CLEMSON, S.C. -- There was a point midway through the second quarter of the Capital One Orange Bowl when Wayne Gallman stared across the line of scrimmage and smiled. He saw Oklahoma’s defense, hands on hips, hunched over and gasping for air. For Gallman, this is when the fun begins.
In truth, the first half was relatively slow going for Clemson’s record-breaking tailback. He had mustered a mere 39 yards on the ground by the time the teams hit the locker room at halftime, but he was simply biding his time.
In the Tigers’ past two games, Gallman has been Clemson’s version of Mariano Rivera. He’s the closer, and when his number is called in the second half -- 19 times in the ACC championship game versus North Carolina, 19 more against the Sooners -- he has delivered the knockout blow.
“That’s the whole tempo of our offense,” Gallman said. “You’re able to get the defense tired, and when they get their hands on their hips, that’s a good thing. That allows you to take over.”
Against Oklahoma, Gallman took over to the tune of 111 second-half rushing yards as the Tigers turned a halftime deficit into a blowout win. Against UNC, Gallman ran for 170 yards and scored twice. He has averaged the same yards after contact as FSU star Dalvin Cook. His 5.7 yards per carry in the second halves of games is the same number posted by Alabama's Derrick Henry -- his Heisman Trophy-winning counterpart in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T.
There’s no real secret to Gallman’s late-game heroics. He just wants it more, and he’s willing to scrap for every inch of field he takes.
Ben Boulware is normally tabbed as Clemson’s resident tough guy, but ask him what it feels like to go against Gallman in practice, and he quickly turns soft.
“It sucks,” Boulware said. “It’s no fun, man.”
Ask All-American defensive end Shaq Lawson about the tailbacks he has faced down this season, and the only one who compares with Gallman is the guy he has been watching on film this week.
“He runs aggressive, runs hard, fights for every yard he gets,” Lawson said of Gallman. “He’s determined not to be stopped, just like Henry.”
And yet, while Henry is basking in the post-Heisman glow, Gallman isn’t even the face of his own team.
The reason for that is simple too. Gallman simply isn’t interested in marketing himself. Sure, he said, he wants to be discussed alongside Henry and Cook and Leonard Fournette, but he’s just not much of a talker; and on a team with superstar quarterback Deshaun Watson, it’s easy to get overlooked.
“A lot of the attention goes to Deshaun because of how great he is, and I respect all that,” Gallman said. “But I’m still going to play my hardest. It’s not going to stop me from doing what I’m doing.”
At Clemson’s media day on Tuesday, Gallman sat patiently answering questions in short bursts -- complete sentences, but never complete enough to reveal something deeper than his inquisitor had requested.
He isn’t much different on the field. He’s quiet, but there’s something more simmering just below the surface. It’s an unwavering focus that his teammates can sense but can’t entirely explain. He’s the embodiment of the old Teddy Roosevelt line: He speaks softly but carries a big stick.
“He’s like that silent monster,” center Jay Guillermo said. “And when he needs to, he turns it on.”
For the season, Gallman has racked up nine 100-yard games and totaled 1,482 rushing yards, a school record. At a place like Clemson, which has been home to the likes of C.J. Spiller, Andre Ellington and Terry Allen, you might think that would be big news. Instead, Gallman has largely flown beneath the radar, his record an afterthought in this run toward a national championship.
But if the outside world is focused on Watson locally and the host of bigger-name running backs nationally, inside Clemson’s locker room, things are different.
“He’s not underappreciated from us, that’s for sure,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “He’s relentless, and he’s just a joy to coach.”
Swinney saw the makings of a star early in Gallman’s career. As a three-star recruit, Gallman was hardly the most heralded signing of the 2013 class, and while he flashed power and agility in practice, he was raw. He drew a redshirt coming out of fall camp, but Swinney waffled all season on whether to throw Gallman into the fray.
By 2014, Gallman had made strides. He developed into the team’s lead back, but he was still developing. That was evident when he faced Oklahoma in last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl. He had just 55 yards on 19 carries, a product of trying to do too much with every touch.
This past offseason, the pieces began to fall into place. Gallman learned the subtleties of the job -- bounce it one gap at a time, be patient for holes to open -- and his production soared. That volatility he displayed in practice in his early days on campus was now evident on every carry, and slowly but surely over the course of a game, he would bring defenses to their knees.
“He’s got a toughness about him that you want in every football player,” offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “He’s tough, physical and runs violent.”
That mean streak has been Gallman’s calling card this season. It’s what the defenses notice, even if the general public has been a bit slow to catch on.
But this game is different too. This is the big stage, and the opposition is intense. Gallman’s physicality will be tested by an immensely powerful defensive front, and wearing down the opposition looks unlikely given Alabama’s depth on the line.
Ask Gallman about all this and he plays it straight. Sure, the Crimson Tide look good on film, he said, but he’ll be ready. No guarantees, no hype, just a focus to finish the job strong.
And maybe there’s a small smirk there too -- a small sign of that fire burning just out of public view.
“I don’t have to prove myself to anyone,” he said. “People will see what I can do.”