Yusef Kelly has the Edge

There are several ways to look at the current status of the Clemson running game. How you chose to view it depends on whether you generally see the glass as being half full or half empty.

In the first two scrimmages of the season, the Tigers have netted 328 yards on 73 carries for an average of 4.5 yards per carry. Not too bad, right?

Wait a second, those numbers can be a little misleading.

If the 50-yard run by Yusef Kelly at the end of the first scrimmage is taken away, the three tailbacks of Kelly, Kyle Browning and Reggie Merriweather have ran the ball 72 times for 278 yards, which averages to 3.9 yards per carry, which isn't exactly stellar. In fact, it's below average.

The optimists might believe everything is going to be just fine, especially when junior tailback Duane Coleman returns in the second or third week in the season from his broken foot. But there's no guarantee Coleman will jump right into the starting lineup.

"Where it becomes a factor is if he misses so much that he can't come back in shape for the first game," Clemson head coach Tommy Bowden said. "He's going to be out so long he's probably going to have to play his way in the rotation."

So that leaves the other three backs. And when breaking down the two scrimmages of each of the three running backs, the pessimists will see major concerns.

Kelly, for example, has rushed 21 times for 118 yards. But remember, 50 of those came on one run. Minus that breakaway, Kelly, who is listed at 6-feet and 230 pounds, has carried it 20 times for 69 yards, or 3.4 yards per carry.

Merriweather, a 5-8, 212-pound, redshirt sophomore, has 29 rushing attempts for 108 yards for 3.72 per carry. He was, however, the leading rushing in Tuesday's scrimmage with 14 attempts for 70 yards.

"That would be pretty good with splitting time and everything," Bowden said of Tuesday's performance.

"Not just looking at the rushing and the number of carries – we like evaluate the overall performance," running backs coach Burton Burns said. "And to be quite honest with you, right now, overall, Kelly has the edge.
Browning, a 5-7, 172-pound, redshirt junior, is the wildcard of the threesome. He came into fall camp last on the depth chart. But he's handled himself well and has forced the coaching staff to take a hard look at him.

His two scrimmages have added up to 23 attempts for 102 yards, which breaks down to a 4.43 average, which is by far the most consistent for the three backs.

"He's an exciting little runner," Bowden said. "He just adds a little different flair to it than what the other guys."

What do you do if you're Bowden? Do you go with experience and size or youth and quickness?

That's not exactly an easy one to answer.

There is more to look at than just rushing statistics. The Tigers might have to sacrifice rushing yardage in order to have the best blocking back on the field or the best receiving back in the game.

"Not just looking at the rushing and the number of carries – we like evaluate the overall performance," running backs coach Burton Burns said. "And to be quite honest with you, right now, overall, Kelly has the edge. It might not show up in the rushing totals, but just as far as consistency and overall game, I would give the edge to (Yusef) right now.

"What we're looking for is these guys have to be involved in not only running the ball but with the protections and just knowing where to lineup and knowing their routes and that type of thing. It's just one of those things. From week-to-week, you could have 20 carries and might only have 60 yards."

Clemson quarterback Charlie Whitehurst is logically equally concerned about the ability of the backs to block as well as tote the football.

"To tell you the truth, I don't know who is going to start the first game," he said. "But I think (Merriweather and Kelly) are probably going to get equal carries. I think it's going to come down to pass protection, really. I think (Kelly) might have a little bit of an edge there. But since we know both of them can run the ball, it's just picking up blitzes and protecting the passer."

Catching the ball and blocking is where Coleman was so valuable. But the one factor is that while it's true that Coleman, a 5-10, 195-pund junior, entered the fall camp as the leading rusher on the depth chart, there were no guarantees that he would be the sole running back when the Tigers opened their season against Wake Forest.

"People fail to realize that it was a three-way fight before Duane got hurt," Burns said. "Duane had a slight edge at the time, but I thought Yusef and Merriweather, as well as Kyle Browning, those guys were battling it out pretty good. It was close all the way."

If the Tigers can survive the games against Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, Coleman thinks he can help his team upon his return – assuming he gets to play.

"Right now, I'm just working on getting healthy," Coleman said. "Once I'm healthy I'll just put in the coach's hands and hopefully I can perform well and not worry about my injury when I come back. It's up to Coach Bowden when I play. Whatever he says, I'm going to back him up."

So, the question is: Is the glass half full or half empty? Are the tailbacks going to manage their way to acceptable performances or is Whitehurst going to have to throw it more to generate any sort of offense?

Thankfully for the coaching staff, that question doesn't have to be address at this exact moment. There are more practices and scrimmages to come, which means more opportunities for a tailback to step to the forefront and lead the way.

But just in case that doesn't happen, that still gives Whitehurst plenty of time to get this throwing shoulder nice and loose.

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