By William Qualkinbush.
By William Qualkinbush
Running back is yet another position at which both Clemson and Georgia have talented players they utilize in completely different ways. Much like the rest of the offense, these two teams approach the position in ways that benefit their respective attacks.
The Bulldogs run a traditional offense, so the running back is used as a carry machine that can also pass protect and swing out into pass patterns from time to time. For the Tigers, versatility is always a prized commodity, so the backs are often seen as do-it-all weapons. Chad Morris loves to line his backs up in the slot at times and has shown a willingness to put his players wherever they need to be in order to be successful. The quarterback is also used as a weapon in the running game at Clemson, which can take away from the pool of chances for the team’s tailbacks.
Regardless of the differences in preference, an unsung aspect of both schemes is the ability to block for ball carriers. Any analysis of these two teams at running back must also take this into account.
Georgia’s stable of tailbacks is so deep and talented, last season’s third-leading rusher—sophomore Ken Malcome—transferred. He had plenty of reason to want a change of scenery, as the two-headed monster of sophomores Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall seems to have a stranglehold on virtually all carries out of the backfield this season.
Gurley is the stud in the group. His 6-foot-1, 220-pound frame can punish the interior of a defense, but he also possesses the kind of explosive top-end speed that can turn any ordinary down into a scoring play.
Gurley rushed for 1,385 yards as a true freshman last season to lead all SEC tailbacks, scoring 17 touchdowns along the way. He surpassed the 100-yard mark nine different times in 2012 and added a kickoff return for a score along the way.
Arguably the best backup tailback in the country last season, Marshall ran for 759 yards on 117 carries—good enough for an average of 6.5 yards per carry. While Gurley is clearly the workhorse, Marshall is clearly proficient enough to handle a hefty workload when called upon to do so.
The duo is not expected to catch many passes, but they are certainly capable as evidenced by the 27 combined throws they hauled in last season. This seems like a realistic expectation moving forward.
The Bulldogs are seemingly always blessed with a big-bodied fullback to manipulate defenders and create space for runners. This season, sophomore Merritt Hall will handle many of those duties. He played in 12 games last season and only touched the ball three times, a sign his value is best seen elsewhere.
The Tigers have shown a willingness to play several guys at tailback because of the different ways the position is asked to accomplish within a game. For the first time in quite a while, this arrangement will fit the team’s personnel, as no true number-one back exists as fall camp approaches.
Fifth-year senior Rod McDowell appears to be the favorite to come out on top in terms of carries this season. He finished third on the team in carries (83), yards (450), and rushing touchdowns (five) in 2012 and has shown flashes of brilliance at times.
Junior D.J. Howard will be the primary backup for McDowell. Injuries limited the big back last season, but Clemson hopes he can become a quality change-of-pace option at running back in 2013. Sophomore Zac Brooks is the other returner with meaningful experience under his belt and should get some consideration for carries. A shot in the arm could be provided by an incoming freshmen, and opportunities are available for a newcomer like Tyshon Dye to make an impact.
Darrell Smith will be the Tigers’ short-yardage road grader this season. At 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, the fifth-year senior developed into a dependable blocker as an H-back a season ago. His influence is a big reason why Clemson was one of the nation’s strongest teams in short yardage situations.
The Bottom Line: This one is a pretty easy choice. “Gurshall” is a two-headed monster that has proved itself more than serviceable, while Clemson is still looking for consistency among the returning backs in the program.