After losing one of the best offensive weapons in school history in Marcus Lattimore, as well as his primary backup Kenny Miles, South Carolina's rushing attack will be faced with a big challenge in 2013.
The Gamecocks' ground game has been a key to their offensive success over the last three years. Over that span, Lattimore tallied 2,677 rushing yards and 38 touchdowns. In his absence, Steve Spurrier will need to find a way to replace his former superstar running back in 2013.
However, the Gamecocks have had plenty of experience finding ways to succeed without Lattimore. Two serious knee injuries have unfortunately kept the NFL-bound back out of 10 games over the past two seasons, forcing Spurrier to readjust on offense.
While Miles was the main answer this past season, he has now graduated. Even so, South Carolina has a pair of very impressive young backs ready to carry the load next season.
In 2012, Mike Davis joined the Gamecocks as the nation's seventh-ranked running back recruit according to Rivals. In limited time, Davis pounded out 275 yards on the ground and added a pair of scores.
The freshman actually compares to Lattimore in several ways. At 216 pounds, Davis has the same full, stocky build that his predecessor used to wear down SEC defenses over the last few seasons.
Even in the small sample size he supplied in 2012, the true freshman proved to be physically impressive. Davis demonstrated a notable blend of power, acceleration and speed, a balanced skill set also possessed by Lattimore.
Davis demonstrated great vision and decent patience for a true freshman as well, enabling him to pick up a series of key first downs on tough runs late in the game during the team's win over Clemson.
However, Davis still has room for improvement. For example, he often struggles in pass protection, whiffing on a couple of blocks that resulted in sacks during that same Clemson game.
This is a key element to South Carolina's backfield. Lattimore spent the first five games of the 2012 season as the team's leading receiver, showing the importance of a good checkdown option for quarterbacks Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson.
If Davis can't improve on his pass protection, he won't be able to stay on the field in passing situations, and the offense could pay the price without those safe, short routes out of the backfield.
Aside from Davis, South Carolina also has a promising option in Brandon Wilds. Though he missed the whole 2012 season with an ankle injury, Wilds recorded three 100-yard games in 2011 as Lattimore's freshman backup.
Like Davis, he is a bruiser with great size at 6'1" and 223 pounds, making his frame comparable to Lattimore's as well. The shear power of Davis and Wilds, with the help of the smaller yet shifty Shon Carson, should become a force to be reckoned with in the SEC next season.
However, the team's rushing attack also relies heavily on the offensive line. With four of the Gamecocks' starting linemen returning in 2013, this should not be too much of an issue.
Nonetheless, there is always room for improvement.
When South Carolina's opponents began to dial up the blitz, as Clemson's defensive coordinator Brett Venables did in 2012, the offensive line struggled to create enough space for their running backs to make plays. Clemson linebacker Jonathan Willard, for example, had a field day against the Gamecocks, recording 2.5 tackles for loss in the aggressive game plan.
Losing only center T.J. Johnson, who will likely be replaced by Cody Waldrop, the offensive line should be able to improve on this weakness and continue to pave the way for its powerful running backs.
Though the loss of a complete back like Lattimore will hurt in 2013, the Gamecocks have played without him before. With Davis, Wilds, Carson and a veteran front wall, South Carolina's ground attack should continue to be lethal in the SEC.
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