April 21, 2014

Negative Rushes Impact Running Game


Earlier in the week I posted numbers that showed that Rod McDowell has performed admirably in comparison to Andre Ellington in 2012. One area that I pointed out that McDowell was not as successful as Ellington is the percentage of negative rushes (for that analysis I used “0 or negative yardage”, for this one I am using only negative rushes).

Because he has so many carries than the other backs McDowell is bound to have more negative plays, which is why we use the % instead. (Tajh Boyd’s numbers below excludes sacks).

Negative Rushes

What that number, 13.0% means is that McDowell loses yardage on about one of every 7.7 carries.

One could argue that Davidson’s numbers are so low because he is facing worn down or second and third team defenses when he plays. I get that (especially the worn down part), but also realize that Davidson typically plays with second and third team linemen blocking for him.

Put into context along side the numbers posted Monday and the picture of McDowell as a runner becomes a little clearer. He’s a big play back that’s hit or miss. He may gain 20 yards or he may lose 3 and consistency has not been part of his game to this point.

It may also help explain why McDowell has only 5 carries on third downs all season.

Successful and Explosive Play Analysis – Running Backs

Rod McDowell

Last week I posted that Zac Brooks led the running backs in successful play percentage and this week I’ve added explosive plays to the mix.

As I mentioned then, there is some benefit to Brooks coming in as a change of pace to Rod McDowell and having limited touches.

What is becoming clearer is that both Brooks and McDowell have something to offer, albeit with different skill sets.

Most Clemson fans were aware that there would be a running back by committee this season, but I also believe most, me included, expected McDowell to lead the charge. McDowell had an outstanding game against Georgia and has been banged up since.

It’ll be interesting to see how the backs are used against Boston College tomorrow and especially against the Seminoles next week.


Brooks Making Most of Limited Opportunities

Zac Brooks

The concept of “Successful Plays” is not original to this web site. If I recall correctly, I first saw the concept on smartfootball.com in a comparison of NFL running backs.

The metric has some value, because as non-stat geeks know, not all 4 yard gains are the same. Gaining 4 yards on 3rd and 5 means a punt is likely coming, while gaining four yards on 3rd and 3 moves the chains.

This concept is quite simple. Successful plays are defined by the following criteria:

  • 1st Down – Gain 40% of yards to go for a first down, gain a first down or score a touchdown.
  • 2nd Down – Gain 50% of yards to go for a first down, gain a first down or score a touchdown.
  • 3rd Down – Gain a first down or score a touchdown.
  • 4th Down – Gain a first down or score a touchdown.

With that criteria in mind I applied this concept to the main ball carriers for Clemson and the result was a bit surprising to me.

Zac Brooks leads the way at 78.9% success rate. Yes, the sample size is small, but Brooks has gotten it done when called on.

Success 5

Brooks wouldn’t be able to maintain that success rate as the feature back, but the point is that Brooks has been successful when given the opportunity.

This analysis also confirms what we all know – Tajh Boyd is an effective runner.

Rod McDowell’s numbers may look a bit low, but the truth is they are not out of line with numbers I’ve seen for “feature” backs. The more carries, the more “hit and miss” there’s going to be. McDowell gets lots of carries early, before the defense has been worn down and/or seen many pass plays or formations.

In addition, we know Rod has been dinged up with a concussion and sprained ankle in recent weeks.

I am a bit surprised at D.J. Howard’s numbers. Howard has also spent time recovering from an injury, in his case prior to the Georgia game, and as a result started slowly against Georgia and has not fully recovered, at least in this metric.

Grading the Offensive Line and Backs


It’s important to understand that the information provided below is my interpretation of performance during the Georgia game. As such it is limited in that I did not have “coaches film”, the benefit of knowing each and every play call/responsibility, and a variety of other factors that may influence my rating.

For these reasons, there’s a good chance these scores are too high and it may be more accurate to think of them more as a relative guide, i.e. “98.2 is better than 72.7”, and not “98.2 is close to perfect”.
Having seen the tape a couple of times and comparing the scores to my initial reaction live, I think these scores are fairly representative. After all, the offense averaged 6.1 yards per play and ended up with 467 total yards.

On the other hand, there were some clear misses on blocks, passes and a couple of times on runs. One of the issues with analysis of this type is that you may have seen something different from me and that’s fine.

OL 1

The other issue is numbers like this don’t provide any context, but rather average out what happens over the course of the game – this analysis scores every play with the same importance as every other play and provides no context for score, quarter, down and distance, etc.

For example, many fans would argue that a whiff on a block that ultimately results in Sammy Watkins being injured on the second play of the game (Chick-fil-A Bowl) is more important than a missed block on 1st and 10 in the first quarter of the Georgia game. I get that.

The goal is to provide a guide as to who is performing relative to his peers, that’s all.

