We're breaking down the status of each position on the Clemson football team every week until kickoff.
By Morgan Thomas
Position Coach: CJ Spiller
CJ Spiller was named the running backs coach for Clemson on February 5th, 2021. It is without a doubt that Spiller is one of the most beloved players in Clemson history. He played four years as a running back from 2006 to 2009 and was recently selected to the College Football Hall of Fame. He was one of the most exciting players to watch and still holds the ACC single-season and career records for all-purpose yards.
Off the field, Spiller is one of Clemson's greatest ambassadors. He has spent time as an intern, a mentor, a radio show host and now a coach. What he has already done for the university and its football program will be forever remembered.
My thoughts: Everyone loves CJ. I have yet to run into him and not see him smiling. If you check out my background during my YouTube shows, you will see a signed No. 28 jersey on my wall. I can still remember sitting in my car, listening to 105.5FM's coverage of his press conference when he announced that he was returning for his senior year. I almost jumped through the roof!
The question has never been how much we love CJ or how successful we want him to be. The question is, can he win on the recruiting trail against the elite schools in the southeast?
One of Spiller's challenges has been the fact that he is fighting against his own roster. Elite running backs want playing time. Many are ok with waiting one season for their chance. However, with Clemson having three elite running backs with multiple years left, the wait for a freshman would likely be more than one season.
Clemson has offered a handful of elite running back for the 2023 class and hopefully, they will earn a commitment from one of those players. If they don't, then 2024 will be a make-or-break year for Spiller to land an elite running back recruit.
Who is the starter?
Sophomore Will Shipley
Shipley finished the 2021 season with a team-leading 149 rushing attempts, 739 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. I fully expect Shipley to continue to build upon his role as the starting running back for Clemson in 2022. The biggest concern for Shipley is that he hasn't played in the spring. He is recovering from a foot injury and is expected to be fully healthy before fall camp begins. His ability to be a dual-threat in both the running game and the passing game should continue to help the Clemson offense turn things around. If the offensive line and QB play can improve, Clemson could be looking at a Travis Etienne or even a CJ Spiller type season for their starting running back in 2022.
Who is the rising star?
Sophomore Phil Mafah
Mafah finished last season with 67 carries for 292 yards and three touchdowns while securing six of eight targets for 38 yards as a freshman. Clemson originally wanted to redshirt Mafah in order to allow a year of separation between him and Will Shipley. However, due to injuries during the season, Clemson was forced to play Mafah more than the maximum allowed four games. This roster management issue is another reason CJ Spiller currently has a recruiting challenge at the running back position.
When Dabo Swinney revealed that Shipley and junior running back Kobe Pace would both be limited or unavailable for spring practice, all eyes turned to Mafah. While I expect Shipley to be the starter for Clemson, it's hard to ignore the fact that Mafah has shown he too can put on a highlight reel when he gets the ball. Mafah isn't as big of a passing threat as Shipley but he doesn't have to be. Clemson shouldn't want him to be exactly like Shipley. The one good thing from Shipley and Pace being out this spring is that Mafah has taken on the role of a leader for the offense.
Best of the rest?
Junior Kobe Pace
Pace appeared in 11 games last season and finished with 105 carries for 641 yards and six touchdowns while catching 12 of 16 targets for 131 yards. He has also been dealing with a foot injury but is expected to be fully ready to go by fall practice.
It's hard to label any of the running backs for Clemson. Each one has their own set of unique talents and each could easily make a case for why they should be the starter. It is my opinion that, because Pace missed the spring and Mafah did not, he will now be competing with snaps more than we saw last season. I understand that Dabo Swinney will likely allow the most tenured player to get their opportunities but I also understand that Swinney will need to reward Mafah for his efforts and availability to the team this spring. Clemson will likely have a three-headed monster in the running back room this fall.
What will make 2022 a success?
A three-headed monster at running back will be a great thing for the Tigers who are desperately looking for consistency on offense. The rotation of Shipley, Mafah and Pace should keep defenses on their heels and keep Clemson's running backs healthy and rested in 2022. If the offensive line can improve even a little in run blocking, Clemson could finish the year as one of the most feared rushing teams in the nation. If Shipley turns up his freshman success a notch this year, Clemson should finish with him as a 1,000-yard rusher. Mafah and Pace should both be over 500 yards for the season and the team as a trio should have close to 40 touchdowns combined. Don't think of these goals as stretch goals by any means. Clemson was that successful running the ball in 2018.