CLEMSON — Chez Mellusi and Michel Dukes weren't always a package deal.
Around Clemson, they're referred to as "Chez and Mikey," the two freshman running backs trying to figure out how to be college athletes together. But before that, they were stars at their respective high schools — Mellusi at Naples High School (Florida) and Dukes at First Baptist in Charleston.
If things go according to plan, Mellusi and Dukes will develop their own, distinct reputations at Clemson running backs. For now, though, their progress will be judged in tandem.
Neither has let the other outshine them this season. After Mellusi broke a 57-yard touchdown in his only carry Week 3 at Syracuse, his first college score, Dukes found the end zone for the first time himself Week 4 against Charlotte on a 24-yard run.
"Chez got his big one up at Syracuse last week, and then Dukes busted one," coach Dabo Swinney said after Clemson's 52-10 win over Charlotte. "Think he was excited to finally get an opportunity."
With the game out of reach in the second half Saturday, Mellusi took six carries for 30 yards, while Dukes had four carries for 46 yards.
There are 130 FBS programs in college football, all of varying degrees of ability. Many believe Clemson to be the best of the group. Charlotte, as illuminated Saturday, is definitively not.
They entered only after junior Travis Etienne (11 carries, 63 yards), sophomore Lyn-J Dixon (eight carries, 58 yards) and junior Darien Rencher (two carries, 6 yards) had played, illuminating their places on the Tigers' depth chart.
But a single injury to one of Clemson's more experienced running backs could result in more playing time for one — or both — of the young duo.
Co-offensive coordinator/running backs coach Tony Elliott said neither Dukes nor Elliott has separated from the other quite yet. He has confidence in both running the ball, but wants to see improvement in their blocking.
"The biggest for them is, week to week, being able to grasp what the protection plan is," Elliott said. "The biggest thing is just me having the confidence that they can make the adjustments and be able to communicate with the offensive linemen and the quarterback as quick as it happens in the game.
"They both understand where they are on the depth chart, and they understand why they're there."
Off the field, Dukes and Mellusi have grown into close friends. They had never met before coming to Clemson but have bonded as roommates, even though Dukes said they have different personalities: Mellusi is more laid back, while Dukes is a self-described, "people person."
"When I scored, the first person to jump up, dap me up, slam me on my head, all that stuff, was Mikey," Mellusi said. "When he has a successful moment, or I do, we always show each other the same amount of love."
There are high hopes around the team for the duo. Eventually, Etienne and Dixon and Rencher will move on, likely leaving the running back responsibilities to Mellusi and Dukes.
The Charleston native believes he and his roommate are up for the challenge.
"One day, we're going to be the older guys," Dukes said. "So we're just pushing each other every day."