Since Thunder and Lightning, the weather has been unpredictable for the Clemson offense. But there’s a storm front brewing with potential hurricane force.
No fewer than six running backs are in the mix for playing time this fall, blessing Clemson with a wealth of depth exceeding the 2008 team that included four future NFL players – James Davis (Thunder), C.J. Spiller (Lightning), Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington.
“As you know, we’ve got really talented running backs,” said junior Zac Brooks, perhaps the most versatile of the current lot. “Anybody can step in and do the job.”
Based on last season’s misfortune, depth can’t be taken for granted. After projected starter Tyshon Dye tore an Achilles during winter conditioning that shelved him for eight games, Brooks was preparing in August for a breakout season when a foot fracture two weeks before the opener ended his season. After productive games against N.C. State and Louisville, freshman Adam Choice tore an ACL running the wildcat at Boston College, paring the candidates to senior D.J. Howard, junior C.J. Davidson and redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman, who responded with three 100-yard performances in the final six games and finished with a team-high 769 yards and four rushing touchdowns.
Brooks, Choice, Davidson, Dye and Gallman are back, joined by redshirt freshman C.J. Fuller. Each brings a distinct style to the mix, but coach Dabo Swinney believes they’re all capable of carrying the load.
“I agree with you, we have an outstanding group of backs,” Swinney said. “We need them. We’ve been working toward this for a while. And we’ve had to be patient.”
Early reports from spring practice were generally encouraging, though Choice continues his recovery from surgery and Davidson developed an infection after surgery but should be at practice soon.
Brooks said he hasn’t been limited in practice but lost a step during recovery that he promised to recover by August.
“Everybody knows what Gallman can do, and he’s just going to get better,” Swinney said. “He’s already better. He’s 212 pounds, looks great, fast and explosive. Tyshon Dye looks the best since he’s been here, just moving different. Zac Brooks, it’s a shame that we’ve only seen glimpses of Zac Brooks in his career. He’s really talented, smart, fast and committed.
“Nobody ever talks about C.J. Fuller, and this kid is really good.”
Brooks probably has the most to prove because of how long he has been on hold. The transition from high school receiver took time, and he had to learn to bend from his upright running style to become more physical. His hands might be an advantage weren’t Dye, Choice and Gallman all superb receivers, and Swinney said there was never any consideration given to moving Brooks.
“I really don’t see Zac as a receiver,” Swinney said. “He could function as a receiver, but he’s at the right position for this team and for his future.”
Bright and introspective, Brooks does not assume he would return to the top of the depth chart by virtue of his status last year.
“That’s something I’m not able to answer,” Brooks said. “That goes into coaching.”
The injury was a setback in that he’d invested so much to position himself for the starting job.
“When you put so much work into a whole summer, a whole year,” Brooks said, looking back at the injury, “that’s a dagger for anybody.
“All the work I had put in, it wasn’t going to pay off,” he said. “When they first told me, I kind of laughed. I didn’t know what to say. I was at a loss for words.”
Brooks dispelled the notion that there’s more urgency this season than the first three.
“I’ve always got that urgency. It’s not just for a starting spot. It’s for me,” he said. “Why not go into something with a sense of urgency? Why do something without all your heart?”