Post Spring Analysis: Running Back

The improvement of the running game was instrumental in the Tigers' 4-game winning streak to close out the 2003 season. And as the Tigers try to improve on last year's effort, several familiar faces will be back in the fold at running back, as the Tigers try to find a replacement for Chad Jasmin.

For the past two to three years, the Clemson running game has been widely been viewed as more of a liability, as opposed to a weapon.

Perhaps those are harsh words, but its true.

Ever since the departure of former quarterback Woodrow Dantzler, the Tigers have been searching for a "game changing" running back to help take their offense to a new level.

While the search may have been taken a while, it appears as though its finally coming to a close.

Well sort of.

The Tigers will enter the start of fall practice with three running backs battling it out for playing time. Duane Coleman, who has been deemed the starter, returns after leading Clemson in rushing last year with 615 yards. Backing up Coleman will a two backs with signficant game day experience in Reggie Merriweather and Yusef Kelly.

Who emerges out of those three through the early stages of the 2004 season is anyone's guess, but one thing appears to be certain: whoever it is, will be running behind an offensive line that has shown tremendous improvement over the course of the past 2 seasons.

You only have to look back to last year to prove that very statement.

Led by the tough running of Duane Coleman and Chad Jasmin, the Tigers began to develop a tough, hard-nosed, between the tackles type of ground attack that wore down many of their opponents during the second half.

"I can tell you this, they've gotten a lot stronger," said running back Yusef Kelly. "And their technique has gotten a lot better. Those guys are going to be a force this year for us if they keep it up."

If you don't believe Yusef, just ask Florida State, or South Carolina, or Tennessee. All three fell victim to a new style of offense by the Tigers, one that included the same vertical passing attack that we've all become accustomed to, but also possessed the ability to run the football with unparalleled consistency.

Duane Coleman had another productive spring, but he'll still battle both Reggie Merriweather and Yusef Kelly for playing this fall.
And that consistency continued to be a focal point this spring.

Duane Coleman has clearly become more of a north-south type of runner, and that has to be music to the ears of running backs coach Burton Burns and offensive coordinator Mike O'Cain.

His production this spring was consistent, if not unspectacular, as he split carries with both Merriweather and Kelly through the bulk of spring practice.

"He's run hard and done what we've asked of him," said Bowden, who also admitted that Coleman wasn't getting his normal share of carries during some the earlier scrimmages. "He's really put forth a good effort."

Meanwhile Merriweather, who has now put together two strong spring practice sessions in a row, has clearly positioned himself for more playing time this fall.

"He faked me out last year," said Tommy Bowden as spring practice came to a close.

"It's the same type of effort, but he's a little bit sharper on his assignments and those things that are a little more important in games- protections, changing plays, and runs. He's showing that he's a little more consistent. I don't think he can trick me twice."

Battling it out with Merriweather on the second team is Walterboro native Yusef Kelly.

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.

"His problem last year was his health," said Bowden. "He had a pulled hamstring, then his ribs, then his ankle. That's three weeks per injury and his season is over."

Now that Kelly is injury free, he clearly regained a renewed sense of optimism this spring.

"There's always competition between me and Duane, but what it comes down to for us this year is what kind of scheme they are going to use for each particular game," said Kelly near the midway point of spring ball.

"If they need more of a slashing type of running back, then he'll go first, but if we need to pound the ball, then I'm going to go."

While Kelly is talking about sharing time with Duane Coleman, he'll also have to watch out for Merriweather.

Merriweather has established himself as viable option in short yardage situations, not to mention the fact that he also proved to be the best open field runner amongst all three backs this spring.

Furthermore, you could easily make the case for any of the three running backs mentioned above to receive anywhere from 10-15 carries per game next season, but it won't happen.

While Coleman will likely start and get most of the early work, both Kelly and Merriweather will also get their respective chance to shine.

And simply put, whoever produces the most for the Tigers throughout the early part of the season, will likely end up receiving as much as 75-80% of the total carries on the year. Top Stories