Sizing up the ACC: Tigers aim to add 'smashmouth' to spread

Clemson running back Zac Brooks (24) spins out of a tackle by Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley (3) during the spring game at Clemson's Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

Clemson running back Zac Brooks (24) spins out of a tackle by Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley (3) during the spring game at Clemson's Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

Another season, another 1,000-yard rusher gone for Clemson’s Tigers as ‘Hot Rod’ McDowell tries to catch on in the NFL after averaging 5.4 yards per carry.

Clemson is on a run of three 1,000-yard rushers in a row – a school-first, but a crowded ’14 backfield will make it difficult to stretch that to four.

The players?

There’s senior D.J. Howard (6-0 195), your RB1 going into fall camp, who’s Clemson’s lone back with 100-plus career carries, and also carries a injury-prone past.

Juniors Zac Brooks (6-1 190) and C.J. Davidson (5-10 190) couldn’t be more different – Brooks, a heralded four-star who’s battled his share of injuries, and Davidson – a former walk-on with a track background, who’s Clemson’s leading returner in TDs (4).

Then there’s the freshmen…a bunch of them. Redshirt Wayne Gallman (6-1 200) has already been tabbed as an All-ACC caliber player by Phil Steele, while Tigers coach Dabo Swinney has raved about incoming freshman Adam Choice (5-10 205).

No matter the concoction, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris is intent on a commitment to the run, and in a season where he’s replacing a quarterback for the first time, there’s a good chance he’ll deliver on that promise.

Clemson rushing numbers in the Morris era

2011: 38 attempts per game – 158.5 yards per game (59th nationally) – 22 TD

2012: 45 APG – 191.5 YPG (36th nationally) – 26 TD

2013: 42 APG – 175.6 YPG (56th nationally) – 26 TD

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Like last season, the ACC returns one 1K rusher, but that comes with a bit of an asterisk as Miami’s Duke Johnson was well on his way to the mark before injury.

In his first eight games, he averaged 115 rushing yards with six scores before a fractured ankle cut his year short.

Virginia’s Kevin Parks is the both the ACC’s returning (1,035) and active leader (2,474) in rushing yards – also the best among returning receiving targets (329/8.7 YPR/TD).

Top-five returning rushing yards per game (2013)

1) Duke Johnson (Miami) - 115

2) Kevin Parks (Virginia) – 85.9

3) Shadrach Thornton (NC State) – 69.8

4) James Conner (Pittsburgh) – 66.6

5) Dominique Brown (Louisville) – 63.5

Top-five returning RB scorers (2013)

1) Dallas Crawford (Miami) – 12

2) Kevin Parks (Virginia) – 11

3) Karlos Williams (Florida State) – 11

4) Trey Edmunds (Virginia Tech) – 10

5) James Conner (Pittsburgh) – 8

Projecting the ACC Running Backs

(If you haven’t been around with us before, the rankings are based on production/field impact – not a straight measure of their abilities like a NFL draft board. We’re looking at not only the player’s ability, but the surrounding cast that can help him get the W's and numbers.)

Tier 1

1) Georgia Tech – Zach Laskey

Outlook: Even taking out the QB-rushing numbers, it’s rarely close between Georgia Tech’s RB production and the next-best in the ACC. The nation has seemed to catch up with Paul Johnson’s spread option attack, coming off its first finish outside the top-five nationally in rushing (sixth, 299.3 yards per game).

Tier 2

2) Florida State – Karlos Williams

Outlook: A converted defensive back, Karlos Williams (6-1 223) rushed for eight yards per carry and 11 touchdowns as a backup last season. FSU was in the middle of the pack in terms of rush attempts, but they made them count – 10th nationally in yards per carry (5.6). Former Clemson commit Dalvin Cook figures to see some playing time this season.

3) Clemson – D.J. Howard, Wayne Gallman, Zac Brooks

Outlook: Clemson was able to replace one playmaker (Andre Ellington) with another (McDowell) last season, but a by-committee ’14 backfield should get a larger share of carries to be among the ACC’s best by the end of the year. Under Morris, the Tigers have been in the top half of the conference in rushing, but has yet to crack the top-three.

4) Miami – Duke Johnson

Outlook: Johnson has flirted with a four-digit rushing total in his first two seasons in Coral Gables, and healthy, the dynamic back should cruise there this season. Rising sophomore Dallas Crawford punched in 12 scores last season, but he practiced with the defensive backs this spring. Dalvin Cook Miami Central teammate Joseph Yearby figures to be in the mix for some carries.

5) Duke – Josh Snead, Jela Duncan

Outlook: The Blue Devils rode one of the top running games in the ACC all the way to Charlotte, returning three of their top four rushers in 2014. Senior Josh Snead averaged 6.1 yards per carry, while junior Jela Duncan was right at 5 YPC.

6) Virginia – Kevin Parks

Outlook: They have the vet in Parks and talents in Khalek Shepherd (304 yards/TD in 2013) and Taquan Mizzell to make a move up in rushing totals under second-year OC Steve Fairchild.

