By William Qualkinbush.
By William Qualkinbush
When the dust settled on Clemson’s 56-7 shellacking of Wake Forest on Saturday night, tailback D.J. Howard failed to appear for postgame interviews.
He didn’t need to show. His game did the talking for him.
Howard led the Tigers in yardage gained from scrimmage on Saturday, showcasing skills in a way that caused eyes all around Memorial Stadium to widen—including some on his own sideline.
“When I saw D.J. jump over a guy, it blew my mind,” fellow backfield mate Zac Brooks said. “I’ve never seen D.J. jump because of his ankle injury.”
Indeed, Howard hurdled a low-flying defender on an off-tackle run, but his quality performance extended far beyond a singular play. He was second on the team in rushing yards (34) and receiving yards (86), bringing the grand total to 120 all-purpose yards in the contest.
“I’m about to go figure out what D.J. was doing,” offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “I mean, we haven’t seen that from D.J. Howard since Auburn from two years ago out here. That’s all he needed, just a little confidence.”
The total included a 75-yard touchdown catch midway through the first quarter that gave Clemson a 21-point lead. Howard caught a swing pass out of the backfield and immediately turned upfield, which is when the Alabama native began to debunk conventional wisdom about his running style.
Howard attended Clemson to be a bruiser who could fill a need for a north-south, downhill runner in the program. At times, he has been the best power back in the program.
The fourth-year junior is rarely used to catch passes, with Morris preferring to utilize his talents between the tackles. In fact, the checkdown feed from Boyd was only his second reception of the season.
It was third-and-five, so the design was probably just to get to the marker and move the chains. There were three defenders in front of Howard, with two blockers to help him direct traffic.
Instead of seeking contact, Howard navigated the blocks, juked inside to get past the lone defender, and outran the Demon Deacon secondary down the left sideline into the end zone. The combination of speed and agility was impressive for a player who has struggled with leg and shoulder injuries throughout his time at Clemson.
“He needed that,” Morris said of Howard. “He’s had a tough career with the injuries. To be able to see him have the success he had, I’m proud for D.J.”
The reason Brooks could have a smile on his face describing a guy who—for all intents and purposes—took some touches that could have gone to him is that people see how hard Howard has battled and root for him. Morris says his mentality has rubbed off throughout the tailback pecking order, and he thinks he has fans among those who are also his competitors for snaps.
“He’s one of the best teammates in that running back room,” Morris said. “He wants everybody in that room to have success.”
The Tigers had success on Saturday, and this time, the guy who has cheered for his teammates while feeling trapped on the sidelines was healthy and confident enough to have a starring role.