7 at 7: Notes from Saturday’s scrimmage, including the starting running back and the most important Tiger besides Tajh Boyd

Roderick McDowell

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@postandcourier.com
@Aaron_Brenner

CLEMSON – See what I did there? We can go 7 at 7 p.m. as well as in the a.m.

1) Since the quarterback position has been settled without a shadow of a doubt, the most intriguing positional battle in Clemson football camp on offense focuses on the starting tailback.

Of course, it won’t be just one featured runner. For now, at least, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney favors senior Roderick McDowell, who leads all Tigers tailbacks with 674 career rushing yards – which are actually nearly 100 fewer than quarterback Tajh Boyd’s career total.

“Rod’s our starter. He’s clearly earned the right to be the starter,” Swinney said Saturday, two weeks before the opener vs. Georgia. “But he can’t do it by himself. We’re going to be a running back by committee, and that’s fine. When you do what we do and you play as many snaps as we play, we’ve got to be able to have a good crop of guys.”

The other big name to watch is true sophomore Zac Brooks, who averaged 4.6 yards a carry in limited duty last year and has produced a consistently solid camp.

“He’s obviously a little bit bigger,” offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “Moving the chains right now, doing some good things in pass protection, catches the ball really well.”

Brooks is listed as 6-foot-1, 190 pounds after pre-camp weigh-ins. McDowell is 5-10, 200, while D.J. Howard is 6-0, 195, so whatever Morris is seeing, Brooks might simply be playing bigger than his measureables.

“D.J. and Hot Rod do the same too, but he’s just a bigger body,” Morris said. “He’s got more of a tendency to be a punishing-style runner.”

Freshmen Tyshon Dye (5-11, 215), who’s missed the past week with a bad back, and Wayne Gallman (6-1, 200) are redshirt candidates. Walk-on C.J. Davison is also in the mix for carries.

2) While the baby-faced secondary goes through growing pains, Clemson’s defense will hinge early on its experienced front seven.

“I don’t think we’re dominant yet, but we are much, much improved in the defensive line and linebacker position from where we were last year at this time,” Swinney said. “Now will they make the same type of improvement? We will see. And we better be. Because we’ve got a really tough challenge right out of the gate.”

Darrell Smith3) In 37 career games, fifth-year senior Darrell Smith has one recorded one stat besides his 25 special-teams tackles: one catch, one yard, last year.

With the tight end position ravaged by injuries to Sam Cooper and Jordan Leggett, the listed fullback Smith is working at tight end.

“Darrell Smith has been awesome. Probably as important as Tajh right now to our offense,” Swinney said. “We’ve got to keep Darrell healthy and ready to go. He is that important to what we do in everything. He brings that toughness that we have to have.”

Added Boyd: “Darrell Smith is a big part of this offense right now. He’s a fifth-year senior who’s a selfless guy when he steps on that field. He’s going to have a big impact on us this season.”

Smith is referred to by teammates as a soft-spoken leader, but his role might be increasing very soon.

“I’m working on my craft,” Smith said. “Working on my pass routes, trying to catch the ball better, and improve my blocking every day.”

4) Upon discussing the knee injury to freshman athlete T.J. Green on Aug. 7, Swinney said ominously, “it doesn’t look good.”

Yet Green escaped a torn ACL prognosis, and returned to drills this week. On Saturday, he caught three passes during the scrimmage and was tackled without issue, a highly encouraging sign.

“He’s practiced well the last few days,” Swinney said. “Ran the ball after the catch well, returned kicks. He feels good.”

5) Swinney gathered his players and told them not to buy into the hype surrounding the program this season.

Once. And then, that was the end of it.

It hasn’t been a recurring topic in team meetings, even after the Associated Press poll released Saturday matched the coaches’ poll rating of No. 8 for the Tigers.

“I really don’t pay attention to it,” defensive end Corey Crawford said. “I don’t know how to comment on it, because we have to play regardless of whether we’re No. 1 or the last one. It really doesn’t matter until the end.”

6) Even though he’s just 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds – usually a body type fit for an outside linebacker – defensive end Vic Beasley has a chance to terrorize many a quarterback trying to pick apart Clemson’s defense.

“He plays like he’s 270. He can get into some mismatch situations, but his skill set allows him to overcome a lot of those things,” Swinney said. “His strength, his length, his speed, and his motor. He can be on the field on any down.”

7) This is probably the best way anybody could sum up a skilled yet raw group of freshmen going through their first fall camp, hoping to produce as early as 2013:

“The consistency is the thing,” Swinney said, “but they are flashy from time to time.”

Look for Leggett, Green, cornerback Mackensie Alexander, defensive end Shaq Lawson and defensive backs Jayron Kearse and Korrin Wiggins to definitely play early in their careers. The rest of the pack is still hoping to contribute this season, but many will redshirt and prepare for 2014.

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