COLUMBIA — He burst through the hole on the right, saw an Ole Miss defender waiting and smoothly stepped out of the clumsy side-tackle, accelerating to his left. As the field yawned open before him, Mon Denson spied the corner of the end zone and started pumping the squat but svelte pistons that support his 5-foot-10 frame, creating a running package that more than one person has labeled a bowling ball.
He was almost there. So close to running into that corner, scoring a touchdown and basking in the group of South Carolina fans that packed that wedge of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Ole Miss defensive back Zedrick Woods had gotten within a step of him, though, and brought down his arm like he was swinging Thor’s hammer, trying to loosen the ball from Denson’s grip.
“I thought I had got away from him good. I felt him at the last minute,” Denson said. “I hold the ball tight, so I had it secured.”
Each tumbled into the end zone, Denson never losing the ball, but his run was ruled down at the 4-yard line. Quarterback Jake Bentley punched in the touchdown three plays later and the fans were showering him with love as Denson settled for the brief and anonymous clap on the shoulder pads when Bentley returned to the sideline.
Just as well. Denson has never needed the spotlight, even in the short times it’s found him.
“I’m sure he has (been frustrated), but he has not shown it one day,” USC coach Will Muschamp said. “He’s a guy that makes the most of opportunities, to go play well and get more opportunities. He’s a great teammate and I’m glad that he’s had the success he’s had in the opportunities he’s had, because he’s had a lot of success running the football for us.”
Muschamp considers Denson a starter, just like he considers Rico Dowdle, Ty’Son Williams and A.J. Turner starters. Obviously only one gets that tag game to game, but they all can play and usually do play in a multi-headed running back system.
For Denson, who’s been limited this year with a troublesome hamstring, the first 100-yard game of his career couldn’t have come at a better time. He’s healthy, coming off a hot performance and with Dowdle and Williams banged up (Williams has a broken left hand, but will play Saturday at No. 15 Florida), Denson could start against the Gators.
Start for real, not just be labeled a starter among four starters.
“Good to get out there and show that I’m healthy, get that feeling back, back in the rotation,” he said. “It makes me feel good just to know he believes in me and believes I can go in there and contribute to the team.”
The hamstring had him back on the bench after his first two seasons were spent not moving off it. He had a bit of a breakthrough in 2017, playing in every game, but only carried 41 times for 152 yards.
Yet there was that Florida game, where he scored his first two career touchdowns, which followed a four-carry day against Vanderbilt where every time he touched the ball, he recorded a first down. When Dowdle went down and Turner and Williams weren’t as productive as they needed to be, Denson was playing well.
He figured to be in the mix all this season, then the hamstring bit.
“He’s definitely been frustrated, but that’s never stopped his work ethic, his drive to get better. He’s remained confident, worked hard to get back,” Bentley said. “I’m proud of him. He’s patiently waited his turn and been a really good teammate.”
That’s why Bentley could tease him, saying the 69-yard run to set up the TD was amazing but it would have been better if he'd scored, so Bentley wouldn’t have had to stick his nose through 11 defenders intent on planting helmets in his spleen. Denson nodded, smiled and put his mouthpiece back in.
Next play was another run.