Two years ago, the lightning-quick tailback was buried on Clemson's backfield depth chart. Andre Ellington commanded the lion's share of carries, leaving McDowell to battle with younger backs for whatever remained.
The word "transfer" was kicked around, with good reason: there seemed little chance of him seeing significant action soon.
Family and faith convinced him otherwise.
"I called my mom, and my mom and I prayed about it," he said. "My mom told me, ‘Rod, you wanted to come here, stick it out.'"
Two years later, he and Clemson's coaches are glad he did. When the No.8 Tigers take the field for their much-anticipated season opener against No.5 Georgia next Saturday, McDowell, now a senior, will be the No.1 tailback.
While he is taking nothing for granted, his perseverance and hard work have paid off in a huge way.
"It all boils down to the fact that I wanted a degree," he said this week. " I stuck it out and look where I'm at, a starting running back at Clemson. I'm still having fun, and I love being here."
As a freshman, McDowell carried 32 times for 161 yards and a touchdown, but his numbers dropped significantly in 2011. He carried only 14 times for 63 yards and a score, which left him questioning his future.
Two things happened: McDowell became a Christian, and he started working much harder, on and off the field.
"It boils down to my faith," he said. "You have faith in Christ, you know if you live right and you worship right, your time will come. Where I come from, we work hard for everything. We don't sit there when times get hard and run away from stuff. I feel like if I want this, I really want this."
That drive comes, in part, from McDowell's uncle, Freddie Solomon. Like McDowell, he starred at Sumter High School, then excelled at the University of Tampa, where he was a second-round pick of the Miami Dolphins in 1975.
He played 10 NFL seasons with the Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers, winning a pair of Super Bowl titles while rolling up 5,846 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns.
When McDowell committed to Clemson, Solomon told him it was "the best opportunity he could have."
Solomon always pushed his nephew hard.
"When I was in high school, he always told me, ‘You can do better than that,'" he recalled. "Even if I'd have a 100, 200-yard game, he'd say, ‘You can do better than that.' When I told him I was committing to Clemson, he said, ‘Go with it. That's the best program for you.'"
Shortly before McDowell played in the Shrine Bowl following his senior season at Sumter, the pair talked.
"He said, I'm looking for great things from you.'"
Solomon passed away in January 2012 following a nine-month battle with colon and liver cancer. But McDowell can still hear his words.
"Even though he passed," McDowell said, "Every day in the back of my mind, I can see him saying, ‘Go hard, don't give up.'"
Once McDowell was "saved" and "living right, on and off the field," his transformation on the field began.
"I started eating right, and I bought into the program," he said. "When you have second thoughts, you start caring a little bit more. I bought into the program and found Christ and I went up from there. Everything started going right and God opened up a path for me."
Last fall, McDowell took a quantum leap forward, gaining 450 yards with five touchdowns on 83 attempts. With Ellington in the Arizona Cardinals' training camp, McDowell is the Tigers' No.1 back. The guy who arrived in 2009 weighing 160 pounds now weighs 207, with improved pass-blocking and pass-catching skills. He credits Joey Batson and Clemson's training staff, which he calls "the best in the nation."
"At this level, you don't want to be small," he said. "You want to be elusive but don't have people pull you to the ground so easy. I put the weight on and put it on smart. I didn't slack with it. Now I feel I can be one of the best running back in the nation if I work at it."
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris have been open about discussing a running back "committee," and while McDowell wants to keep the Tigers' tradition of 1,000-yard rushers going, he knows he'll need help from Zac Brooks, C.J. Davidson and others.
"I can't do it by myself," he said. "I'm going to need Zac, D.J., the rest of those boys. What keeps me going is having a good stable of backs pushing me 24/7. Dre was good because he had me and D.J. pushing him. C.J. (Spiller) had Andre and Jamie Harper pushing him. It goes back to who's behind you. Even if you're at the top of the chain, you've got to have someone pushing you."
And in his mind, McDowell still feels like the same guy who struggled through the first half of his college career.
What has he done yet? Not enough. Not even close.
"You can't be complacent," he said. "Some of the people at the top of the chain, they feel like I've arrived. My mindset is that I haven't arrived. People hitting my phone saying, ‘Rod, you're the starting running back now.' No, I feel like I'm not the starting running back now. I'm still working 24/7, the same dude fighting for a job. I'm hungry.
"Ray Lewis came and spoke to us a while back and said, pardon my French, you have to be pissed off for greatness. That's how I feel. I haven't found success yet. For me to get there, I've got to keep working."
McDowell positioned for big things
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