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Clemson freshman Will Shipley dresses funky off football field, dominates on it

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Freshman running back Will Shipley could make an impact right away for Clemson in 2021. Maddie Williams/Clemson Athletics/Provided

CLEMSON — Will Shipley, the ascendant Clemson running back, is not like most college freshmen. For one thing, he's an exceptionally talented football player, with size, speed and a nose for the end zone.

And then there's his mustache — brown and unruly, fighting for space between his nostrils and his mouth.

"He thinks," said Andy Capone, Shipley's coach at Weddington High School (Matthews, N.C.), "it looks good."

Same with his fashion. On football Fridays at Weddington, players wore their green jerseys to school. So did Shipley, along with a pair of athletic shorts, a brown vest and his dirt-caked Air Monarch sneakers.

"Back in seventh grade, I needed some new shoes," Shipley said in a video posted to the program's YouTube page. "Pops took me to Rack Room and bought 'em — $62 (at) Rack Room Shoes. Bought 'em a couple sizes big, so made sure I could wear them all the way through high school."

Shipley's father, James, disputed that last point. He isn't sure how, or why, his son came up with that detail. 

"I'm not taking credit for being that smart," James said with a chuckle. Material items have never been a point of great interest for his son, he added. 

Perhaps all of it — the mustache, the vest, the Monarchs and their mythos — is a mocking middle finger to the fashion world and its arbitrary trends, a nod to the quiet confidence that drips from Shipley's pores.

It's certainly easier to carve your own path when you've achieved the kind of success Shipley has.

In three high school seasons he led Weddington to two state championships, rushing for 4,173 yards and 55 touchdowns, with 23 more scores receiving and two on defense.

The 5-11, 200-pound Shipley is a fine runner, but he's also a skilled pass-catcher and has earned comparisons to Carolina Panthers star Christian McCaffrey. After his senior season of high school was pushed back to the spring because of COVID-19, Shipley enrolled at Clemson in January, and as spring practice begins Feb. 24, some believe the freshman could be in line to succeed the NFL-bound Travis Etienne as the team's starting running back.

There's little reason to believe the heightened profile will shake him. Shipley's still rocking the old Air Monarchs, even though James said he's begged his son to buy new sneakers.

"I can't get into his head." 

'He's Will. He's different.'

One sunny, muggy morning during summer practice at Weddington in 2017, a swing pass to the right was called for a freshman running back. Capone, then the team's offensive coordinator, stood just behind the line of scrimmage, watching the play develop.

Then he broke out into a sprint. The freshman, Shipley, had taken the pass 80 yards to the end zone, and Capone could hardly contain his excitement. It was the first time Shipley had touched the ball in a game setting.

"I sprinted down the field as far as I could, before I got out of breath," Capone said. "Gave him a big hug."

Coach and player grew together. Capone was named head coach entering the 2018 campaign, at which point Shipley started to blow up. The running back's highlight tape was plastered all over recruiting websites.

After Weddington won the state championship that season — with Shipley leading the way — McCaffrey reached out via Instagram direct message. By then Shipley had earned comparisons to the star, and McCaffrey told him to keep working hard. 

When you're a high school junior and NFL stars are reaching out to you, why not wear a brown vest? Shipley sometimes wore the thing three times a week, Capone said, and even kept it on over his jersey during pregame warm-ups.

"And then (he'd) run for 150 yards and four touchdowns that night," Capone said. "He's Will. He's different."

Shipley, who led Weddington to a perfect 16-0 season as a junior, was primarily recruited by Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott and director of football scouting Danny Pearman. They were impressed by his individuality, Capone said, and his competitive streak. 

Elliott is notoriously stingy in offering scholarships to running backs, but he knew what he saw in Shipley. Still, it wasn't until May that Shipley announced his commitment.

"He did make us work a little hard to get him there," Elliott said on national signing day. "It was because he was doing it the right way."

'Intangibles'

"There's really nothing he can't do," coach Dabo Swinney said of Shipley.

Many share in that sentiment. While Etienne and former Tigers running back Wayne Gallman had to develop as pass catchers, Elliott said, Shipley enters Clemson already skilled in that area.

He can also run strong between the tackles, and because of his good hands, be used as a slot receiver. A state champion in the 55 meters (6.36 seconds), Shipley has the speed to make defenders miss in the second and third levels.

"He's got this rare combination of size and speed and athleticism," Swinney said. "I haven't had a guy like him at that size with all those intangibles."

The absence of Etienne, the two-time ACC Player of the Year, creates a sizable hole in Clemson's running backs room. Aside from Shipley and fellow incoming freshman Phil Mafah, new running backs coach C.J. Spiller has a group of veterans who've yet to prove they can be every- down backs: Senior Lyn-J Dixon, sixth-year Darien Rencher, juniors Chez Mellusi and Michel Dukes, and freshman Kobe Pace. Of that group, Dixon recorded the most carries in 2020 (42).

Shipley might very well help fill the void. If anything, his quirky persona can be a balm for a room in transition. 

Enrolling early at Clemson meant Shipley missed out on his senior season of high school; Weddington kicks off its 2021 spring campaign Friday. Capone insisted Shipley made the right decision, though he conceded it will be weird not having the running back around.

Capone is hopeful Shipley will come back for senior day. The coach misses the kid — and his mucky sneakers, too.

Follow Joshua Needelman on Twitter at @joshneedelman.

Joshua Needelman covers Clemson for The Post and Courier. He's a Long Island, N.Y., native and a University of Maryland alum. He's won national and state awards in sports and feature writing, and for reasons unclear he still roots for the New York Knicks.

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