The focus has largely been on the new quarterback and returning defenders at Clemson so far, but what has Dabo Swinney most excited for 2014 might be the backfield.
A year ago, the plan was for the Tigers to employ a handful of runners in key roles, but after injuries ravaged the depth chart, Rod McDowell became the default option in nearly every situation, and while he did an admirable job, Clemson still ranked 73rd in yards per carry. Carries by running backs accounted for just 32 percent of Clemson’s offensive plays last season -- 10 percentage points less than division counterpart Florida State.
But as the Tigers get set for their opener against Georgia, the plan for a more dynamic running game appears set for 2014, and Swinney couldn’t be more pleased with the weapons at his disposal.
“I think we’ve got a really deep group and a bunch of guys that deserve to play,” Swinney said. “The competition and diversity we have there is going to help us be very strong at that position.”
Redshirt senior D.J. Howard (5-foot-11, 205) is the nominal starter at this point, but he has been injury prone in his career and could quickly be upstaged by younger runners with more upside. Still, Howard is perhaps Clemson’s best pass blocker, and his knowledge of the system means he’ll have a secure role if he stays healthy.
Zac Brooks, who projected as the best receiver out of the backfield, injured his foot and is out for the season, but there are other weapons down the depth chart. C.J. Davidson (5-10, 200) suffered a knee injury last season that limited his production, but Swinney said he might be the “most explosive” of Clemson’s veteran runners.
“He’s just a powerful change-of-direction type of guy,” Swinney said.
But the real emerging star might be redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman.
As the injuries piled up last season, one of the toughest decisions the coaching staff had to make was whether to keep Gallman (6-1, 205) sidelined. In the end, Swinney erred on the side of caution, keeping the redshirt on Gallman in order to get him ready for 2014. Now, Clemson is ready to enjoy the rewards of that patience.
Coaches and teammates have raved about Gallman’s progress throughout this offseason, and Swinney said he can’t remember being around a running back who practices with as much energy.
“We’re having to slow him down because he just plays so fast and violent,” Swinney said. “Things just get hit when he’s out there.”
Swinney said Gallman is learning to corral that energy and doing a better job of playing within Clemson’s system, but the coaching staff is eager to unleash its secret weapon on the rest of the ACC this fall.
“He’s going to be an exciting player to watch,” Swinney said.
Swinney said coaches are still deciding the future of the Tigers’ two true freshmen -- Adam Choice and C.J. Fuller, both 5-9 and 215 pounds -- but he loves the physicality both bring, and there’s a chance at least one will see work this season.
Of course, the focus on the tailbacks also comes from the loss of last year’s quarterback, Tajh Boyd, who racked up 154 carries -- just 35 fewer than McDowell. With less mobile senior Cole Stoudt prepared to take over the offense, the conventional wisdom suggests the tailbacks will need to pick up the slack.
Swinney said that might not be the case, however.
“We’re going to run our quarterback,” Swinney said. “That’s the nature of what we do. We feel like it gives us an advantage when the quarterback is part of the run game, and that part won’t change. Cole is definitely undervalued as a runner, and I think he’s going to be way better than people think.”
True freshman QB Deshaun Watson will be a big part of the offensive blueprint, too. Swinney has already said that Watson will play -- though not start -- this season, and it would make sense to let the freshman get his feet wet as a runner and red-zone threat early in the year.
“He’s gifted when it comes to running the ball,” Swinney said, “so you’ll see that.”
Still, for all the talk of running with the quarterback, this will be a slightly different look for the Tigers this fall, and that could be a good thing. With so much shuffling of personnel elsewhere on the offense, a dynamic backfield could be just what Clemson needs to push through a grueling early season schedule.
Of course, before that plan comes into focus, Swinney said, his tailbacks need to prove they're ready to carry the load.
“Hopefully we’ve got a couple of these backs that kind of demand through their performance that we call [plays] a little bit different,” he said. “But that’s up to them to prove that.”