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August 8, 2013

Running backs are battling

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South Carolina's seventh preseason practice came and went Thursday night at the Proving Grounds, shedding just a little more light on how the Gamecocks could look at running back when they take the field against North Carolina on Aug. 29.

Sophomore tailbacks Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds are still entrenched in a heavily-contested battle for the bulk of the carries, but Shon Carson is working out with the first team as well. Each of them provide a unique set of skills to contribute to the unit, leaving running backs coach Everett Sands with the unenviable task of deciding how to divide the carries among the three of them and possibly even freshman David Williams - a dark horse candidate to break into the rotation.

Sands said recently that he plans on divvying up the carries based on the opponent and how he wants to attack the defense. He added that if the season started today, he would pick Davis - who rushed for 275 yards and two scores as a true freshman last season - as his starter, but that Wilds would get a significant portion of the carries as well. Sands was also very high on Carson, saying the redshirt sophomore should see plenty of playing time as well this fall.

"I think they compliment each other well," said Sands. "The key is to figure out how to use them wisely."

All three consider themselves the best running back on the team. It's a mentality Sands likes his backs to have.

"That's great," Sands said. "I want them to think that way."

After sitting out 2012 with a high ankle sprain, Wilds is eager to prove himself as the number one back this fall. A fifth-stringer at the start of his freshman season in 2011, Wilds took over as South Carolina's starter after Marcus Lattimore's season-ending knee injury and helped the Gamecocks to their first 11-win season in program history. He rushed for 486 yards and three touchdowns along the way, and he intends to find himself atop the depth chart again this season.

"I came here to be the number one guy," said Wilds after Thursday night's practice. "That's my job, so hopefully that's how it works out, but we all contribute to the team."

"It's a good competition. We all compete, we all fight for each other," Wilds added. "We make it fun though."

Carson said Thursday night that the running backs were looking good in practice, but that they have room to get better. Carson, who hasn't made a carry since the second week of his freshman season in 2011, rejoined the team this summer after missing spring practice while playing for USC's baseball team.

The sophomore worked hard on his blocking over the summer, and he said his plans for the season are to stay healthy and contribute to the team in any way he can. He remains optimistic about his chances of seeing significant playing time this fall.

"I think I have a good chance of getting on the field if I keep on coming out here and working hard like I'm doing every day," Carson said.

Buried in the depth chart behind the three talented sophomores is Williams, a 6-1, 200-pound former four-star from Philadelphia, Pa. Williams, who says he is still adjusting to how "slow" and humid Columbia is during the summer, took 195 carries for 1,904 yards and 23 touchdowns as a senior at Imhotep Charter. The coaches haven't mentioned redshirting to him, so he's still working hard to crack the rotation this season.

"It's left up to me," Williams said. "I'm coming in every day and trying to compete, get the plays down because I'm behind the guys that were here before. I'm just trying to get better."

Transitioning from a high school system where he didn't block much to one that places a high-emphasis on pass protection hasn't been easy for Williams. It's something he's worked on every day since arriving in Columbia, along with picking up some of the mental aspects of the game, including hand signals, plays, alignments, and knowing exactly what's expected of him when his number is called.

Much of that he's learning from spending time with the more established players at his position, two guys he's competing with for playing time, Davis and Wilds.

"It's been great," Williams said of his relationship with the other backs. "We've been coming out here competing against each other, laughing and joking around. When I need help, they help me. I go to Mike, I go to Brandon; they're there for me."

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