By Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe and Jenny Dilworth
Eight days before South Carolina's season-opening game against NC State, the Gamecocks still have no starting running back.
Instead, they have three of them, and all three are expected to play key roles.
Running backs coach Bobby Bentley said Friday he is not sure when the staff will name a starter, but reiterated that Rico Dowdle, A.J. Turner and Ty'Son Williams will all play, with sophomore Mon Denson also possibly getting some carries.
"Right now I think all four of them will play," Bentley said. "Rico and A.J. and Ty'Son are the top three, and Mon Denson could play.
"It will definitely be a big reward (to be named the starter), but they will all play, especially those top three. You want to get them ready every practice, ball security, pass protection. It's more than just running the football."
Dowdle presumably will be the starter based on his performance last season, when he led the Gamecocks with 764 yards and six rushing touchdowns as a freshman. But Turner added 497 yards and three scores, including a 75-yard touchdown against Texas A&M. Turner ran a lot of plays with the first team in Monday's open scrimmage. Williams, a transfer from North Carolina, is also in the mix.
Bentley said he would likely split carries among the three, but also go with the hot hand.
"Ideally, the starter would go two series, the No. 2 guy that third series, and then from then on you kinda go with the hot hand," he said. "I'm not a guy who believes in the running back gets a long run and you take him out. I think if he makes a long run and he's still fresh, you keep him in there. He's reading the defense, so let him go."
Though Dowdle and/or Williams could get the bulk of the carries on early downs, both Bentley and head coach Will Muschamp have said they must find ways to get Turner the ball. In practice, he has been used as a runner, receiver out of the backfield and flanked out wide with the wide receivers. He also plays on almost all the special teams.
"He's one of the fastest guys on our team and practices so hard," Bentley said. "He will be on the kickoff team and kickoff returns, he'll be on the punt team covering punts, and we obviously need to get the ball to him as much as we can on the edge and in the backfield."
Bentley said Turner is more than just a third-down back, and is strong enough to be used in goal-line or short-yardage situations.
"I just think he's a guy who, as a staff, you sit down and say you need to get the ball in his hands," he said.
"Ideally, I would like to do more because I feel like I can do more, but whatever the team needs," Turner said. "… We all want to do the same thing, which is win. If the coach feels like that is my position or that is my role, and they feel like our team is going to be the most efficient, then I'm all for it."
Bentley sees similarities in Dowdle and Williams, but also says that each back has their own style and strengths.
Of Williams, he said, "He's a player. He's a very good player, and I would hope all of them would sharpen each other. Ty'Son brings a different tool belt to the table than A.J., just like Rico. All of them are a little bit different, yet are similar, and you want them to compete every single day to get better.
"We've got to get more physical. The bottom line is, we've got talent, but I want to see it on the field. I want to see it in the NC State game. I want to see it in the season, not just in the talking season."
Dowdle was a quarterback in high school, rushing for more than 2,500 yards as a QB, and was converted to running back as a freshman last year. He wound up starting the final six games and producing three 100-yard games, including a 226-yard performance against Western Carolina.
Bentley says he is more mature this season.
"I think he is definitely a guy who wants to get better and as you continue to improve his level of wanting to practice and wanting to practice every day, that is going to improve his skill level," Bentley said. "He has gotten stronger and he is not grimacing as much with body aches and things like that that maybe he did as a freshman.
"I think he definitely understands the importance of ball security more and handling the ball at this level and running through the tackles like he does now. It's something that has improved and he knows the focus of the physicality of being a running back in the SEC."
The biggest challenge for Bentley and Offensive Coordinator Kurt Roper might be keeping all three backs healthy and happy.
"That's definitely a concern," Bentley said. "You want to make sure you get them all on the field and get them reps. As a running backs coach, obviously as a guy who wants to win and score as many points as we can, you just want to win, and whatever each one can do to help us win, that's what we are going to do."
Part of that challenge is to keep them focused and confident, even if they aren't getting the bulk of the carries from game to game.
"You got to keep them up, especially on Sunday," he said. "You got to figure that out and try to get a … a healthy room is always a better room."