Taking inventory: Running back

Taking inventory: Running back

Football

Taking inventory: Running back

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Clemson still has a bowl game left to play this season, but it’s never too early to look ahead.

With the regular season in the books, TCI is taking some time to analyze how the Tigers performed at each position this fall and where the Tigers stand with each as the offseason quickly approaches. Quarterback was the first position assessed.

Next up is running back.

A quick note first: This is where things currently stand with Clemson’s personnel at running back. With the one-time transfer rule and recruiting still in full effect, things are always subject to change. This story will be updated as needed to reflect any future modifications at the position.

2021 in review

Much like the quarterback position, it was always going to be hard for Clemson to duplicate the production it got at running back last season given the loss of Travis Etienne, who finished his time with the Tigers as the ACC’s all-time leader in rushing yards and touchdowns. 

Clemson began the season with plenty of options, the first sign the Tigers might take a committee approach to trying to replace their All-American back. Lyn-J Dixon — Etienne’s primary backup — Kobe Pace and true freshman Will Shipley quickly separated themselves as the top three backs, but that soon became a top two when Dixon decided to transfer three games into the season. Michel Dukes’ decision to transfer later cut further into Clemson’s backfield depth.

It forced Clemson coach Dabo Swinney to pull the redshirt off another true freshman, Phil Mafah, who’s provided a viable No. 3 option for the Tigers with 304 yards on just 66 carries. He also owns the Tigers’ longest play from scrimmage so far, a 63-yard run against Florida State.

But Pace and Shipley have been the 1-2 punch that’s played the biggest part in Clemson improving its running game over the course of the season.

A five-star signee out of the North Carolina prep ranks, Shipley always figured to be a contributor in the first year of the post-Etienne era, but his raw talent coupled with some of the attrition quickly shot him to the top of the depth chart. The 5-foot-11, 205-pound speedster got his first start four games into his collegiate career.

He missed two games after suffering a leg injury against North Carolina State in late September but came on strong after getting back close to full strength to become Clemson’s leading rusher. He’s rushed for 678 yards and 10 touchdowns with all three of his 100-yard games coming in the last four he’s played. He matched a season-high with 128 yards on just 19 carries his last time out against South Carolina, and he’s also caught 11 passes for 63 yards.

Meanwhile, Pace has been a more-than-serviceable complement to Shipley’s speed and shiftiness. Nobody on the team is averaging more yards per carry than Pace (6.4), who had 316 of his 590 rushing yards in two games. That included a career-best 191-yard day in the Tigers’ rout of Wake Forest.

The duo has helped Clemson go from averaging 145 rushing yards in its first seven games to 208 over the last five.

Sixth-year senior Darien Rencher has played in all 12 games, most as a contributor on special teams. He’s got 19 carries for 62 yards in his final season of eligibility, but Shipley, Pace and Mafah have proven themselves to be a strong foundation at the position going forward.

Who’s leaving?

Dixon, Dukes, Rencher

Who’s staying?

Shipley, Pace, Mafah

Who’s joining?

Clemson doesn’t yet have a running back as part of its 2022 recruiting class, but Jennings (Louisiana) four-star back Trevor Etienne — Travis’ younger brother — is one of the Tigers’ top remaining targets.

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