South Carolina football coach Will Muschamp laid out the challenge to tailback Rico Dowdle soon after spring practice ended.
The rising junior runner, who looked like a potential all-conference player as a freshman and was injured through much of his sophomore year, needed to take care of himself better and learn to strain, i.e. push himself when the lights aren’t on.
A few weeks later, here's how’s he done.
“He’s responded well,” Gamecocks running backs coach Bobby Bentley said at a recent Gamecock Club spring meeting stop. “Coach Muschamp challenged him publicly. He’s responded well.”
The way that’s tested can be in terms of hydration and stretching, or about pushing one’s endurance in both a physical and mental sense.
Dowdle’s 2017 and early 2018 have been fraught with injuries. He was not particularly productive in five of his first seven games, dealing with at least one injury, and a broken bone in his lower leg sidelined him the rest of the season.
He came back and broke several big runs in the bowl game against Michigan, but a hamstring injury robbed him of most of the spring. That seemed to be a sore point with Muschamp, as he has described hamstring issues as something that can be controlled.
“When they break a bone, those are things that are frustrating but happen,” Muschamp said. “But when you start talking in terms of soft tissue issues, we’ve practically eliminated our issues from Year 1 to Year 2. A lot of it went through hydration, living the right way, getting the right amount of sleep and straining all the time.”
If Dowdle can control those, he’s got the ability to be a highly productive back for USC. As a freshman, he ran for 781 yards and six touchdowns in nine games, averaging 100 yard per game over the final seven.
He’ll have plenty of competition for carries, as USC returns three other experienced backs and adds a pair of freshmen. The staff seemed to rely upon him heavily early last season, despite him averaging only 2.8 yards per carry in the first five games.
The one concern remains.
“The biggest thing for him was just getting back healthy,” Bentley said. “Getting where he can be healthy. That’s going to be the thing for him. Once he’s healthy, he’s fine once he’s on the field.”