Spring Questions: Who steps to the front in talented running back group?
|Friday, February 23, 2018, 8:13 AM- -|
Spring practice begins next week, and the Clemson offense will trot out three scholarship running backs. Every spot on the depth chart is open, and there are questions about how much the running backs will be used in next year’s offense.
C.J. Fuller began last season as the starter on the depth chart and earned 21 carries during the first three games of the season. Fuller had just 26 in the nine remaining regular season games and then 11 carries against Miami (for only 5 yards) when the ACC Championship was well out of hand.
He was replaced in the starting lineup by Tavien Feaster who started the final 11 games of the season, and Fuller elected to transfer out of the program in January. That leaves Feaster, Travis Etienne, and Adam Choice as the three running backs on scholarship once spring practice begins. Lyn-J Dixon is a Class of 2018 commit but won’t join the program until summer.
What will spring look like for the group? The talent is there. There is no question about that. But the back that earns the most playing time is probably going to be the one that proves he can protect the quarterback on passing plays.
As a team, the Tigers rushed for 194.1 yards per game and for a school-record 40 touchdowns. Quarterback Kelly Bryant earned the majority of the carries, however, toting the ball 192 times for 665 yards. Feaster and Etienne each carried the ball 107 times, with Etienne gaining 766 yards (7.16 yards per carry) and Feaster gaining 665 yards (6.25 yards per carry).
Bryant averaged almost 14 carries per game while Feaster and Etienne combined for 13 carries per game. That will likely change in 2018 – the run game was almost too predictable at times – and the two young running backs need to be turned loose.
There are a lot of factors that go into the number of carries each player received – the Tigers like to plays that are run-pass options (RPOs), a play that lets a quarterback read the defense before deciding on where to go with the ball. The Tigers also run a lot of read-option, which gives the quarterback the option of keeping it or handing it off.
This season will see more of the same. The coaching staff has told us time and time again that the offense is more efficient when the quarterback is a threat to run the football, but you also have to believe the coaching staff will do everything in its power to get the two backs (and Choice) the ball more.
If the running backs were to keep their current yards-per-carry averages, it wouldn’t take too many carries for both Feaster and Etienne to get close to the thousand-yard mark. No matter who starts, it’s not hard to envision one getting 15 or so carries and the other checking in at 12 or 13.
Etienne had a 50-yard touchdown run against Boston College, an 81-yarder against Louisville and showed glimpses of his speed all season. Feaster broke loose for an 89-yarder at NC State that turned out to be the longest run of the season for the Tigers.
However, Etienne stepped up too far in the pocket against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and whiffed on a block that led to an interception.
Running backs coach Tony Elliott mentioned in post-game interviews that Etienne has to improve in pass protection.
“It wasn’t his best day,” Elliott said. “There was slide protection where he needed to help the tight end and he moved the wrong way. I thought he made improvements in bowl practice but tonight he didn’t play well without the ball.”
Both runners are eager, and Choice will be the steady hand who is also in the mix. What happens with the depth chart? Which player will be the best in pass protection? The questions start getting answered next week.