Maturity, talent make Will Shipley a special running back

The Weddington standout is ready to contribute immediately at Clemson

Running back Will Shipley, pictured playing for Weddington High School in a 2018 state football title game, is expected to be the heir apparent to Travis Etienne at Clemson. (Photo by Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

Not many athletes are asked to share their thoughts on leadership before they’ve played in a college game. Will Shipley, however, isn’t like many athletes.

The Weddington High standout, who decided to forgo his senior season to enroll early at Clemson, was asked to participate in a panel discussion titled “Legends of Today, Leaders of Tomorrow,” organized by the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

Despite appearing with two 2021 Hall inductees — former NBA star Muggsy Bogues and former women’s star and current basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli — and a 2000 Hall of Famer, track coach George Williams, Shipley stole the show, offering advice to student-athletes that had his more distinguished co-panelists repeating the phrase, “I think Will said it best.”

Shipley’s ability to step up despite being surrounded by people with bigger names and longer resumes will certainly come in handy at college.

“Going from a high school team like Weddington where I was the main leader on the team to a place like Clemson that’s got a bunch of All-Americans on the field, I really had to try to find my spot,” he said. “I think that’s kind of a metaphor for life. You’ve always got to find your spot where you can contribute the most.”

Shipley led Weddington to back-to-back undefeated state championship seasons, rushing for 2,066 yards and 31 touchdowns as a junior, 4,173 yards and 55 scores for his career. He also added 23 touchdown catches and a pair of defensive scores.

Now at Clemson, he’ll get the chance to replace Travis Etienne, the record-setting back who was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.

“He’s better than advertised,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said of Shipley during the Tigers’ spring game, broadcast live on the ACC Network. “He’s going to be a great one. He’s going to be a great player. He’s incredibly dynamic. He can return, he can catch, and he’s physically way ahead for a high school kid. He can absolutely fly. Great teammate, and the guys like him.”

Swinney compared Shipley to former Tiger and NFL star C.J. Spiller, saying, “This kid is coming in with a complete foundation. It’s very natural for him. He can run between tackle or on the edge. He’ll be a complete player early in his career.”

Shipley isn’t letting the praise go to his head.

“It’s a challenge a lot of youth face,” he said, “because you get some success, you start to think you’ve accomplished more than you really have. For me, what I always try to do is put myself back to a place where I haven’t accomplished everything — a place where I know I have to work my butt off to get to where I want to be.

“I do have to check myself and say, ‘You made it like this. Appreciate what you’ve got, but you want to go a lot further.’ … In order to continue to push on, you always have that thing in the back of your head where you pretend you’re all the way back to where you didn’t have anything. That motivation is going to come.”

As impressed as Swinney has been with his new freshman runner, Shipley has been just as taken by the Clemson coach.

“My experience with Dabo has always been amazing,” he said. “He treats everybody the same. You get what you see. He’s not going to act different in front of different people. That’s what I love about him. He’s through and through. He’s going to tell you what you need to hear. He’s pretty much perfected his craft. You get what you see.”

That’s much the same way Shipley describes his approach to the sport.

“Make sure that your actions are in line with your vision,” he advised the student-athletes on the Hall of Fame call. “You can’t want to play college football Monday through Friday and not have the same vision and actions on the weekend. The only person that really knows if you’re giving your all is yourself.”

There’s a good chance that Shipley will be the starter for Clemson as a true freshman. Regardless of his spot on the depth chart, he’s clearly in position to contribute early.

More than his on-field stats, however, Shipley is looking forward to his first trip past Howard’s Rock as he takes the field at Death Valley.

“I just got chills even talking about it,” he said. “I got a little taste of it during the spring game, but it was limited capacity (for fans, due to COVID). I’ve been dreaming of it since I was a little kid, since Pop Warner football. When I went on my visit to Clemson, that’s one thing they emphasized — Howard’s Rock, running down that hill. I can’t wait. I can’t stop smiling just thinking about it. It’s definitely going to be an experience I can tell my kids about and remember for the rest of my life.”