Back Grades 1

This type of analysis is time consuming and tedious to some extent. It certainly gives me a better idea of what is happening during the game/season and helps me understand the team’s strengths and weaknesses better, but the down side is there is other analysis that could be done, but isn’t because of time constraints. I’ll let my readership decide if this is the type of analysis they are looking for or if they want something else.

The goal of this site is to provide information you can’t readily find in/on other sources. To that end I think this information is valuable, but it’s only truly valuable if readers are interested in it.

Inside The Numbers: D.J. Howard

D.J. Howard

D.J. Howard proved himself a capable back during his 2011 freshman campaign. Not as quick or fast as Rod McDowell, Howard has shown the ability to churn out yardage when given the opportunity.

Howard missed two complete games and parts of others with injuries in 2012 and his stats suffered, so the question is whether we see the D.J. Howard of 2011 when the season arrives or will we see some other version?

My bet is on the 2011 version returning to spell Rod McDowell and see significant playing time, at least early in the season.

This is a crossroads year for Howard’s career at Clemson. The only player in front of him on the depth chart is a senior. The lightly used Zac Brooks is behind him. And then there are the freshmen arriving this summer.

If passed on the depth chart, Howard could be looking at a career as a backup.

Will Howard be able to hold off Brooks and the freshmen and solidify second spot in the rotation or will one or more pass Howard by once they get their feet underneath themselves and used to college ball?

How I Got There
I estimated Howard’s snaps based on the Ellington’s snap count from last year and the number I estimated earlier for Rod McDowell. I assumed Howard’s carry per snap, yards per carry and touchdown ratios would remain at his career level.

2013 Estimate

It’s hard for me to sell D.J. Howard short. Even in an injury plagued season 6 of his 35 rushing attempts (17%) were for 10 yards or more and only 2 (6%) were for negative yardage.

Howard won’t win any awards for flash and probably won’t be the lead on Sports Center, but he is a solid, stable backup that can provide a change of pace.

2013 Returning Experience: Running Back

Rod McDowell

Previously Posted Positions: Quarterback Offensive Line

Perhaps no skill position has more questions surrounding it than running back.

Andre Ellington departs after two + year’s worth of starts and over 1,800 career snaps leaving Rod McDowell as the Tigers most experienced back.

Entering his senior season McDowell has been a career backup, but an outstanding 2012 season in a reserve role has some Clemson fans rethinking McDowell’s value. Whether that translates to a satisfactory starting running back remains to be seen.

D.J. Howard suffered through an injury plagued sophomore season and has only seen 268 snaps over two seasons. Howard is more of a bruiser/pounder and not a breakaway threat on the level of Ellington or even McDowell.

2012 Running Back Experience Final

At times in 2012 Zac Brooks look over his skis, even against marginal competition, at other times Brooks acquitted himself well. By all accounts Brooks should have redshirted last season, but that was prevented by depth issues at the position. Not everyone agrees with my luke-warm assessment and I’m certainly no football talent scout, but I wonder if Brooks will ever contribute as more than a backup.

One side of this argument is that Brooks was only a true freshman, and I certainly get that angle. Spiller and Davis played as freshmen, Ellington, McDowell and Howard did not. It’s unfair to compare Brooks to the first two and it remains to be seen how he will ultimately compare to the other three.

McDowell’s sudden emergence as a redshirt junior should serve as a cautionary tale – players develop at different rates and Brooks may be a different player when August rolls around.

Not listed above are two 2013 commits that have yet to officially sign with Clemson. Neither are of the Davis/Spiller caliber and potentially face a redshirt in 2013 though depth may save one or both from that fate.

Rod McDowell – Unsung Hero


Rod McDowell hadn’t made much of an impact in his first three years on campus. McDowell was part of Dabo Swinney’s first recruiting class, the tiny 2009 group that numbered just 12 individuals.

After redshirting that first year, McDowell played sparingly in his freshman and sophomore campaigns, seeing mostly mop up duty behind Andre Ellington, Mike Bellamy and D.J. Howard. McDowell rushed for only 224 yards combined in those first two years.

Through hard work, preserverance, injury and attrition 2012 has been a good year for McDowell. Bellamy transferred, Howard has been nicked up and Zac Brooks continues to be a work in progress.

With no reliable and experienced backup to Ellington the Tigers seemed a tad thin at running back. Seemed is the operative word. McDowell stepped up game after game and including the Chic-fil-A Bowl ended the season with 83 carries for 460 yards (5.5 per carry) and 5 touchdowns.

But more than mere statistics, McDowell did what was needed. Not only did McDowell take part of the load off Ellington, he did it with energy, passion and drive. In short, McDowell ran hard on every carry and played hard when he didn’t carry the ball.

One of the times McDowell didn’t carry the ball was on 4th and 16 with 1:32 to go last Monday night versus LSU.

As Tajh Boyd dropped back, Lamin Barrow, all 6’2, 232 lbs. of him, blitzed and was blowing by Clemson right guard Tyler Shatley. McDowell, started the play looking as if he intended to help right tackle Brandon Thomas, but appeared to see the streaking Barrow headed unimpeded towards Boyd and the end of the game.


