COLUMBIA — The oldest player on South Carolina’s depth chart “won the game” — head coach Steve Spurrier’s words — for his younger teammates.
And the shortest player came through for a team with the longest list of concerns in the last several Gamecock seasons.
Shon Carson is 24 as of Sunday and 5-8 wearing two pairs of socks. South Carolina is 1-0 and not 0-1 going into a Saturday night home game against Kentucky because he came off the bench for a 48-yard touchdown dash off the right edge with 12:45 remaining in Thursday night’s 17-13 victory over North Carolina in Charlotte. Carson had 75 late yards on four carries, the most important contribution of an injury-marred, five-year college career.
The clutch performance and veteran presence are attributes likely to pay off everyday from here to December.
The Gamecocks, after failing to finish games against Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee in 2014 and apparently still looking for a capable quarterback in 2015, crave reliable closers.
“I don’t talk that much,” Carson said Tuesday in an understatement, “but I lead by action.”
That’s what you want from one of the few Gamecocks around for all three of those 11-2 seasons from 2011-2013.
There is only so much Carson can do. But every little bit means more options in Spurrier’s playbook, less pressure on quarterback Connor Mitch (or Perry Orth) and less of a beating for wide receiver/Wildcat quarterback/punt returner Pharoh Cooper.
Any height disadvantage is minor compared to the other challenges Carson has wrestled with in Columbia.
His first college season ended before the second game was over. After scoring over 100 touchdowns at Lake City High School, Carson tore an anterior cruciate ligament on his only carry at Georgia in 2011.
The 2012 season was a near washout, too. Carson suffered a wrist injury in preseason camp and didn’t make it back until catching two passes against Michigan in the Outback Bowl.
He broke his collarbone in the 2014 spring game.
Carson was a sensational baseball player in high school; the Cincinnati Reds picked him in the 44th round of the 2011 Major League draft. But he lasted only one season on the diamond at South Carolina, batting .194 in 18 games.
There have been bright moments; 102 yards on 13 carries in a 19-14 home win over Florida in 2013, a 42-yard kick return to set up the game-winning score against Georgia last season.
But nothing quite like Thursday night. Carson looked faster than everyone else on the field while stepping in for fellow running backs Brandon Wilds (14 carries, 51 yards) and David Williams (10 carries, 42 yards).
“I think it just worked out that way,” Spurrier said of the substitution pattern. “Shon had several good runs and then, of course, Brandon came in there at the end and had several good ones also. David struggled a little bit dropping a few passes that he usually catches. But he’s a good back.”
If you’re scoring at home, Carson is on pace to gain 900 yards this season, not counting a bowl game. That’s double his career total of 406 yards for parts of four seasons.
Carson, who says he “has to be patient,” is still listed No. 3 on the depth chart.
Whatever he says (or doesn’t say), teammates are appreciative.
“He says he’s not really too vocal, but to have a guy on the team like that is always good for younger kids to look up to,” said Isaiah Johnson, a senior free safety who transferred from the University of Kansas. “Even myself, being new here, I can kind of come to Shon if I want to and ask him stuff about how everything works over here, since he’s been here so long.”
Carson could stand up in the Gamecocks’ locker room this week and yell about how South Carolina failed to put Kentucky away last October in Lexington when the Wildcats won 45-38 by scoring the final 21 points.
He could loudly point out that the Wildcats allowed 247 yards rushing last week in a 40-33 victory over Louisiana-Lafayette.
Instead, watch Shon Carson take action.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff