On one side there is one running back that is running with an extreme amount of confidence. On the other is a running back that is playing with the same confidence he had when he was a true freshman three years ago.
And then there is a third running back who is still trying to find his way.
This is Clemson’s running back race heading into fall camp, which begins in earnest on Aug. 4. The reigning national champions have to replace All-ACC running back Wayne Gallman who has been its workhorse the last three years.
The candidates are junior C.J. Fuller, who saw his playing time increase last year thanks to productive plays when he spelled Gallman, redshirt junior Adam Choice, who was once the starter before tearing his ACL, and then sophomore Tavien Feaster, a former 5-star out of Spartanburg who many think is the next C.J. Spiller at Clemson.
“Fuller and Choice probably took a little bit of a step ahead,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Tony Elliott said back in the spring. “I think Tavien, even though he is still making progress, things started moving fast … You saw a couple flashes, but still would like to see him be more consistent. It is a long way until we figure out who is going to be the guy.”
Currently, Fuller is listed No. 1 on the summer depth chart followed by Choice and then Feaster.
“It’s an open battle. All three of us are deserving to go out there first so it is a day in and day out battle,” Fuller said.
Fuller learned a lot of things from Gallman the last couple of years, but the biggest thing he learned was how to be confident at all times.
“I just listened to him and I took in everything he gave me. That built my confidence,” the running back said.
It was Fuller’s confidence that allowed him to jump Choice last year and hold off Feaster as the Tigers’ No. 2 back behind Gallman. With Gallman gone to the NFL, Fuller is confident he can hold the position.
Last year, Fuller rushed for 211 yards on 47 carries while averaging 4.5 yards a carry. He also caught seven passes for 62 yards, including two touchdowns on wheel routes against South Carolina and Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
However, Elliott senses a renewed since of confidence in Choice as well.
Last year, as he returned from the ACL injury he suffered in 2014, Choice did not seem to be the same runner that he was when he was a freshman and rushed for 56 and 61 yards against NC State and Louisville in back-to-back games that year.
Instead, Choice seemed timid in 2016. He seemed like he always went down on first contact and he wasn’t as explosive as he was before his injury. He eventually fell down the Clemson depth chart and by the end of the season he was listed as the third-team back behind Gallman and Fuller, while sharing time with Feaster.
Choice finished the year with 158 yards on 45 carries, 3.5 yards per carry. His longest run all season was 16 yards. He ranked fourth among the running backs in rushing yards. In the six games he played in 2014 before the injury, he rushed for 218 yards, scored a touchdown and averaged 4.4 yards per carry.
“Obviously with Wayne moving on they know there is an open spot and he believes,” said Elliott. “We have to remember, he was the guy that could have potentially gotten the nod back in his freshman year before he got hurt. What you are seeing is he coming with that level of confidence that he came in with.
“Choice is a very conscientious guy and learning pass protection is something he really had to improve upon. Now you are seeing he is not thinking about it. He is putting his face in the fan. He is being physical and I really like the way he is moving along.”
Elliott is hopeful all of his running backs will be able to contribute this coming season because they each bring a different element to the game. However, he would not mind one guy separating himself from the pack and become a dominant runner like Gallman did once he got his opportunity.
“The separation, just like when Wayne became the dominate guy, we were planning on playing all of those guys but he took it upon himself to separate,” Elliott said. “I’m excited because I think Choice has the potential to separate from the pack just like Fuller does and just like Feaster does. It’s going to be on them every single day when they come to practice. They have to be consistent. There is a certain level of expectation that the No. 1 guy has to have. We try to develop that expectation in all of those guys.
“He definitely has everything he needs to be that guy, but he has to take ownership of it and create the separation on the practice fields.”
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