Like everyone else anticipating South Carolina’s first football game of the year, Bobby Bentley has seen the Gamecocks’ crowded depth chart at tailback. Now Bentley wants to see what it looks like when it’s not on paper.
“We’ve got talent, but I want to see it on the field,” said Bentley, USC’s running backs coach. “I want to see it in the N.C. State game. I want to see it in the season, not just the talking season.”
The talking season officially ends on Sept. 2 when the Gamecocks take on the Wolfpack at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte at 3 p.m. Which running back will start that game remains a mystery.
“We still don’t know the lineup and the rotation,” sophomore running back A.J. Turner said. “I’m just going out there when my number is called and doing what I have to do to produce.”
Turner, 5-foot-10, 184 pounds, started four of the first five games last year before giving way to sophomore Rico Dowdle, who started the final six games. Both are again competing for the starting job, along with North Carolina transfer Ty’Son Williams.
Williams “is a very good player, and I hope all of them sharpen each other,” Bentley said. “All of them are a little bit different yet are similar, and we want them to compete every day because we’ve got to get more physical.”
Sophomore Mon Denson will be the fourth-string running back, but the bulk of South Carolina’s carries will be split in some fashion between Dowdle, Williams and Turner, Bentley said.
“What you’d like is that starter goes two series, get that No. 2 guy in the third series and then from there on go with the hot hand,” Bentley said. “I’m not a guy who believes that if the running back gets a long run, you take him out. I think if he makes a long run and he’s still fresh, keep him in there. He’s reading the defense. Let him go. You talk to all the great backs. They like it when they are in a rhythm and get a feel for what the defense is doing and the blocking schemes.”
The 5-11, 220-pound Dowdle, who had 133 carries for 764 yards last year, and the 6-foot, 215-pound Williams, who had 19 carries for 57 yards as a freshman at North Carolina in 2015, fit the mold of every down backs in the SEC because of their size and running styles.
“The best thing for Rico was Ty’Son coming in,” sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley said. “I have been able to see them push each other every day.”
Turner is the outlier because of his size and speed and could be used as a third-down back or situational player.
“We need to get the ball to him as much as we can on the edge,” Bentley said. “I don’t know if you call him a third-down back. He’s a guy that as a staff you sit down and say, ‘Get the ball in his hands.’ ”
Bentley doesn’t know when he will decide on which player will get the start, which he views as “a big reward,” but said all three players can expect to play each week.
As hard as the decision is about which player gets the most snaps on Saturdays, Sundays might be tougher on Bentley. That will be the day he’ll have to explain to anyone feeling left out why the rotation worked out the way it did.
“You have to keep them up,” Bentley said. “A healthy room is always a better room.”
Whatever happens, South Carolina’s coaches won’t bemoan the fact that they have too many running backs. Offensive coordinator Kurt Roper learned that lesson as the running backs coach at Tennessee when he had Arian Foster, Montario Hardesty and LaMarcus Coker at the same time.
“We were sitting in a staff meeting and I was just flustered and I said, ‘I’ve got too many good ones,’ ” Roper said. Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said, ‘Oh (heck), there he goes.’ It wasn’t two days later I got Hardesty hurt. That position, three is probably not enough. It is good to have guys who can play.”