Late in the Louisville game in 2017, with the outcome already decided, a true freshman running back named Travis Etienne got his chance. He didn’t disappoint. Taking a handoff up the left side, he hit the nitro and outran every Cardinal defender to the endzone. The color commentator for the national broadcast, Kirk Herbstreit, was astonished, and he uttered the words many fans have never forgotten: “An embarrassment of riches! An embarrassment!”
There were many who shared his surprise at the time – having come off the 2016 National Championship and having lost star quarterback Deshaun Watson and several other key players, it was expected that the Tigers would take a step back. A Louisville squad led by Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson was one of the teams that many thought could take advantage of those personnel loses. Suddenly, not only had the first stringers built a solid lead against the Cardinals, but now a true freshman, who wasn’t expected to be a contributor that season, was running “to the house” for scores. That might be the moment that many realized Clemson wasn’t going to fade away any time soon.
The Clemson coaching staff has taken advantage of that success on the recruiting trail. The Tigers have units that could use more depth, but some have so much depth that on the surface, one could question if the staff can find enough touches for everyone.
Hi Coach Spiller! Welcome aboard! Let’s ease you into this: your first job is to figure out how Clemson will follow up the Travis Etienne show. No pressure – he was only the ACC’s all-time leading rusher. The good news is that Spiller has multiple options. The bad news is that it isn’t clear which options stand out above the others.
The easy choice would be Lynn-J Dixon, a senior that has backed up Travis Etienne the past two seasons. Lynn-J had a very good 2019 campaign. His 2020 didn’t go as planned. First, he had to deal with injuries that slowed down his fall camp. Then he found it challenging to find running room behind an offensive line that had trouble creating openings. There are many fans who are down on Lynn-J because of his 2020 season.
The fascinating thing is that many of those same fans had no problem forgiving Etienne for a similarly bad 2020. ETN’s numbers paled in comparison to his previous two seasons. It’s probably because ETN was a proven talent, so it was easy to blame the offensive line. That same logic should apply to Lynn-J too, but many are not so kind. That doesn’t mean there is nothing to criticize in Dixon’s game. Lynn-J has a hard time creating opportunities that aren’t created for him. When he has a solid line in front of him, he is productive. When the line doesn’t create a hole for him, he tends to get bottled up.
That’s why Kobe Pace’s first run in the Spring Game was eye-opening. On a play when the defensive line got the best of the offensive line, Pace still found a way to break out up the right side to get a first down. We’ve heard quite a bit about Pace through the spring and summer, and while he isn’t as fast as Lynn-J, he appears to have more dimension to his game than just speed. This will give him an advantage if offensive line is still struggling to run block.
Another dimension of being a running back in 2021 is being a receiver out of the backfield. We have seen Dixon make catches here and there, enough that there doesn’t seem to be any doubt in his abilities as a pass catcher. We really don’t know much about Pace from this perspective – he just didn’t get many opportunities on the field last season. Enter: Will Shipley. I’m not sure I have ever heard the amount of excitement from the coaching staff that I have heard about the wonderkid from Charlotte. I remember a lot of excitement about Demarkcus Bowman, from both fans and recruiting analysts, before he got to campus, but that subsided quickly when the coaching staff was gaga about Pace, and when asked about Bowman, all they could muster was “He sure is fast.” The writing was kind of on the wall for Bowman at that point. Shipley is getting a much different response. All the buzz from spring that was surrounding Kobe Pace has now shifted onto the true freshman. He is the textbook definition of the 21st century running back, the next edition of Christian McCaffrey, as lethal as a receiver as he is on the ground. The general wisdom is that it is going to be impossible to keep him off the field – he is too talented and versatile.
Then, as if Coach CJ needed anything else to ponder, we have Phil Mafah, one of the first verbal commitments from the Class of 2021. If you follow recruiting, you may have been excited about Shipley, but you also heard the input from people who saw Mafah on the field in high school. Speed, agility, and another word that you don’t often hear about college running backs anymore: power. Of the four backs we’ve discussed, he was the only one to find the endzone in the spring game, and it wasn’t a finesse play.
Fortunately, we don’t have to look too far back in time to find when Clemson had four running backs that deserved to see the field. It was that 2017 campaign that saw Clemson start CJ Fuller, then bring Adam Choice and Tavien Feaster off the bench as we moved into the 2nd quarter. Finally, if we held a sturdy lead, Travis Etienne got his opportunities. By the end of the season, things had essentially flipped: Etienne was the featured back, with Feaster following quickly, Choice to hammer the defense as the game progressed, and Fuller found field time scarce, and eventually left the program.
