Spring Ball Preview: Running Back

The Clemson running game, which has seemingly been missing the last two seasons, suddenly came to life during the second half of 2003 behind the tough running of Chad Jasmin and Duane Coleman. How are things shaping up this spring with Jasmin no longer in the mix?

When senior quarterback Woody Dantzler played his last football game on the snowy turf of the Humanitarian Bowl back in December of 2001, he left behind a running game that would sorely miss his presence in each of the next two seasons.

Gone were the electrifying quarterback draws that turned into 60-yard touchdowns, and gone were the games that saw the Tigers consistently amass over 200-yards on the ground.

Instead, the Clemson offense moved more towards a vertical passing game. And it wasn't because Tommy Bowden wanted to. It was because he had to.

Simply put, the Tigers lacked the quality depth up front to run the football with any sort of consistency. This became especially obvious against some of the tougher teams on the schedule. In fact, when you look at the 2002 season, the Tigers' leading rusher against Georgia, Maryland, N.C. State, and Texas Tech, averaged a mere 36 yards per contest.

In 2003 however, that trend began to change.

Led by the tough running of Chad Jasmin and the enthusiastic Duane Coleman, the Tigers used the running game as more of a weapon, and less of a liability.

Jasmin emerged as the starter last season, and will now likely be replaced by Yusef Kelly in short yardage situations this year.
Jasmin, who ran for a career high 130 yards on 15 carries in the 27-14 Peach Bowl win over #6 Tennessee, commented afterwards, "I was confident we could run on those guys. Our line has really improved over the course of the season, and that showed here tonight."

In reality, that's only part of the good news.

This spring, head coach Tommy Bowden welcomes back almost everyone in the offensive backfield, including Duane Coleman, Yusef Kelly, Reggie Merriweather, and Kyle Browning.

Coleman, the former Class 5-A Sunshine Network Player of the Year in Florida, led Clemson in rushing last year with 615 yards, and really started to come on towards the end of the season.

His development seemed to accelerate more as he learned to be more patient with the ball in his hands, while also trusting his speed once he got past the line of scrimmage.

In fact, if you watch some of the early film of Coleman in action last fall, it wouldn't surprise you to see him trip over his own two feet during plays in which he broke into the open field. Call it excitement, call it inexperience, call it whatever you like, but it seemed to hamper his development during the early stages of the season.

Nevertheless, as the year wore on, Coleman started getting a feel for the game. Instead of outrunning his blocks, he became much more patient, allowing the play to hole to develop in front of him before taking off upfield.

Backing up Coleman will a trio of backs who are battling it out for playing time.

Walterboro native Yusef Kelly is the unquestioned wildcard here. After showing up to practice last summer at over 240 pounds, Kelly never seemed to escape the proverbial "doghouse" of head coach Tommy Bowden. In fact, he really didn't see the field last year until the Virginia game when he rushed 25 times for 88 yards in the 30-27 overtime victory.

Overall, he finished the year with just 125 yards and 1 touchdown, and that comes a year after leading the Tigers in rushing with 520 yards and 8 scores.

Kelly will undoubtedly step into the "big back" role in the Clemson offense this spring. With Chad Jasmin no longer in the picture, it should now be Kelly who is counted on as the short-yardage running back in 2004.

Union's Kyle Browning did his part last year with an 8-yard touchdown run on a "fumblerooski" play in the Peach Bowl.
Union's Kyle Browning returns after a sophomore season that saw him in action early on, but hardly at all during the final 4 games of the year. Browning is the second leading rusher returning to the Tigers in 2004, as he put up 152 yards on 22 carries a season ago.

He is best remembered for his "fumblerooski" play against Tennessee in the Peach Bowl that saw him scamper in for an 8-yard touchdown run.

"I think I bring the quickness and vision," said Browning when asked to compare his running style with that of his counterparts. "Duane is more similar to me, but a little bit bigger I'd say. Reggie is kind of like the two of us, except he has more power, but he can take it to the house too."

Behind Browning, North Augusta's Reggie Merriweather will once again have the opportunity to that he can become a go-to back in the Tigers' offense this spring. Merriweather established himself as one of the top two backs on the team last year during spring ball, but his inability to pick-up his blocking assignments on pass plays kept him on the bench.

"Between the tackles my vision has gotten a lot better," said Merriweather last season. "When I get into the open field if I don't get you with the first move, then I'm definitely coming after you."

Redshirt freshman Brandon Nolen's role here is somewhat in question, as there have been rumors circulating about a potential position change for him this spring. Nevertheless, it must be noted that several coaches commented to us last year that Nolen looked great on the scout team.

The Predicted Depth-Chart
In our eyes, two backs clearly have the edge here coming into spring practice- Duane Coleman and Yusef Kelly. Assuming Kelly comes into spring ball in-shape, he truly is the only running back on offense that can be counted on to pick up a 3rd-and-1 situation.

Coleman has solidified himself as the starter after really starting to turn it on in the eyes of the coaching staff last year. In addition, not only is he a weapon on the ground, he's also got good hands, registering 34 catches for 309 yards and 4 touchdowns last season.

Merriweather is a capable back, and has the same sort of running style as Coleman, except he's a little bigger and more of a slasher. It will be important for him to re-establish himself as a weapon this spring if he expects to see any sort of significant playing time this fall.

Browning, who actually started a game last year, also figures to enter into the mix, but his lack of size always is viewed as a drawback and that alone will likely keep him as a player that is called upon only in unique situations.

But in reality, whoever lines up in the backfield this year is likely going to be in a position to put up some big numbers.

With 8 out of 10 players returning on the two-deep depth chart on offensive line this spring, the Tigers have more bulk, more talent, and more experience returning than at any point in recent memory.

And that alone should pay dividends throughout the course of next season.

CUTigers.com Top Stories