’t lack for options.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.
*Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace