Coming into the spring, it has been almost a year and a half since Shipley touched a football due to an injury that sidelined him for his senior season in high school. Coming to Clemson as a freshman, he didn't expect to be an every-down, 20 to 25 carry-per-game guy. All Shipley wanted to do was to come in and compete. "Coming in as a freshman, keep my head down and work." Told myself I was going to do that," Shipley said. "If you don't do that at Clemson, the opportunities aren't going to present themselves. Gaining the respect of my teammates, staying true to myself and those opportunities have presented themselves."
It's been 16 years since a true freshman has started at running back for the Tigers. James Davis, the former half of the "Thunder and Lightning" tandem with CJ Spiller, was the last to do so in 2005. You could perhaps consider Spiller a co-starter in 2006, but James Davis was still the guy at that point. Even Travis Etienne and Andre Ellington can't lay claim to that status. That should tell you how difficult it is to start at the running back position at Clemson. However, Will Shipley breaks the mold.
He has it all: speed, size, great hands, toughness...all the elements you need to be a great running back, and he is just a freshman. Usually, the pecking order is determined by seniority and experience. Apparently, RB Coach CJ Spiller knows how special Shipley is, and so far, it seems Spiller is making the right calls.
If there was any doubt that Shipley can handle the duties as a starter, you need only to watch Saturday's game against Georgia Tech, where he carried the ball 21 times for 81 yards and 2 touchdowns, earning him the ACC Rookie of the Week honor for the second straight week. It was also his second straight two-touchdown game, and Tony Elliott really put the offense on his back in the second half during crunch time.
Fans who have followed Shipley in high school and his recruiting probably sensed that it was just a matter of time until Shipley took over as the Tigers' starting running back. As fate would have it, that time came this week. He will make his first start in is first career game on the road, and it will be in his home state against NC State. "It's kind of cool how it worked out," Dabo said about Shipley getting his first start on the road in front of his friends and family. And this moment it doesn't seem to be too big for Shipley. If you hear him speak, all he wants to do is get better and help make the team better, continuing to work on the little things everyday in practice to get ready for game day. He's as modest as they come, just like Travis Etienne before him, but he has unique leadership skills and maturity beyond his years for a freshman. Veteran team leaders like Jordan McFadden were already saying in August camp that Will Shipley had established himself as a team leader. That's almost unheard of for a non-quarterback true freshman! He gives credit to teammates Kobe Pace, Lyn-J Dixon and the rest of the guys around him for pushing him to get better and eventually earn the starting spot.
Indications are that Shipley will be the man going forward, with Kobe Pace right behind him as a 1-2 punch. If Shipley can stay healthy and meet the expectations, who knows? Perhaps he could very well break the all-time ACC rushing record set by his predecessor, Travis Etienne. He's bound to get more carries than Travis did as a true freshman because Travis came in skinny and very raw as a pass-catcher. Shipley comes in much more polished and college-ready than Travis, as hard as that may be to believe.
Could Clemson fans have visions of Thunder and Lightning 2.0 dancing in their heads with Shipley and Pace? Absolutely, they can. And with everything we have seen so far, those visions could very well be made manifest. In the meantime, let's put Thunder and Lightning 2.0 on hold for now. That will develop itself as the season goes along. For now, let's all sit back and enjoy the freshman phenom that is Will Shipley.
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