Running back Juju McDowell is listed generously at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds. Have him stand next to his hulking South Carolina teammates and he looks roughly half that size.
That hasn’t stopped him from aspiring for a spot on the offensive line — at least in theory.
“I told coach (Marcus) Satterfield the other day, ‘If you need me to go play center, I’ll go play center,’ ” McDowell said Monday.
The diminutive tailback is quite literally a ball of energy. He’s effervescent and charming; charismatic and thoughtful. Receiver Josh Vann called him a “firecracker” and “like a little Pikachu.”
McDowell might not have the literal superpowers possessed by the world’s preeminent Pokémon character, but the South Carolina offense hopes he’s every bit as electric in 2022.
“Juju — I don’t know how much he weighs — but he’s always ready to stick his nose in there (and be physical),” center Eric Douglas said.
It only takes a few glances around a Gamecocks practice to see that personality so many of McDowell’s teammates tout. He’s constantly bouncing around the field, joking with teammates and hyping up those in the running back room.
McDowell was even part of group of players performing backflips near the north end zone after South Carolina’s spring game for, well, no particular reason other than they could.
The gymnastic feat was enough to wonder whether quarterback Spencer Rattler might join in the fun once the regular season hits.
“No, no. Not at all — not unless there’s a trampoline out there,” Rattler quipped.
That athleticism is part of what makes McDowell such an interesting fit in a jam-packed South Carolina running back room. MarShawn Lloyd and Wake Forest transfer Christian Beal-Smith are the presumed front-runners for the starting role. McDowell, though, is too dynamic not to figure his way onto the field in some form or fashion.
He drew ample praise during fall camp last year for his game-changing speed. McDowell later burst onto the scene with an 11-carry, 77-yard second half that propelled South Carolina to its last-second win at East Carolina in Week 2 last season.
His 63-yard kick return set up a game-tying Parker White field goal with 8:36 remaining in the contest. McDowell later added six carries for 45 yards on the Gamecocks’ final drive to give White a look for his winning 36-yard kick.
ECU game aside, McDowell’s role was somewhat limited in 2021 as Kevin Harris and ZaQuandre White combined for 67% of rushing attempts doled out to South Carolina’s running backs last year. He did, however, finish third on the team in yards rushing despite taking 12 fewer carries than Lloyd over the course of the campaign.
“Every time someone will ask me about Juju, I’m gonna tell them, ‘I love that kid, man,’ ” former USC defensive lineman Kingsley “JJ” Enagbare said after the ECU game. “Ever since he came, he just has something different about him. He carries himself different. Deep down he’s got that dog in him. He’s probably the smallest person on our team, but he plays like the biggest, (talks) like the biggest.
Continued Enagbare, jokingly: “You would never know he’s 5-foot-2.”
There’s something poetic, bordering on cliché in the way McDowell handles himself on a football field. You know the type — small guy who punches above his weight. He’s the mighty mouse of a tailback unafraid to take on bigger defenders as a blocker, despite his own frame.
Yes, we’ve seen it in college football before. But it doesn’t stop McDowell’s teammates from raving about his toughness.
Douglas touted McDowell’s love of pass-blocking as an integral part of the Georgia native’s ability. It also begs the question: Why on earth does such a small guy love taking on blitzing linebackers and defensive linemen that almost double him in weight?
Let McDowell explain.
“I like to get dirty,” he said. “I like to get up in there and help those big guys out. As long as I can help Spencer get that ball out and make a play downfield, sometimes that’s better than a 20-yard run.”
McDowell wasn’t perfect in 2021. He’ll be the first to tell you as much. He spent a chunk of his Monday media availability noting he “let down” special teams coordinator Pete Lembo with a handful of mistakes in the return game.
That said, there’s reason to believe the Gamecocks will use the versatile tailback plenty, whether that’s at running back or out of the slot receiver spot — where McDowell said he’s worked some during fall camp.
It’s an ongoing discussion if those responsibilities might include snapping the ball to Rattler.
“Not very far,” McDowell conceded of how far his pitch for playing center got. “I was a little disappointed because I said it and (Satterfield) was like, ‘Haha, we’ll see.’ ”
“... Maybe I can try again next week.”