In far west Georgia, nearly to the Alabama line, only 55 miles from Auburn’s campus, South Carolina assistant football coaches Bryan McClendon and Bobby Bentley are well-known.
“Those guys work very hard at what they do and they are very passionate about South Carolina football,” Callaway High School head coach Pete Wiggins said. “They are putting their time in.”
McClendon and Bentley, and head coach Will Muschamp, who has been by when the NCAA calendar allows, are trying to rectify what has been the biggest hole in their recruiting swing since taking over the program prior to the 2016 season.
“We need to get better at the running back position,” Muschamp said. “We have to run through contact. We have to make a guy miss. We haven’t consistently done that against good people.”
That’s why the coaching staff is spending so much time at Callaway, where four-star running back Tank Bigsby will play his senior season this fall.
“They are recruiting Tank very hard, but he’s talented so that makes sense,” Wiggins said. “I think he’s one of the top running backs not only in the state of Georgia but in the country. He has the characteristics that a program like South Carolina wants. He’s big; he’s fast; he’s explosive.”
That’s what South Carolina needs in the backfield and has needed for a while now.
The Gamecocks haven’t had a difference-making running back since Mike Davis left campus after the 2014 season. Davis is the last South Carolina player to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season. He had 1,183 yards in 2013 with a 5.8-yard per carry average that was the highest for a Gamecock in a single-season since Duce Staley averaged the same in 1995. The Gamecocks have had only two 1,000-yard rushers in the last 18 seasons, the other being Marcus Lattimore in 2010.
Last season’s leading rusher, Rico Dowdle, had 654 yards. Only one team in the SEC had a leading rusher with fewer yards (Tennessee’s Ty Chandler with 630), and Gamecock hasn’t finished in the top 10 of the SEC in rushing since Davis in 2014.
The Gamecocks hired a new running backs coach for the 2019 season, but even he acknowledged the value of a running backs coach is much less than the value of the running backs themselves.
“You want to recruit guys who can make a guy miss one-on-one,” Thomas Brown said. “I can’t tell a guy how to make a guy miss one-on-one.”
South Carolina has cast a wide net this year to try to fix the issue. The Gamecocks have offered scholarships to 26 running backs in the 2020 class, including the likes of five-star MarShawn Lloyd of Maryland, four-star Jalen Berger from New Jersey, four-star Chris Tyree from Virginia and four-star Jaylan Knighton out of Florida.
“It’d be nice if there was an in-state running back that they loved, but there really isn’t one,” Rivals.com national recruiting director Mike Farrell said. “There is a large group of running backs that are recruited to get one. You will have more offers out there, and it just comes down to which guy wants to jump on board and be that primary guy.”
At the moment, Bigsby looks like South Carolina’s best bet.
“He’s a guy that likes them a lot that they have a real good chance with, seems to be a good fit,” Farrell said. “Bigsby is a guy that I think is a real powerful runner. He fashioned himself as a bit of wide receiver early in his career, but he’s gotten so big and thick and physical.”
The 6-foot-1, 212-pound Bigsby was the Class AA player of the year in Georgia last year after rushing for 2,221 yards on 238 carries. He could not be reached for comment for this article.
“I think you go after that one guy that is your War Daddy, love him up as much as possible, sell him on the fact that you can be a difference maker,” Farrell said. “With Tank Bigsby, I think that’s what they are doing.”
Bigsby has been “underrecruited” thus far by the home state Bulldogs, Farrell said. Of course, the Bulldogs already have two, five-star running backs on their roster in D’Andre Swift and Zamir White and are considered strong contenders with three in the Class of 2020. Georgia’s success at recruiting the running back position has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, Farrell said.
“Success recruiting at running back breeds success, so when guys see Knowshon Moreno be drafted high in the NFL, they notice that he made money. The next thing you know you’ve got (Todd) Gurley and (Nick) Chubb. That breeds running back success, and South Carolina hasn’t had that.”
While Lattimore and Davis are the only South Carolina running backs drafted in the last 12 years, Georgia has had three drafted in the first two rounds in the last five years. Gamecocks fans well remember Lattimore leading the team to the 2010 SEC East championship while being named the nation’s freshman of the year, but recruits don’t, Farrell said.
“These kids really have a reference of four or five years at the most,” he said. “It’s tough if you don’t have a marquee one that is in the NFL or on the NFL radar as a high draft pick it’s a much tougher sell. Georgia has that. That’s the type of stuff that really resonates with these running backs.”
Auburn, LSU, Tennessee, Alabama have all “really recruited (Bigsy) hard,” Wiggins said..
“There are a lot of good options for him. He just has to find the right fit,” Wiggins said. “We want the kid to be successful. Whatever staff that Tank finds that will make him most successful, that’s where we want him to go.”
South Carolina projected tailback depth chart
No. 1: Rico Dowdle
No. 2: Mon Denson
No. 3: A.J. Turner
Also: Deshaun Fenwick, Kevin Harris, Lavonte Valentine
South Carolina’s leading rusher year-by-year
2000: Derek Watson 1,066
2001: Andrew Pinnock 622
2002: Corey Jenkins 655
2003: Daccus Turman 657
2004: Demetris Summers 487
2005: *Mike Davis (SC) 666
2006: Cory Boyd 823
2007: Cory Boyd 903
2008: *Mike Davis (SC) 573
2009: Kenny Miles 626
2010: Marcus Lattimore 1,197
2011: Marcus Lattimore 818
2012: Marcus Lattimore 662
2013: *Mike Davis (GA) 1,183
2014: *Mike Davis (GA) 982
2015: Brandon Wilds 567
2016: Rico Dowdle 764
2017: A.J. Turner 531
2018: Rico Dowdle 654
* South Carolina has had two backs named Mike Davis, one from Columbia and the other from Atlanta