COLUMBIA — South Carolina ran the ball well last year, a full half-yard per carry better than at any point during the Will Muschamp tenure.
The Gamecocks just didn’t do it against the best teams on their schedule. And when they improved the overall stats but had two less wins to show for it, well, what did they accomplish?
“I watched every time they touched it,” new running backs coach Thomas Brown said. “I think they all played too high at the time, which obviously affects how you can make guys miss one-on-one.”
Brown, a former Georgia running back and longtime staffer under former Georgia/Miami coach Mark Richt, was brought in to help alleviate that problem. The Gamecocks have boasted of their depth and talent at the position since Muschamp arrived, but have yet to find workhorse backs to get the ground game moving and achieve the cherished equilibrium of the offense.
“The inability to stay balanced just hurts any quarterback,” said offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon, heaping some of Jake Bentley’s struggles on the lack of a running game. “I think you got to really rely on a couple of guys going into each game. I think trying to play three a game is way too much.”
The running back carries per game were often confusing and rarely productive. The Gamecocks were content with the “hot hand” approach, as in whoever was doing the best stayed in.
The problem was every play changed the dynamic. The Gamecocks couldn’t afford to call timeout and put in the guy they thought was best for the play. For example, if they needed short-yardage specialist Mon Denson on third-and-2 but the defense countered with a loaded box, it made sense to switch to a screen pass. However, Rico Dowdle, who was clearly USC's best back catching passes out of the backfield, wasn't on the field.
USC had a lot of backs who were good in a lot of areas. They only had one, Dowdle, who was pretty good at everything.
Dowdle, like he has since he’s been enrolled, was often derailed by injury. Even this spring, Denson has been the No. 1 guy because Dowdle’s been slow to recover from a lingering groin issue. With Ty’Son Williams transferred and Lavonte Valentine spending his spring with the track and field squad, the Gamecocks have a lot of the same faces but also the same problems.
Averaging 4.5 yards per carry is really nice, but USC was down to just over 3 yards per carry against the top rush defenses it played. The Gamecocks also couldn’t run the ball against the five Top 25 teams on their schedule, and guess who five of the six losses last year were to?
“It’s kind of hard for a guy to get into a rhythm, and hard for a guy to kind of get into the flow of running the ball and reading the defense,” McClendon said. “What we want to be able to do is kind of narrow it down. You would like it to be the same two guys.”
Injuries hindered the spot last year. But this year, Brown and McClendon said the Gamecocks will seek to identify two main backs and try to ride those the hardest. Dowdle, Denson and A.J. Turner, who also repped at cornerback for the first five practices just in case USC needs him there, seem to be the three most likely candidates for those roles.
But Valentine, Deshaun Fenwick and freshman Kevin Harris could be in there, too. Which is why Brown told all of them when spring began that every rep should be embraced as a race to No. 1.
“I think two backs is good, but running backs by committee always helps. I can see why you would say one back, because a lot of the great ones, usually do it by themselves,” Fenwick said. “It can affect the rhythm of the way you’re running, but as long as you stay focused and engaged, I think you’ll be fine.”
The biggest change Brown made is to get his guys lower to the ground, using their shoulder pads as weapons to drive into thighs and hips so the tackler can’t get to the their legs. With a revamped offensive line (starters Zack Bailey and Dennis Daley are gone), the backs may have to cover a few sore spots early in the season.
The Gamecocks need to run well to really trigger their up-tempo offense, run well to be unpredictable, run well to give them the best chance to win. They did that in spurts last year, a good stretch usually coming to an end when a Georgia or Florida or Clemson came up.
Georgia, Florida and Clemson are on the schedule again this year, along with Alabama and Texas A&M.