2014 forecast: Veteran backs Zac Brooks, D.J. Howard have much to prove

Clemson quarterback Cole Stoudt fakes a handoff to Clemson running back Zac Brooks against Duke.

Photo by Sefton Ipock

Clemson quarterback Cole Stoudt fakes a handoff to Clemson running back Zac Brooks against Duke.

Dabo Swinney really likes his ’14 running backs. So does Chad Morris.

But they, like you and I, are curious as to who will step up and out from the crowd to take charge in Athens and after.

After three injury-plagued seasons, D.J. Howard used a strong spring session to lead the pack on the post-spring depth chart.

Junior former four-star prospect Zac Brooks is in a three-way tie in the second tier with junior former walkon C.J. Davidson and redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman.

We have Clemson as one of the more productive running teams this season – ACC and nationally, but who emerges?

First up, the two with the most experience – Howard and Brooks…

2014 Projections – D.J. Howard, Zac Brooks

Brandon Rink – OrangeandWhite.com

D.J. Howard

Breakout Season: 150 carries –800 yards – 11 TDs

Bust: 50 carries – 225 yards – 2 TDs

2014 Outlook: 112 carries – 595 yards – 6 TDs

Howard has shown flashes among a variety of nicks and bruises leading up to his senior campaign. He hasn’t quite shown what Rod McDowell did leading up to his 1,000-yard season in 2013, however.

Howard by season

2011: 149 snaps – 41 carries – 230 yards – 1 TD

2012 119 snaps – 35 carries – 138 yards – 2 TDs

2013: 174 snaps – 57 carries – 231 yards – 2 TDs

The coaches were impressed with the Alabama native over the spring, and though such assessments require a dose of salt, Howard – if healthy (…a big if) – should finish atop the group in carries at five-plus yards a clip.

He’s a strong runner, who might not quite have the moves “Hot Rod” did in the open field, but can find a seam and run away from certain defenders. I have him taking about 35 percent of the RB snaps, which would be around 25 percent down from McDowell’s share of load in 2013.

Zac Brooks

Breakout Season: 120 carries – 675 yards – 10 TDs

Bust: 35 carries – 150 yards – 1 TD

2014 Outlook: 83 carries – 420 yards – 5 TDs

The Arkansas native has played just over 200 career snaps and had more than three carries in 10 career games – some thanks to a crowded depth chart (2012) and also injury a la Howard (shoulder).

The sample size a bit low, Brooks still displayed the ability, as a receiver out of the backfield (31-yard TD catch against Georgia) and busting big plays.

% of carries for 10 or more yards (2012-13)

1. Zac Brooks – 16.2 (12)

2. Rod McDowell – 15.4 (42)

3. Tajh Boyd – 13.5 (27)

4. D.J. Howard – 13 (12)

5. C.J. Davidson – 11.1 (4)

Fighting off Davidson and the young-gun tailbacks, Brooks will have to hold up running between the tackles to stay on the field. The possibilities in the pass-game should give him an edge in the group, but it’ll all come down to health to finally make a consistent impact in Chad Morris’ offense.

Marty Coleman – SeldomUsedReserve.com

D.J. Howard

Breakout Season: 160 carries – 699 yards – 6 TDs

Bust: 40 carries – 175 yards – 1 TD

2014 Outlook: 125 carries – 546 yards – 3 TDs

Is it me or does Howard seem to play slower than the 4.5 speed listed out of high school and get caught up in the wash a fair amount to this point in his career? Can Howard overcome that with enough carries and a bigger sample size and will he end the season as the Tigers #1 running back?

I foresee a log jam in which no one completely owns the position, at least for the first half of the season.

Zac Brooks

Breakout Season: 125 carries, 616 yards, 4TDs

Bust: 40 carries, 197 yards, 1 TD

2014 Outlook: 75 carries, 370 yards, 3 TDs

Brooks has shown flashes as his 4.9 career average (74 carries) attests, but I don’t see him as a featured back and have questions about his ability to stay healthy. Additionally, a good chunk of Brooks’ carries were in non-competitive situations, making him an unknown despite entering his junior season.

Similar to last season, I believe this is a crucial year in the evolution of Zac Brooks at Clemson considering the stable of running backs vying for playing time. It may be a 2014 or never for Zac Brooks at Clemson.

For more Clemson RB thoughts, check out SeldomUsedReserve.com

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Comments » 4

TigerNE writes:

I can't say Gallman has it yet either, but from the snaps I've seen so far, neither Howard nor Brooks has that brute force and power that we need in an RB. It's not just height and size, it's force. Spiller had it to a degree and you see it more recently in Devonta Freeman from FSU and Gurley from UGA. Gurley has a size advantage though, too.

But I'll trust the coaches that Gallman has that hard edge that I just don't see in Howard or Brooks. HotRod didn't have it so much, either. Boyd did, off and on.

TigerFan95 writes:

in response to TigerNE:

I can't say Gallman has it yet either, but from the snaps I've seen so far, neither Howard nor Brooks has that brute force and power that we need in an RB. It's not just height and size, it's force. Spiller had it to a degree and you see it more recently in Devonta Freeman from FSU and Gurley from UGA. Gurley has a size advantage though, too.

But I'll trust the coaches that Gallman has that hard edge that I just don't see in Howard or Brooks. HotRod didn't have it so much, either. Boyd did, off and on.

You're right, I've thought the same thing about Howard & Brooks. One thing I've noticed about our RB's, and it's just a simple observation, is that we've got a lot of skinny legged guys..Look at Gurley, Freeman and Mike Davis and they all have tree trunks..None of our guys, even Gallman, are built like that, but I think that's the type back we desperately need. Dye is supposedly a bigger back, but I've not seen him in uniform yet. Perhaps he's that guy, but given his injury history I'm not optimistic.

Xander5000 writes:

in response to TigerFan95:

You're right, I've thought the same thing about Howard & Brooks. One thing I've noticed about our RB's, and it's just a simple observation, is that we've got a lot of skinny legged guys..Look at Gurley, Freeman and Mike Davis and they all have tree trunks..None of our guys, even Gallman, are built like that, but I think that's the type back we desperately need. Dye is supposedly a bigger back, but I've not seen him in uniform yet. Perhaps he's that guy, but given his injury history I'm not optimistic.

Clemson's tailbacks are just built up to be 8 to 10 yard slashers. Not 8 to 10 yard bruisers like Gurley. Gallman could do it but he needs more meat on him, and that may come in time. The tailbacks we seem to be getting over the years are the ones who has to have that nice hole and get what they can.....except for Spiller, Ellington and even Bellamy...those guys were pure 1 or 2 cuts and gone! Those guys are good to have too but to have a guy that can get you those tough 6 to 7 yards or maybe more, when you really need a play, will wear down an opposing defense.

fasttiger44#293363 writes:

A long time ago Clemson had a tailback that was 6ft tall and weighed 190#. He was one of the best TB in Clemson history. He told me a couple of months ago Coach Howard told him: "Boy, get the ball in your hands and run to daylight". And that's exactly what he did to the tune of almost 3,000 yards in 3 years. He held the Clemson rushing record until Kenny Flowers broke it many years later. That's all you need when you have great receivers and a quarterback that can throw the ball to them. The last huge back we had was Jamie Harper and what did he do? Of course, he had a couple of guys in front of him that limited his playing time.

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