CLEMSON - The quarterback competition will receive more attention. The running back battle could end up being just as twisty and turny this spring and summer, with almost the same significance next fall.
WHO'S THE MAN?
Clemson candidates to start at running back:
D.J. HOWARD, r-sr., 6-0, 195 (22 years old)
Career stats: 133 rush, 581 yards (4.4 avg), 5 TD; 11 rec, 158 yards, TD
ZAC BROOKS, jr., 6-1, 190 (21)
Career stats: 74 rush, 365 yards (4.9 avg), 2 TD; 9 rec, 92 yards, TD
C.J. DAVIDSON, r-jr., 5-10, 190 (21)
Career stats: 36 rush, 160 yards (4.4 avg), 4 TD; 5 rec, 40 yards
WAYNE GALLMAN, r-fr., 6-1, 200 (19) - redshirted last season
TYSHON DYE, r-fr., 5-11, 215 (20) - out until fall with torn Achilles
"It's friendly fire here," proclaimed the dean of Clemson tailbacks, senior D.J. Howard. "We're bros off the field, but we know when it's time to hit that field, then we're enemies. But at the same time, we've got each other's backs."
Six of the past eight seasons, Clemson produced a 1,000-yard rusher. James Davis (2006-07) played in the NFL, C.J. Spiller (2009) and Andre Ellington (2011-12) are still there, and Roderick McDowell (2013) is angling to land in a training camp.
McDowell was the perceived underdog in Clemson's total offense this time last year, since the offense figured to run through quarterback Tajh Boyd both on the ground and in the air. But McDowell was a workhorse, posting 1,025 yards on 189 carries - 47 more attempts than all other Tigers tailbacks combined.
With Boyd's successor still up for grabs, McDowell's replacement takes on an even greater importance. McDowell's finest asset was his ability to morph over time into a well-rounded, not one-sided, tailback in offensive coordinator Chad Morris' spread attack.
"You've got to be a complete player when we put you on the field," head coach Dabo Swinney said. "We don't have time to sub you; we play so fast that if you can't pass protect, you're not going in the game."
Added junior C.J. Davidson on blocking for the quarterback: "That's probably the No. 1 thing they're looking for. We're all fast, we're all physical, we all have a great amount of athletic ability, so it's probably whoever can pass protect the best and has the best knowledge of the system."
A former jumper for the Clemson track and field team, Davidson's the intriguing candidate from the group. Howard and junior Zac Brooks were each numbed by injuries late last year, leaving backup duties in the Orange Bowl to Davidson, who recorded a 3-yard gain on a jet sweep on the fourth play from scrimmage against Ohio State.
Davidson finished with four touches for 30 yards, the only man utilized out of the backfield besides Boyd and McDowell. Not bad for a former walk-on who surrendered an 80 percent track scholarship to put on the pads for Clemson.
"Every day I work hard just like I don't have a scholarship, because I want to keep it," said Davidson, who had the walk-on label lifted by Swinney last fall when he was awarded one of the available football scholarships.
"I was a walk-on, but I told the coaching staff I don't have a walk-on demeanor. I want to be the man. I want to be able to show you guys I can carry the load, that I'm ready. That's what pushes me, to do something that's uncommon."
Swinney routinely promoted the little-known Davidson during press conferences last fall, vindicated by Davidson's Orange Bowl effort.
Being trotted out for media interviews last week along with Howard and Brooks also made a statement. (Freshmen Wayne Gallman and Tyshon Dye cannot speak to reporters until they play in a game.)
"(C.J.'s) a legitimate starting type of talent at the Division I football level," Swinney said last week. "He had a really good year growing up and learning. He'll be a factor for us these next couple years, no doubt about it."
Howard said he's repaired from nagging ankle problems, and Brooks has received constant treatment this winter to recover after shoulder surgery.
"D.J. Howard has had an excellent four days (of spring practices)," Swinney said. "I don't know if I've seen him as consistent as he's been these first four days. He's really been dialed in. And the same goes for Brooks."
When the coaching staff handed out post-season individual evaluations, all three returning running backs with experience saw it listed on their card: "Expected starter for 2014."
"Everybody's kind of in the same position," Brooks said. "We're like, you all got the same thing? We just all work to get the team better and get one another better as a corps. We want to be the best backs in the nation."
Howard gets the first-team reps in practice, as the oldest player. He's followed by Brooks, Davidson and Gallman, while Dye is out until fall with a torn Achilles. Former tight end Jay Jay McCullough is also taking running back reps.
The order doesn't really matter until Aug. 30 at Georgia.
"My biggest thing is working on me, making sure I do all I can to stay healthy, because this is my last rodeo," Howard said. "There ain't no re-dos, no second chances. This is it. I've got to give my all, do everything to protect myself and do what I can for this team.
"I'm ready to get this thing rolling. Fall can't get here fast enough."