Running Backs: Where Does Clemson Stand?

by - Correspondent -
Coleman was the leading rusher in the spring game with 50 yards on 15 carries.

Author's note: I was unable to attend the spring game and have only seen bits and pieces of the broadcast. Therefore, a true analysis of the RB situation was tough to develop because of the lack of experience of some of the players.

Also, due to some technical difficulties I did not receive most of the e-mails from the first article. I have replied to all that I received. If you have any specific questions or comments, please re-send your e-mail to

Potential is a word that fans love to hear when discussing recruits. The more potential a recruit has, the more excited fans get. Unfortunately for the recruits, the honeymoon usually ends fairly quickly. If a recruit's potential isn't quickly parlayed into performance on the field, some fans are quick to throw in the towel and say he is a recruiting bust.

There seems to be a lot of potential in Clemson's backfield these days. That potential has fans excited about an aspect of the team that has not had good all-around depth in some time. With three potential contributors at tailback and two at fullback, there are a lot of possibilities. Of course, there always seems to be a lot of talk about possibilities and potential in the preseason. What Clemson needs is for these young men to play up to a level that makes fans cease all talk about potential and, instead, focus their words on the performance they are seeing on the field.

That is much easier said than done.

Many claim that running back is the toughest position on the field because of the instincts and pure athletic ability it requires. Most very good running backs have a sixth sense that aids them in everything from making cuts to throwing blocks. Often times you'll hear a commentator talk about a running back "seeing" the hole. In a lot of those cases the running back "sensed" the hole long before he saw it. And the overused cliché is very true - everything does seem to be in slow motion for a running back when the ball is in his hands. That feeling is beyond surreal. It is just you, 21 other players, and the men in striped shirts that are on the field. For those few seconds of each play, you are clueless that there are 80,000 fans with their eyes on you. All is quiet and it is as if you are in a dream. While very strange and hard to explain in words, it is a wonderful feeling. It makes you feel super human. Often referred to as “zoning out”, it might better be referred to it as “zoning in”. After all, the most focused moments in a running back’s lifetime more than likely occur during these short spurts.

Many of the physical requirements are quite obvious. Speed, quickness, strength, stamina, and durability are traits that quickly come to mind. While there are many great athletes out there who possess some of these traits, very few have been gifted with the complete package. The extremely fast guys are usually smaller in stature and that leaves them at a disadvantage in terms of durability and strength. The strength and durability of bigger backs is usually offset by less speed and quickness. Jim Brown and Barry Sanders are two names that immediately come up in a conversation about the greatest running backs of all time. Brown was a train. It took a while for him to get going, but he had good speed once he began. During the process of working up to top speed, he would run through anything and anyone that tried to stop him. Sanders was more like the squirrel on a busy highway that always makes it across. He consistently embarrassed would-be tacklers with his cuts and shifts. He also had an innate ability to be at full speed with his first few steps.

Brown lacked Sanders' elusiveness and Sanders lacked Brown's power. This is not to say either of them were not complete backs. They were probably as close as we have seen to being complete. Still, both had areas of their game that could have been better. The point being that different backs are better suited for different offensive styles. That may be the biggest reason why Clemson has a shot at having their best backfield in many years. They have a versatility that has not always been there in the past. Let's take a look at each of the backs.

Yusef Kelly

In terms of pure recruiting hype, Kelly is probably the best running back signed by Clemson since Anthony Downs. His combination of size and speed in high school had recruiters from all across the Southeast vying for his services. He now enters the season as a redshirt junior that has grown into a big back. For the first time in his career, he has the starting position firmly in hand as preseason practice is set to start.

Kelly is Clemson's power back. That power comes from a leg drive that allows him to constantly push ahead and gain the extra yards. His size and power are also very helpful when he is required to block. His speed and quickness are good and there are times when they are downright surprising. Still, he does not have the breakaway speed that Clemson has missed for so many years. He is more of a straight-ahead runner. That became evident last year when he lined up as a tailback in the I formation. Lining up in the I allowed him to get the ball and get downhill in an effort to use his strength to run through tackles. That has never been more evident than during the last drive of the South Carolina game. He got the tough yards by dropping a shoulder and running with authority. The most talked about play of that drive occurred when he turned his back and managed to stay inbounds, gaining an extra three or four yards, while running backwards. Although it was a great run, it's not the one I remember the most.

The run that sticks out took place a few plays later when he broke free down the visitor's sideline. Just before being tackled, he lowered his shoulder and initiated contact with the defender in an effort to stay inbounds and keep the clock running. In hindsight, those extra 25 to 45 seconds he allowed to disappear from the clock weren't the biggest part of that play. Instead his display of growth and maturity as a player is what fans should have taken from it. Earlier in the year he was faced with the same situation against Georgia Tech. He allowed himself to be pushed out of bounds, thus stopping the clock. That one play in the South Carolina game showed that he learned from his mistakes by breaking down his game from a mental standpoint. This is something all good football players do.

