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July 26, 2011

Winning without Lattimore



South Carolina was predicted to repeat as SEC East champion, and it isn't hard to see why. For the first time since the Gamecocks joined the conference, they have the most returning talent of any of the six teams in the division, including a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate in tailback Marcus Lattimore.

Lattimore did everything he was supposed to do and more last season, rushing for nearly 1,200 yards and scoring a combined 19 touchdowns. He became so integral to the Gamecocks' offense, even as a freshman, that the Gamecocks' success became closely tied with him.

Which also created a problem.

When USC had Lattimore carving defenses into bits of stray uniform and athletic tape, no worries. The shifty back had four games of at least 100 rushing yards and the Gamecocks won every one of them.

But when the Gamecocks didn't have Lattimore, or Lattimore couldn't find room to run, the offense bogged and USC became shaky. Despite having an experienced quarterback and a game-breaking wide receiver, among other talent, USC was so dependent on Lattimore that when he was merely average, so was the team.

"I came in to run the ball, and that's what I did," Lattimore said at SEC Media Days. "I kind of got the feeling we were going to go to the run more after the Georgia game, and we did. Sometimes it just didn't go as well, but we're working to be a more complete offense this year."

It wasn't as cut and dried as Lattimore runs well/Gamecocks win or Lattimore doesn't run well/Gamecocks lose. Lattimore had less than 100 yards against Southern Miss, Furman, Alabama and Clemson and USC won all of those games. He also didn't play against Vanderbilt and the Gamecocks still won.

It's just when USC lost, the common factor was Lattimore not being in the mix. He was held to 33 rushing yards in the first loss to Auburn, and 84 in the SEC Championship Game debacle. A sprained ankle just before halftime against Kentucky ended a night where Lattimore had shredded the Wildcats for a combined 212 yards; the Gamecocks, looking lost without their stud runner, squandered a 28-10 lead and lost 31-28.

Lattimore was held to a mere 30 yards in a loss to Arkansas, and his night ended very quickly at the Chick-fil-A Bowl. A brutal hit from Florida State's Greg Reid knocked Lattimore out of the game with a concussion and USC never recovered - his final stats were one carry for (minus)-1 yard and the Gamecocks fell 26-17, unable to get past the initial shock of seeing their biggest gun taken out on the first series.

It was concerning to the coaching staff. A team with so many veteran offensive players shouldn't have looked so clueless when one player was out or limited, no matter how talented that one was. Football is a team sport and for the Gamecocks to be locked so heavily on Lattimore being successful was a rather large hinge.

Lattimore's healthy and churning through defenses, fine, terrific, wonderful. He's not, there has to be another answer - and last year, despite there being several options, an answer wasn't defined.

"Yeah, Marcus gives us hope," coach Steve Spurrier said at SEC Media Days. "I think when we beat Florida down there, I said when we signed Marcus Lattimore, that's what gave us a chance to beat Florida, because he carried the ball 40 times down there, 215 yards or something like that (actually 212). Certainly, he was the key player in the entire game."

Coming into this year, the Gamecocks are counting on Lattimore to be Lattimore again. He's ready, gaining more upper-body strength and religiously working in the weight room while also leading the younger players in offseason conditioning. He's a bona fide Heisman contender, Lattimore saying at Media Days that he thought he had a shot at it.

Now it becomes about developing the rest. The Gamecocks, in a season that is the best chance for them to finally break through the glass ceiling of championship football, cannot be looking for solutions if Lattimore is contained or injured this season.

"I'm ready to get the ball whenever they want to throw it to me," receiver Alshon Jeffery said at Media Days. "If they want to throw it more, then I'll be there to get it."

Jeffery will certainly be leaned on potentially as much as Lattimore, which goes hand-in-hand with how well quarterback Stephen Garcia can direct the offense. While Spurrier has promised a battle between Garcia and Connor Shaw in preseason camp, it's difficult to imagine Shaw doing well enough in one month to unseat Garcia, whose game experience holds a mammoth advantage.

Garcia will have returning receivers Ace Sanders, D.L. Moore and Jason Barnes along with Jeffery, and DeAngelo Smith had an outstanding spring. Newcomers Bruce Ellington and Damiere Byrd, as well as Jeffery's younger brother Shamier Jeffery, could also contribute as the Gamecocks could turn to an air-raid attack.

Then there's the stable of backs behind Lattimore, led by Kenny Miles. Miles had an excellent finish to his season at the Chick-fil-A Bowl and is looking for more as Lattimore's primary backup. Eric Baker returns from a medical redshirt year and incoming freshmen Shon Carson and Brandon Wilds could find a way onto the field.

Lattimore, Alshon Jeffery and Garcia are quite a three-headed monster, but Lattimore is the one in the middle as the primary focus of the offense. The other two are strong, but not as strong as when the third is in their midst; the Gamecocks are looking for other heads to turn if Lattimore is taken out of the picture.

USC will have a month to find out its best contingencies, which may never be opened should Lattimore play the entire season completely healthy. But at least the plans will be there.

Although at least one was confident that they won't be necessary.

"I don't plan on being hurt again," Lattimore said with a slight smile. "I felt like I let my team down when I was hurt last year and I don't want to sit on the bench again."


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