CLEMSON, S.C. — Wayne Gallman first became an expert at playing second fiddle when he was in high school. As a running back at Grayson High in Loganville, Ga., the sturdy Gallman starred on the same team as Robert Nkemdiche, the vaunted Ole Miss defensive tackle and former No. 1 overall recruit in the class of 2013. Gallman would routinely lift Grayson's offense on his shoulders during lengthy, soul-crushing drives, serving as the grueling ballcarrier who knew how to gain the tough yards.
But once the offense got down to the goal line, coaches would often put the ball in the hands of Nkemdiche, who doubled as an unstoppable 6' 4", 300-pound fullback. "There used to be times I'd run it all the way down the field, then we'd put Robert in, since he's big," Gallman said on Tuesday. "So he'd run it in."
Gallman is quick to qualify his story. "I do whatever it takes to help the team," he said. "I don't care too much about the spotlight." That's good news, because the redshirt sophomore hasn't garnered much of it during his tenure at Clemson, either. Despite emerging as one of the best running backs in the ACC this season, Gallman's contributions have been overshadowed by those of sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson, a Heisman Trophy finalist and one of the most electric dual-threat passers in the country.
Still, the Tigers say Gallman has been just as important to Clemson's offense as Watson. Heading into Monday's College Football Playoff national title game against Alabama, the 6' 1", 215-pounder could hold the key to upending the Crimson Tide's immovable defensive front. "He's a great back—not a good back, a great back," Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney said. "He's not underappreciated for us, that's for sure."
After rushing for 150 yards during a 37–17 win over Oklahoma in last Thursday's Orange Bowl, Gallman set a Clemson single-season rushing record with 1,482 yards. He ran for at least 100 in the Tigers' most recent three wins over South Carolina, North Carolina and Oklahoma, the third time this season he has enjoyed a streak of three consecutive 100-yard outings. In Clemson's 45–37 victory over the Tar Heels in the ACC title game on Dec. 5, Gallman showcased his entire skill set, piling up 187 rushing yards, 68 receiving yards and two touchdowns (one rushing, one receiving).
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Yet those most familiar with the Tigers have seemingly glazed over Gallman's feats—even a couple of the players themselves. "I didn't even know he was going to set that [single-season rushing] record until a week before he did," redshirt junior center Jay Guillermo said. "One of the media guys said something about it."
When Guillermo caught wind of the news, he joked with the typically reserved Gallman about his place in the Clemson record books. "He was embarrassed," Guillermo said. "He was like, 'Oh, yeah.'"
Gallman's quiet nature contrasts with his demeanor on the field. Several Clemson teammates describe the back as an "angry" runner, more apt to deliver a blow than to take a hit. That mindset stems from a high school career in which also Gallman shined as a linebacker, notching seven sacks as a senior at Grayson. During his recruitment several schools considered him to be a primarily defensive prospect—former Georgia coach Mark Richt even wanted him to consider playing both ways—but the veracious Gallman always saw himself as an offensive threat. That came from years as a self-described "wild child"; if he wanted to get from point A to point B, he was going to run, even within the halls of his mother's house in Loganville.
But Gallman couldn't rely on speed alone to grow into an every-down back at the college level. After playing in a Wing-T offense in high school, Gallman had to study the ins and outs of Clemson's spread attack. "He really had to work at it and learn," Tigers co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. "This day and age, with so many teams running spread offenses, there's a learning curve, but guys come in with a little bit of a foundation. With Wayne, it was really completely new to him."
The results have been prolific: Gallman and Watson have combined for 2,636 yards and 24 touchdowns on the ground in 2015, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. (Gallman has 12 scores with a 5.5 yards-per-carry mark.)
The final challenge of Gallman's season will be to finish strong against Alabama, which boasts the nation's stingiest run defense. The Crimson Tide allow an average of 2.3 yards per carry and 70.8 rushing yards per game, both tops in the FBS. This is the same defense that limited LSU star sophomore tailback Leonard Fournette to just 31 yards on 19 carries in a 30–16 win on Nov. 7. Meanwhile, Gallman's worst outing this fall came against Boston College, the nation's second-ranked run defense. The Eagles held Gallman to 48 yards on 17 carries in a 34–17 Clemson victory on Oct. 17.
Gallman isn't blind to what awaits him in Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 11. "It's the biggest moment of my life," he said. "It's the biggest stage I've ever been on."
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During Christmas break Gallman visited Mickey Conn, his head coach at Grayson, who played cornerback at Alabama and roomed with Swinney, a former walk-on receiver for the Crimson Tide. Conn cracked wise about the possibility of Gallman taking on his alma mater in the championship. Do you really think you can handle Alabama's defense? Gallman returned to Clemson rejuvenated, having added another challenge to his mental laundry list. Then he went out and dominated Oklahoma, scoring the go-ahead touchdown on a one-yard run in the third quarter and the put-away touchdown on a four-yard scamper in the fourth.
Still, Gallman seems more concerned with lifting Clemson's profile than his own. The Tigers entered the Orange Bowl as Las Vegas underdogs despite their No. 1 ranking in the College Football Playoff selection committee rankings. Gallman says whipping a blue-blood program like Alabama in the national title game would silence the critics and earn a measure of respect. "It's a big opportunity to shut a lot of people up," Gallman said. "We need to come out and do this for our program."
A few of Gallman's teammates view his under-the-radar season as an attribute. "Maybe he hasn't gotten the national attention that he deserves," fifth-year senior offensive guard Eric Mac Lain said, "but I think that's good for him. He keeps that chip on his shoulder. He just keeps going out there and proving people wrong each and every week."
Next up on the calendar is Alabama. If Gallman plays a prominent role against the Crimson Tide, you can bet he'll have earned his moment in the spotlight.