CLEMSON, S.C. – Rod McDowell showed he was ready to step into the backfield for No. 4 Clemson. Now, he's out to prove he can do it all season long.
McDowell, nicknamed "Hot Rod" since high school, ran for 132 yards in his first career start to help the Tigers beat No. 11 Georgia 38-35 last Saturday night. He had spent four seasons waiting on the Clemson sidelines behind NFL backs C.J. Spiller, Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington.
McDowell and the Tigers (1-0) take on FCS opponent South Carolina State (0-1) on Saturday.
McDowell knew he'd have big shoes to fill in replacing two-time 1,000-yard rusher Ellington and he made his mark against the Bulldogs throughout the game. Still, it was only after watching on TV later that McDowell understood how big a moment it was for him and the Tigers.
"It was a wonderful feeling," he said. "After watching the game on TV, I was like, 'Wow.' The atmosphere, the fans, our key players really stepped up for us. Our offensive line really opened some holes for me, that whole experience was very overwhelming."
McDowell doesn't regret the time lost waiting for his chance. After all, McDowell has overcome hurdles to play all his life. He was born with clubfoot in his right leg — it causes those affected to walk on the sides of their feet or ankles — and endured several surgeries and long-term therapy as a child.
He went out for football at Sumter High hoping to play wide receiver, but switched to the backfield after being told that's where the team needed players. When McDowell had just 46 carries his first three years with Clemson, he spoke to offensive coordinator Chad Morris about transferring.
He chose to stay, McDowell said, after his mother and others convinced him his time to shine would come.
"When you want to be great, you don't want to walk away from greatness. You want to soak it in," McDowell said of learning from the runners ahead of him.
McDowell's persistence paid off against Georgia.
Five of McDowell's 22 carries were for first downs. His only catch went for 10 yards and another first down. His highlight moment came in the final quarter on a 36-yard run in which he spun away from a tackler — a jam-packed Death Valley let out a group "Ooooh" at the move — and got to Georgia's 6 to set up Clemson's clinching touchdown.
"That was sweet," sophomore runner Zac Brooks said. "I oohed when I saw it."
McDowell, at 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds, was the biggest question mark on a Clemson offense that set program records with 533 points and 6,665 yards in 2012. He averaged 5.4 yards a carry that season, finishing with 450 yards and five touchdowns. Yet, McDowell hadn't shown Ellington's ability to hit the hole fast and speed away from chasing defenders — until Georgia.
McDowell continually broke through the defensive line for sizeable gains and kept the chains moving for Clemson. Quarterback Tajh Boyd thought McDowell was as big a reason as any for the victory over Georgia.
"It couldn't have happened to a better guy and teammate," Boyd said. "It's going to be a special season for him."
Morris thought McDowell worked hard throughout the offseason at developing his skills and improving things like pass-blocking and moving properly without the ball so wouldn't miss out on his opportunity.
McDowell said he won't get complacent, no matter how well he might play down the road. "That's what's wrong with some successful dudes, they get successful and they get caught up in the hype and they lose their craft," he said. "You can't lose your craft or somebody behind you is going to come up and take your spot. That's why I keep that mindset."
McDowell is prepared to build his showing against Georgia and show that his choice to stay was the right one.
"It was worth the wait and I feel like I have the testimony for young kids out there," he said. "When times get hard, don't think about running away. If you really want something, work hard for it no matter what comes your way. You just have to really want it."