Running back at one point wondered if he deserved to be a Tiger
Adam Choice doesn’t pay much attention to Clemson’s depth chart, which was released by the team on Monday for Saturday’s season opener against Furman.
In fact, Choice didn’t find out that he is second in the pecking order at running back — behind Travis Etienne and ahead of Tavien Feaster and Lyn-J Dixon — until his mother informed him on Monday night.
“I actually didn’t see it,” Choice said Tuesday of the depth chart. “My mom called me last night and she said, ‘I feel like congratulations are in order.’ And I was like, ‘For what?’ So she told me then, and I was just like, ‘Oh OK, well thank you.’
“Honestly, all of that stuff, it doesn’t matter in our room. We’re still a group of competitive backs. We’re all very worthy of playing, and we’re all going to play. So, honestly, we’re all just working on pushing each other and getting better every day. It’s not about where we are on the depth chart — we just support each other no matter where we are.”
Being second on the depth chart may not seem like a big deal to Choice, but it shows how far he has come in his career while battling back from a season-ending knee injury he suffered as a true freshman four years ago.
There was a time, after rushing for just 158 yards as a redshirt sophomore, when Choice wondered whether he deserved to be at Clemson.
“At that point, I was at a low point,” he remembered. “Like, ‘Do I even belong here?'”
Choice arrived to Clemson in 2014 as a highly regarded prospect from Thomas County Central High School (Ga.) who broke the school’s all-time career rushing record with 5,095 yards. But because he was an option quarterback in high school, he had a lot to learn about how to play the running back position in college.
It was a difficult transition for the Thomasville, Ga., native. Not only was he tasked to pick up the mental side of things, but he also had to learn how to pass protect and become an effective player in the passing game — all while facing stiff competition, and some future NFL players, in practice.
“Coming into Clemson out of high school, I had no clue what I was getting myself into going to running back,” Choice said. “First of all, pass protection was also something I had never done, and it didn’t make it any easier going up against guys like Stephone (Athony) and Tony Steward, Ben (Boulware) and B.J. Goodson… It was a nightmare. They ran through me every time.
“Ball carrying has always been natural for me, but it was just becoming a complete back. I never caught the ball. I never had to pick up any blitzes. I was learning defenses… Coming out of high school, I didn’t understand what a defensive structure was. I just did what the coach told me to. So, coming in freshman year, that was my main focus — try and learn as much as I can in a short amount of time, because I wasn’t expected to play until Zac got hurt.”
When Zac Brooks sustained a season-ending foot injury before the start of the 2014 season, the door of opportunity opened for Choice. He took advantage of his chance to play, rushing for 205 yards while averaging 4.5 yards per carry through the first six games of the season.
By the middle of his freshman season, Choice had emerged as one of the Tigers’ top running backs. However, just as things were starting to click, Choice went down with a torn ACL against Boston College in Game 7 and was forced to miss the rest of the year.
“I finally started to pick up on some of the stuff. I was starting to develop my way, and then I got hurt,” Choice said. “My senior year of high school I got hurt as well. So I was like OK, I’ve bounced back before, I can bounce back again. But this time it was a little bit different because in high school when I got hurt, I was a starter. But this time I was battling for a job, and when I got hurt, that’s when Wayne just took off and became the Wayne Gallman that you all know.”
While Choice was sidelined, Gallman went on to finish the 2014 season with a team-high 769 rushing yards. Choice then redshirted the 2015 season due to his knee injury, while watching Gallman come into his own as a first-team All-ACC performer who posted a Clemson single-season best for rushing yards (1,527).
When Choice returned to action in 2016, the senior Gallman was firmly entrenched as Clemson’s starting running back, and Choice finished the season with only 45 carries in 11 games.
“Coming back from that [injury] and then redshirting the next year, I still didn’t necessarily trust my knee,” Choice said. “It was more of a mental battle than it was physical, and I was scared to get hit on it. I was scared I was going to re-injure it. It’s like something was always nagging about it.
“But finally I get through that and get back to it, and I’m ready to play as a redshirt sophomore, and that season did not go anywhere close to how I wanted it to or expected it to.”
That’s when Choice hit the lowest point of his career, having lost confidence in himself as a player and questioning his place at Clemson.
In order to turn things around heading into the 2017 season, Choice had to lean on his parents and other family members such as his cousin, Tashard Choice, and his uncle, Joe Burns — both of whom played running back at Georgia Tech and went on to play in the NFL.
Meanwhile, he had to compete with phenom freshman Travis Etienne and sophomore Tavien Feaster for playing time in Clemson’s backfield.
“I was doubting myself more than anything,” Choice recalled. “So, I had an experience talking with my parents that I just had to get back to the basics. That’s when faith and how I was raised and all that stuff came back into play — just getting back to myself, starting to believe in myself, just starting to do the simple things that I did that made me the player I was that got me here. As the season went along, [Etienne and Feaster] earned their carries, so I still felt like I was on the back-burner early in the year.
“That’s when talking with Joe and Tashard, they told me to control what I can control. I mean if I’m on the field and I’m making plays, there’s no reason that the coaches should not put me back on the field. So, that’s when I realized that I can control what I can control and just do what I know what I can do whenever I get an opportunity, and the rest will take care of itself.”
Choice started to regain his mojo in 2017, finishing his redshirt junior season with 326 yards and six touchdowns on 67 carries, along with eight receptions for 48 yards in 173 snaps over 13 games.
“Last year, I progressed throughout the season,” he said. “As the season went along, I picked up momentum and I was becoming more confident. And that’s carried over into the spring and to this fall camp. I’m seeing the field a lot better, I’m being a little more flexible — I’m not just straight ahead, trying to run everybody over. … I’m just trying to develop different areas of my game and become a more versatile back.”
That parlayed into Choice having the best fall camp he has had since he’s been a Tiger and earning the No. 2 spot on the depth chart at running back entering the 2018 campaign.
“This time I actually stayed healthy,” Choice said. “I feel like my pass protection was finally something that I can say, OK, I know I can do this. … And running the ball, I just felt loose, I felt fast. I felt like I’m taking those steps to become the all-around back. I know I’m not there yet. I’m not anywhere close, but I’m finally starting to see progression, and it’s something to take pride in that OK, I’ve come a long way. I still have a way to go, but I’m making the proper strides.”
The road leading up to this point has been anything but easy for Choice, but he has the chance to finish his Clemson career in strong fashion.
As he heads into his senior season, Choice is simply looking to capitalize on the opportunities he is presented with.
“It’s been a journey,” he said. “It’s definitely not been the ideal one, but at the end of the day, I’m grateful for all it has taught me and all that I’ve learned going through it.
“Somebody told me once that it’s not how many reps you get, it’s what you do with your reps. So, I’ve just adapted that mindset, and I try to make the most of every opportunity that I get and just go about my business the right way.”