By Josh Hyber | Photo courtesy of SC Athletics
When Thomas Brown was hired at South Carolina back in January, the Gamecock running backs coach had video clips made for him showing every time a player in his position group touched the ball last season — from direct carries to catches out of the backfield.
What he saw was skill, but with untapped potential.
Flashes, but only sporadically.
Most of all, Brown saw exactly what he hopes his group will one day become, but consistently.
“They have more to give. They have more ability than what they’ve shown,” Brown said Tuesday. “… And being more consistent. If you watch those guys individually, they have some great, highlight, flash plays, but it wasn’t down-in and down-out. It wasn’t every single game.”
Brown spoke for about 14 minutes on Tuesday specifically about what he has seen from the players in his position group — Mon Denson, Rico Dowdle, A.J. Turner, Deshaun Fenwick and Lavonte Valentine — and about some of the thing he stresses.
Brown, who comes to South Carolina after a three-year stint as Miami’s co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach, wants players who can play three downs, play in-between tackles, break tackles and create for themselves, can affect the game in different ways (punt returners, kick returners), can win one on one in space and can catch.
“Guys who can change the game wherever they are on the field at any given moment,” he said.
South Carolina fell just four yards shy of rushing for 2,000 yards as a team this past season, a number the team is working hard to increase.
That starts this spring.
“Guys can definitely separate themselves for sure, but I can’t say that anybody has right now,” Brown said. “… Hopefully throughout the spring we’ll have more guys progress, improve and earn more playing time for the fall.
“From a competition standpoint, they all need work.”
Here’s a breakdown of what Brown had to say about each of his backs:
Denson rushed for 432 yards and four touchdowns on 123 carries last season. The 5-10, 210-pound redshirt-senior has risen on the Gamecock depth chart in his time in Columbia and figures to be a leading candidate for the team’s top running back come the fall.
“He’s a tough guy. Very versatile player, kind of plays a bunch for us on special teams as well. I think he’s probably been the most consistent guy,” Brown said. “… Mon does a good job, for the most part, of having a very good attitude every day and competing.”
“… I think he’s got a good mindset every day and he works his butt off.”
Dowdle rushed for 654 yards and two touchdowns on 86 carries last season. The 6-foot, 210 pounder is recovering from a groin injury he suffered during the season.
“He’s progressing along well,” Brown said. “We kind of limited him in practice, but he got back to doing more team stuff today, some individual stuff today, so I think he’ll be fine.
“I thought Rico did a good job sometimes of winning one-on-one. I thought he did a really good job of playing behind his pads at times. Struggled at times out of the backfield from a receiving standpoint, but I think he’s a really good all-around player.”
Brown also commented on Dowdle’s unfortunate injury history, which includes hamstring injuries and a broken leg that ended his 2017 season.
“He’s a running back. Running back is a hard spot to play and stay healthy at if you play it the right way, just because of the way you get tackled and get folded up so much,” the coach said. “It kind of just happens. Every guy is different.”
Dowdle rushed for 294 yards and two touchdowns on 46 carries last season but has seen most of his playing time this spring come as a defensive back. Brown called the 5-10, 190 pounder one of the more mature, “studious” guys in his group — someone who takes diligent notes and asks questions.
“He’s a hard-working guy. Very explosive, has some explosive ability in the open field and also has some good ball skills out of the backfield,” Brown said. “I’m looking forward to seeing him do more, compete more and also add more leadership to the room.”
“No. He’s a ballplayer. He’s good to go every day.”
Fenwick rushed for 115 yards and one touchdown on 21 carries last season. The 6-1, 226 pounder made his college debut in the second half against the Chattanooga and had 112 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries.
“He’s been up and down,” Brown said. “I think he’s got a lot of ability. Obviously, a bigger guy who, like I just mentioned with some of the other guys, struggles at times with his pad level. I think, at times, he’s his own worst enemy, from a mental standpoint. But I think he’s come along well and he’s getting better every day. He’s going to be fine.
“Physicality. He’s 226 pounds. He should be a guy that’s able to play behind his pads and move the pile with contact.”
Brown called the 5-10, 235-pound freshman a “bruiser.”
“He’s a one-cut, downhill guy,” the coach said. “… He’s built to be a heavy load, heavy footed type guy. From a leverage standpoint, I think the toughest thing coming out of high school is being able to deal with the speed of the game and also playing low. In high school you never have to get behind your pads, especially a guy like him with his size. And also pass protection.
“He’s doing well.”
He later added, “Based on what I saw on his high school tape and what he’s done so far, he’s been very consistent. In high school he did a really good job of being physical and running through tackles. He’s done the same thing so far at this level.”
The redshirt-freshman hasn’t practiced this spring because of his commitment to the South Carolina track and field team. But he meets with Brown individually when his class schedule permits.
“I’m familiar with Lavonte from high school, from recruiting him and watching him play,” Brown said. “Obviously he’s a straight line, speed guy. I want to see him change his body more, develop into an all-around tailback. I’m looking forward to getting him back.”
“I can’t say he’s going to be a straight speed guy because I haven’t seen him and had my hands on him. I’m just saying that based on what I saw from him in high school.”