I think we will see a similar, but not identical, four-headed monster this season. I think Dixon or Pace will get the start, with the other following soon after. The difference will be the rotation. In 2017, each back usually got a full series, and then switched out when the series was over. This year, I think we will see Shipley step into certain situations when the offense wants to dial up a certain package, and then sub back out for the other back to re-enter. Shipley will likely get a full series or two as the game goes on, but I don’t see Clemson waiting until late in the 2nd quarter or after halftime to get him touches. Like ETN, I think Mafah will get his chances when the coaching staff feels confident Clemson has control, and I won’t be surprised if he impresses just like Travis did in 2017. The staff won’t hesitate to adjust the plan as they see more on-the-field results, and if that means promoting someone up the depth chart, then someone else will be demoted.
The final consideration, and the one that might be a deal breaker for the staff, is pass blocking. Dixon holds a sizable advantage here. We haven’t seen much of Pace in real game situations yet. The freshmen are still learning the blocking schemes. The coaches will have to decide if these backs are doing what they need to in practice to justify that they won’t be a liability when DJU drops back to pass.
The receivers group dealt with a lot of injuries in 2020. It started with the news of Justyn Ross’s medical issues that would cost him the entire season. That meant Joseph Ngata & Frank Ladson would likely have to step up beside veteran Amari Rodgers. Then, Ngata sustained an abdominal injury and barely saw the field. Ladson played relatively well through the first half of 2020 but was also injured around mid-season and was out the rest of the way.
One of my personal college football beliefs is that if we are still talking about a player’s potential going into year three, then there probably isn’t anything there to be too excited about. Admittedly, that isn’t completely fair to direct at a player who has lost significant time due to an injury, which is the case with both Ngata & Ladson. Both had a singular injury, not multiple injuries that indicate either are “injury prone.” The coaches clearly see the talent from Ngata in practice. We have seen flashes on the field too. We haven’t heard as much about Ladson during fall camp, but almost every depth chart we have seen, be it official or speculative, has Ladson in the starting line up with Ngata.
The most intriguing expectation is that Justyn Ross will be back and will start at the slot receiver position. I won’t lie – my inner Tiger child squealed with joy when we found out Ross was returning for another season. There were a lot of people scratching their heads when it became known that he was going to play slot, but this isn’t as odd as you might think. Ross was quite productive from the slot as a true freshman. Many don’t remember that Ross’s second touchdown against Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl came from the slot. When the coaches have talked about the offensive line, they have said they want the best five players on the field, regardless of ideal position. I think this the strategy they are using with the starting receivers – if Ross, Ladson & Ngata are your best three, find a way to make it work. If Ross is best equipped of the three to play slot, then that’s where he starts.
The silver lining of the injuries that plagued the receiving corp last year is that other players got opportunities to see the field. EJ Williams began to come into his own as the season progressed. He will be hard to keep off the field this season, not to mention Ajou Ajou, who mostly found playing time as a developmental player in garbage time situations when the game was in hand. His performance in the spring excited many fans, and it sounds like that performance has continued into fall camp.
Just the same way that true freshmen Shipley & Mafah has gotten hype in the backfield, there are freshman receivers who are getting praise too. The Collins Towers, Beaux & Dacari (not related), have been impressing since the spring. Troy Stellato did not join the team until fall but has already caught the eye of the coaches.
If you throw in Brannon Spector, who has been dealing with injury in the fall, you could put three different receiver lineups in the game if you wanted. It is not unusual for the Tigers to easily go five deep in their rotation at receiver, and that doesn’t count garbage time situations. I think the starting lineup of Ngata, Ladson & Ross, with Williams and Ajou rotating in, will easily see the most action, but I think the freshmen will get their opportunities when the outcome of the game is secure. That means that if any of the top five aren’t pulling their weight – if Ladson has problems with drops, if Ngata can’t make the big plays – Stellato and the Collins Towers will start to see more time in the main rotation at their expense. Further injuries are a concern too – we’ve already heard about possible injuries to Ngata in fall camp. The best ability is availability. If his singular injury becomes multiple injuries, then that changes the paradigm.
Most teams are happy with one very talented defensive end. If they just have someone solid on the other side who isn’t a liability, they are content. Good DEs don’t grow on trees. Clemson isn’t most teams, and if the phrase ‘embarrassment of riches’ applies anywhere, it’s on either side of the line. The Tigers don’t have one, not two, but four defensive ends that would start on most teams.
