Clemson Football: Three-headed monster at running back?

Oct 30, 2021; Clemson, South Carolina, USA; Clemson Tigers running back Phil Mafah (26) runs the ball against Florida State Seminoles linebacker DJ Lundy (46) during the fourth quarter at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 30, 2021; Clemson, South Carolina, USA; Clemson Tigers running back Phil Mafah (26) runs the ball against Florida State Seminoles linebacker DJ Lundy (46) during the fourth quarter at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports /

Clemson football expects the running game to be a strength of the offense this season, which is a very different situation from last season. Fans had no idea what to expect in 2021. It was a mystery. We didn’t know who would start or what kind of rotation we would see. Then it turned out the offensive line had a lot of concerns as well, which made the running game very unreliable.

As time went on, the offensive line found modest solutions to some of their problems. The best talent in the running back group eventually asserted itself as well. As it turns out, it was the youngest & most inexperienced running backs like Will Shipley, Kobe Pace and Phil Mafah that Clemson found it could rely on.

Many people, myself included, have used the term “three-headed monster” to describe the Shipley, Pace & Mafah backfield as we approach the kickoff of the 2022 season against Georgia Tech. Clemson Nation is excited to see what these three men can accomplish together as a unit this season.

I must admit, however, that I don’t think Clemson will have a three-headed monster at running back this season. I do think we will see all three of those players, and lately I’m beginning to think we will see Dominique Thomas in games from time to time as well.

The truth is that I think Clemson will have a two-headed monster this season with Shipley & Pace.

I like Phil Mafah. I’m going to repeat that a lot in the next few minutes. I think he has a lot of potential. He had a few plays last year that were electric. I think he could have a great career ahead of him, and I think he deserves to see the field this season. The quickness & agility he shows at his size can’t be taught, and I’m excited for some of the praise he has received from the coaches for his abilities as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.

So what’s the problem? I’ll just say it. So far, to date, based on what I have seen on the field….

Phil Mafah is a tall Lyn-J Dixon.

There, I said it. Before I go further, please understand I am not comparing their attitudes. Dixon is an unpopular player right now in Clemson Nation because he was viewed as a problem in 2021. I am not comparing Mafah’s attitude or character to Dixon. I am comparing their play on the field exclusively.

We all know that the running backs and the offensive line are partners in crime. When the line opens up a hole and the back hits it and gets into the second level, they can make some big plays.

Sometimes, that hole doesn’t open the way it is planned. Maybe the defense snuffed out the play, or as we saw a lot in the first half of last season, the line might make mistakes and the play doesn’t happen the way it is drawn out.

On those plays, if the running back can’t determine some other way to find positive yards, they could end up with no gain or even a loss of yardage. This, in my opinion, sums up Dixon’s entire career in a nutshell. The main difference between Dixon and some of his contemporaries is that guys like Travis Etienne and Wayne Gallman had enough vision that if the hole didn’t open as expected, they could find another way to get positive yards.

If the offensive line opened up a hole for Dixon, watch out. Once he got to the second level, he could put on a move and make a guy miss. Suddenly, he had a 10-20 yard gain. If the offense didn’t open up the hole, Dixon usually didn’t know what to do. He might dance behind the line and hope something opened. He might run side to side and hope he could get around the end. If that hole didn’t open for Dixon, he usually had no gain or a loss.

In my opinion, this is where I saw Mafah’s game at the end of last season, and I didn’t see anything in the Spring Game to really influence that perspective. If Mafah hit the hole in the line last season, or if the wide receivers made that rare block to open up space for him, he made a play. Once he was able to take on defenders in space, he would blast past them or put a spin move on them and he got a few big gains and found the end zone three times. When the hole wasn’t there, there weren’t many notable plays from Mafah. He usually ran into the back of the line and rarely got around the edge.

It’s important that I clarify that very few running backs show up in college with the kind of vision and instinct needed to create positives when the play breaks down. Only special ones have that natural ability. I think Etienne was one of those guys. I think Shipley showed a lot of that natural ability last season.

Clemson football has a three headed monster at running back, or do they?

I don’t necessarily think Gallman or Pace had that kind of ability when they showed up at Clemson. Honestly, we didn’t see a lot of Pace in 2020, so it’s hard to gauge. Gallman, in my opinion, had to develop that vision. He needed experience and coaching and eventually evolved into a very creative player who was the perfect compliment to Deshaun Watson’s running from the quarterback position.

Dixon never developed that vision. In that regard, he was the same player when he showed up in 2018 that he was in 2021. I don’t expect that to change when he takes the field for Tennessee this coming season.

I am not saying that Mafah can’t develop. He can. He was a true freshman last season. He can grow and develop the vision and creative qualities. I just haven’t see those qualities yet. I think that is what sets Shipley and Pace a cut above Mafah going into the 2022 season, and why I think that duo will have a significant majority of snaps at running back this season over the balance of the running back room.

Of course, if there are injuries, this is all thrown out the window. If either Shipley or Pace are injured, the offense will start to rely on him a lot more.

I understand if you don’t agree with what I’ve said here, or if you just don’t like it. Like I said, and will reiterate over and over, I like Phil Mafah. I simply don’t think he will be equals on the field with Shipley & Pace this season. I think the running back monster will have two heads, not three.

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