South Carolina's running game has been average since Mike Davis's breakout season in 2014. With a rotational backfield of David Williams, Shon Carson, and Brandon Wilds, the results were mediocre at best. In order for Carolina to take pressure off of the quarterback, whether it is McIlwain or Orth, they will have to win at the line of scrimmage and have a competent run game. David Williams should be cemented as the leading 'back for the 2016 campaign, but behind him, the battle for touches is wide open. This presents C.J. Freeman and Rico Dowdle with serious opportunities to compete for touches this year, as this position lacks an abundance of proven talent.
A 3-star recruit out of A.C. Reynolds HS in Asheville, NC, Rico Dowdle will become a special player during his tenure at South Carolina. With good size at 6'1" and 207 pounds, Dowdle also possesses the raw breakaway speed (4.4 40 time) that has the potential to take a routine handoff for six at any spot on the field, something that could help carve out an early role as a return specialist. The first thing that catches my eye is his immense athleticism, clearly bigger, faster, and stronger than anyone who attempts to bring him down. He has fantastic quickness, and he can make anybody, from D-Lineman to corners, look foolish. He even took some snaps at QB, something that could portend a spot at the Wildcat position, very reminiscent of Pharoh Cooper coming out of high school. A main concern I have with Dowdle is that because of his playing time at quarterback, he might not be a good pass-catcher out of the backfield. If Coach Bentley can work with Dowdle on the technique of a receiving 'back, we could see Dowdle handle an every-down role at some point early in his career. I like what I see from Dowdle, and with consistent player development, I believe he will become a dominant running back during his time in Columbia.
The other running back in the 2016 recruiting class, Freeman is a 3-star tailback out of Northern Guilford HS in Greensboro, NC. A slighter back, Freeman checks in at 5'11, 180 pounds. He also has excellent speed, running the 40 yard dash in 4.46 seconds. His tape reveals a similar player to Dowdle, although with less pure strength. He breaks long runs to the outside with ease, and simply outruns defenders once he reaches the second and third levels of the defense. His slighter frame doesn't allow him to slip arm tackles and power between the tackles as effectively, but what he lacks in strength he makes up for with agility. He also has good vision, seeing holes as they open up and slicing through them. His ability to make sharp cuts will help pick up many a first down in a Gamecocks uniform.
With both Dowdle and Freeman as options in the run game, that position group should have a strong outing next season, alleviating pressure off of Orth/McIlwain. With similar speed-based running styles, these backs will form a formidable one-two punch in the future. I am especially excited for the debut of Dowdle, and I think he could have a mini-breakout season this year. His lightning paired with David Williams thunder will make for an interesting challenge for the defensive coordinators of the SEC. Throw in McIlwain, and you could be looking at a potent offense. There is certainly a bright future in downtown Columbia this fall.