Will Muschamp has spoken numerous times, including Tuesday, about South Carolina running backs needing to increase the 4.5 yards-per-carry and 153.5 yards-per-game averages they had as a group last season.
Despite those numbers being increases of .6 yards and 31 yards from 2017, the Gamecocks ranked 12th in the SEC and 92nd nationally in rushing.
“We haven’t [done well] in three years running the football, as far as what we want to be able to do on average per down,” the Gamecock head coach said. “… We haven’t done as well as we should. … We really challenged our players in the offseason to understand the deficiencies we have had in those areas.
“We have got to improve those areas to take the next step as a program.”
“It starts with the run game,” Gamecock quarterback Jake Bentley said. “The run game helps everyone out. It helps coach McClendon out calling plays. It helps me out throwing the ball. It helps our receivers getting open. It helps our lineman out so they are not having to catch a pass rush every play.
“I think the guys are up to the challenge. I think the running backs have taken it upon themselves to work harder to make sure we get better in the run game.”
On Tuesday, first-year running backs Thomas Brown talked about that improvement through the first five practices. He harped on the competition in the room between recent addition Tavien Feaster and fellow seniors Rico Dowdle, Mon Denson and A.J Turner.
Brown, who was hired by South Carolina on Jan. 9, previously worked at Miami (2016-18) as the Hurricanes’ offensive coordinator and running backs coach, Georgia (2015), Wisconsin (2014), Marshall (2013) and Chattanooga (2012).
Here are six takeaways from what Brown told reporters:
Much of Brown’s eight-minute conversation with reporters was spent talking about the Gamecocks’ newest addition: running back Tavien Feaster, a transfer from Clemson.
“He’s a great receiver out of the backfield and has great hands. So we’ll see what he can do,” Brown said. “ … I don’t care if you’re a freshman, sophomore, junior or transfer, the best guy is going to play.”
Brown briefly recruited Feaster when the former coached at Georgia and the latter was a prized recruit at Spartanburg High School.
“I spent some time around him and his family, so we have a small, brief history,” the coach said. “But [before he came to South Carolina], we talked about the opportunity to be able to put him in a good spot for his future but also to help our team out.”
Brown has been impressed with Feaster’s preparation.
“Once he announced he was coming to us, I kind of met with him maybe two times individually before practice started,” Brown said. “And he picked the offense up really fast. I love the way he goes about his business.”
2) Competition breeds success
Brown mentioned a handful of times about the competition between his running backs and how the unit’s inconsistency last season may have been because of a lack of it.
“I think there were flashes of a couple of guys who had some highlight moments and highlight games, but it was never back to back,” he said. “And I think competition is a big part of that. When you’re allowed to get to the point where you feel comfortable because you may be the most talented guy in the room, or one of the most talented guys, and it feels like you would play no matter what, it becomes an issue.
“Because I’ve always said, ‘I don’t care how self-motivated you are, you can never reach a certain level without being pushed by guys around you.”
3) Rico Dowdle has had his best summer
Brown was hired in January, but he said Dowdle has had his best summer as a Gamecock.
“Workout-wise, he’s in really good shape,” Brown said. “I think the entire room has been competing well … I mentioned Feaster coming into the room, I think has elevated [Rico’s] game. Him and Mon [Denson] for sure, they’ve been working their butts off. Those guys know our system.
“From a competition standpoint, [Rico’s] been good so far. He’s had some really good flashes of competing. He has to stay consistent and bring it every single day.”
4) Freshman Kevin Harris needs to be more than just a workout warrior
“Kevin is a super talented young player. A really smart football player. He really works his butt off,” Brown said. “… He’s kind of a workout warrior. He makes those guys workout harder. You talk about a guy that’s squatted over 600 pounds and has a 40-inch vertical. Those are really impressive numbers.
“I’m trying to work with him to make sure that’s functional strength and not just weight room stuff. Make sure it transfers to the football field. So far he’s doing really well. I think he’s taking it one day at a time and has the right approach to it and is working his butt off. I expect big things for him in the future.”
5) Running backs don’t have to be Superman, but the good ones can play in a phonebooth
When asked about what characteristics other than speed Brown looks for in his players, the coach mentioned the ability to make something out of nothing.
“Obviously I want guys who are fast, but that’s not the biggest stat to me. I think running back is more about being able to play in a phone booth,” the coach said. “You know, can you make a guy miss in a short area?
“… There are a bunch of guys who can kill some stuff combine wise but can’t play at all on the football field. That’s the ultimate, determining factor.”
6) Brown still envisions mostly two running backs, possibly three, will play each game
“I think just to be able to keep guys fresh, keep guys in a rhythm and not have guys on the sideline being cold,” he said. “You know, primarily two guys, maybe a third guy that comes in and rotates in depending on what he can bring to the table that the other two guys can’t. It all depends on what’s going to help us win football games.”