Grading the Running Backs

In this third installment of an eight-part series, CUTigers takes an in-depth position-by-position look at what we thought before the season and what's been learned since.

WHAT WE SAID ABOUT THE RUNNING BACKS
With three key departures from Clemson's 2009 passing game, we projected heavy doses of Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper in 2010.

The first question posed in the 10 questions for 2010 feature in this season's magazine preview asked, Is life after C.J. Spiller going to be that bad?

Together, Ellington and Harper could easily surpass Spiller's rushing output, especially with all the questions at wide receiver. The duo should also help Clemson eclipse the 170 rushing yards/game in 2009…Spiller's threat as a pass catcher and return man helped make him a top-10 draft pick by the Buffalo Bills. Those will be the two areas that Clemson will miss Spiller the most this fall.

Redshirt freshman Roderick McDowell was still a work in progress coming out of spring practice but projected as the third option at running back.

We pegged him as a redshirt freshman ready to make an impact on the offensive side of the ball.

WHAT WE LEARNED
There was very little debate that Ellington turned out to be the most explosive option Clemson had this season.

In addition, it didn't take long for him to separate himself from Harper as the more effective back. By the Maryland game, Ellington was getting the lion's share of the carries.

But he went down with a foot injury in the fourth quarter of the Boston College game. He missed the next three games and played only a handful of snaps in the season finale.

Although Harper has more yards than Ellington (726-686), he played in three more games and had 59 more carries.

Ellington, who will undergo foot surgery on Monday, has more touchdowns (10-6) and a higher average per carry (5.8-4.1).

McDowell didn't quite produce like we projected. He's carried 32 times for 161 yards and a touchdown. He had only one catch for four yards.

Harper could match Spiller's 36 receptions and four receiving touchdowns—he needs just five more catches and another score. But Spiller had 503 yards and Harper is sitting on 308.

Harper proved that he was a more than capable target for Kyle Parker, as evidenced by his performance against Auburn, during which he had a pair of touchdown catches.

Ellington finished with 12 catches for 109 yards and a touchdown.


Jamie Harper proved that he was a more than capable target for Kyle Parker, as evidenced by his performance against Auburn, during which he had a pair of touchdown catches. (Roy Philpott)
Including the Boston College game, the Tigers scored just three touchdowns in 14 trips inside the red zone. Only one of those scores was on the ground.

Harper was often criticized for his running style. Orange-clad folks on message boards, talk radio stations and bar stools wondered why he spent so much time trying to elude tacklers, especially while he was still in the backfield.

At times, the questions were warranted.

But his effort against N.C. State couldn't be denied. While fighting off illness, he rushed 25 times for 60 yards and a score. Not the most glamorous numbers, but he did indeed run with authority.

At Florida State a week later, Harper rushed for 143 yards and a score. That performance was matched by a 142 yards one touchdown day against Wake Forest.

McDowell's setback this season can largely be credited to injuries during preseason camp. At times, he appeared to be tentative when hitting the hole. But he showed some life in the final game of the regular season with a 39-yard run against South Carolina.

Grade: B

LOOKING AHEAD
The future is extremely bright. It's pretty blinding, as a matter of fact as Clemson looks to have a full stable lined of backs next season.

For now, Ellington, Harper and McDowell are expected to return. Freshmen D.J. Howard and Demont Buice, who are redshirting, are still listed as running backs.

But perhaps more importantly, the Tigers have verbal commitments from five-star Mike Bellamy and four-star Marlin Lane.

It helps that the offensive line returns five players from this year season's six-man rotation.

Plenty of good things are to be expected from the running backs next season.

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