COLUMBIA — Everywhere Nick Jones went this offseason, the question followed.
No Marcus Lattimore as a teammate this fall? Oh, how his world would be turned upside down.
True, these are unchartered waters for Jones. The Gamecocks’ junior receiver has never played without his superstar teammate. Not at Byrnes High, where Lattimore was Mr. Football in South Carolina. Not at USC, where Lattimore grabbed headlines with highlight-reel runs and heartbreaking injuries.
Not even in little league.
Truth is, Jones has long waited for this opportunity. Nothing against Lattimore. The two will be lifelong friends. But the superstar tailback is gone now.
Jones feels like it’s his turn to shine.
“Going back to my high school days, being a teammate of Marcus, I’ve been kind of overlooked since those days,” Jones said. “I don’t mind it at all. It kind of makes me want to be better than people think.
“I just didn’t like the thought of being here only because of being Marcus Lattimore’s (high school) teammate. I want to make a name for myself, so I just wanted to work harder and be more dedicated to the game.”
Jones took his dedication seriously this summer. He had a complete overhaul in the Carolina heat, creating what he called “a new me.” His dreadlocks were chopped off. The jersey number on his back changed from 10 to 3. He shed weight, getting in the best shape of his life.
“That’s the first thing I’ve noticed, maybe in the spring and the summer,” USC coach Steve Spurrier said. “You’d think a guy about 5-7 wouldn’t need to lose weight, but he needed to lose weight.”
As the season approached, Jones waited. He knew his time would come.
The breakout came Saturday in Athens. Jones caught six passes for 97 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a loss to No. 9 Georgia. He was the best receiver on the field that night, establishing himself as a potential go-to target for USC quarterback Connor Shaw.
“Nick stepped up and had a huge game,” Shaw said outside the visiting team’s locker room.
It was the type of game Spurrier expected from Jones.
“He’s quick,” Spurrier said. “When we do our sprints after practice, he’s one of the first guys over and back, I noticed last night. So he’s in tip-top shape. He’s a really, really good route runner with good hands, so there’s a chance he may get featured a little more as we go.”
For Jones, route-running is the most important thing. He isn’t going to overwhelm any cornerbacks with his size. Jones is fast, but so is every SEC defense.
Jones must be technically sound to produce, like his second touchdown Saturday. On a flag route, Jones turned his hips so quick Georgia’s cornerback couldn’t keep up. The result was an easy touchdown, tied score and the blueprint for how Jones beats defenders downfield.
“I’m not the tallest guy in the world,” Jones said. “That’s why, I mentioned, my route-running has to be very intact because I’m not going to go up and just go over anybody to go get the ball. So I’ve got to separate myself from my route-running and my speed and getting in and out of my breaks and cuts.”
If Jones can build off Saturday night, USC’s offense will find balance. With Ace Sanders gone to the NFL, and Bruce Ellington slowed in the wake of a hamstring injury, someone has to step up in the Gamecocks’ passing game. Jones is a likely candidate. His 10 catches through the first two games almost match the total (12) from his sophomore season.
Jones was asked this week if he considered himself a candidate to be the Gamecocks’ No. 1 receiver. He deflected the notion, uninterested in outside perception. But, the possibility exists, and it seems real.
Now, that really would turn his world upside down.
“It’s a new me,” Jones said. “… I don’t have Marcus here anymore. I don’t have Ace here anymore. I just wanted to make a whole new change so it would be about Nick, and just start improving myself.”