'I want my number called on': Will Shipley is the constant Clemson needs

Will Shipley goes 47-yard on impressive rush (0:25)

Will Shipley goes 47-yard on impressive rush (0:25)

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Will Shipley can rap.

This is not a skill Shipley actively promotes, but his roommate, Clemson tight end Jake Briningstool, insists he's pretty good. Shipley might be folding laundry or unloading the dishwasher or just sitting around the living room with friends, and, spur of the moment, he'll lay down a few verses off the top of his head. It never fails to impress.

Shipley's favorite rapper is Mac Miller, but his biggest rap influence is his mom.

Tammy Shipley is a hip-hop connoisseur, and when Will and his older brother, James Jr., were kids, she had a habit of making up raps about them and their friends and could freestyle entire narratives about their football games.

"She makes these crazy raps for all her friends for their birthdays," Will said. "She has a really good one about tomatoes."

Now, the obvious follow-up to this information is to outright beg Tammy to perform her tomato rap, but Will's dad, James Sr., said it's not intended for mainstream audiences. It's more of an underground mixtape. You've got to be part of the inner circle to know about it.

Of course, James Sr. and Tammy aren't entirely opposed to sharing her art with the world at the right price, so they're open to a deal.

"If Will wins a national championship at Clemson," James Sr. said, "she can do it."

This might seem like a rather esoteric aside in a story about one of the nation's top running backs, but it hints at two critical aspects to Will's persona. The first is that he possesses a nearly limitless skill set, from freestyle rapping to hurdling defenders on a football field.

"There's a lot of layers to him," Briningstool said, "and there's only a certain amount of people that get to know him deep down."

The second is that, even if it takes his mom rapping about tomatoes, there's nothing Will won't do to win a championship.

The Tigers return to Will's hometown of Charlotte on Saturday with an ACC championship on the line against No. 24 North Carolina, but for many fans, it feels like a consolation prize. Last week, the Tigers lost to rival South Carolina, their playoff hopes vanishing with the defeat. It's a second straight season in which the offense has struggled and Clemson has fallen short of its lofty expectations.

That's not how Will sees it though. He wants to win the ACC title, and he wants that to be the start of his team's ascent back to the playoff, back to the mountaintop, and there may not be a player in the country better equipped to lead that charge than Shipley.

"He's fun and people love him, but he's got some fire to him, man," said offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter. "He's got some juice to him. And every team needs that."

WILL IS 205 pounds of potential energy. It's palpable even in quiet moments, like a balloon filled to capacity, pinched at the end but ready to burst into a wild spectacle the moment he's turned loose.

That's partly why he started playing football, his mom said.

"He was always on," Tammy said. "He didn't have an off button. As soon as he woke up in the morning, he was getting after it."

Turn him loose on a football field, however, and all that energy had a place to go.

James Sr. coached Pop Warner even before his boys were born. As toddlers, Will and James Jr. would run along the sidelines, imagining they were playing, too. Will got his first taste of action when he was 5, playing in a flag football league, and even then, he was something special. By 7, he was playing for his dad's team, and James Sr. couldn't help but notice his boy's instincts at tailback.

"He's always had really good vision," James Sr. said. "Whether it was being patient and then hitting the hole hard or reading his blocks, he always had a knack for that. And then speed just came naturally for him."

Will was at a tryout in eighth grade, and after running through all the usual drills -- three-cone run, 40-yard dash -- a coach came over to him to talk about college.

"Where do you think you might want to go?" the coach asked.

Will had never given it much thought. He wasn't sure he'd be able to play college ball, he said.

"Son," the coach said, "you're going to be able to play anywhere in the country."

As a freshman at Weddington High School, Will had more than 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns from scrimmage. As a sophomore, he established himself as one of the top recruits in the country, rushing for more than 1,400 yards, catching 31 passes and chipping in with two interceptions on defense.

His skills were one thing, but at camps, the first thing that caught Dabo Swinney's attention was Will's personality.

"He's just got an energy to him, a confidence to him that you can feel it," Swinney said. "Then you watch the tape and holy moly."

By his junior season, Will was getting offers from dozens of top schools, though he never quite embraced the publicity.

"He'd get mail from all these colleges, and he'd leave it in my office and pick it up at the end of the day," Weddington High coach Andy Copone said. "He didn't want everybody to see he had mail. He just wanted to go to class and be a student."

