Here’s a look at what could make the difference when No. 12 South Carolina hosts Arkansas today at noon on: COBI HAMILTON Arkansas’ best wide receiver is also one of the nation’s best. He ranks No. 4 nationally with 119.7 yards per game and No. 7 with 7.7 catches per game. He has been especially effectively lately. Last week against Tulsa, he had 11 catches for 177 yards. Two weeks ago against Mississippi, he had 12 catches for 146 yards. Slowing Hamilton will be a tall order for USC’s cornerbacks, especially Victor Hampton, who has played well this season. DEFENSIVE MUSICAL CHAIRS USC was off last week and used the extra time to work free safety D.J. Swearinger at cornerback and spur outside linebacker DeVonte Holloman at strong safety. If Holloman moves to strong safety, USC will rely on Damario Jeffery at spur. He struggled last season against Arkansas while playing spur in place of Antonio Allen. Can he play better this time around? USC RUSHING IDENTITY Marcus Lattimore is done for the season with a knee injury. How will Kenny Miles and Mike Davis handle themselves as Lattimore’s replacements? Miles has just 42 carries this season, Davis 24. And while Miles is a fifth-year senior, Davis is a true freshman. The carry split between Miles and Davis figures to be more equitable than Lattimore and Miles.
COLUMBIA — Life without Marcus Lattimore, perhaps forever, begins today at South Carolina.
Today’s GameWHO: No. 12 South Carolina (7-2, 5-2 SEC) vs. Arkansas (4-5, 2-3)WHEN: NoonTV: WCSC (CBS)LINE: USC by 14
When the Gamecocks host Arkansas at noon, Lattimore won’t be in uniform. In fact, he won’t even be at Williams-Brice Stadium because USC’s medical staff and Lattimore decided it would be best if he didn’t attend the game, a week and a day after undergoing knee surgery.
USC will honor Lattimore today for setting the school’s career total and rushing touchdowns records this season. His name will appear on the stadium’s interior façade, alongside the most prominent names in program history — and it will likely remain there for years to come.
But down on the field, USC will try to move on from Lattimore’s injury as quickly as possible. Anyone who saw how his right knee bent during the Gamecocks’ last game, an Oct. 27 home win over Tennessee, knew he was finished for the season. He tore multiple ligaments, so there is a chance he won’t be able to play again until 2014. And considering he has now torn ligaments in both knees, he might deem it wisest to try to play his next down in the NFL.
Even if he had remained healthy for the rest of this season, he was considered a likely candidate to enter the NFL draft early. That would’ve left USC’s 2013 team in the same situation it almost certainly will find itself in now — with Mike Davis as the No. 1 tailback. All Lattimore’s injury did was move Davis one step closer to that role for this season’s final four games.
Fifth-year senior Kenny Miles will be USC’s top tailback today, though running backs coach Everette Sands envisions a more equitable carry split between Miles and Davis, a true freshman, than there was between Lattimore and Miles. Lattimore finished the season with 143 carries. Miles has 42 and Davis 24.
Davis credits Lattimore and Miles for helping prepare him to play. He struggled with pass blocking earlier this season, as most freshmen do. But Lattimore and Miles worked with him in film study and during practices, so Davis could figure out who to block before the snap.
“I would say (my) biggest improvement has probably been pass blocking, blitz pickups,” Davis said. “I’ve done a great job with it and I think I’ve got it down pat. It wasn’t my technique in blocking. It was just figuring out who is coming and what formation people like to blitz out of.”
Davis does not lack for confidence. He was the highest-rated recruit in USC’s Class of 2012 — No. 63 overall by Rivals.com and No. 7 among running backs. He did not hesitate when asked how he felt about now taking on a larger role in the offense.
“I can’t wait,” he said.
He has carried at least once in eight of nine games this season, but never more than six times in any one game. His best game was against overmatched Alabama-Birmingham on Sept. 15, when he ran four times for 84 yards, including a 50-yard burst and a three-yard touchdown that remains his only score. Other than the 50-yard run, he is still averaging 4.7 yards per carry this season (23 runs for 107 yards). Lattimore’s season average was 4.6.
Granted, Davis has a smaller sample size of carries, and calling him the next Lattimore would be pure folly at this point. But like Lattimore, who is six feet and 218 pounds, Davis (5-9, 216) possesses a valuable combination of power and speed. He would have redshirted this season, but Brandon Wilds dealt with a sprained ankle early in the season, and the coaches decided to instead redshirt Wilds, who started as a true freshman last season after Lattimore went down.
Sands said Davis has “come a long way” in his pass blocking, though he’s not perfect. It is an area of the game where tailbacks usually get better with experience. Sands noted that “it’s not a slam dunk” that Davis will be the No. 1 tailback in 2013, because he will compete with Wilds and Shon Carson, who is out this year with a wrist injury after missing last season with a knee injury. Wilds (6-2, 218) is powerful but slow, and Carson (5-8, 192) is shifty but slight. To claim the No. 1 spot next year, Sands said Davis must improve his pass blocking and also “become more of a patient runner” when he decides which hole to hit. He must read his blocks more thoroughly before pouncing — something Davis has the next four games to prove he can do.
“You can’t outrun your linemen, which he’s gotten better at, and with more reps, he’ll get even better at it,” Sands said. “He has good vision. He’s got great feet and hips. He has some explosiveness to him. He has all the tools. There’s no doubt about that. It’s just reps that’ll help him get to that point.”