Though Clemson lacks overall production at the running back position heading into the new season, it does not lack talent.
Lyn-J Dixon and Kobe Pace will likely head into fall camp as the top two guys, followed by Michel Dukes and graduate Darien Rencher. Then there are the two freshmen – Will Shipley and Phil Mafah. Both enrolled at Clemson this past January and participated in spring drills. Head coach Dabo Swinney said, from a physical and mental standpoint, he has never had two freshmen running backs so well prepared.
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. Mafah hails from Grayson High in Loganville, Ga., the same school that has produced several former Clemson players, including current New York Giants running back Wayne Gallman.
“Both Will and Phil have looked great so far,” new running backs coach C.J. Spiller said this past spring. “You expect them to come in and be just freshmen. They’re going to have mistakes along the way. It’s a new system.”
Shipley (5-11, 200), the faster one of the two, has the ability to bounce the ball outside and take it to the house. He also has good hands and can make people miss in the open space.
Mafah (6-1, 215) is the more physical player of the two. He can run the ball between the tackles and is powerful enough to break arm tackles and get those tough yards.
“The thing that I tell both of those guys is to 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.”
Spiller agreed watching his two freshmen play this past spring reminded him of himself and former Clemson great James Davis when they were Clemson’s version of “Thunder & Lightning.”
“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,” he said.
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.”
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.”
Clemson fans will get a true look at their two freshmen running backs on Sept. 4, when the Tigers open the season against Georgia at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
–Gavin Oliver contributed to this story
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