Spiller sees ‘Thunder and Lightning’ in freshmen running backs

Spiller sees ‘Thunder and Lightning’ in freshmen running backs


Spiller sees ‘Thunder and Lightning’ in freshmen running backs


College Football Hall of Famer and new Clemson running backs coach C.J. Spiller has been impressed by what he’s seen from the Tigers’ two freshmen running backs – Will Shipley and Phil Mafah – thus far in spring practice.

Spiller understands that the pair of talented newcomers have a lot to learn, and there will be some growing pains along the way.

But when he watches and coaches Shipley and Mafah, Spiller sees flashbacks of himself and James Davis, who are still known as the greatest duo of running backs in Clemson history. From 2005-’09, the two dominated the ACC and the Clemson record books. They became known as “Thunder and Lightning” and in most games were unstoppable.

“Both Will and Phil have looked great so far,” Spiller said following Clemson’s spring practice on Wednesday. “You expect them to come in and be just freshmen. They’re going to have mistakes along the way. It’s a new system.

“They kind of remind you of that, I guess you could say, that old James Davis and myself, but you don’t want to put that type of pressure on them.”

Shipley, a native of Weddington, N.C., was ranked as the nation’s No. 1 all-purpose back in the 2021 class by multiple recruiting services.

During his career at Weddington High School, Shipley rushed for 4,173 yards on 503 carries (8.3 yards per rush) and racked up 1,411 receiving yards on 84 catches (16.8-yard average).

The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder was named Gatorade Player of the Year in North Carolina in 2019 and led Weddington to back-to-back state titles in 2018 and 2019.

Despite not being able to play his senior season in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Shipley still totaled 80 touchdowns in his high school career, including 55 rushing, 23 receiving and two on defense.

“For Will, he didn’t have a chance to play high school ball (as a senior), so you have to take that into account that he hasn’t played in over a year,” Spiller said. “So, you have to just kind of be careful with him and make sure that he comes along properly.”

Mafah hails from Grayson High in Loganville, Ga. – the same school that has produced several former Clemson players, including current NFL free agent running back Wayne Gallman.

A unanimous top-300 player nationally according to the major recruiting services, Mafah rushed for 2,526 yards and scored 37 total touchdowns in three years at Grayson High, averaging 8.8 yards per carry. The 6-foot-1, 215-pounder logged 10 games of 100-plus rushing yards in 29 career games.

Mafah rushed for 1,130 yards on 130 attempts (8.7 per rush) and scored 18 touchdowns as a senior in 2020 despite missing several games due to a foot injury.

“Phil, he’s looked awesome,” Spiller said. “Good as advertised.”

With both Mafah and Shipley being highly touted freshmen surrounded by plenty of hype, Spiller has conveyed a message to them as they go through spring practice and get ready for their first college football campaign this fall.

“The thing that I tell both of those guys is be yourself, be who you are,” Spiller said. “Don’t worry about these high expectations that other people have on you. Just go out there and just be the best version of yourself, don’t try to be anybody else. Both of those guys have done a tremendous job of that throughout this spring so far.”

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