'02 RUSHING GP-S Car Gain Net Y/C C/G Y/G TD 10+ LG
Yusef Kelly 12-4 125 551 520 4.2 10.4 43.3 8 12 25

Duane Coleman

It is hard to rate Coleman because he has not seen the field. Based on the analysis of recruiting experts and the talk coming from Clemson's own coaches, Coleman appears to be more of a "scat" back. Although he is not afraid to stick it up in there with the big boys between the tackles, he is more comfortable using his speed and shiftiness to get outside. He wants to make people miss and then run by them. This is the type of back the Clemson offense sorely missed the first four years of the Bowden era. He is perfect for a spread offense that has the QB lining up in the shotgun. The nature of that type of running game requires a good initial burst of speed and quickness because of the amount of east-west running. Coleman will have to really work on his blocking and pass catching ability if he wants to be as successful as possible.

'03 Spring Game  Car Yd  TD
Coleman          15  50  0

Reggie Merriweather

If Kelly is the power back and Coleman is the scat back, Merriweather is a combination of the two. Although he's not extremely big, he's very compact. He possesses great strength in his lower body and combines that with good speed and elusiveness. Like Coleman, he has to work on his blocking and pass catching ability. That is almost always a must for any young back. He is the type of guy that you may see lining up in a single back set next to the QB, just as often as you see him lining up as a tailback in the I.

'03 Spring Game  Car Yd  TD
Merriweather     10  27  0

Chad Jasmin

Jasmin may be the most underutilized RB Clemson has had in the last few years. Of course, that could be because he falls into that area between pure tailback and pure fullback. It is sometimes tough to use a guy like that, but it is always good to have such a player. Don't let his size fool you; he has deceptive speed. He has proven his worth as a receiver and blocker. He is the type of guy you want on the field because he gives it his all and seemingly makes good things happen. As such, you may see him lined up at fullback, as a tailback in the I, or as a single back throughout the year.

'02 RUSHING GP-S Car Gain Net Y/C C/G Y/G TD 10+ LG
Chad Jasmin 10-0 26 79 76 2.9 2.6 7.6 1 2 12

Cliff Harrell

You see Cliff Harrell and you automatically think brute force. He is a true fullback. His forte is blocking and it appears to be something he actually enjoys. That is the greatest compliment a fullback of his type could ever receive. His action was somewhat limited last year, but he showed signs of developing into a very good player. His role as a true blocking fullback is a tough one in that he is basically a glorified lineman. The toughest thing for these guys is the nature of many of their blocks. In most blocking schemes, lineman generally have defensive lineman or linebackers. Their assignments normally require them to block a guy lined up just a few feet away. For them, it is more about power explosion out of the blocks. They almost always block guys their size or smaller. Fullbacks are asked to block a lot of defensive ends and linebackers. Because of the separation, the momentum generated in those few steps can be brutal. Picture two musk oxen out in a field ramming heads during their fighting ritual. That mental picture should give you a good idea of just how bone-jarring some blocks are for fullbacks. They hurt just as bad as the defender when it's all said and done. Thus, having a guy with Harrel's size and blocking potential is a very good thing when running the I and/or short yardage formations.

'02 RUSHING GP-S Car Gain Net Y/C C/G Y/G TD 10+ LG
Cliff Harrell 13-1 3 18 16 5.3 0.2 1.2 0 1 11


Kelly and Jasmin are the only two players with any experience worth noting. That is why the word potential is still used to describe Clemson's backfield. There are too many uncertainties at this point to make any predictions on the level of success the backs will have this year. However, there is reason to be excited because of the ability and versatility that will be available if the potential pans out. Kelly will be the man to start the season. With an increased emphasis on the running game, look for more I-formations that will take advantage of Kelly's strong points. Do not let all of the talk of a power running game from the spring fool you. Clemson will still be a team that runs many wide-open spread type formations. As Coleman and Merriweather develop, you will begin to see them lining up in those one-back sets. Their development is key because it gives you at least one back suited for the spread offense. It also gives you the ability to rotate throughout the game in order to have fresh legs in there for the 4th quarter. Although this may be a stretch, don't be surprised to see Kelly in the same backfield with Coleman or Merriweather. Jasmin could easily line up at tailback with Harrell at fullback when just a yard or two is needed. Throw Kelly in there with them and you could have a very big and powerful three-back set for short yardage and goal line situations. The best thing about the direction of the offense is that there is a place for every one of the backs. Kelly, Jasmin, and Harrell are almost assured of substantial playing time. They will be the three that are counted on the most this season. Merriweather and Coleman will play as much as their development warrants. Kyle Browning and David Dunham probably need one more year before they are ready to contribute on a consistent basis.

Be excited, but remember that potential sometimes takes much longer to develop than you would like. A solid core of backs is in place. The running game will improve this year simply because the talent and experience is there. Look for a different type of running game at times. This will not be the Clemson of old where 3 yards and a cloud of dust was expected, but you will see flashes that remind you of those days.

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