Clemson has used the first two weeks of the season to get a look at all of its scholarship running backs in game action.
All of them except one, that is.
After Kobe Pace, Will Shipley and Lyn-J Dixon got all of the reps at the position in Clemson’s opening loss to Georgia, Michel Dukes and Darien Rencher took their turn rotating in during the Tigers’ rout of South Carolina State last week. But it didn’t take long for Clemson coach Dabo Swinney to mention the one running back who’s still awaiting his chance afterward.
“(Phil) Mafah is right there with those guys, to be honest with you,” Swinney said during his postgame press conference.
Swinney again brought up Mafah unsolicited during his media availability Tuesday ahead of the Tigers’ ACC opener against Georgia Tech on Saturday at Memorial Stadium when discussing the group.
“Wait until you see Mafah. Wait until you see him,” Swinney said. “He’s as good as anybody we have.”
So why hasn’t the true freshman played yet? Swinney said the answer can largely be found in Clemson’s depth.
A tweak to players’ eligibility window made by the NCAA in 2018 allows players to appear in as many as four games while still maintaining their redshirt for that season. Dixon, Pace and Shipley are currently at the head of the running back class with Swinney saying he thinks of each one as a starter. Rencher is a sixth-year senior who’s earned the coaching staff’s trust over time while Swinney said Dukes, a sophomore, is also a capable back who should be able to help the Tigers this season despite still needing to work on that trust factor.
With the running back room still intact from a health standpoint, Swinney has opted to hold Mafah out for now, though he “definitely will” play at some point this season, Swinney said. Mafah was a consensus top-300 recruit nationally and ranked the No. 8 running back prospect by Rivals coming out of Grayson (Georgia) High last year. At 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, he’s also the biggest back on the roster.
“He’s a sledgehammer, man,” Swinney said.
But, in a perfect world, Clemson would like to redshirt him, so the plan is to be picky about which four games Mafah plays. Plans, though, can always change.
Swinney said the coaches didn’t want to waste one of those four games in a blowout win, but injuries and each back’s production are among the situations over the course of the season that will ultimately dictate whether or not the Tigers will be able to keep the redshirt on Mafah. One situation currently playing out is the dynamic between running backs coach C.J. Spiller and Dixon, who has had a much more limited role than expected with just six touches (five carries, one reception) through two games.
Like the rest of Clemson’s primary backs, Mafah is repping against the scout team during practice, not with it. It’s the Tigers’ way of keeping him ready for whenever his number is called.
“I’d like to hold him if I can,” Swinney said in reference to a redshirt. “Don’t know if we’ll be able to do that, but for sure we’ll get four games. It may be a barnburner, 27-24 game, and he’s played in that game. I don’t know. It will truly be a week-to-week deal.”
Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!