BLYTHEWOOD -- Jay Graham didn't hesitate.
"You should get your nose out of joint if you're not playing," South Carolina's running backs coach said on Wednesday, during coach Steve Spurrier's annual media golf gathering. "That's why we compete. We are competing on a full playing field. We are competing to see who will be the starter."
Graham has six scholarship running backs in his stable this season, all bringing a unique gift to the field and all wanting to play. Getting a certain number of touches per game is not guaranteed, especially when playing in a pass-happy Spurrier offense.
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Although he hasn't been able to watch them condition and train during the summer, Graham has preached a tough-love sermon to each of his backs. If you find yourself as one of the guys not on the three-deep depth chart, then you need to get in gear.
"You got to figure out what it is," Graham bluntly said. "We're not going to point fingers at others, we're going to point it at ourselves and see how we can get better. I try to keep it fair. 'This is how things are shaping up, what are you going to do about it?'"
The Gamecocks have several options at tailback, beginning with the rotation's lone senior. Brian Maddox is the kind of tough downhill runner that may not be the shiftiest guy around, but can bulldoze over and through opponents. Jarvis Giles can shake and dance and has breakaway speed, as shown in glimpses during his freshman year.
There's the team's leading returning rusher, Kenny Miles, who averaged 5.4 yards per carry last year and showed up for the Pigskin Poets gathering looking like a Mr. Universe entry. Bryce Sherman and Eric Baker round out the returning rotation.
Then the man everybody paid to see -- freshman Marcus Lattimore. The five-star recruit will get a chance to break in right away, although no one is just handing him the starting role.
"Marcus will have an opportunity to jump right in," Spurrier said. "I feel he'll know the offense well. He'll be able to compete with Kenny, Brian … Jarvis Giles has had a good summer. We've got a lot of guys who can carry the ball."
But it comes back to making everybody happy. Spurrier was hopeful the group would see the 2010 season as an opportunity for the team to do something it never has, even if some have to see more bench time than they would like.
"There's only one football out there," he pointed out, echoing Graham's statements. "We've got to have good team guys. Hopefully we will have team players who think team-first in everything we do."
Graham said he's been hearing positive reports from the summer workouts and has a couple of questions to answer, ones that may linger through fall camp. One is how to fit the diminutive Sherman into the offense, as a back or perhaps a slot receiver; and the other is how well Baker will recover from a torn knee ligament suffered during bowl practice.
"Bryce, he's gained weight," Graham said. "Bryce gained nine pounds. That's a difference for him. Instead of guys grabbing him by the arm, now he can break out of them. We can put him in situations in open field where he can make some plays for us."
As for Baker, who showed a lot of potential as a freshman, the road may be long but it is available. Much depends on how quickly he can get back to full strength.
"Got to get to the first day of practice," Graham said. "I think there's no knee injury that's the same. Some guys recover in five months, some guys recover in nine. We'll just see."
As for his newest acquisition, Graham is like the rest of USC's fans. He knows what Lattimore is capable of, but has to see it on the field before he can start really talking about the player's abilities.
"We've got to get out there and put the pads on, but I know what I saw in high school," Graham said. "We all know what we saw in high school. We know the type of talent that he has. But we've got to find out where he is, find a baseline for college level. In practice, he's going to go against a pretty tough defense."
It should be an interesting preseason. While Spurrier said that Miles has definitely earned the starting spot, that's now. A lot can happen between Aug. 3, the first practice, and Sept. 2, the first game.
"We have to find out who's in that group of 1-A, 1-B guys," he said. "Now, if you're a number-four guy and we're playing three, then you got to pick it up."