COLUMBIA — The focus of South Carolina’s backfield the past three seasons began and ended with star tailback Marcus Lattimore. With the team record-holder for rushing touchdowns gone, young runners Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds know it’s on their shoulders to keep the Gamecocks’ ground game going strong.
Lattimore was South Carolina’s leading rusher the past three years and set a school record with 38 rushing touchdowns despite missing nearly a season’s worth of games because of serious knee injuries in 2011 and 2012. Also missing was last year’s senior backup, Kenny Miles, who was the Gamecocks’ top rusher in 2009 and their go-to guy after both of Lattimore’s injuries.
Davis and Wilds understand what they must do to take over without Lattimore and Miles. The Gamecocks conclude spring football sessions with their annual Garnet and Black game Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“I think both of us feel ready to take that step forward,” said Davis, a freshman last year who had 52 carries over 12 games. “I don’t think it’s going to be hard, but I don’t think it’s going to be easy, either.”
That’s because of the leadership skills both Lattimore and Miles brought to the team – and that Davis and Wilds are still getting a handle on.
Lattimore was as mentally ready for major college football as any player Steve Spurrier’s had in his career, South Carolina’s coach has said several times. Lattimore not only took direction, he soaked up the instructions and made sure his teammates knew them.
He supplanted Miles as the starting running back in the summer before his freshman year and left for the NFL last December as the program’s sixth-leading rusher with 2,677 yards and his touchdown mark. Lattimore’s totals would’ve been bigger if not for those knee injuries the
last two seasons.
Wilds, then a freshman, got first crack to run the ball in 2011 after Lattimore hurt his left knee at Mississippi State. Wilds had four 100-yard rushing games down the stretch that season, but the Gamecocks called on Miles to carry the ball in the season finale with Clemson and at the Capital One Bowl against Nebraska.
Miles took over for Lattimore after his devastating right-knee injury against Tennessee and got twice as many carries as Davis did in the final four games.
Davis said he and Wilds have worked on their techniques, knowledge of the offense and how to be leaders when the team needs them.
“We think we’re doing well,” Davis said.
So does Gamecocks running backs coach Everette Sands, who’s liked what he’s seen at spring workouts. He says he’s glad to have a “two-headed horse” in Davis and Wilds to keep opponents on the run.
“It’s good to be sitting back and watching a play and hearing Mike and Brandon helping the young guys out,” Sands said. “So they’ve embraced that.”
Davis and Wilds have different styles that Sands will utilize this fall.
Davis, at 5-foot-9 and 215 pounds, is the younger brother of former Clemson star tailback James Davis. Mike Davis is a fast, elusive runner able to cut around defenders and break off some long runs. Wilds is taller at 6-2 and is more effective running straight ahead and breaking tackles.
Sands said it was a bonus last fall to have a pair of dedicated, knowledgeable players like Lattimore and Miles to lead the way for younger players. He’s confident Davis and Wilds were taking notes and are mentally prepared for the next step.
“Both of them are always looking to improve and the next big thing is finishing,” Sands said.
Wilds fought the idea of sitting out all year, in the end realizing it would be best for his Gamecocks career to heal completely instead of potentially damaging the ankle even more. He feels stronger and more confident with every carry he gets in practice.
“I’ve got to step up and be a leader. I’m the oldest back here,” he said, smiling.
Behind Davis and Wilds are more untested runners in freshman Kendric Salley and sophomore Shon Carson.
Davis isn’t worried, though <0x2014> that’s because he’s got Lattimore’s phone number and a promise from the ex-Gamecocks star to be on call when needed.
“That’s a pretty special resource to have,” Davis said. “That’s Marcus Lattimore. He’s like my brother, I can call ‘Latt’ about anything.”