By Will Vandervort
It is perhaps the biggest question on the Clemson football team as it gets set to start fall camp next month. Who will be the guy to replace Andre Ellington at running back?
Not since prior to the 2005 football season has the running back position been this much of a concern coming into a new year. That season, the Tigers entered camp with Reggie Merriweather, Kyle Browning and Duane Coleman listed one, two and three respectively on the depth chart.
By the start of the season, neither one of them were the starter as a freshman by the name of James Davis took over the role and went on to rush for 3,881 yards and 47 touchdowns over the next four seasons.
In 2006, C.J. Spiller came to town and helped form Thunder & Lightning as Clemson had one of the best backfields in the country over the next two years. After Davis graduated in 2008, Spiller did okay as a solo artist too as he became one of the most explosive players in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The 2009 ACC Player of the Year finished his Clemson career with 3,547 yards, while rushing for 32 touchdowns. Spiller also set many Clemson and ACC records catching passes out of the backfield, while becoming one of the nation’s most dynamic kick and punt return specialists as well.
Over the last three seasons Ellington picked up where Davis and Spiller left off and helped carry the Tigers to an ACC Championship and back-to-back 10 win seasons, while rushing for more than 1,000 yards each year. He finished his Clemson career with 3,436 yards and 33 touchdowns.
With Ellington gone, now it is someone else’s turn. The problem, is there someone like that on this year’s roster?
Heading into camp, Clemson has listed Roderick McDowell, D.J. Howard and Zac Brooks as the top three guys on the depth chart to replace Ellington. They all three bring something different to the table.
McDowell has the most experience as he emerged as regular player last season. The senior rushed for 450 yards and scored five touchdowns, while averaging 5.4 yards per carry. McDowell runs hard and runs downhill. He hits the hole fast and has very good vision. But, he lacks breakaway speed and there is a question if he can stay healthy for a whole year as a starter.
Howard is a bruising back that can pick up those tough yards after contact. Like McDowell, he finds the hole quickly and has good instincts. But he too doesn’t have breakaway speed and lacks good hands coming out of the backfield. He has also been hampered by nagging injuries that have kept him on the sideline a good bit.
Brooks is more of an all-around running back, and probably the most talented of the three. He has good speed, is quick to finding the hole and has soft hands. He resembles former Clemson running back Travis Zachery who rushed for more than 3,000 yards and scored 41 touchdowns from 1998-2001. But Brooks lack strength and his body is still small for his 6-foot-1 frame.
Ultimately, the guy who must replace Ellington and the one the coaches are looking to is freshman Tyshon Dye. At 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, he comes in a lot like Davis did in 2005. He is big enough and strong enough to run between the tackles right out of high school, while fast enough to out run defenders in the open field.
The four-star running back from Elberton, Ga., rushed for 817 yards and 12 touchdowns in only seven games before an injury limited his playing time last fall. As a junior he rushed for 1,561 yards and scored 21 touchdowns, while also catching 17 passes for 198 yards and two scores. He also had a pair of punts he returned for touchdowns as well.
What gives Dye a chance to compete this year is his understanding of the offense. He was fortunate to play in a similar system in high school, though what offensive coordinator Chad Morris calls will be a little more challenging to learn. Also, how well Dye picks up blitzes and reads defense will determine how often he is on the field this fall.