Even these days, after the Southern football team finishes off a long practice in gruesome conditions, Brandon Rice often bounces through the hallways of the A.W. Mumford Field House with an ear-to-ear grin.
No relief from the heat? No relief from preseason camp? No end in sight to team meetings and film sessions? No problem. At least, that’s the kind of attitude teammates often see from Rice.
At any moment, the junior tailback has a few things on display: his long dreadlocks, his length-of-the-arm tattoos, and an intimate knowledge of the Jaguars’ playbook. Not to mention that ear-to-ear grin.
Plenty are the times when Rice has a joke or a compliment for someone in the room.
He’s the kind of football player Dallas Fort strives to be.
“The thing I admire about Brandon Rice is, he knows every play and all his assignments,” said Fort, a redshirt freshman from Tara High.
“You could be the best athlete in the world, but if you don’t know, ?Hey, I have to pick up this linebacker,’ you could get your quarterback killed. ... Rice knows what he’s doing. If the coaches weren’t in the room to show us, (Rice) could coach us. That’s just how good he is.”
This season, Rice hopes to prove how good he can be with a football resting in those tattooed arms.
In all likelihood, he and Fort will be the top two players in a ground game that, truth be told, needs a big boost.
Southern averaged 90.4 rushing yards per game last season, the lowest mark in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
Of course, it didn’t help that departed senior Gary Hollimon suffered a turf-toe injury and wasn’t as effective as coach Stump Mitchell hoped he’d be.
But that wasn’t the only problem.
Because defenses knew Southern’s passing attack wasn’t very efficient - you’ve probably read this before, but the Jaguars completed only 47 percent of their pass attempts - opposing defenses were able to load up against the run.
Now the extreme makeover begins.
“As of today, Rice and Dallas Fort would be the two main guys,” running backs coach Elvis Joseph said.
Rice has certainly waited for his chance.
“I want to lead the charge,” he said. “I feel like I waited my turn, and I’ve prepared in the weight room and on the track. And I’m mentally prepared.”
A native of Columbus, Ohio, he rushed for more than 2,000 yards as a high-school senior, and Rivals.com rated him a three-star recruit.
Rice had scholarship offers from Miami (Ohio) and Eastern Michigan, but coaches from both schools were fired, and the new coaches chose not to honor the offers.
Rice was without a school when former SU assistant Mark Orlando came through the Midwest that summer.
With a blend of power and balance, Rice quickly drew the attention of coaches and teammates alike.
In 2009, however, he was stuck behind senior Brian Threat. Then another veteran, Hollimon, moved from quarterback to tailback, and Rice became the third option.
Late last season, he started to get a longer look. His first start came in the second-to-last game against Alabama State.
In two seasons, he has 230 yards and two touchdowns on 57 carries, averaging a little more than 4 yards per attempt.
This fall, Rice might get more than 57 carries in the first month of this season.
“I did think it would happen a little earlier, being rated as high as I was,” he said. “I thought I would’ve gotten a shot a little earlier. But honestly, I’m kind of happy it didn’t. It was humbling. I learned a little about waiting your turn.”
In the past 12 months, Fort has learned a little bit about waiting, as well.
Though he had a few head-turning moments in practice last season, Fort took a redshirt and adjusted to college life - which, he conceded, is different, even if he grew up in Baton Rouge.
Fort said he made sure that in college, study time still came before party time.
“There’s a lot of freedom. But it’s up to you to determine your future,” he said. “You can either go the wrong path and fail, or you can do the right thing and pass.”
As for Fort’s football skills, Joseph said they could be on full display before long.
Where Rice makes his mark between the tackles, Fort has potential to be a little more versatile.
“(Fort) presents some special things, man. He’ll create a lot of mismatches for other teams’ linebackers,” Joseph said. “He can catch he football. He can line up in the slot. He can be a screen guy. You can get a lot out of Dallas.”
Funny. That’s exactly what Fort has is in mind.
“I’m thinking touchdown on every play,” Fort said. “I’m thinking of a way to help, whether it’s a block downfield on a long reception, or me breaking a long run. Either way, I’m going to give everything I have.”