In the week leading up to No. 23 Clemson’s 30-0 win over South Carolina on Saturday night at Williams-Brice Stadium, freshman running back Will Shipley provided insight into the drama that clouded the Tigers’ running back room earlier this season, revealing “there was a lot of jealousy and some bad makeup in our room early in season.”
The Tigers, who finished the regular season 9-3 after Saturday’s victory over their in-state rival, lost a pair of running backs to the transfer portal when Lyn-J Dixon entered it after the Georgia Tech game on Sept. 18 and Michel Dukes put his name in the portal after the Syracuse game on Oct. 15.
Following Saturday’s win against South Carolina (6-6) – during which the Tigers rushed for 265 yards, improving to 72-1 when rushing for 200-plus yards under Dabo Swinney – Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott was asked about Shipley’s “jealousy” comment and how Elliott has seen the running backs room evolve over the course of the 2021 season under first-year running backs coach C.J. Spiller.
“It takes time, and again, that was a tough situation, as I said, for C.J. walking in,” said Elliott, who coached the running backs at Clemson from 2011-20 before transitioning to tight ends coach in early 2021.“He had been around, he knew those guys, but all those guys had come to Clemson to play for me as a running backs coach. So, you make that transition, and then it was a fresh start.
“So, what happened is you had guys that took advantage of the fresh start and some guys that didn’t take advantage of it. And obviously, the running back position, those guys are so used to touching the ball all the time. So now they go from a situation where maybe you thought from a hierarchy standpoint or a transition with Travis (Etienne), that things were going to go a certain way. And C.J. had to establish his code of conduct and his mode of operation within that room. So, early on … and then the adversity on top of that didn’t help. But once he was able to get all those guys to buy in, now you’re seeing what’s paid dividends.”
After rushing for a season-high 333 yards in last week’s win over Wake Forest, Clemson has now reached 250 rushing yards in consecutive games for the first time since a four-game streak against Florida State, Louisville, Boston College and Wofford in 2019.
With a 6.2-yards-per-carry average against the Gamecocks, Clemson has now averaged 6.0 or more yards per carry in consecutive games for the first time this season, and the Tigers have now rushed for at least three touchdowns in three consecutive games for the first time since last season against Miami, Georgia Tech and Syracuse.
A week after Shipley and sophomore Kobe Pace combined for 303 yards and four touchdowns on the ground against Wake Forest, Shipley rushed 19 times for a career-high-tying 128 yards with a touchdown against the Gamecocks, while Pace rushed seven times for 58 yards with one touchdown. Freshman Phil Mafah added his third rushing touchdown of the season and of his career on a 6-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter, finishing with 11 carries for 43 yards.
It’s safe to say that after the early season trouble in the running backs room, things have turned out pretty well for those who stuck it out and stayed the course.
“Love the guys that decided to move on. Understand the situation,” Elliott said. “If I had to say one thing to those guys, timing may not have been the best thing, but it looks like it’s going to work out well for both of those guys. Matter of fact, talked to one of them the other day. Called and wished me a happy birthday.
“So, they made business decisions, which I understand. But that also created opportunity for the guys that wanted to buy in, that wanted to be a part of what C.J. was establishing in that running back room.”
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