Since becoming Clemson’s running backs coach in 2011, Tony Elliott has coached his fair share of good running backs. He coached Arizona Cardinals running back Andre Ellington in ’11 and ’12 and then Roderick McDowell in 2013.
Of course he later coached New York Giants running back Wayne Gallman, who took over as the Tigers’ starting tailback midway through the 2014 season and never relinquished it. Ellington and Gallman both recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, while McDowell rushed for more than 1,000 yards in his only season as a starter.
With Gallman now running for the Giants, Clemson is looking for a new “alpha-male” in its running back room and Elliott says they have four good candidates who can do it.
“This is probably the best competition that I have had since I have been here,” Elliott said. “There are three guys that, legitimately, anyone of them can be the starting tailback. By the looks of it, there is going to be a little bit of pressure put on by the freshman.”
That freshman is Travis Etienne, a four-star recruit from Jennings, La.
“He just looked very, very natural back there,” Elliott said.
However, Etienne, as talented as he is, is still far behind juniors C.J. Fuller and Adam Choice and sophomore Tavien Feaster.
“They know what it takes to be the starter. That is the positive,” Elliott said. “They saw Wayne do it for two years and they know the expectation in practice, they know the expectation to play in the game, and I think they are all capable. Now we just have to see who wants it the most in practice.”
Feaster is off to a good start. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney was impressed with how well in shape he was coming into camp and about all the positive things he heard from the summer. Though Elliott liked what he saw out of the Spartanburg native, he is still in a wait-and-see type mode of operation.
“It is hard to tell that because we are not in pads yet,” he said. “Obviously, today we are just in helmets and shorts so everybody is flying around. You can’t really see the physicality of it, yet. Pass protection is very, very difficult to assess.
“I did notice he had a better sense of urgency. It looks like he is paying more attention to the little things. He is just growing up. He is maturing. I think his body feels good. He is carrying the extra weight a lot better than I anticipated. I’m just excited to see how he is going to progress. I did notice he did the little things better.”
Whoever the starter is they will have to have good attention to detail to the things Elliott asks them to do before he gets to the line of scrimmage. His job as a coach is to make sure they are on track and they are in phase with the offensive line and the timing is right.
“Once they get to the second level, then their natural ability takes over,” Elliott said. “That is one of the hardest things for a running back is to have that level of detail prior to the line of scrimmage and then letting your athleticism takeover.”
Then there is pass protection. The guy who wins the job has to have the knowledge and the willingness to go in there and give up their life and body for the quarterback.
“It’s really up to them,” Elliott said. “Right now, as we came out of the spring, all three of those guys will play and will play significantly. Hopefully, someone will take the lead, but if not, then we will do it by committee.”
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