Will finished the 2019 season by leading Weddington to its second straight state title. He rushed for 256 yards in the state final, scoring four times. For the season, he rushed for 2,066 yards -- averaging 11 yards every time he carried the football.

His senior season was delayed due to COVID-19, and by January 2021, Will had already enrolled at Clemson. He was a star from the moment he arrived.

"He's a very natural leader," Swinney said. "He's one of the few freshmen who has come in here and led and guys followed. But it's because of how he works."

Will has never lost a sprint. This is a fact Swinney tends to use in nearly every description of his tailback. First sprint of a workout, Will wins. The 20th? Will wins that one, too.

"He just wants to be great," Swinney said. "He works and if you can't keep up with that, that's your problem. He's an unbelievable competitor."

Will's freshman year was miserable. Clemson lost its opener, lost again at NC State, lost again to eventual ACC champion Pitt. It was the Tigers' worst season -- and first without an ACC title -- since 2014. And yet, Clemson still won 10 games in large part because of Shipley.

The offense was a mess. QB DJ Uiagalelei was playing through an injury, the O-line was a sieve and the receiving corps was so depleted that the coach's son, Will Swinney, a former walk-on, was thrust into the starting lineup by year's end. And in the absence of any other viable blueprint for scoring points, Clemson relied on Will.

In those final five games, Will played with a foot injury that needed offseason surgery. It didn't matter.

Will's totals in his final five games of the year: 571 yards and six touchdowns. Clemson won every one of them.

"I embraced that opportunity," Will said. "I want to be the guy they come to when that situation arises. I want my number called on. There was no hesitation."

WHEN THE ALL-ACC awards were announced earlier this week, Will was a clear-cut first-teamer -- three times.

It's a mark of Will's diverse talents that he was voted first-team All-ACC at tailback ... and all-purpose player ... and specialist. If he'd been allowed to toss a couple flea-flickers during the course of the season, he might've won at QB, too. He can do just about anything.

"He's so unpredictable," Clemson linebacker Barrett Carter said. "He's fast, we all know that. The athleticism. He's really strong and explosive. He'll run over you, run through you, jump over you. He can do anything the game has to offer."

To truly appreciate Will's unique set of skills, however, look no further than The Play.

It probably needs a better name -- The Leap? The Hurdle? -- but it's hard to fully capture its magic with the usual article-plus-noun nomenclature. Suffice it to say that, in any discussion of Will on a football field, his touchdown run against Louisville in which he jumps over one defender then immediately sends two more converging Cardinals toppling like bowling pins is the play by which all others will be compared.

Will Shipley hurdles a defender for a 25-yard TD

Will Shipley jumps over the Louisville defender for a Clemson touchdown.

Will takes a handoff at the Louisville 30-yard line. He bursts through the line of scrimmage, zipping past the Cardinals' front and into the secondary. At the 10-yard line, a trio of Louisville defenders converge. M.J. Griffin attacks directly, aiming for Will's midsection, but he hits nothing. Instead, Will elevates over the Cardinals safety like a sprinter running hurdles, and, having missed his point of impact, Griffin's momentum sends him stumbling head first to the ground.

Griffin's reinforcements are stunned, and they're late to adjust. Will's cleats hit the turf just an inch or two beyond their collision point, and he sheds both tacklers with ease, sending them tumbling to the turf as he trots into the end zone.

The play was the football equivalent of filling a Big Gulp with a little of every flavor soda -- Will's vision, first-step quickness and physicality all wrapped into one perfect highlight.

And yet there are two critical elements to the play that get overlooked.

The first came before -- long before. Back in high school, Will went to his dad and insisted he start working with a private trainer. He loved his coaches at Weddington High, but time there was limited. He wanted more, so he started work with RoePro training in nearby Fort Mill, South Carolina. In those sessions, he practiced the leap. Not the play, exactly -- but the maneuver. Adding leaping ability to his repertoire was just another playmaking skill with which he could eviscerate a defense, and so he practiced it. Video from those sessions made the rounds after the Louisville game, the two scenes fused together in near perfect symmetry. The play was improvised, of course, but it was possible only after years of refinement.

The second came after. Clemson won the game 31-16, with Will rushing for 97 yards in the victory. But he also fumbled twice, and he was furious with himself.

