COLUMBIA — The past two games, South Carolina gained confidence in its passing game by hanging 322 and 397 yards on Alabama-Birmingham and East Carolina.
But those teams’ defenses bear little resemblance to what the Gamecocks will face in the Southeastern Conference.
With the bulk of their SEC games beginning today at home against Missouri, USC’s coaches know they likely will need to rely more on establishing the run if they are to win the SEC East Division and play for the conference championship.
When asked if he expects USC to run more often as the season progresses, running backs coach Everette Sands paused.
“That is a great question,” he said. “And I’m sure that we will. But we’ve got to wait and see.”
Not counting sacks, USC has run 103 times this season — 34 per game. That includes 44 non-sack runs in the season opener at Vanderbilt, which skews the average. Last season, the Gamecocks averaged 40 non-sack runs per game.
They have one of the nation’s best tailbacks in Marcus Lattimore, but they didn’t really need him against ECU and UAB. He ran 13 and 12 times, after carrying 23 times for 110 yards at Vanderbilt. Neither of the other two primary tailbacks, senior Kenny Miles and true freshman Mike Davis, has carried more than five times in any game this season.
USC is still experiencing issues with its run blocking. So far, rushing yards have accounted for 39 percent of USC’s total offensive output, compared to 51 percent last season. Some of that stems from the absence of USC’s adept running quarterback, Connor Shaw, for essentially half of this season’s three games. The ECU and UAB defenses also proved vulnerable to the pass.
USC’s coaches certainly haven’t forgotten about Lattimore, their best offensive player and the projected No. 19 overall pick in next year’s NFL draft by ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. Sands continues to marvel at Lattimore’s ability to break tackles, which Sands said resulted in “a couple of the most exciting seven-yard pass receptions” in the first three games.
Davis is an interesting factor, too, now that he isn’t redshirting. The highest-rated recruit in USC’s Class of 2012, he has seven carries for 98 yards in three games, including four for 84 against UAB, with a long of 50.
With sophomore Brandon Wilds and redshirt freshman Shon Carson still sidelined with ankle and wrist injuries, Davis is getting opportunities to show he can be the future of USC’s backfield, if Lattimore does turn pro after this season, as many observers expect he will.
Davis said the UAB game “helps my confidence a lot. I think I should be able to run against anybody out there. I think I handled it pretty well. I went out there and I wasn’t too hyped. I wasn’t too low. I think I performed very well. I wasn’t too overwhelmed. I wasn’t thinking too much that maybe I might mess up.”
He has better numbers than Miles’ 11 carries for 34 yards, but Sands said that’s partly because, when Miles played against UAB, “there was nothing there” in terms of running holes. Sands said “it’s still too early to say” that Davis is truly pushing Miles for the No. 2 spot.
Lattimore will get the bulk of the carries. That much is obvious. But Sands has been pleased with Davis’ progress recently with his blocking — a major factor for him getting playing time beyond mop-up duty in blowout wins over ECU and UAB. Sands is noticing Davis quickly becoming a more aggressive and smarter blocker, a tremendously positive sign for him.
“He’s sticking his face in there and getting where he’s supposed to be,” Sands said. “Overall, he’s light years away from where he was the first game. I have much more confidence in him right now than I did before that first game.”