Ron Morris

Morris: Tigers' top priority is stopping the run

NASHVILLE | Dabo Swinney awoke Monday morning to face the first day of Clemson football without star running back C.J. Spiller. The sun shined bright, as well it should.

For all the talk about Clemson being a one-man show this season, my guess is replacing Spiller will not be Swinney's biggest concern come September. A greater area of concern shoring up the run defense.

Let's address the post-Spiller era first. No doubt, Clemson fans witnessed one of the truly special careers in the history of the program. Spiller proved to be one of the most dangerous and electrifying players in college football annals.

Rare is the player who is a threat to reach the end zone any time he touches the ball. Spiller was that type of player, and he scored a Clemson career-record 51 touchdowns, including at least one in each of the team's 14 games this season.

In typical Spiller fashion, the final touchdown of his career was a back-breaker to the opponent. Spiller scooted around right end for 8 yards early in the fourth quarter, essentially sealing Clemson's 21-13 Music City Bowl victory against Kentucky.

It will be nearly impossible to fully replace all that Spiller brought to the team and program. But even Spiller admits Clemson has the talent to ensure the drop-off at running back is not dramatic.

"Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington, if y'all think I did something, wait until you see those guys," Spiller said.

At 6-foot, 230 pounds, Harper is more of an inside runner who can break the long one, as he did for a 69-yard touchdown against N.C. State. At 5-10 and 180, Ellington has a burst of speed that could be the equal of Spiller and also is a threat to reach the secondary on any run.

With 79 yards on eight carries against Kentucky, Harper gave Clemson supporters a glimpse of what they can expect to see for two more seasons. Ellington's 7.4 yards-per-carry average as a redshirt freshman ranked second in the ACC.

Harper and Ellington will run behind an offensive line that returns every starter except Thomas Austin at left guard. So running the ball should not be a problem. The Tigers' ground game improved from an average of 111 yards to 170 yards per game over the previous season, and there is every reason to believe those numbers could jump again.

Spiller will be missed most on special teams. He returned an NCAA-record seven kickoffs for touchdowns in his career and took one punt to the end zone. Beyond that, Spiller's presence on the field altered every game. Opponents never solved the dilemma of whether to kick to Spiller. Either way, Clemson's average starting position following kickoffs was its 38-yard line.

No matter what Spiller offered Clemson, it became irrelevant in games in which the Tigers' defense could not stop the opposing team's running game. Clemson opponents rushed for more than 150 yards six times. The Tigers lost four of those games.

The Clemson defense never seemed to solve attacks that featured either some sort of option or the Wildcat formation. Georgia Tech used the option in both victories against Clemson while rolling up 301 and 333 yards rushing. TCU (162 yards) used a spread option, and Miami (177 yards) operated out of the shotgun with a mobile quarterback.

Even South Carolina unveiled a spread option component to its offense, and the Gamecocks racked up 223 yards rushing. During one stretch extending into the Music City Bowl, Clemson had not forced the opponent into a three-and-out on 21 consecutive possessions.

Over the final three games, Clemson opponents played keepaway, thus minimizing the chance Spiller could beat them. USC, Georgia Tech and Kentucky combined for 11 drives of 10 or more plays against Clemson. Those opponents ran off game totals of 80, 83 and 68 plays.

It is anyone's guess as to why Clemson seemed helpless against the run at season's end. Perhaps opponents figured the best way to attack the Tigers was straight-ahead running. Maybe Clemson's less-than-stellar play at linebacker was finally exposed.

Whatever the reason, Clemson needs to address that problem before the start of next season. None of the three starting linebackers against Kentucky returns. Clemson also loses defensive end Ricky Sapp, cornerbacks Chris Chancellor and Crezdon Butler, and could lose safety DeAndre McDaniel to the NFL.

As important as Spiller was to Clemson, much of what he offered the offense can be replaced. It is on defense where Swinney and Clemson must find answers if the Tigers are again to challenge for an ACC championship.

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