Running backs coach C.J. Spiller found Will on the bench, fuming.

"What are you doing over here?" Spiller inquired.

"I'm pissed," Will told him.

Spiller put his arm around his protégé.

"You've got to put that behind you," Spiller said. "That play was legendary. You made history."

When they were kids, school started at 8 a.m., but Will and his brother refused to leave the house until they'd seen the day's top 10 plays on SportsCenter.

"It came on at 7:52," Will said, "and it didn't matter if we were going to be late."

It wasn't until the Tuesday after the Louisville game that Will caught his play -- the play -- on SportsCenter. By then, the sting of the two fumbles had faded a bit, and it dawned on him that, yes, he'd done something worth appreciating. It was a rare moment in which Will allowed himself a sense of satisfaction. But even now, weeks later, he's thinking about those fumbles, and he's still mad.

That might be the most important thing about Will's game. He can create a legend, and there will still be more work to do.

WILL'S FIRST GAME at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte came when he was playing Pop Warner ball when he was 8 or 9 years old. His team got to play a scrimmage at halftime of a Carolina Panthers game, and Will was the star, breaking off a series of long runs.

After the scrimmage ended, James Sr. got a text from a friend who was at the game: "Can Will stay in for the second half?"

As Will returns to that field Saturday, frustrated Clemson fans are asking a similar question.

Clemson's playoff hopes are gone with last week's loss to South Carolina. For the second straight season, a team used to competing for national championships is instead enduring a chorus of criticism largely focused on the struggles of its offense. Among the chief complaints is that Will, perhaps the most talented player on Clemson's roster, has not played a big enough role.

Will has carried more than 20 times just once this season, in the Tigers' come-from-behind win against Syracuse, a game in which backup QB Cade Klubnik entered with his team down 21-10, threw just four passes the rest of the way, and Clemson still won 27-21.

In the loss to Notre Dame two weeks later, Will had 12 carries.

Against South Carolina, Will ran for an 11-yard touchdown to put Clemson up by nine, then carried just twice more the rest of the way.

"Hell yeah, I want the freakin' rock with five minutes to go and the game on the line against our rival," Will said after the loss to South Carolina, in which he carried just twice in the fourth quarter. "That's me as a competitor. But that's not how it shakes out all the time."

Will doesn't spend much time on regrets. This summer, he grew a mustache for the team's media day because he thought it would look funny in photos. That, he regrets. The playcalling in the second half of last week's game though? Nah. That's nobody's fault -- just the way it goes sometimes, he said.

Swinney is more contrite. In hindsight, he said, Clemson had a better shot to win if it had fed Will the ball more. It would be a valuable lesson to learn in time for the Tigers to face off against North Carolina's defense, which ranks second-to-last in the ACC against the run.

Still, Will isn't begging for a new game plan. But he's desperate for a different outcome -- whatever it takes to get there.

"I just love winning," Will said. "That's all I can say. Ten carries or 35."

THESE ARE STRANGE times at Clemson, a place used to winning with a fan base that expects the Tigers to make something incredibly hard look easy. But that's not how Will operates. There's a process to doing something great.

"Every day I pick one thing and get better at it," Will said. "Next day, pick another. And I keep repeating it."

Will's mom remembers shuttling her kids home from preschool. It was late fall, and leaves blanketed their lawn.

"Why don't you boys try to catch a leaf before it hits the ground," Tammy offered.

It was a canny mom trick to have the kids burn off some energy, and Will and James Jr. rushed into the yard and craned their necks toward the sky and awaited their prey.

Catching a leaf is a lot tougher than it sounds, Tammy said, but sure enough, within a minute or two, James Jr. grabbed one.

Will wasn't so lucky.

Tammy and James Sr. watched for another 10 minutes as Will zigzagged his way across the lawn, but each time he had a bead of a fluttering leaf, it darted away from his outstretched hands before he could capture it.

The rest of the family soon grew bored and went inside.

"He didn't come in for five hours," Tammy said, "until he caught one."

Will's natural talent is immense, but he's always understood that's not enough to achieve what he really wants, and so he's worked, relentlessly, to get better, no matter how long it takes.

Clemson will not win a national title this year. Tammy won't be rapping about tomatoes. But Will keeps looking up, stalking his next challenge, and he will not relent until he grabs it.