He jumped off the screen.
For a five-star recruit, that was hardly rare.
But this kid, he was different. A star running back at a suburban Charlotte, N.C., high school, he stood out for starters – let’s face it and keep it real – with being white. So, the comparisons to the Carolina Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey were inevitable and just too hard ignore.
The kid ran with the same sprinter’s gait, but only more graceful and faster … and, though being the exact the same size (5-11, 205), he was stronger, far stronger in the way he moved. Bullish even, with running through, and sometimes over, tacklers with power every bit as much as speed and swivel hips.
This was current Clemson University freshman Will Shipley when I watched film of him during his junior season at Weddington High School. He was, in a word, awesome. The No. 1 all-purpose back in the country. The No. 1 recruit in the Tigers’ recruiting class that now finds itself matriculating on the school’s beautiful campus in upstate South Carolina.
He could do it all. Hit the home run. Get the tough yards. Lead block. Pass block. Catch out of the backfield. Catch lined up at receiver. Or pick off balls as a defensive back.
Still can (and, really, he looked far more Clemson great Travis Etienne than McCaffrey in doing so).
The problem, and, really, the crux of the problem at Clemson right now is that, for the most part, Shipley has been symbolic of the players in its system. In short, head coach Dabo Swinney and Co. have the players. Hell, they have players who were bigger time, far bigger time recruits than those who had a major part in national championship seasons in 2016 and 2018.
They just haven’t produced as expected.
Defensive lineman Bryan Bresee was the No. 1 recruit in the 2020 class. For all the hype surrounding him, including him being a preseason All-American this season, he really hasn’t done all that much. He had 23 tackles and 4 sacks as a freshman. OK, fine. But nothing special.
Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, the No. 1 QB recruit in the country in 2020, was brilliant in two games in relief of Trevor Lawrence last season as a freshman, but he’s been a major disappointment this fall.
Truth? Got no aversion to ripping the coaches, including Swinney and uber-ballyhooed offensive coordinator Tony Elliott and his beyond-uber-ballyhooed defensive coordinator Brent Venables, but the reality is, these guys, as well as the rest of the staff, have gone out and got the players needed to not only win, but dominate.
Granted, the Tigers have been a bit “soft” on signing top-flight offensive lineman. They obviously decided in the last handful of years that, if anything, if one area they could lag compared to others, it was there.
They’ve loaded up on defensive lineman and skill guys on both sides of the ball.
The thinking, frankly, is kinda sound. But, right now, while everyone is ripping the program and writing the R.I.P. for Clemson as an elite program, the reality is the Tigers are … right there.
Once their blue-chippers start producing, they will be either 1) the top program in the country or 2) the second-best behind Alabama.
Right now, D.J. has shown little, if any, improvement from a disastrous start to his sophomore season. Bresee is gone for the year due to injury.
Shipley? He, clearly, was the best player in the program the first couple weeks – not just due to numbers he posted, but in being rock-solid with blocking and a leader. Then he got hurt in Week 3, came back in Week 6 against Pittsburgh and dropped a crucial pass that had long-TD written all over it and switched momentum to the Panthers’ favor.
Here’s the deal: Clemson, right now, is no longer the staple for ACC play or a given for CFP entry.
But Shipley went off for 128 yards rushing (two TDs), 24 passing and 42 on returns in Saturday’s 30-20 win against Florida State. This was his first game with being “fully” used, and the numbers and result were a good sign for Swinney.
In other words, if Shipley and others start performing as expected, don’t close the casket on the Tigers just yet.
Especially beyond this season.