Xavier Thomas came to Clemson as part of the Class of 2018 and committed to the Tigers even though he wasn’t likely to depose Clelin Ferrell or Austin Bryant in his first year. That didn’t keep Thomas from making an impact. Fans particularly remember the sack of Eric Dungy at the end of the 2018 Syracuse game, a huge emotional release for Tiger Nation, who had been biting their fingernails for most of the game. It seemed like he was a star in the making.
The next two years weren’t kind to Thomas. The Tigers played most of 2019 in a 3-4 formation, which wasn’t ideal for Thomas. He tried to bulk up to be more of a force on the line, but that backfired. He lacked the explosiveness that he had originally. 2019 was a disappointment for Thomas, but the worst was yet to come. During the spring of 2020, he acquired COVID-19. He recovered from that only to come down with strep throat. Unable to train and condition, Clemson announced 2020 would likely be a redshirt year for Thomas. After the NCAA decided that 2020 wouldn’t count against eligibility, Thomas elected to play, but he was nowhere near peak physical condition. While Thomas did contribute, he was a rotational player at best.
Remember the line about talking about potential going into the third year? Thomas is going into year four, and most still believe we still haven’t seen his best. Fortunately, that includes Thomas himself. A healthy 2021 has yielded the best-conditioned Xavier Thomas that we have seen, and his social media posts reflect a young man who knows the challenges ahead and appears to be ready to take them on.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 wasn’t done with the Tigers defensive end unit. Justin Foster came down with the virus too, which was particularly difficult because Foster had a history with asthma and respiratory issues. Suddenly, both men Clemson expected to start in 2020 weren’t available, and in Foster’s case, that absence would be all season. Focusing on his health, Foster eventually decided that it was time to focus on his life after football, and he retired.
Next man up. Another member of that Class of 2018 is KJ Henry. Like Thomas, Henry was a 5-star recruit, but it was well known that he would need time to be physically ready to play defensive end at a high level. Henry himself asked the staff to allow him to redshirt his freshman year, a move that shows maturity and dedication when many high-level recruits are just looking for the fastest road to the NFL. Henry worked hard and found his opportunities, so when both Thomas and Foster couldn’t start the season, it was clear that Henry would be one of the veteran men starting for the Tigers, but on the other side, they would have to go young.
Clemson would call on another 5-star defensive end, this time a true freshman, Myles Murphy. Everyone knew how highly regarded he was as a recruit, but one never knows how quickly a recruit can adjust to being on the big stage. With Thomas and Foster out, Murphy got the call to start right out of the gate, and he didn’t disappoint. In fact, he played so well that it appears a given that he will hang onto that starting spot going into 2021.
It appeared that in 2021, the Tigers would have that enviable position of a very talented end in Murphy, with that solid guy on the other side in Henry. Then Thomas decided to return for his senior year, and suddenly there was speculation of how special this line could be with Murphy and a motivated Thomas. Then there was another surprise: Foster elected to return to college football. As bad as 2020 was to Foster, 2021 gave him a new energy, and after consulting doctors, he was given the green light for a comeback.
Now Clemson is four deep with starting-quality defensive ends to line up on either side of NFL quality defensive tackles Tyler Davis and Brian Bresee. As noted, before, Murphy’s abilities are undeniable, so it is hard to imagine that he won’t have a starting spot. Foster’s comeback is going to be regulated, and he will be limited to a certain number of plays to start the year, so it seems unlikely that he will start, but instead will be a rotational player so the team and his doctors can monitor his condition. That leaves the 2nd starting spot for either Thomas or Henry. Considering Thomas’s re-dedication to his physical condition seems to be paying dividends in fall practice, it appears likely he will get the nod to start, but that doesn’t mean Henry won’t see the field. It’s likely all four men see decent playing time. It is hard to imagine that Coach Venables isn’t drooling at the possible schemes he can draw up with these four guys, especially when he can keep them fresh.
The number of capable players at each of these three positions is a good problem to have – the embarrassment of riches comes with making the hard choices. Who plays, and who must wait? Some kids aren’t willing to wait these days. I have no doubt the staff would love to get everyone on the field. The reality is that some of these names will excel, and some will have to wait for their opportunity. Looking beyond this season, some will move on to the NFL in 2022, some will move into starting positions at Clemson, and sadly a few may transfer. It’s the reality of being embarrassingly deep in 2021.