The Tigers have hosted some of the best running backs in the ACC, from the electric C.J .Spiller to the grinding and patient Andre Ellington, who posted back-to-back 1,000-rushing yard performances, earning second-team All-ACC honors in 2011 and first-team All-ACC honors 2012.
Both Spiller and Ellington were often given the brunt of the workload at running back and were threats to score whenever they had the football in the backfield.
But with the departure of Ellington, a void is left at the position, and senior Rod McDowell, the projected starter heading into the season opener, is still very much an untested running back. The same can be said for both junior running back D.J. Howard and sophomore running back Zac Brooks.
Howard served as the primary backup in 2011, but injuries slowed the young back's potential in 2012, and many are waiting to see if he emerges from a crowded Tiger backfield. Howard's rushing numbers dropped in 2012 to 138 yards from 230 yards in 2011, and he was overtaken by McDowell in 2012 and saw both time and carries decrease as a result.
Brooks was a highly touted prospect out of Little Rock, Ark., who avoided a redshirt due to lack of numbers and is a factor to see the field in more than mop-up duty after rushing for only 119 yards in 26 attempts in what many thought would have been a great redshirt year for the young back.
While some questions still remain about exactly how much of the load McDowell will carry, he has the potential to make Clemson history by becoming the third back to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards for a third straight season, with former running back Andre Ellington having posted consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in 2011 and 2012.
Clemson may also look to use more of a running back-by-committee approach, as opposed to the workhorse approach it has been using the past few seasons, with Ellington having handled the majority of those carries as the starter. Despite that, McDowell proved last season he has the potential to handle a decent load as the primary back after rushing for 450 yards and five touchdowns as a backup in 2012.
Last season, the Tigers' second leading rusher was quarterback Tajh Boyd, who finished the season with 514 yards, which was 64 more yards than McDowell. While Boyd has improved as a runner the past two seasons, the Tigers need more production out of their running backs, particularly in short-yardage situations.
The Tigers' lack of a short yardage back led to them often running Boyd up the middle, and with it came an element of predictability. Of course, while Boyd's rushing ability won't be completely phased out of the Tigers' rushing game, it will certainly help limit the amount of hard hits he takes if the Tigers have more options at running back.
But with improved numbers at the position, the Tigers can rectify that problem in 2013. Brooks could be the answer to Clemson's prayers for a tough short-yardage back, and if he continues to build off of his solid spring, it could be part of his answer to seeing more of the field. Howard may also be part of the short-yardage solution, but the biggest question surrounding him will be whether he stays healthy enough to do so.
The other factor in the running game are the newcomers from the 2013 recruiting class in Tyshon Dye and Wayne Gallman, both of whom fit the bill of a "Chad Morris running back." Both are listed at 6'0" or taller and weigh 200 pounds or more. Regardless of the productive spring that McDowell, Howard and Brooks had, both Dye and Gallman have the potential to see the field in 2013.
The coaches have shown that they will find a way to get their best 11 players on the field if they perform consistently. But with the Tigers already having McDowell, Howard, and Brooks in the rotation thus far, it's very likely that one of the freshman backs will redshirt. The coaching staff is sure to do what it did last season and enter the season with four healthy options at the position.
One factor that should be taken into account that many underestimate is the value of pass protection. It is perhaps one of the biggest adjustments for any running back and something that takes time to improve. This could make a difference between which running backs see the field sooner rather than later, particularly on third downs and other passing situations, where they will be counted upon to help slow down and contain the likes of talented defensive lines like Florida State and South Carolina.
Many saw how a productive running game allowed the Tigers to control the tempo of football games. It became even more evident when the Tigers incorporated the pistol formation into their offense in 2012.
Whether the Tigers work more by-committee in 2013 or continue to give the majority of the carries to one back, a consistent running attack is essential for this offense, as it helps to not only control tempo and keep opposing defenses on the field, but it also takes pressure off of quarterback Tajh Boyd and allows Clemson to set up its dangerous passing game.
The Tigers need this unproven group of running backs to keep this fast-paced offense rolling and continue its dominance as one of the best in college football.
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