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August 18, 2011
If you were a complete stranger to South Carolina football 24 hours ago, you probably still don't know who Marcus Lattimore is.
And that might be a good thing.
That's because one of the top running backs in the country didn't have a single carry or reception in Wednesday's scrimmage. In fact, he was on the field for only two snaps to work, I suppose, on his blocking or route-running. But he didn't touch the football.
It's was same thing for wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who didn't have a reception and mostly watched the scrimmage from the sidelines.
The USC coaches know they possess a possible winning lottery ticket with Lattimore and Jeffery. Thus, they are not going to do anything within their control to put the duo in harm's way.
Running backs coach Jay Graham brushed aside the suggestion a few days ago, but I'm convinced the season-ending left ankle injury suffered by Arkansas tailback Knile Davis (the SEC's top returning running back in terms of total yardage) during an Aug 11 scrimmage cemented USC's policy decision to keep Lattimore a safe distance away from full-contact drills.
That means the estimated 5-6,000 fans that attended Wednesday's open scrimmage barely got a glimpse of Lattimore in action. Blink and they would have missed him.
Undoubtedly, a few of those fans, unaware of what happened to Davis six days earlier, walked out of Williams-Brice Stadium disappointed.
But in my opinion, USC is making a very smart business decision by protecting its assets.
USC defensive line Brad Lawing always pulls his best players out of the spring game after a few plays. When asked why he does that, Lawing typically replies, "I'm not trying to win the spring game."
Well, the same philosophy is being followed for Lattimore. He has nothing to prove to the USC coaches. They know - along with Georgia, Alabama and Florida - what he is capable of achieving on the football field.
Now, that doesn't mean Lattimore is insulated from trying to improve on certain skills (pass-blocking, etc.) he needs to possess in order to become a better player. He's not perfect. But the key word is "improve" instead of "prove."
Rarely have two letters made such an important difference.
Lattimore can get his work done in the no-contact and light contact drills, and that's how the USC coaches have approached it.
Minimizing Lattimore's exposure to injury is not a knock against the other running backs. It says more about Lattimore in a positive way than it does about the other RBs in a negative way.
In a way, football practice has a certain element of Russian roulette to it. Every practice rep, just like every snap in a game, could be the final one for any player. Injuries can occur at any time. Even the most innocent-looking play can end in disaster. That's just the nature of football.
Every day, the USC coaches hope (pray?) Lattimore is able to make it through the typical two-hour practice unscathed.
Football being such a violent game, it's nearly impossible to reduce the risk of injury to zero. But the USC coaches are attempting to get as close to that number as possible with Lattimore. And Jeffery, too.
Arkansas rolled the dice by handing the ball to Davis in that now infamous Aug. 11 scrimmage. The Razorbacks rolled snake eyes. All of a sudden, a season holding great promise for the Razorbacks was knocked down a notch or two. Sure, they could still have a good season because their wide receivers are very good, but the "what-if" question will always haunt them.
The USC coaches don't intend to make the same mistake. They have at least 1,197 reasons to protect Lattimore and keep him healthy. Possibly 1,400 more.
Spurrier's goal is simple: Make sure a healthy Lattimore runs out onto the Bank of America field with his teammates wearing a Gamecock uniform ready to play football on Sept. 3. After that, it's in the hands of the football gods.
Davis, unfortunately, won't get the same opportunity as Lattimore.
Who's the smarter coach?
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