Wednesday, August 20, 2014 7:54 PM
Brooks' injury leads to questions in the running game
by David Hood
Senior Writer

Clemson’s depth at the running back position took a hit Wednesday afternoon with the announcement that junior running back Zac Brooks was lost for the season after suffering a foot injury during Tuesday’s final practice of fall camp.

The native of Jonesboro, Ark., has played in 18 games the last two years and has 74 carries for 365 yards and two touchdowns. He also has nine receptions for 92 yards and a score. The receiving touchdown came last year against Georgia in the season opener when he caught a 31-yard scoring pass from Tajh Boyd in Clemson’s 38-35 victory.

The Tigers entered fall camp with the expectation that Brooks would carry a significant portion of the load at running back this season, along with senior D.J. Howard, former walk-on C.J. Davidson and freshman Wayne Gallman. Howard is Clemson’s most experienced runner – he has 581 yards on 133 carries over 442 snaps in his career – and the loss of Brooks leaves Davidson as Clemson’s second-most experienced runner. Davidson has 160 yards on 36 carries in 111 snaps in 12 games.

Brooks’ experience and knowledge of the system will be hard to replace, even though head coach Dabo Swinney said a few weeks ago that he wasn’t worried about the running backs.

“This is the deepest group we’ve had around here in a long time. The one group I’m not worried about is running back,” Swinney said to the media. “We’re going to be just fine right there. We’ve got some good football players. Some really, really good football players.”

Swinney said that Brooks was one of the players he was counting on in 2014.

“And we’ve got some guys that have got some good experience that have been around here that seem like they’re making that next step. I’m really happy to see that. A guy like Zac Brooks, for example, I’m really impressed with what I’m seeing. C.J. Davidson, it’s amazing that we’ve got a guy like that here that just walks in off the street and is a quality, quality player. And then Wayne Gallman continues to improve.”

The big question now becomes, can the coaches afford to be patient and hope that Tyshon Dye can make an October return – working with the three backs in the interim – or will they play one of the two true freshman backs in C.J. Fuller and Adam Choice? Can former Atlanta Brave farmhand Kurt Fleming fill the void?

Dye was expected to be a contributor last season, but a back injury forced him to redshirt. Once the back was healed, however, Dye suffered a torn Achilles that sidelined him through all of spring practice and all of fall practice. Will he be ready if the Tigers need him, or should the coaches expect to use Choice or Fuller now? Pinning their hopes on Dye – who hasn’t looked anywhere close to being ready when we’ve seen him – might be a risky proposition.

Swinney said he likes what he saw out of Fuller, Fleming and Choice during fall camp.

“Those two freshmen we got are what you’re looking for. Physically, they’re both natural runners,” Swinney said. “They got a lot of them right now. They’re going to make a lot of mistakes, but I want to see what they can do when they know what they’re doing. We’ll help them with that. But I think we’re in really good shape. D.J. Howard is kind of the leader of that group and is doing a great job. He looks the best he’s looked since he’s been here. It’s just a really deep group and the next thing you know, we’ll throw Fleming out there who has just learned how to play football again and the next thing you know he’ll do a couple of things to catch your eye.”

Swinney concluded his piece on the running backs by saying, “It’s a good situation. It really is. I like our backs. I like the talent, speed, depth, and mixture of experience.”

That experience has now taken a huge hit, and it might be up to one of the freshmen to breach the gap.

David Hood can be reached at davidhood@tigernet.com