CLEMSON — Somebody has to step in to replace Andre Ellington’s production.
The Tigers tailback went out on top with a second-straight 1,000-yard year and eight touchdowns last season, punching his ticket to the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.
Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris is pretty sure he has the next man up, but the entire running back race has been hard to handicap throughout camp.
Morris’ top three currently is senior Rod McDowell, sophomore Zac Brooks and walk-on C.J. Davidson.
McDowell says Davidson has impressed
While Brooks and McDowell’s spots are no shock, Daniel product and former Independent Mail track athlete of the year Davidson’s rise has been remarkable.
Originally in TigerTown on a track scholarship, Davidson joined the football team last season and saw action in two games: on special teams against Duke and tallying two carries for five yards against Maryland.
Morris says the 5-11, 185-lb. sophomore will see “quality playing time” this season, and as you might expect, he’s fast on the field.
“(He has) incredible speed,” McDowell said Tuesday after fall camp’s close. “His speed and his cuts, you look at the film like, ‘Wow, C.J., you’re really somebody to reckon with.’
“People think he’s just a walk-on, but no, he’s a running back. Pound-for-pound, he can go in there and contribute to this offense.”
McDowell sees similar success to come for Brooks, who is coming off an inconsistent freshman campaign.
“Zac really had an awesome camp,” he said. “He’s put on some weight. He’s running the ball harder. Zac has established himself and is going to be an elite running back.”
D.J. Howard, who has struggled to stay healthy in his Clemson tenure, finds himself on the outside-looking in with the Tigers’ freshmen tailbacks.
“D.J. (Howard) has been a little inconsistent,” Morris said of the junior, who had his ankle scoped this week. “We’ve got to get him back fully healthy and get him going.”
After week one of camp, Elbert County’s Tyshon Dye was a lock for first-year playing time, but the combination of an injury and a solid group at the top could keep him on the bench. Morris says the “intent” now is to redshirt him and Wayne Gallman.
“Obviously with the way camp started for Tyshon was really good,” said Morris, “then he’s had a nagging back injury he’s trying to shake to get back to being healthy. Wayne has had an unbelievable camp. He and C.J. — those two guys have come in and caught everybody’s eye.
“You would like to redshirt and hold him as much as we can. We’ll have them ready (though) if we need him.”
The No. 1 is clear right now.
“Hot Rod has definitely developed the consistency and earned that,” Morris said. “He’s had a very productive camp and taken a lot of pride in it. Obviously the reps that he got last year in the critical game situations has helped him out and put him ahead.”
McDowell closed last season with a career-high 44 snaps against LSU — with seven rushes (for 26 yards) and two catches (for six yards). He scored the Tigers’ first touchdown of the 2012 en route to another career mark (five scores) and led the Tiger running backs in yards per carry (5.4).
After stepping onto campus around 175 pounds, McDowell is up to 200 and he’s seeing the benefits already.
“I still got the speed. I still got the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield,” he said. “The weight helps me in running the ball harder. Missing tackles and I’m not easy to take down.”
Along with size, he says he’s put in the time at one of his predecessor’s strengths — pass protection.
“Anybody can run the ball. Pass blocking — if I can protect my quarterback, I can play at the next level,” McDowell said. “That’s something that I pride myself on and really worked on.”
His main ’13 goal? Rush for 1,000-plus yards, which combined with Ellington’s back-to-back run, would make for a first in Clemson history of three consecutive four-digit rushers.
After four years of waiting his turn, McDowell says he’s taking his newfound top dog role in stride.
“I really haven’t thought about it at all,” said McDowell. “I’ll take it as a regular day. Coach calls my name and says ‘Roderick, you’re the starting running back’ and go in and do my job and that’s it.”