In 2010, South Carolina rode Marcus Lattimore and its zone read running game to one of the best seasons in school history.
The Gamecocks won nine games and the SEC Eastern Division as Lattimore ran for 1,197 yards, almost all of it on the play that became a favorite of South Carolina fans and the bane of opposing defenses. The next year, the run game got better as the Gamecocks averaged 4.5 yards per carry and piled up 11 wins.
In 2012, there were another 11 wins, but it didn’t come on the back of the ground game. USC’s average yards per carry dropped to 3.7, the lowest total in the SEC, and the finished 89th in the nation in rushing with 1,800 yards on 491 carries.
As South Carolina looks to reverse the negative trend in its run game numbers, coach Steve Spurrier expects a more diverse rushing attack in the 2013 season.
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“You can stop every run play if you know it’s coming,” Spurrier said. “You can slant a guy here and slant a guy there, zig some guys over here. There is a good defense for every run play and a pretty good run play for every defense. I think you have to more than just two or three runs.”
Asked if opponents had adjusted to slow down the Gamecocks’ zone read play, Spurrier said, “Oh yeah. It’s hard to block all that zigging and zagging and stunting that they do.”
That doesn’t mean the zone read is going away, just that its supporting cast could be bolstered in the fall of 2013.
“I am a proponent of whatever we can run well, we’ll run,” said Shawn Elliott, USC’s co-offensive coordinator.
The zone read remains South Carolina’s “base run,” and the Gamecocks used it on at least half of their run plays last season, running backs coach Everette Sands said.
“At the same time, we want to make sure we have some things that can offset when they stop the zone read,” Sands said. “It might be we are doing a great job blocking the zone. It might be we are doing a great job blocking power that day. It really depends on what is happening that day.”
The evolution and implementation of a running game depends on a combination of factors, say Elliott and Sands. For instance, the emergence of 237-pound walk-on Connor McLaurin gives the Gamecocks the prototypical fullback they haven’t had since Elliott arrived in 2010.
“We’ve got a great, hard-nosed fullback in Connor McLaurin,” Elliott said. “I mean a tough ol’ gritty 240-pound rocked up guy who can really bring it, and if you can line up and you can run it down some people, there are times you need to do that. We probably are getting under center and going downhill a lot more.”
The skill set of the tailbacks also is a factor. While Lattimore ran the zone read throughout his high school career, current tailback Mike Davis never ran the play in high school. Davis’ background is in a two-back, I-formation running game.
“We will determine what we are going to do (based on) how defenses are aligning and what they do and then go with it,” Elliott said. “We are not going to be hard-headed and say, ‘We’re going to run this no matter what.’ ”
Whether Connor Shaw or Dylan Thompson is in the game at quarterback will have an impact on how South Carolina runs the ball as well. Shaw is a more dangerous runner, making the single-back zone read scheme a good fit with him in the game. Thompson is a more traditional drop-back passer whose game is better complemented by a pro-style, two-back set.
“I think we have the ability to run everything we want to, from option game to two-back power to one-back power to zone read,” Elliott said. “We have evolved to where we have a pretty good understanding of all of it right now, and it’s a pretty good feeling.”