CLEMSON — Rod McDowell admits it: there were times when he thought about a fresh start.
Given how the Clemson junior tailback’s college career has gone, it’s understandable.
When McDowell signed with Clemson three years ago, the Sumter native was widely considered one of the nation’s top tailback prospects. Rivals.com rated him as the No.4 tailback in America, and ESPN rated him No.25.
Instead of progressing, however, his career took a major step back last fall. Following a freshman season that saw him garner 32 carries for 161 yards and a touchdown, he had only 44 snaps, 14 carries, 63 yards and a score as a sophomore.
The “T” word – transfer – was floated beside his name.
“It came up,” McDowell said. “Honestly, I couldn’t transfer. I love my brothers, I love being here, I love being in this type of environment. People come and say, ‘Rod, are you going to transfer?’ This is where I want to be.”
His loyalty is starting to pay off. As the Tigers begin serious preparations for the Sept. 1 opener against Auburn, McDowell has enjoyed an excellent preseason. He is likely the Tigers’ No.3 tailback behind senior Andre Ellington and sophomore D.J. Howard, but should receive significant action this fall.
“Hot Rod’s had as good a camp as anybody, as far as the running backs,” said offensive coordinator Chad Morris. “He had a good spring, and he’s had a real good fall camp. I told him in front of the team the other day, ‘You can trust Hot Rod.’ I trust him.
“I trust him in pass protection, I trust him to carry the football. I’m excited about Hot Rod being able to give us some depth.”
McDowell has shown flashes of the speed and talent that made him such a highly prized recruit – he chose Clemson over Florida, South Carolina and Kentucky – but staying healthy has been an issue.
Last fall, he struggled with the effects of a concussion and a crowded backfield. His best game – four carries, 34 yards and a score – was piled up in the waning moments of Clemson’s 70-33 Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia.
His issues only redoubled McDowell’s efforts.
“I bought into the offense, I studied the playbook,” he said. “Knowledge of the game is the one thing I really worked on. I worked on footwork, trying to see better, see the defense, hit the holes harder.
“With me being a littler back (listed at 5-foot-9, 190 pounds) people don’t expect me to pass-block. That’s one thing I really worked on. My pass protection. Keeping pads low, working on my foot drive. That’s one area I feel like I have the upper hand on people – my vision and seeing the holes. “
With Ellington’s questionable health history (he has yet to play a full, healthy season while struggling with leg injuries), backfield depth is an issue for Clemson. Coaches would love to redshirt freshman Zac Brooks, but former five-star signee Mike Bellamy’s departure for academic reasons forced their hand; he’ll play this fall.
McDowell says he just wants to fit in.
“I feel like when my name is called, I can go make plays,” he said. “Andre is the main guy and after that we can all go make plays. I feel like there’s no second, third back. Andre’s the No.1 guy, and after that if your name’s called, you’ve got to help Andre and the team no matter what.”
Clemson, he said, is the right place for him. McDowell wants to finish his degree in sociology.
“For one thing, it’s the education from Clemson,” he said. “On the football side, I love playing here and I wanted to contribute. When I came here, I said I was going to pray about my decision and God helped me. He came and showed me, Clemson is where I want to be. What can I ask for?”
Just a chance. That’s all McDowell wants
“Even though I had all those things go against me, and my back is against the wall, I came out fighting,” he said. “I work hard, that’s what I’ve done throughout my years of being here.”