The South Carolina coaching staff is not ready to name a starting running back yet, but Tavien Feaster and Rico Dowdle appear to be the frontrunners while offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon praised all four backs Tuesday.
Dowdle, a senior, started eight games last year and has 19 starts over his three-year career. Feaster is a grad transfer who gained 1,330 yards and scored 15 touchdowns in his three seasons at Clemson. Senior Mon Denson and true freshman Kevin Harris are also in the mix.
“I think it’s still kinda figuring its way out. But the guys have done extremely well,” McClendon said. “Rico has probably had the best camp since he’s been here. Tavien has done a good job; he’s come in and worked extremely hard. Mon, Kevin Harris, all those guys really picked it up.
“I think getting Tavien in helped up the level of competiveness in that room. All those guys have worked hard and done a good job. In some way, shape or form, those guys will be ready to play whether it be on offense and/or speical teams. All those guys worked hard and had a good camp.”
The Gamecocks are looking to improve a running game that averaged just 153 yards per game (12th in the SEC) last season. South Carolina averaged just 4.5 yards per carry — about one yard shy of head coach Will Muschamp’s target goal.
Running backs coach Thomas Brown also has had high praise for Dowdle, who has missed eight games with injuries the past two seasons. He has gained 1,669 yards and scored 12 touchdowns in his three seasons, averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
“He’s in really good shape,” Brown said. “He’s had some really good flashes of competing. He has to stay consistent and bring it every single day.”
Though he has been dinged up, McClendon said Tuesday that Dowdle has participated in most of training camp.
“He hasn’t missed a whole lot. But right now you are at a time when you want to make sure guys are going into the season as healthy as they can be, especially at that position,” he said.
Quarterback Jake Bentley has also been impressed with Dowdle, who entered the starting lineup with him as a freshman.
“He’s healthy. He’s 100 percent healthy and looks like freshman year against Tennessee, running like he ran then," he said. "He’s looked good and is a lot more confident."
While he’s not ready to name a starter, McClendon said the Gamecocks will likely lean on two running backs.
“It’s hard to play three backs in one game if everybody is healthy,” he siad. “Knowing and understanding that, you are probably going to lean on those top two guys, whoever those guys are. And those third and fourth guys, they have to be ready to contribute a bunch on special teams and do a good job spelling those other guys if something happens and get in the game any way they are asked to get in.
“Right now, you want to lean on the top two guys. There are still a couple of more things we want to see shake out before we name those, but all four guys have done a good job.”
The coaching staff also has had high praise from Feaster, who at 6-0, 220 pounds has the combination of size and speed the Gamecocks have been looking for.
“The one thing he does an exceptional job of, he’s really good in space,” McClendon said. “He has really natural receiving abilities. He can catch the ball out of the backfield and he’s extremely smart. He’s a guy who didn’t take long to pick up everything we are doing and we are asking him to do, and came in and worked hard at it. We just have to do a good job to make sure we utilize some of the things he can do.”
McClendon said Feaster could start in the Aug. 31 season opener against North Carolina, though no decision has been made yet.
“It’s conceivable, but it’s still a little ways out,” he said. “And you have those other guys who busted their tails and did a really good job this camp. It will be interesting to see how they keep going. All of those guys worked extremely hard and earned their place to go out there and play.”