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August 23, 2012

Final Run



In this day and age of instant gratification, of wanting everything now if not sooner, it's never a surprise when a player decides to leave his first school for another. Despite the assurances and promises of School 1 being the best and the right fit and the only choice, School 2 is often the other "best" as the coos and promises of recruiters don't pan out, or the player is too impatient to wait for School 1 to become what they thought it was going to be.

It's not a sign of the evil of the college game, it's a simple sign of the numbers of the college game. Only 22 or five or nine or however many play at a time, and there's simply no room for everybody to play. It's why when a player is told that they may have to wait to play, many decide to go somewhere where they won't have to wait to play.

There are the others, who stick it out despite never playing, going through four or five years as the noble walk-on or crowd favorite, but knowing that after their one year of hearing the adoring "Awwwwww …" when they finally get in the game, it's over. They won't be remembered for too much, as there's always another few to take their place, and another smaller, slower, more lovable never-will-be that will tug at the fans' heartstrings.

And then there's Kenny Miles.

Not the biggest. Not the fastest. Not the most crucial to South Carolina's chances to winning. With some of the talent ahead of him at running back, Miles chose to be honored on Senior Day last year despite having another year of eligibility, and coach Steve Spurrier gave Miles his blessing to play his final year somewhere where he could have a shot of being on the field all the time.

Yet despite having All-American Marcus Lattimore in front of him, and a bevy of talent including freshman U.S. Army All-American Mike Davis competing with him for carries, Miles chose to stay. He knows he won't be starting outside of something happening to Lattimore, and knows that if Davis proves he's capable or Brandon Wilds keeps producing, then his straight-ahead running style may be deemed as the third- or fourth-best on the team.

Nobody - not one - would have blamed Miles for leaving. He had his moment of adoration during the final two games of 2011, when he turned in two of his best career games in relief of an ailing Lattimore and Wilds. He could have gone to a smaller school, free of the academic side of college (Miles has already graduated with a degree in criminal justice) and tried to impress an NFL scout there with a passel of yards and touchdowns.

Instead, Miles is back for a fifth year at USC, and the cheers he gets when he does play this season won't be confined to just one game or one year. He'll be remembered at USC as much for what he did this year as what he didn't do during the offseason - which is stay in Columbia, although he knew it wasn't the best chance to rise to the next level or even have a productive on-field season.

Why?

"Because I never could see myself anywhere else," Miles said. "I never thought about leaving. I love it here at South Carolina."

Miles didn't need it pointed out to him that the other backs on the roster are looked upon as having better talent, better potential. He's not blind. He knows full well that his 982 career rushing yards is less than half of what Lattimore has done in just 20 career games, or that Wilds' one-year, 13-game total of 486 yards, that was mostly done in five starts, is nearly half of what it took Miles four years to accomplish.

But so what? There's always another game and another chance around the corner. Miles got one chance when Lattimore was hurt in 2010, but could only get 25 yards on 11 carries at Vanderbilt; he made sure when the next chance(s) came around, he took advantage.

His 71 yards, including a 28-yard burst where he ran through several Clemson tacklers to match his career-long, wiped away the sting of a 2011 that was mostly spent on the disabled list, a torn wrist tendon knocking him out of action. Miles followed with 67 yards and two touchdowns against Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl, his first scores since his initial one, way back in 2009.

The end of 2011 was a sweet one for Miles, his two games helping the Gamecocks go where they'd never been - to an 11-win season. With a degree in hand, having said his farewells to a Senior Day crowd and knowing that Lattimore, Wilds and Co. would all be around in 2012, Miles had the opportunity to go. Two great games were all the fuel he needed to look around, see who needed a proven, sturdy tailback and go start impressing the NFL scouts.

But that wouldn't have felt right.

"I made a commitment to South Carolina, and I was always told that a man sticks with his commitments," Miles said. "When it came down to it, I didn't want to leave."

There were more times than after graduation that he could have left with, again, nobody questioning him. After leading the team with 626 yards in 2009, Miles was abruptly pushed to the side as Lattimore arrived and began flipping over 100-yard games like calendar pages. Understandable, as Lattimore carried the kind of prep credentials that had every major school in the country knocking on his door, but still hurtful.

Another running back, Jarvis Giles, transferred but Miles stayed. Miles was relied upon to be the man in that Vanderbilt game in 2010, but he couldn't, and Brian Maddox took over, yet Miles remained. He had one carry through the first six games of 2011 while dealing with his wrist injury, but didn't pout, complain or start torching bridges. Miles may have been upset but wouldn't let on that he was, or ever hang his head.

"Never," Lattimore said. "That's what I admire about him the most. All these guys come in, he's honestly kind of overlooked, but he's a great player. He's got great spirit and you can see God in him."

Miles had freedom to leave after the 2011 season when his star had never been brighter, but chose to bust his tail through spring practice, where he won the Joe Morrison Offensive Player of the Spring Award. Then when he could have coasted through the summer, he exhorted all of his teammates to take the offseason workouts seriously, so they could improve on what had been a wonderful season - even if Miles himself wouldn't play a huge part in it.

As it turns out, injuries to Wilds, Shon Carson and Kendric Salley have anointed Miles as the No. 2 tailback behind Lattimore, with at least the plan being for Miles to have several carries per game, as the coaches don't want to tax Lattimore with 35-40 totes per game.

"I'm fine with my role," Miles insists, and one can't help but believe him, as many times as he could have left. "Marcus is a tremendous running back and it's my job to back him up. (The rest of the backs and I) do see it as a competition and we're all fighting for the same thing."

Miles will be fine if he's only the No. 2 back, but he won't be complacent about it. The No. 1 spot should always be fought for and that's what Miles intends to do. At the end of the day, he can always be satisfied that he gave it his best shot. Lattimore, although he knows that he'll be the starter, recognized Miles' effort.

"Just a class act," he said. "He knows this offense like the back of his hand. He's a real true veteran and the leader of our team. He's going to help us win a lot of ballgames this year. I've learned so much from him, not just in football, but we talk about everything, just in life."

Miles will be counted on to supply that kind of leadership and knows that he's best for the job. As Spurrier said, Miles is the best backup, in talent and in veteran stability. The past four years may have had their frustrating or unpleasant moments, but they all combined to get Miles to this point.

One more season, as an admired player and person, and an example of how there are still young men in the savage world of college football that place more emphasis on the journey to get to the field, not on what happens once they're there. How refreshing.

How Kenny.



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