Cotton Bowl Football

Tavien Feaster battles for yardage in Clemson's 2018 Cotton Bowl victory over Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff semifinal game. He brings that big-time experience to South Carolina this season. File/Michael Ainsworth/AP

COLUMBIA — It’s not just getting a proven, experienced player.

It’s hope.

Tavien Feaster’s addition to South Carolina’s running back room gives the Gamecocks confidence that they can have the most important factor toward winning in the Southeastern Conference — a strong running game. They haven’t had that under Will Muschamp, mostly due to injuries.

With the arrival of Feaster, USC will have four senior scholarship backs to choose from, alongside three freshmen (Deshaun Fenwick and Lavonte Valentine redshirted last year; Kevin Harris is in his first season).

“We still haven’t found that consistent runner that’s been able to run through contact, that’s been able to make a guy miss in space, and in our league you’re going to have to do that,” Muschamp said. “That’s part of the deal.”

He knows it from playing and coaching in the SEC a combined 19 years, and he along with anyone else can see how spotty USC’s production has been during his three-year tenure with the Gamecocks. The Gamecocks have ranked 13th, 12th and 12th in rushing in the SEC, with Rico Dowdle claiming the best individual total of the period (764 yards in 2016).

Dowdle represents the rub. He’s been terrific when he’s been on the field, but it’s been hard for him to stay on it. A sports hernia as a freshman, a broken leg as a sophomore, ankle and groin injuries as a junior … it’s amazing Dowdle has led the team in rushing in two of his three seasons with a body that keeps telling him no.

The idea is that Feaster’s presence gives the Gamecocks two backs to lean on, fitting new running backs coach Thomas Brown’s modus operandi.

“I normally always play two guys for the most part,” Brown said. “But I’ll play as many guys as necessary to win.”

Think about that. Feaster’s one-step-and-gone reputation plus Dowdle’s dogged persistence, with sturdy backup from A.J. Turner, Mon Denson, Fenwick, Valentine and Harris. Everything clicks right, it takes so much pressure off quarterback Jake Bentley and starts to resemble the 2011 season, when four rushers led the Gamecocks to an 11-2 record and third-place finish in the SEC rushing totals.

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Then it was Marcus Lattimore, Brandon Wilds, Kenny Miles and quarterback Connor Shaw. USC isn’t going to get many rushing yards out of the QB (unless Dakereon Joyner plays extended minutes) but with the group of running backs it has, it probably won’t have to ask.

“Mixed bag of guys from a talent standpoint,” Brown said in the spring. “I think they’ve kind of under-produced in the past, in my opinion. Probably everybody’s opinion.”

He said that before Feaster announced his transfer, but the thought is the same. Feaster won’t automatically be handed the No. 1 spot, but he has the capability to earn it, as do Dowdle, Denson and the rest.

The Gamecocks have only had 10 individual rushing seasons where a back topped 1,000 yards, and three were by George Rogers, who did it in each of his final three years. Kevin Long and Clarence Williams each did it in 1975, then Harold Green, Duce Staley and Derek Watson got there in the 19 years following Rogers’ 1980 Heisman Trophy season.

Only Lattimore (2010) and Mike Davis (2013) have done it since Watson reached the mark in 2000. It’s probably too much to expect Feaster to be the next in line, especially since Brown wants to use two backs and the Gamecocks have a senior quarterback who’s thrown for 7,300 yards.

But the hope is there. And for the first time in a long time, USC has a foundation on which to rest that hope.

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.

From Rock Hill, S.C., David Cloninger covers Gamecock sports. He will not rest until he owns every great film and song ever recorded.

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