Each time Marcus Lattimore took a handoff Saturday, he may have been influencing more than just South Carolina's hopes against the Georgia Bulldogs.
In a recruiting world where immediacy has become one of the foremost factors, the true freshman tailback may have strengthened the Gamecocks' chances of continuing to land elite prospects like South Pointe's Jadeveon Clowney.
These days players like Clowney, the consensus No. 1 recruit in the nation, expect to play early, especially if they don't choose a program that's consistently in the top 10. By handing the ball to Lattimore 51 times in two games, USC's coaches showed their willingness to let their freshmen play big roles if they are capable.
“You don't always know what makes every recruit tick,” Athlon Sports recruiting editor Braden Gall said. “Sometimes you'll see a guy want to wait a year and want to redshirt. But if you're going to a place like South Carolina, I think early playing time is a big draw. ... [Lattimore’s touches] can only help when you look at guys like Clowney and the others they are still in the mix for.”
Location and especially proximity to one's hometown will always be the foremost factor impacting a recruit's decision, Gall said. However, the opportunity to get on the field as a freshman is playing an increasingly expanding role.
“Early playing time, especially at the non-powerhouse schools – outside of the Ohio State, Texases and Floridas of the world – I think means a lot more today than it used to,” Gall said. “There are certain coaches that have made a name for themselves by opening up the depth chart.
“If you're looking at big-time recruits from the Carolinas, especially in South Carolina, seeing a player succeed, especially from a powerhouse program like Byrnes, where he was already a high-profile player, at such a high level so early, it can only mean great things. I think if you're a South Carolina fan you've got to love what's going on right now with recruiting.”
Lattimore isn't the only USC true freshman getting the opportunity to prove his value. Receiver Ace Sanders, center Ronald Patrick and quarterback Connor Shaw are currently listed as backups at their positions.
Of course, if they weren't producing, it's hard to imagine the Gamecocks continuing to play them solely to better their chances with players like Clowney, who could potentially step into the starting lineup for the Gamecocks in 2011. But they've been solid contributors for the 2-0 Gamecocks.
“It shows that if you're good enough, we’re going to get you on the field,” USC recruiting coordinator Shane Beamer said. “We’re not into politics and all of that. The best players are going to play. We give everybody when they come in here a chance to compete. If they show through that they are the best guy and they can handle it, then they’ll be out there playing.”
Still, USC’s coaches understand the reality of recruiting in today's climate. The best players want to play on offense and defense instead of redshirting or running down on special teams.
“They all want it,” Beamer said. “All of these guys expect to be playing as freshmen everywhere. It’s not always that easy, but if you're a high senior and you look at a lot of things, but early playing time is high on their list.”
That's why Lattimore’s week-two exploits may have an impact that lingers for months and even years.