Coming into the 2021 season, there was a lot of competition at the running back spot for the Clemson Tigers.
As it turns out, maybe all that competition created an unhealthy position room. Freshman running back Will Shipley, the team's leading rusher, said Monday that a group that's lost two players since the season began is actually stronger because of the adversity of losses and injuries.
"it’s just hard early on because we had five or six guys that could all produce and not everyone was getting able to, so I think some jealousy arose, some emotions arose," Shipley said. “Everything’s figured its way out.”
It certainly has. Clemson entered the year with Shipley, Kobe Pace and Phil Mafah competing with upperclassmen Lyn-J Dixon and Michel Dukes for carries. Dixon was the most experienced back in the group and the assumed alpha dog in the room. But he had discipline issues and didn't get along with running backs coach C.J. Spiller, a former Tiger legend.
So after rushing for 48 yards in three games, Dixon left the program and entered the NCAA transfer portal. Not too long after, Dukes followed when it was clear he didn't have a role this season. That left two freshmen Shipley and Mafah, the sophomore Pace and senior Darien Rencher to create their own bond.
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"I don’t even know if jealousy is the right word,” Shipley said. “I think it’s just tough when you’ve got so many guys that are competitors, so many guys that love to compete and just not everyone’s going to get their bite because we have so many guys and we’re such a great program."
Shipley says it happens at other places too, but Clemson has been able to navigate it and turn the running game into the strength of the team.
“I think there was a lot of jealousy and just a bad makeup in our room earlier in the season,” Shipley said. “The happiness for one another that we have (now) is great. It’s great to know that someone can prosper and someone else is happy for them, rather than kind of wish on his downfall in the background.”
The Tigers are coming off their best rushing performance in two years. Shipley had 112 yards on the ground to go along with Pace's 191 yards in a 333-yard rushing day in a 48-27 win over No. 10 Wake Forest that kept Clemson's slim ACC title hopes alive.
"For us to produce the way we did, it just goes to show how much we've improved over the season," said Shipley, who's rushed for 550 yards and nine touchdowns on 112 carries this season. "You go back to the Georgia game where we combined for under 10 carries and not very many yards either so just to see that improvement and the relationship that we've been able to create. We're happy for one another. I think that's a great sign for how our room is."
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