7) N.C. State – Shadrach Thornton, Matt Dayes

Outlook: State’s run-game was in the middle of the pack last season – their 2014 hopes largely relying on Shadrach Thornton staying on the field. He had an indefinite suspension hanging over him this offseason, after leading N.C. State in rushing each of the last two seasons (1,462 yards/7 TDs).

8) Syracuse – Prince-Tyson Gulley

Outlook: Fifth-year senior Prince-Tyson Gulley is no stranger to the endzone (14 TD) and also to injury (collarbone, ankle). Syracuse was second only to Georgia Tech in the ACC in rushing attempts last season (554) – rising sophomores George Morris II and Devante McFarlane accounting for 127 carries, 626 yards and two touchdowns.

Tier 3

9) Louisville – Dominique Brown

Outlook: Senior Dominique Brown enters the ACC as one of the better returning rushers (825 yards/8 TD/5.1 YPC). Also on the roster is Auburn transfer Michael Dyer, who rushed for 151 yards and two touchdowns his last time in Death Valley (a 38-24 loss to Clemson). The Cards were 87th nationally in rushing (146.85) and 72nd in yards per carry (4.2) last season.

10) UNC – T.J. Logan

Outlook: Life without Giovani Bernard saw a nearly 50 yards per game drop on the run last year for the Heels’ Fed Spread. Presumed starting quarterback Marquise Williams takes a share of the ground yards, but UNC does bring back sophomore leading rusher T.J. Logan (533 yards/5.7 YPC/4 TD).

11) Boston College – Myles Willis

Outlook: The Eagles jumped from last to second in the ACC in rushing last year behind Heisman finalist Andre Williams mega-season (2,177 yards/18 TD). He accounted for 68 percent of the BC’s carries, but rising sophomore Myles Willis averaged 5.8 yards per try with a couple scores in limited action.

12) Virginia Tech – Trey Edmunds

Outlook: The Hokies offense is at a crossroads of sorts after dropping out of the ACC’s upper echelon in the running game last season, in the midst of a QB competition as well. It’s hard to tell the offensive direction, and if they’ll be effective doing it.

13) Pittsburgh – James Conner, Isaac Bennett

Outlook: The Panthers return their top three rushers off a unit that ranked 12th in the ACC in rushing (125.69) and yards per carry (3.62).

Tier 4

14) Wake Forest – Orville Reynolds

Outlook: Orville Reyolds likely occupies the top spot on the depth chart after averaging 2.5 yards per on 21 carries last season, which pretty much sums up the Deacs offense this year. They were one of nine FBS programs to post a sub-triple digit rushing average last season (95.42, 117th nationally).

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Comments » 5

fasttiger44#293363 writes:

Are we gonna play to win the game or play for someone to have big statistics? We could play with one tailback and he may rush for 1,500 yards but, is that best for our ultimate goal of winning the game we are playing? I think we will play 5 tailbacks if that's what it takes to beat Georgia, FSU and SC. And of course, the rest of the teams on our schedule. Sammy had big numbers because he could catch and run. We used Sammy exactly like we needed to use him to win most of our games. He didn't fumble the SC game away nor did he drop passes all night that cost us the FSU game. The FSU lose was a total team effort to play a game to get beat and that's just what happened. I imagine we will have maybe 3 tailbacks that get a lot of playing time and they all are good. I am really looking forward to the season to see how things play out. I see nothing but good things for us this fall. I sure do hope I am right. I just think we will have the horses to get the job done on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

YabbaDaboDooDoo writes:

in response to fasttiger44#293363:

Are we gonna play to win the game or play for someone to have big statistics? We could play with one tailback and he may rush for 1,500 yards but, is that best for our ultimate goal of winning the game we are playing? I think we will play 5 tailbacks if that's what it takes to beat Georgia, FSU and SC. And of course, the rest of the teams on our schedule. Sammy had big numbers because he could catch and run. We used Sammy exactly like we needed to use him to win most of our games. He didn't fumble the SC game away nor did he drop passes all night that cost us the FSU game. The FSU lose was a total team effort to play a game to get beat and that's just what happened. I imagine we will have maybe 3 tailbacks that get a lot of playing time and they all are good. I am really looking forward to the season to see how things play out. I see nothing but good things for us this fall. I sure do hope I am right. I just think we will have the horses to get the job done on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

The FSU loss wasn't "a total team effort to play a game to get beat" and Sammy Watkins didn't lose the game with a few dropped passes. It was a complete butt-whoopin' from the opening kickoff almost like a repeat of the 2012 Orange Bowl.

33dtb writes:

....."Tigers aim to add 'smashmouth' to spread"....

smashmouth works a lot better with an O-Line....

fasttiger44#293363 writes:

Good teams play to their players skill. We just happen to be loaded with young, good receivers and plenty of tailbacks. We will be able to beat you on the ground and in the air, which is not normal for a Clemson team. When we had Sammy, Nuk, and Martavis we should have been a passing team. That's a no brainer. Now, we have a bunch of good tailbacks to go along with a bunch of young receivers. We will be just fine on offense and our defense will be overwhelming to other teams offenses.

TigerFan95 writes:

in response to 33dtb:

....."Tigers aim to add 'smashmouth' to spread"....

smashmouth works a lot better with an O-Line....

And a big fullback as well.

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