Heading into fall camp it was believed that Clemson had one of the deepest stable of running backs in the country.
Lyn-J Dixon was back for his senior season, Kobe Pace was a year more experienced, and Will Shipley and Phil Mafah were true freshman talented enough to come in and compete right away. Not to mention super senior Darien Rencher and Michel Dukes.
However, by the time the season ended, two of those backs had transferred out, leaving the Tigers having to rely solely on underclassmen, two of which were in their first seasons.
There is no need to rehash the circumstances surrounding Dixon’s departure, but over the second half of the season, after he left, particularly over the final few games, the backs really started to find their groove. This, after the Clemson ground game had its share of struggles to start the season.
However, much of the Tigers early season struggles were the result of just not having room to run. Clemson struggled with consistency along the offensive line for much of the season, which in turn handcuffed the running game.
Then there were the injuries. Pace, Shipley and Mafah all dealt with injuries over the course of the season. Pace missed two games, while Shipley missed three.
Mafah didn’t even appear in the first four games, as the staff originally planned to redshirt the freshman back in order to create a year of separation between him and Shipley. He did play in the final nine games, but was extremely limited in at least two game due to a nagging foot injury.
2022 Season Stats:
Shipley: 385 snaps
Rushing 149-747 (5.0 YPC) Receiving 16-116
Pro Football Focus (PFF) Grade: 73.3
PFF Pass Blocking Grade: 28.8
Pace: 273 snaps
Rushing 104-648 (6.2 YPC) Receiving 12-131
PFF Grade: 77.8
PFF Pass Blocking Grade: 75.6
Mafah: 170 snaps
Rushing 68-311 (4.3 YPC) Receiving 7-30
PFF Grade: 73.0
PFF Pass Blocking Grade: 55.8
It was well established in 2021 that all three running backs have high upside when it comes to running the ball. While each of the three have different running styles, all three are capable of picking up the tough yards between the tackles.
Where the improvement needs to come is in the passing game. The backs need to be a little more reliable catching passes out of the backfield, especially Shipley. The freshman back had several drops throughout the course of the season, none bigger than the one against Pitt that would have put Clemson up two scores.
The two freshmen still need to improve their pass blocking as well. That was an area Shipley, in particular, struggled with at times. Mafah, wasn’t on the field nearly as much, therefore wasn’t tasked with having to pass protect as often as Shipley.
Although, there is nothing unusual about freshmen backs needing time to learn all of the pass protections. Many tend to take big jumps between their first and second seasons, and that should also be the case with Shipley and Mafah.
Looking towards next season, the future appears to be bright, although this is a spot Clemson is extremely thin at. Three backs just isn’t enough. The staff is still looking to add one in the 2022 class and if that doesn’t happen, it is probably a safe bet the staff will address that need through the portal.
As for the 2021 season, the running backs were about the only bright spot on the offensive side of the ball. While it was far from perfect, there was so much to like. And the best part is, all three of those guys were underclassmen last season and they are all three only going to get better.
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