Josh Kendall

‘Earn it in practice,’ How Rico Dowdle’s absence is impacting USC tailback outlook

This is South Carolina’s running back rotation at the moment:

A senior with 127 career carries.

A senior who spent the first week of spring practice working at cornerback.

A redshirt freshman who played against Chattanooga and Akron last year.

An early enrollee freshman with zero collegiate experience.

“Everybody is getting an even share of the ball this whole spring,” said Mon Denson, the senior with 127 carries, which have netted 584 yards and four touchdowns. “Everybody has been in there.”

Well, not everybody. Senior Rico Dowdle, who appeared to get an inside track on the starting job and bulk of the Gamecocks’ 2019 carries when Ty’Son Williams announced his transfer intentions, has yet to participate fully this spring due to a groin injury that has lingered since the end of last season. Although running backs coach Thomas Brown said last week that Dowdle “did some team stuff,” the Gamecocks’ most experienced back still hasn’t returned fully to practice.

His continued absence has been noticed by offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon.

“Rico, just like the rest of those guys, has to come out there and earn it in practice,” McClendon said. “If he doesn’t earn it in practice, he isn’t going to get it in the game. We’re going to play the best two guys, and if he’s not one of the best two guys, he’ll be over there standing next to me. He’s got to go out there and compete and get it right in practice.”

Dowdle has 1,669 yards and 12 touchdowns on 322 career carries. The Gamecocks have six spring practices remaining, including the April 6 spring game.

“All (the running backs) are getting reps with different groups so we can say, ‘This is what you did with this group and this is what you did with this group.’ Now you look at the production chart and say, ‘These are productive guys,’ ” McClendon said. “If some guy is out there busting his tail and earning it and some guy is over here and just shows up and we try to put him in that’s not fair. Everything you talk about and everything you preach goes out the window, and we don’t want that to happen.”

McClendon followed all that up by saying he wasn’t frustrated with Dowdle.

“If a guy’s hurt, he’s hurt, but what I can’t do is say, ‘OK he’s going to come back from being hurt and go right back to doing it,’ if there are guys who are out there doing a good job of earning playing time,” McClendon said.

Dowdle has missed 10 games in his career due to injury, including a sports hernia, a broken leg and a sprained ankle. His absence has left the spring carries to Denson, redshirt freshman Deshaun Fenwick (who played in two games last year), senior A.J. Turner (who practiced at cornerback the first week of spring) and freshman Kevin Harris (who enrolled early). Redshirt freshman Lavonte Valentine is working with the track team this spring.

“Spring is going good,” Fenwick said. “Just to get better and improve every day, compete and hopefully make my team better than what they were. As long as I keep bringing it and being consistent I think I’ll see some carries in the fall.”

The Gamecocks plan to play two primary backs in games this fall, McClendon said.

“I think trying to play three a game is way too much,” he said. “It’s hard for a guy to get into a rhythm, get into the flow of running the ball and reading the defense and things like that. What we want to do is narrow it down going into a game and say, ‘OK, these are the two guys we’re going to rely on.’ And we’d like it to be the same two guys, but it’s up to those guys.”