New running backs coach looks to boost Gamecocks ground game

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Will Muschamp has struggled to build a running game. He’s turning to one of Georgia’s all-time leading rushers to turn that around.

Muschamp named former Bulldogs standout and assistant coach Thomas Brown to lead Gamecocks running backs this season , hopeful he can turn an area that’s been near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference the past three years into one that vaults the Gamecocks into contention in the Eastern Division.

South Carolina has finished 12th, 11th and 10th in SEC rushing during Muschamp’s three seasons. He believes Brown, who spent the past three seasons as Miami’s offensive coordinator and running backs coach, can speed up the improvement. He is ninth all-time on Georgia’s rushing list with 2,646 yards from 2004-07 and has coached productive backs like Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon in 2014 and the Georgia duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel in 2015.

“Thomas is very experienced at the position obviously, having played at a very high level,” Muschamp said.

Brown believes he can spark a Gamecock run game that has taken a back seat to quarterback Jake Bentley and receivers Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards the past few years.

The new coach won’t get caught up in past problems, but said his players understand “they have more to give. They have more ability than they’ve shown.”

South Carolina finishes spring practice Saturday with its annual Garnet-and-Black game, a contest where Brown in looking for runners to help turn the tide for the Gamecocks (7-6 in 2018) who averaged 152.8 yards rushing per game.

It’s been some time, perhaps since all-time touchdowns leader Marcus Lattimore in 2010-12, since South Carolina had a powerhouse feature back that put opposing SEC defenses on their heels.

The Gamecocks runner who has shown the most promise in recent years, senior Rico Dowdle, who led the team in rushing as a freshman in 2016 with 764 yards. But injuries the past two years led to him missing six games and not being as effective when he did get in. He was 19th among SEC rushers with 654 yards in 12 games last season.

Dowdle, at 6-foot, 210 pounds, has missed much of spring workouts with a lingering groin injury from last year. He’s participated in team and position meetings, but has been limited on the field.

Behind Dowdle are returnees AJ Turner, Mon Denson and Deshaun Fenwick. Ty’Son Williams, part of South Carolina’s running back rotation the past two seasons, transferred from the program after last season.

Brown was hired by his college coach Mark Richt with the Bulldogs four years ago, then followed when Richt left for Miami in 2016.

Brown hit the ground running at South Carolina, breaking down film of South Carolina’s back as he sought areas to immediately build on. He found a group heavy on potential, but light on technique and has worked the past few weeks on getting his players run lower and with improved leverage to take on defenders. That will help, Brown said, the Gamecocks win more of the one-on-one battles with defenders they came up short on in the past.

“If you understand leverage and angles, you can become a much better football player,” Brown said.

Brown’s also brought some energy and enthusiasm to his new players. He often sprints behind the scrimmage snaps, rushing up to his runners to congratulate with a shout when things go well.

“He brings a smile to my face,” Fenwick said.

Dowdle is expected to return healthy this fall and Brown thinks he could lead a revival for a group that has not produced a 1,000-yard rusher since Mike Davis ran for 1,183 yards in 2013. They’ll have to prove, however, they belong on the field to a guy who knows firsthand how to succeed in the SEC.

“This is not park ball where everybody gets the chance to play just because they’re on the team,” Brown said. “It’s about being able to separate yourself and putting yourself in different category y.”

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