Editor's Note: Following is the fourth installment of an eight-part, position-by-position look at the Clemson football team's personnel options, present and future, heading into spring practice. Next: quarterbacks.
Top of the depth chart: Though he likely won’t be a factor this spring as he continues his rehab from off-season foot surgery, Andre Ellington (junior, 5-10, 190) is the returning starter and clear-cut leader at the tailback position.
Out of the mix: Jamie Harper, who shouldered the load after Ellington was injured and showed signs in the second half of the year of maturing into an effective college player, opted to declare early for the NFL draft. The Tigers will also be without walk-on Daniel Barnes, who saw spot action throughout the season.
A chance to compete: Roderick McDowell (5-9, 185) is the lone backup with significant playing experience.
In the pipeline: Challenging for playing time this spring will be redshirt freshmen Demont Buice (6-2, 220) and D.J. Howard (6-0, 195).
The next wave: The Tigers expect an immediate impact next fall from five-star running back Mike Bellamy (5-10, 185).
Order of business: Andre Ellington won’t be a part of contact drills this spring, and that’s unfortunate as Chad Morris installs Clemson’s new offense. Ellington is certain to be front-and-center next fall, after emerging as one of the ACC’s most dangerous and consistent running-game playmakers last fall.
On the other hand, Morris and new running backs coach Tony Elliott will be able to get a good idea what Rod McDowell, Demont Buice and D.J. Howard can contribute to the offense, in advance of Mike Bellamy’s arrival this summer.
Of the group, McDowell has the most to lose. He did little with the opportunities he got last season, after being one of the Tigers’ most productive performers in the spring and in preseason camp. It’s telling that when Ellington went down at the end of the year, McDowell stayed on the sidelines as Harper emerged as a 30-touch back.
McDowell was recruited to fill a scat-back, CJ Spiller-like role; but once he arrives, Bellamy is sure to get ample opportunity to show what he can do to help the Tigers next season, and he’ll have the inside-track opportunity to show that he’s the Tigers’ tailback of the future. This spring, McDowell needs to prove both his toughness and his ability to find and make the most of holes if he’s to be a relevant part of the backfield mix.
The player with the most to gain is Buice, who’ll have a chance to carve out a niche as the Tigers’ power-back in the absence of Harper (who might well have flourished in Morris’ offense).
Recruited for other positions by schools in the SEC, both Buice and Howard came to Clemson because they were promised the opportunity to be running backs. With Ellington sidelined, they’ll get the reps needed to make an impression.
Buice was a two-time finalist for Mr. Football honors in the state of Alabama, and rushed for 5,500 yards and averaged better than 10 yards per carry during his prep career. He was ranked as one of the top 40 running backs nationally and one of the top 20 players out of Alabama in 2009.
Howard was a consensus top-15 player in Alabama, and was a two-time thousand-yard rusher and also a standout sprinter in track.
One of the Tigers’ most significant spring storylines will be the implementation of Morris’ offense, and determining which player out of the group of McDowell, Buice and Howard can make the most of the head-start over Bellamy in the competition to complement Ellington.