COLUMBIA — Mike Davis is beginning his second season with the San Francisco 49ers. Brandon Wilds is headed to training camp with the Atlanta Falcons. If David Williams wants the football at South Carolina, he’ll have the opportunity to see plenty of it.
After two seasons of playing a supplemental role behind entrenched starters, the junior at last has the running back position all to himself — if he can keep it. The Gamecocks will need a strong running game to relieve the pressure on young receivers and likely an even younger quarterback, and Williams is the leading candidate to provide it.
On paper, he easily has the best numbers of any returning Gamecocks back, with 555 rushing and 192 receiving yards in two previous seasons. There’s also that 6-1, 214-pound frame, and reputation as a high school star who was a top-20 running back nationally. And yet, in two years USC has seen only flashes of the player who chose South Carolina over the likes of Tennessee and Ohio State.
The rub on Williams is that there’s too much hesitation in the backfield, too much east-west running, not enough of the straight-ahead mentality that made Davis, in particular, so effective at USC. When Wilds missed three games last season with injuries, Williams had a clear opportunity to assert himself at the position — but his biggest output was 40 yards, and Shon Carson twice started ahead of him.
Williams hasn’t scored a touchdown since the South Alabama game in 2014, something that’s unquestionably going to have to change if he wants to keep the starting job, assuming he earns it in preseason camp. Coaches in the spring were impressed enough by redshirt freshman A.J. Turner that they moved him to second on the preseason depth chart, and junior Rod Talley is also in the mix.
“We have a lot of guys who are going to get opportunities,” head coach Will Muschamp said in the spring. “... We’ve got a lot of guys that will get some looks there at the running back position.”
And a lot of guys who will be ready to take snaps if anyone ahead of them doesn’t deliver. Purely from a numbers standpoint, Williams has been more effective as a receiver out of the backfield — receptions have accounted for his longest plays in each of his first two seasons — despite an occasional case of the drops. But having him hold down the tailback position would surely ease some pressure on a team with enough offensive question marks as it is.
To be fair, South Carolina too often struggled to rush the ball in 2015 regardless of who was in the backfield. The running game all but disappeared in the final quarter of the season, which included bafflingly low double-digit outputs against Florida and The Citadel. Down the stretch as the defeats mounted, Williams was hardly alone in being unable to make a mark.
But he’s now the senior member of the unit, with Wilds and Carson both gone. The drops out of the backfield, the hesitations waiting for holes to open, the little uncertainties that have limited his production thus far — they need to be gone as well, in order for a player loaded with potential to have the kind of season South Carolina needs him to have.