Clemson has no small task when it comes to finding its next workhorse at running back, and whether or not a featured option even emerges in the Tigers’ backfield is still a question without an answer.
But there is no shortage of candidates.
Travis Etienne is no longer around. The ACC’s all-time leading rusher is in Florida going through his first NFL training camp with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he likes the potential of the running backs still on his roster even if they don’t yet have the production to go with it.
The task for Swinney, offensive coordinator Tony Elliott and running backs coach C.J. Spiller over the next three weeks is settling on the depth chart there, which remains fluid six practices in.
“From top to bottom, it’s a really good group,” Swinney said. “Certainly, those top guys, they will all have an opportunity.”
Lyn-J Dixon and Kobe Pace entered fall camp listed as co-starters, and there hasn’t been much separation to speak of so far. Dixon, a senior, is the more experienced of the two having spent the last four years as Etienne’s primary backup, but Pace has gotten his fair share of reps with the first-team offense during portions of practice that have been open to the media for viewing.
Asked exactly how those first-team reps have been split between the two, Pace said it’s essentially been 50-50 but left some lines to read between with his answer. Ultimately, though, Pace said he isn’t exactly keeping count.
“I’m not going to say I’m getting the most reps because it doesn’t matter,” Pace said. “Whoever runs out there should get the job done.”
But one of Clemson’s running backs will take the field first when the Tigers open the season Sept. 4 against Georgia in the Duke’s Mayo Classic. Pace said he’s gotten more comfortable with the playbook since last season when he got 18 carries and caught seven passes in nine games as a true freshman, which he believes should help in his bid to do that.
Meanwhile, Dixon said he still wants to improve every facet of his game if he’s going to separate himself from the pack. The 5-10, 195-pounder has rushed for 1,372 yards and 13 touchdowns in 39 career games and ranks second only to Etienne in school history in yards per carry (6.6), but whether it’s durability, receiving skills or pass protection, Dixon said he still has a lot to prove to his coaches considering the role he’s pursuing.
“Even though I know I could be good at something, I want to be great at something,” Dixon said. “So I’m going to keep working on everything and perfecting my craft with everything I do.”
There’s also true freshman Will Shipley, who’s created plenty of buzz during camp. The five-star signee has impressed with his natural leadership skills and raw speed, which some teammates believe may be the best on the team. There’s also not quite as steep a learning curve at this point for him and fellow freshman Phil Mafa, who have been with the program since January after enrolling early.
“They don’t look like freshmen at all,” Swinney said.
Sixth-year senior Derien Rencher has largely been used as a reserve during his time with the Tigers, but Swinney said he fully trusts the 5-8, 195-pounder when he gets in a game. It’s made for plenty of heated competition that will continue among the backs as they aim for their spots in the pecking order.
“It’s like you can’t take no day off, so you’ve got to keep working and keep working hard each and every day,” Dixon said.
Swinney said every back is still in contention for the top spot on the depth chart. And given how tight the competition has been so far, he didn’t rule out the possibility of that fluidity remaining in place once the season arrives.
“All those guys have done a good job, but it’s going to be a tough competition,” Swinney said. “And it’s not like we’re going to just play one guy. That could be a game-by-game, week-by-week type of deal just based on how it all shakes out. But they can all play.”