In a few weeks, Marcus Lattimore will test his surgically-repaired right knee on the practice field in Columbia, shifting his way around cones and tackling dummies to test its versatility.
In a few months, South Carolina’s franchise player will button his chin strap and lower his shoulder at full-strength under the lights for the season opener in Nashville.
But despite 2,015 yards rushing, 30 total touchdowns in 20 career games and his well-respected toughness in the trenches, it’s in the Gamecocks’ best interest to proceed with caution.
Reducing Lattimore’s workload in a tailback-rich offense should be paramount.
The 2010 freshman sensation who is returning from an ACL tear as a sophomore can — without question — still be a dominant force without having to be the chief ball-carrier in South Carolina’s zone-read attack. Kenny Miles, Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson are interchangeable second options who can provide a breather — without a great drop in production — for the Duncan, S.C. native. True freshman Mike Davis, a four-star signee, should see action as well barring a redshirt when he gets to campus this summer.
Last season’s memorable season proves the Gamecocks don’t have to live and die by No. 21.
In his absence from the huddle, the Gamecocks won five of their final six games to register a school-best 11-2 campaign. South Carolina managed wins over Tennessee, Florida, Clemson and Nebraska without its heralded star.
Most would agree South Carolina’s national championship aspirations center on Lattimore and the play of junior quarterback Connor Shaw, but could the Gamecocks be this year’s BCS buster even if Lattimore doesn’t surpass a 250-carry, 1,250-yard season?
Head coach Steve Spurrier admitted last season, even before his star’s injury, that Lattimore’s total number of totes should decrease. He was beaten up on nearly every play at the line of scrimmage and that’ll wear down even the best of tailbacks in the SEC.
The warrior and true competitor that he is, Lattimore’s disappointment of spending the second half of his sophomore season on the sideline was evident during his team’s late-season run. He couldn’t bulldoze the Tigers and beat Clemson for a third consecutive season nor could he carry the torch against Nebraska in Orlando.
Lattimore was a Gamecock in the flesh, but not in the pads.
It’s that yearning and love for the game that will pay dividends this fall even if he isn’t the focal point of South Carolina’s attack. By his own admission, Lattimore’s attention to detail has increased this off-season. He’s learning how to nurse his body after contact and avoid unnecessary collisions. Last year’s accident in Starkville, however, was a freak play that unfortunately could not have been avoided. Through his faith and encouragement from teammates, he’s pulled through it.
No doubt the Gamecocks are a serious SEC champion and national title contender with a healthy Marcus Lattimore, but they’ve shown they are pretty darn good without him having monster performances as well.