By Jeff Owens/Photos by Jenny Dilworth
Years ago, Bobby Bentley went to a restaurant called "Cock of the Walk." Being from South Carolina, Bentley naturally wanted to know what the name meant, so he asked the manager.
"He said it means, we are the best," Bentley said.
Ever since then, that's what Bentley has taught his running backs, to be the Cock of the Walk. As one of the most successful high school coaches in South Carolina, he had plenty of running backs who fit that mold, including former Gamecock star Marcus Lattimore.
Now that he's the running backs coach at South Carolina, that's what Bentley is looking for again, backs who can be the Cock of the Walk. He even put the name on a T-shirt and begins every running back meeting with a "Cock of the Walk" run, or what he calls "an angry, violent run where you are dominating your space."
"We start off every meeting with a Cock of the Walk run from either the previous practice or the previous game or one from last year," Bentley says. "I'll even pull one off the NFL. Somebody that we are going to emulate, whether it be a lift drill or running over somebody, just getting extra yards."
For the first time in a while, Bentley believes South Carolina has some running backs who can be the Cock of the Walk, who can dominate their space and produce those angry, violent runs.
"We talk about the Cock of the Walk. Well, if you're not running ball, how can you be the Cock of the Walk? How can you be dominant if you're not running the ball? And we are running the ball now."
The Gamecocks struggled in the run game last season, averaging just 122 yards rushing per game, which was 12th in the SEC. The struggles on the ground led to just 24 points per game, which was also 12th in the league.
But with junior Rico Dowdle healthy and four experienced backs sharing the load, coaches and players have been raving about the running game in training camp. All four backs scored in Saturday's scrimmage, with Dowdle and Ty'Son Williams breaking off long runs and A.J. Turner and Mon Denson scoring from inside the 10-yard line.
Under new offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon and with quarterback Jake Bentley, Bobby's son, running the show, the Gamecocks are implementing a fast, up-tempo offense. But for it to work, they must run the ball effectively to set up run-pass options for Bentley.
Both coach and son are pleased with what they've seen so far.
"Run game-wise, we are probably an A-plus," Jake said.
"Right now all four of them are working hard and really, really doing well," Bobby said Wednesday after practice. "I'm really excited at where we are right now. … We haven't had this type of depth since we have been here."
Dowdle, who led the Gamecocks in rushing as a freshman, has looked particularly good after battling injuries last season. Head coach Will Muschamp challenged him to work on his conditioning and health over the summer and has been pleased with what he's seen. So has Bobby Bentley.
"He's healthy, he's healthy," he said. "He looks better, he's faster. He's more violent when he turns his shoulders downhill, he's looking for contact and he's looking to create yards. He's healthy and that's what has excited the coaching staff."
"I think I'm stronger. I've gotten stronger each year I've been here," Dowdle said Wednesday. "I definitely feel like I am at one of my highest points since I've been here, physically and mentally."
Williams, who transferred from North Carolina, also looks better in his second season at South Carolina, Bentley said.
"I think right now Rico and Ty'Son have kind of separated themselves a little bit but all four are going to play," he said. "Mon Denson has brought a little extra edge in short-yardage situations, a little toughness, a little downhill, bowling-ball mentality that we need in the system. And A.J. Turner, you get a lot out of him every single day. He is going to give you everything he's got out of his body and do everything we need.
"I feel very comfortable with all four of them."
Bentley would prefer a lead back with Turner serving as third-down or specialty back and Denson contributing on short-yardage plays. He believes both Dowdle and Williams can be a dominant back. Both have shown signs of it training camp.
"There is no doubt, if he's healthy and with the way he ran Saturday, [Rico] is going to have a good year," Bentley said.
Williams is much more comfortable this season, Bentley said.
"He was a little anxious [last year]," he said. "Sometimes we need to make sure he is ready in that situation for his anxiousness. I think he's over it. Looking at what he did Saturday and what he has done in the preseason, I'm excited to see what he does on Sept. 1 and when the game is on the line and see the hard work pay off."
A key emphasis in training camp has been what Bentley calls "bull yards," or yards gained beyond the line of scrimmage by running through tackles or making tacklers miss.
Bentley wants about 45 percent of runs to end with bull yards. The Gamecocks were at about 40 percent last season but have improved that percentage in training camp.
"Our guys have worked hard on it and have worked on their tool belts and have done a better job of it," he said. "They have really taken ownership of bull yards and they have really taken it personal."
"We take a lot of pride in it," Dowdle said.
The running game has also benefitted from the new, up-tempo offense, which creates more space, but also from a bigger, stronger offensive line that is making in impact.
"I'm seeing a bigger pass pocket, I'm seeing a lot of holes opening up," Dowdle said. "I'm seeing those guys work very hard day in and day out and you can see the difference out there."
"When you see the line of scrimmage move, you create run lanes and they've done a good job," Bentley said. "Coach [Eric] Wolford does a great job of getting their guys on their double teams and allowing us to get behind the double teams."
After struggling in the running game last year, Bentley is excited about what he has seen so far. He believes he has a group of backs who can be the Cock of the Walk.
"I'm just glad we are able to run the football right now, especially early in the year," he said. "It's exciting to see the guys excited about the run game."