Barrow is not just a guy (JAG). He had 12 total tackles, including 2 for loss in this game. McDowell quickly veered left and cut Barrow just enough to give Boyd the time to get rid of the ball.

We all know what happened after that.

If McDowell doesn’t make that block, Boyd doesn’t make that pass, Nuk Hopkins doesn’t make that catch, Chandler Catanzaro doesn’t make that field goal and Clemson doesn’t win.

This is a stat focused site, sometimes too much so per my regular readers. Well, I’m here to tell you that no play and no stats accumulated by Rod McDowell in his first 3 years was bigger than that single block, a play for which his statistics were non-existent other than participation.

Lost in the beautiful spiral placed perfectly by Boyd and the sliding catch by Hopkins was the block of a lifetime by a 5’9, 195 lb. reserve running back that was just as important because without it the others never would have happened.

Sometimes I get lost in the statistics and miss the finer points of the game. I watched that play about 10 times before I noticed McDowell’s block.

Shame on me because it was a thing of beauty, just as pretty as a 40 yard spiral and a sliding catch on 4th and 16.

Looking Back – Game 9

A few notes compiled while watching Clemson dismantle Duke 56-20 and wonder how ESPN2 could bungle the broadcast any worse than that mess.

  • Yes, it was a blow out win that was never in doubt, but remember it was in game 9 last year that the turnover fest began for Clemson.  It will be interesting to see what happens this coming week against Maryland.
  • I believe it’s now law that anytime Martavis Bryant catches a pass it must be an explosive play and preferably a touchdown.  Unofficially in his career Bryant has 15 receptions for 405 yards (27 yards per catch) and 5 touchdowns.
  • More lapses in the defensive backfield.  Broken record.
  • Ellington’s injury didn’t look serious and McDowell and Howard looked ok, but the Tigers need #23.
  • Nuk Hopkins – 4 catches, 3 touchdowns.  Please show me 3 better wide receivers in the nation.


Looking Back – Game 8

Thoughts compiled while watching Clemson dismantle Wake Forest on Thursday night:

  • Nice to see you again, Sammy Watkins. Wow. 3 receptions of over 50 yards. School record for receiving yardage in a game.
  • Tajh Boyd has turned into a very effective runner gaining first downs on broken plays. Who would have thought that last year?
  • Martavis Bryant now has 364 yards and 4 touchdowns on 14 receptions – 26 yards per catch.
  • Like what I saw out of the defense for the most part, but where did those penalties come from? 9 penalties for 79 yards, most of the big ones on the defense.
  • Venables coaches to the very end, no matter what the score or game situation.
  • One area that I was not impressed with was the running game. I suggested yesterday that the offensive line should dominate Wake and that didn’t happen. Ellington’s longest run was 12 yards and he averaged 4.1 yards per carry. McDowell and Howard were not effective, either.
  • The left tackle spot concerns me a bit going forward.
  • Nice play by freshman Cortez Davis to cause a Wake fumble and not get noticed (in a bad way) during his first extensive playing time.
  • Good to see Bradley Pinion see some action both at punter and on kickoffs – he is after all the punter of the future and all 3 of Pinion’s kickoffs were touchbacks.
  • Adam Humphries as a shut down corner for a few plays. Really appreciate an unselfish player who will do whatever is asked to help the team.
  • When you don’t turn the ball over it is really difficult to lose with this Clemson offense.
  • 5 touchdowns in 6 red zone possessions = 5.83 points per possession.
  • Let’s be honest – Wake’s not good and their offensive line is banged up. Still 5 sacks is a pretty good night and Vic Beasley had 2 of those.
  • 8 games in Josh Watson has caused a fumble, recovered a fumble and blocked a kick.

Updated Rushing Stats

Despite quiet games against Ball State and Furman, Andre Ellington is averaging 103 yards per game.  At his current rate Ellington projects to 1,339 yards and 15/16 touchdowns (assuming 13 games).  Not a bad year, but not the number Ellington needs to become the all-time leading rusher.

Ellington didn’t play in the Georgia Tech game last year and that is an important factor in the Tigers favor on Saturday.

Assuming Sammy Watkins is back to 100% it’ll be interesting to see how he is used in the running this game, especially with the loss of D.J. Howard.  We saw Watkins line up in the backfield and run from a more conventional position several times against Florida State and I would expect to see more of that this week.

Rushing-Game 5

Rod McDowell also continues to contribute, benefitting the most from the injuries to Howard and the absence of Watkins.  McDowell’s 3 touchdowns on 21 carries is impressive and two of those weren’t necessarily cheap touchdowns, coming against Auburn and Boston College.

How McDowell is used this week with the absence of Howard and the return of Watkins is another interesting subplot and will be a window into the amount of trust the coaches have in him.

Of course, defenses now have to account for Tajh Boyd in the running game as Boyd has become a serious threat – just ask Boston College’s Steele Divitto.