Projecting the Clemson Football depth chart: Running Back

We know Phil Mafah is the starting running back for Clemson Football this fall. Beyond that, there is little certainty.
Clemson Tigers running back Phil Mafah (7)
Clemson Tigers running back Phil Mafah (7) / Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Unio / USA

Clemson Football elected to sit several key players in the Spring Game. One of them was Phil Mafah, the projected starter this fall. Dabo Swinney said they wanted to get a look at some of the younger players, so Mafah was a student coach for the game.

While I was as disappointed as any fan to not see Mafah play, the strategy was sound. There is little doubt about Mafah’s status as the presumed starter in 2024. After that, the waters are a little murkier.

Projected first-string: Phil Mafah

Projected second-string: Keith Adams Jr.

Projected third-string: Jay Haynes

Reserves: Jarvis Green, David Eziomume

Notable walk-ons: Peyton Streko, Tristan Rigby

I don’t think we need to spend a lot of time discussing why Mafah is RB1. His resume stands for itself. It will be exciting to see him in a clear starting role. What is up for debate is just how much will he be used versus the other backs in the room.

Clemson has not historically utilized a ‘work-horse’ running back during Swinney’s tenure. In some seasons there are as many as four running backs who could realistically see the field against any opponent. The number of backs who typically play is based on how many earn it in the eyes of the coaches.

Thus far, we (the fans) haven’t seen much to suggest anyone behind Mafah has played so well that the staff just can’t keep them off the field, so if there ever was a season that the Tigers could put upwards of 80% or more of the carries on one guy, this would be it.

Obviously, Mafah can’t go all the time. He will need to be spelled. Several fans are proponents that the next man off the bench should be Haynes, and it isn’t hard to understand why. When Haynes got a chance to get on the field, he did three things.

The first two things are the reasons why fans are enamored with Haynes: he ran for a touchdown and he caught a touchdown. It took four carries and one reception to put 14 points on the board. Even though it was against an FCS opponent, he flashed.

It was the third thing that he did that was a problem: he got injured. We have no idea if the staff would have felt comfortable putting him in meaningful game situations because he was unavailable for most of the season.

Let’s just bottom line it with Haynes: he was listed at 5’-11” and 185 pounds this season. Under the circumstances, it is very fair to question his durability, but health on the gridiron isn’t the only thing impacted by size.

If there is one thing Swinney and his staff will always mention when talking about running backs who are ready and who aren’t ready, it’s blocking. We saw how (painfully) critical blocking can be by the running backs when they are responsible for protecting the quarterback last season.

Forget technique for a second. Haynes is at a fundamental disadvantage against defenders because of his size. Can a man of Haynes’s stature overcome that? Yes, but it won’t happen when he can’t get out on the field and practice. Haynes missed spring practice this season while returning to health. He should be good to go in the fall, but I doubt he is likely to make up a lot of ground on the man who is likely ahead of him at running back. Special teams might be a different story, but we’ll talk about that at a later time.

The man who is squarely RB2 is Adams, who is known as ‘Hammerhead’. He is two inches shorter than Haynes but listed at thirty pounds heavier. He also has two full seasons in the program. He hasn’t seen the field in games much but he has had the practice time that Haynes has missed.

Adams is a guy who can come in a do the things that Mafah does. He isn’t going to do them as well as Mafah, but that isn’t the need. Where Haynes can create a niche for himself in 2024 is by doing the one thing that Mafah nor Adams have demonstrated a talent for: catching the ball.

Can Mafah catch the ball? Yes, but it isn’t a specialty. I could see Adams coming into the game to spell Mafah when the Tigers are showing 11-personnel or 12-personnel. I can see Haynes coming onto the field if the Tigers decide to show a 21-personnel look. In other words, if the offense runs with two running backs, I could see Haynes assuming the role that Will Shipley would have filled in 2023.

Like Haynes, I would not be surprised at all to see Green involved with special teams as a return man. It is difficult based on what we saw in the Spring Game to gauge whether Eziomume will be a contributor this season. He is likely looking at a redshirt in 2024.

There aren’t many positions in these depth chart projections that I feel the need to talk about walk-ons, but I think it is fair to mention Streko and Rigby. I doubt we will see them on the field in typical game situations, but when Clemson plays lower-tier opponents or is in a garbage-time situation, Swinney empties the cabinet. I think both players have positioned themselves to see the field when the opportunities arise, much as Darien Rencher did a few seasons ago. Rigby did see snaps in 2023 against Charleston Southern and gobbled up 41 yards on two carries.

After Mafah, the Tigers are deep on potential, but if there is one thing we have learned about Swinney it is that he will hype up potential at every press conference he has, but potential won’t get you a spot on the depth chart. Classically, Swinney and his staff want the players to prove they belong in that spot. Fall camp might change things but I don’t think anyone has proven they belong ahead of Adams at RB2. Haynes has flashed, but it takes more than flash.