Tahlequah Daily Press

Sports

July 27, 2012

Top 12 in '12: No. 11 South Carolina Gamecocks

TAHLEQUAH — He wasn’t even carrying the ball.

With less than 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, it was freshman wide receiver Bruce Ellington who got the call on second-and-four from the South Carolina 45. Ellington skipped through a tackle en route to a 13-yard gain and a Gamecock first down.

Left in his wake, however, was All-Everything running back Marcus Lattimore.

Lattimore was screening for his teammate when his right knee was viciously tangled under a Mississippi State defender. Though team officials held out hope that the injury was merely a sprain, it was evident within moments of the incident that Steve Spurrier’s favorite player – perhaps, ever – was likely gone for the season.

Minutes later, quarterback Connor Shaw lofted a 4-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffrey, and the Gamecocks avoided the upset, improving to 6-1 on the season. The once optimistic narrative was gone, however, as South Carolina’s hopes of an SEC Championship were carted off along with its star running back.

With apologies to Brandon Wilds, the Gamecocks’ back-up ball carrier is the Chris Comer to Lattimore’s Boobie Miles. The former is a serviceable back, able and reasonably efficient, if less than spectacular; the latter, a transcendent talent, capable of single-handedly carrying a team well beyond the realm for which it is adequately constructed.

Without “Terminator X,” the fictional Panthers were able to roll through the likes of Tascosa, Andress, Irving Nimitz and Arlington Lamar, but couldn’t even figure out where to play Dallas Carter’s team of 30-year olds – let alone how to beat them. A healthy Miles would have constructed Reliant Stadium with his bare hands, and run all over a defense dressed in equipment that did not yet exist, inside of a stadium that did not yet exist. Without “Crazy Legs,” the real-life Fightin’ Spurriers were able to get by Tennessee, Florida, and even in-state rival Clemson, but lost to Arkansas when its running game fizzled. A healthy Lattimore would have, at the very least, topped quarterback Connor Shaw’s team-leading 24 rushing yards.

On ability alone, Lattimore is the most talented college running back since Adrian Peterson.

Like Peterson, South Carolina’s feature presentation combines hair trigger agility, breakneck speed, and indomitable power. Unlike Peterson, he packs said punch in a 236–pound frame, with an ultra-enviable lower body that more closely resembles that of Maurice Jones-Drew – a lower body that, incredibly, Lattimore claims he actually neglected until a blown ACL led him to the light. Nevermind the wonderment that accompanies the realization that a human teenager was able to churn out 2,609 total yards in 20 games, while playing in the SEC and apparently disregarding his support appendages.

Instead, simply consider that said human returns in 2012, joining the suddenly seasoned Connor Shaw, and what should be one of the conference’s best defenses.

Shaw benefited immensely – albeit under a fire storm – from the absence of Lattimore and Stephen Garcia. The then-sophomore simply wasn’t ready for the task at hand following the dismissal of Garcia – hence the rationale behind his troubled predecessor’s nine lives.

But Shaw grew into the role over the course of the campaign, eventually leading the Gamecocks in rushing three times in their final six games, including a 317–total yard, four touchdown effort versus the rival-Tigers in the regular season finale.

If the South Carolina secondary can keep pace with the rest of the unit, the Gamecocks could trend in the direction of dominant defensively, and one of the nation’s best fronts figures to provide considerable handicapping.

New defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward has one of college football’s best defensive end combos in senior Devin Taylor (six sacks in ‘11) and sophomore Jadeveon Clowney.

Excluding Navy and the Citadel – who combined for a grand total of 12 pass attempts – South Carolina surrendered only 114 rushing yards per game in 2011, a credit to that aforementioned front, and an outstanding linebacking core.

Senior Shaq Wilson led the Gamecocks in tackles in ‘09, before injuries derailed the middle portion of his of his collegiate career. Wilson is healthy and the spearhead at middle linebacker. Ex-safety DeVonte Holloman joins Wilson at spur – a position for which he is perfectly suited to wreak havoc on SEC offenses. The group is as deep as it is talented, as well, with three returners who started at least four games a season ago.

Prediction: 9-3 (6-2)

With an able-bodied Marcus Lattimore, anything is possible for the Gamecocks in Spurrier’s eighth season at the helm. South Carolina has improved its win total in each of the past four seasons, but will need a dozen victories in 2012 to keep that streak intact. USC opens the month of October with a home tilt versus Georgia, before going on the road to Baton Rouge and Gainesville – no recipe for success. If that wasn’t enough, the Gamecocks sandwich a scrimmage versus the mighty Terriers of Wofford with the likes of Arkansas and Clemson.

For the next six weeks, Tahlequah Daily Press staff writer Kolby Paxton will kick-start the college football season with a multi-part preview of the nation’s 12 best teams. The series will culminate with the TDP All-Oklahoma Team and the release of No. 1 overall on Friday, Aug. 31.

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