CLEMSON, S.C. -- Wayne Gallman took the handoff on second-and-5 and immediately ran into a Louisville defender, who’d sprinted through the Clemson line unblocked. The Tigers were clinging to a seven-point lead early in the fourth quarter, and they were desperate for some breathing room in a game that had been close throughout.
Gallman spotted his man, spun out of the tackle, and pushed forward. With two more steps, he was enveloped by a mass of bodies, 3 yards shy of the first-down marker.
For a second, the play stopped, then suddenly the entire pile began to move forward, inching downfield until Gallman suddenly popped out of the bottom of the chaos, falling forward for the first down.
It was a thing of beauty for the Tigers’ tailback, who found room to run in spite of Louisville’s smothering defense all night. That first down set up a field goal for Clemson that proved to be the game winner, but the run also perfectly illustrated how far Gallman has come in his second season as the Tigers’ lead back.
“You have to run through the smoke,” Dabo Swinney said, “and that’s what he’s really excelling at right now.”
Gallman’s battering-ram style isn’t a surprise to Clemson’s coaching staff. Swinney had raved for the better part of two years about the physicality Gallman brought to the position. He’d impressed so much in practice in 2013, Swinney gave serious consideration to pulling Gallman’s redshirt. Amid a host of tailback options in fall camp last year, Gallman continued to earn the most effusive praise.
On game days, however, that toughness only emerged sporadically. Gallman had his moments, of course, and by year’s end, he was clearly Clemson’s best runner, but there were concerns, too. A whopping 21 percent of Gallman’s runs went for a loss or no gain, which ranked him 71st among Power 5 running backs. He averaged just 2.2 yards-per-rush after contact.
“He shouldn’t be a guy that gets tackled by one guy very often,” Swinney said. “You have to run through arm tackles.”
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Gallman agreed, and this season he’s taken those sterling practice performances to the field on game day, too.
Through his first three games, Gallman is averaging 2.83 yards after contact per rush -- more than half-a-yard better than last season. He’s also been taken down in the backfield on just four of his 53 rushes so far. That, Swinney said, is a crucial number.
“When you talk about winning at the line of scrimmage, it’s tackles for loss, sacks, those things,” Swinney said. “We didn’t have much of that at all. That’s where the game is won.”
What makes those numbers more impressive, however, is that Clemson really didn’t win the battle in the trenches consistently against Louisville last week. With a true freshman at left tackle and starting center Ryan Norton out with an injury, the Cardinals’ defense was in the Clemson backfield routinely. The difference was they didn’t have much success once they got there. Clemson had just 8 negative yards in the game.
“Sometimes I had to make things happen myself, but the line played to the best of their ability, and we did what we did on the ground,” Gallman said. “For me, I’m just starting to feel more comfortable, really playing the game hard.”
The job might get even tougher Saturday against Notre Dame. While Louisville worked to take away the big play downfield against the Tigers, Swinney said he expects the Irish to stack the box to stop the run while playing man coverage against Clemson’s receivers. Norton will miss this game, too, leaving the Tigers' line once again depleted. And so Clemson will adjust accordingly, and Gallman’s role may shift a bit.
“You’re not going to make a lot of hay with eight-man boxes,” Swinney said.
Still, the notion of going against Notre Dame’s fearsome front is intriguing for Gallman. He enjoys the physical matchup, and he still has something to prove.
“I like the challenge,” he said. “That’s just another step for me to take to show the world what I can do.”
On the Tigers’ offense, however, they’ve already seen plenty.
This isn’t the same runner who looked tentative a year ago. It’s the guy Swinney and the coaches had raved about all along, and Gallman has now emerged as one of the ACC’s best backs.
“He’s unbelievable,” lineman Eric MacLain said. “He’s running so hard and just the passion you see in his eyes. He wants the ball and we’re giving it to him.”