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February 10, 2009
COLUMBIA, S.C. - No, the numbers aren't pretty.
Then again, Eric Wolford and Jay Graham understand that if they were, they probably wouldn't be employed as South Carolina assistant coaches right now.
Their joint mission: revitalize a lackluster running game that has finished at the bottom of the SEC rankings for two consecutive years.
Considering Wolford, by his own admission, is starting from scratch with the offensive line and factoring in the relative inexperience of the running backs on this year's roster, they certainly have their hands full between now and the conclusion of preseason camp in the fall.
"We've already met quite a few times as a staff and we're putting in the things that we feel we need to do," Wolford said. "You have to have a place to start somewhere. You have to have a starting point and then continue to build. Hopefully, we can put these guys in a position to be successful."
The four running backs Graham will try to coach up during spring practice have a combined 84 career carries. Two - redshirt freshman Kenny Miles and newcomer Jarvis Giles - have zero.
Maybe, though, a fresh approach is needed. South Carolina averaged 103.5 yards per game (2,587 yards in 25 games) in the last two seasons with 23 rushing touchdowns. As a matter of comparison, Florida had 42 rushing touchdowns in 2008 alone.
Graham said he and Wolford have already started working together to figure out solutions.
"I feed off what he wants since he's the o-line coach," Graham said. "The important thing for me is to know exactly what he wants and his blocking schemes. My players have to know. That's one of the first things we've talked about - being aware of what we do. [Wolford] has asked me questions and I've told him what I've done in the past. That's how that situation has to go."
This past season, the Gamecocks failed to reach the 100-yard rushing mark eight times, including the final three games - all losses - when USC averaged a paltry 62.7 yards per game.
Graham, a former All-SEC running back for Tennessee in the mid-90s and a six-year NFL veteran, was hired after Robert Gillespie left in early January for a new job with Oklahoma State.
Graham's task is to prepare young and largely inexperienced running backs like Eric Baker (sophomore), Brian Maddox (junior), Miles (redshirt freshman) and Giles (true freshman) and get them ready for the SEC wars when September arrives.
"I'm going into spring with an open mind and put our guys into competitive situations," Graham said. "Then I'll have a true evaluation of them. Once the spring is over, I'll meet with each of them and tell them up front where they are. Then they'll go into the fall and compete again. I always try to keep open lines of communication."
Of course, it takes solid offensive line play for any ground game to be productive. Wolford directed one of the top rushing attacks in the Big Ten during his two-year stint at Illinois, a reason he has been afforded the title of running game coordinator in addition to offensive line coach.
"It seems like the guys are eager and they want to make a change," said Wolford, who took over for John Hunt after the latter was fired the day after the Clemson game. "I'm excited about the opportunity. They've been working hard and doing the things we need them to do. It's going to be interesting to see what happens over the next few months."