COLUMBIA — Rico Dowdle feels great.
He does. Really, he does. Standing against the wall at Media Day, fist popping into one palm, then the other; one leg bent to place one foot on the padding behind him, then the other.
High-energy guy, Rico Dowdle. It’s what's made his college career so pleasing and so painful.
When he’s on the field, South Carolina’s offense looks complete. When he’s not, as he hasn’t been for 10 full games and parts of several others in three seasons, the Gamecocks look lost.
“I don’t think I’ve gotten half of what I wanted out of my college experience,” Dowdle said. “There’s definitely more out there for me to achieve and get.”
He’s tried. No doubt about that. This is a guy who broke his leg in October 2017, yet somehow dragged himself back onto the field less than three months later and helped beat Michigan in the Outback Bowl.
His commitment is iron-clad. His body hasn’t been. Dowdle’s had a sports hernia, a broken leg, a bad ankle and the latest, a groin injury that kept him out of spring practice.
So when he says he’s tip-top, Grade-A, ready to go, there’s always a nod to skepticism. “Sure,” one might think, “but how long’s that gonna last?”
“He’s had legit injuries. It’s nothing about questioning if he’s hurt,” USC coach Will Muschamp said, drawing on his own experience of coming back after shattering his right leg as a high school baseball player.
South Carolina adds SEC West power LSU to its 2020 football schedule.
“As much time and effort as these young people put into playing a game that they love, playing a game they hope they have a future in, and all of a sudden, they continue to get a setback, continue to get a setback. But I always believe the good Lord puts things in front of you that you can handle, and he has handled these situations very well, and I’m looking forward to seeing him play his senior year.”
The injuries and the personnel in the room could have changed Dowdle’s thinking going into the 2019 season. Nearly from the moment Clemson running back Tavien Feaster announced he would graduate and play his final season somewhere else, USC was thought to be the landing spot. It became official just before camp began.
Muschamp and position coach Thomas Brown say that competition dictates who gets the most carries, that nothing is promised or guaranteed. Yet it’s hard to imagine they brought in a guy like Feaster to sit on the bench.
That could have dampened Dowdle’s attitude. Instead, it’s motivation. Oft-repaired body or not, it’s Dowdle who has the numbers at USC, not Feaster.
Defensive back Jamyest Williams has struggled with injuries in his two years at South Carolina, keeping him from fulfilling his immense promise.
The Gamecocks are 10-0 when Dowdle rushes for at least 53 yards in a game, 6-13 when he doesn’t. They’ve won without him (6-4 in games he missed due to injuries) but in games they lost when he was on the field, there’s a pattern.
If he doesn’t get the ball a lot, the entire running game sags. That often puts more pressure on the passing game, leading to launching pads on the quarterback, telegraphed plays for the defense and a struggling, sickly offense.
“Some things have been on my head and some things have been things that happened with playing the sport. You take the risk,” said Dowdle, who has rushed for 1,669 yards in three seasons, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. “It’s been frustrating not being out there with my team, not being able to play the game that I love.”
Brown prefers to run a two-back system so the thinking says that Feaster and Dowdle can be those two, with a talented group behind them. Those jobs will be determined for sure over the next three weeks, and from week-to-week after them.
Dowdle plans to be one of those two, and wants to be the first and only. It’s all there to be had … if he can stay on the field.
“I think he’s had his best summer workout-wise. He’s in really good shape,” Brown said. “Feaster coming into the room I think has helped elevate his game as well. Him and Mon (Denson) for sure have been working their butts off.”
He says he feels great. “Based off all my numbers, I’ve spiked them,” Dowdle insisted. “I’m definitely at one of my healthiest times.”
Dowdle’s feeling fine. Really, he is.