It is no secret: Much of any success to be attained by South Carolina this football season will hinge on the surgically repaired left knee of running back Marcus Lattimore. What could be of equal importance to the Gamecocks is how many times Lattimore carries the ball.
However Steve Spurrier decides to do it, the workload for Lattimore must decrease. In so doing, USC will increase the chances that Lattimore can play a complete season injury free while at the same time enhancing the Gamecocks chances of competing for an SEC championship.
Lattimore tore the ligament in his left knee during USCs seventh game of this past season. The injury put a sudden end to a sensational season for the talented running back.
Now he returns from an offseason of intense rehabilitation to resume another campaign for the Heisman Trophy as the nations best football player. He returns, he says, as the same running back who baffled opposing defenses with his elusiveness and electrified crowds with his bursts of speed.
Perhaps more important, he returns to the USC offense with plenty of backup at the running back position. Brandon Wilds proved to be an able replacement for Lattimore a season ago, accumulating nearly 500 yards rushing on 107 attempts. Kenny Miles is a proven commodity. Shon Carson would probably start for nearly every other SEC team. Mike Davis is an incoming superstar in the making.
Ive got Brandon, Kenny, Shon, Mike Davis, Lattimore says. I have a bunch of running backs. I dont have to take more than 30 carries anymore. Thats a good thing.
The trend in the NFL long has been for teams to utilize two and sometimes three running backs during games. Ahmad Bradshaw was the leading rusher for the Super Bowl champion New York Giants a season ago while averaging 14.3 carries per game. Not since Corey Dillon in 2004 for New England has a Super Bowl-winning team had a running back average more than 20 carries per game, according to a recent Sports Illustrated study.
That same trend is beginning to filter into the college game, where teams routinely rotate running backs from series to series or call on a backup running back to fill in for the starter in one or two series each half.
Such rotations seem to pay off for a team over the course of what is now a 13-game season, counting a bowl game. Any athletics trainer or team physician will confirm that a running backs carries have a cumulative effect and the more he tires late in a season, the more susceptible he is to injury.
Lattimore averaged 20 carries per game as a freshman in 2010 with a school-record 40 rushes against Florida and a low of seven against Troy. In the seven games before his injury in 2011, Lattimore averaged 23 carries with a high of 37 against Navy and a low of 17 against Auburn and Mississippi State.
It is apparent in the way Spurrier has talked in the preseason that the way to lighten Lattimores load will be found via a more-balanced offense. With the infusion of the read-option attack into USCs arsenal, the Gamecocks have become a much more run-oriented team the past two seasons.
USC ran the ball 57 percent of the time in 2010, easily the highest rate for a Spurrier-coached team in his stints at Duke, Florida and USC. Then the Gamecocks topped that figure by running the ball 64 percent of the time in 2011, a season in which the pass became mostly a surprise to the opposition.
We hope we can have a little more balance, but you just never know how the game progresses, Spurrier says. Were playing Navy last year and Im hoping we can pitch it around and run it around.
Next thing I know we cant pitch it very well at all and were in a tight ball game and we hand it to Marcus about 40 times against Navy. That was the best way to win the game, we thought. . . . But I think we can get a little bit more balance this year.
USC ran the ball 44 times in that Navy game while throwing 25 passes. In addition to the lack of balance, that game also illustrated USCs unwillingness to use other running backs besides Lattimore.
Lattimore ran the ball 37 times, including 25 times in the second half when USC was nursing a short lead. The only other player to rush the ball for USC was quarterback Stephen Garcia, who had six carries.
None more than Lattimore recognizes that cannot happen this season.
Our goal is to be the best running back group in America, and theres no reason we cant, Lattimore says. We want to be like LSU. Theyve got four guys they use the whole game and they just keep pushing and pushing and they wear the defenses down.
Thats how we want to be this year.
Thats what USC needs to be this year.
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