AUBURN, Ala. -- When Auburn defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker looks across the line at South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore this Saturday, it’ll be like playing against a relative.
Whitaker got acquainted with Lattimore on the recruiting circuit before signing day in 2010. They played together at an All-American game and were both pursued hard by the Tigers.
"When you go to a relative, you don’t put your mind into hate," Whitaker said. "If my brother walked into this room and we had to compete right now, it doesn’t mean I hate him.
"I’m going to try to take his head off. At the same time, I don’t hate him."
The Tigers will have a tall task trying to slow down the 6-foot, 232-pound Lattimore, whose 611 rushing yards are two behind NCAA leader LaMichael James of Oregon through four games.
The sophomore is tied with Alabama’s Trent Richardson for the SEC lead with eight touchdowns and has barreled over defenders for 5.7 yards per carry.
"One guy isn’t going to bring (him) down," Auburn cornerback T’Sharvan Bell said.
Most of all, South Carolina feeds him the ball regularly. Lattimore’s 107 carries are 30 more than the next closest players in the SEC.
"When I first saw him play, you could tell there was a difference between him and everybody else," Whitaker said. "It’s very rare that you see that."
Lattimore is not South Carolina’s only weapon. Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof knows the threat wide receiver Alshon Jeffery poses -- "He what, caught 23 balls against us the first time we played?" Roof joked -- but says the Gamecocks’ offense starts with Lattimore.
"If you can’t stop the run against South Carolina you’re not going to win because they’re going to pound him as long as it’s working," Roof said. "They’re going to keep pounding him until you stop him."
Auburn did an adequate job of limiting Lattimore in two games last year.
In September, a 35-27 Tigers win, Lattimore carried 14 times for only 33 yards, his second worst rushing effort if you exclude the Chick-fil-A Bowl, which he left with an injury after one carry.
"We came off blocks and we tackled well," Roof said.
Lattimore ran 16 times for 84 yards in the SEC Championship game, a decent but ultimately fruitless total considering the lopsided 56-17 score in Auburn’s favor.
The Tigers kept him out of the end zone in that game. That’s happened only four times in Lattimore’s 17-game career.
"I think guys just play with an edge considering he was a top recruit and we were real big on him coming here," Bell said. "Felt like we needed to show him maybe he should have been with us."
Most of the defensive players that had that success last year are gone, however. With eight new starters on defense, Auburn has struggled to stop the run.
Utah State (227 yards), Mississippi State (333) and Clemson (239) ran at will against the Tigers. Even lowly Florida Atlantic, which entered last Saturday’s game with 52 rushing yards in two games, racked up 108 yards.
Auburn ranks 112th nationally against the run, allowing 226.5 yards a game.
"It’s not a concern," Whitaker said. "Each week you get better. You just have to eliminate those big runs. You can be great, great, great and then they pop off a 15-yarder."
"You have to keep choppin’. They’re going to come at us. The goal is to stop Marcus."