IT STARTED WITH THE SECOND GAME OF THE 2010 SEASON. SOUTH CAROLINA FACED third-and-12 deep in its own territory against Georgia. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier, conceding that a fourth-down punt was inevitable, played it safe: draw play to Marcus Lattimore. The 6-foot tailback plowed through defenders for 16 yards, keeping the drive alive. So Spurrier stuck with Lattimore, running him eight more times on the series. The freshman rushed for 10 yards, then 11, bouncing off defenders until he rolled in for a two-yard touchdown. South Carolina won 17--6, the initial step toward the school's first SEC East championship. When coaches reviewed the tape of Lattimore's 182-yard day, they counted an astounding 42 broken tackles.
"He just kept slipping and sliding off them," Spurrier says. "We knew we had something special."
Few running backs have inspired such confidence in the Ol' Ball Coach. Known for his offensive innovations, Spurrier favors fast-breaking pass attacks to grind-it-out ground games. Only three Spurrier-coached tailbacks had rushed for 1,000 yards before last year. But Lattimore is writing a new chapter in that history. He carried 249 times in 2010 (only Errict Rhett, with 250 at Florida in 1992, ran more often for Spurrier), rolling up 1,197 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns—four more than any other back under Spurrier.
Now Lattimore is setting himself up for even bigger things. He returned to Byrnes High in Duncan, S.C. (which he led to two state championships) and worked out every weekday in May, continuing an off-season in which he bulked up to more than 230 pounds and embraced his early consideration among national pundits as a Heisman candidate.
"He was a little bit different than the average freshman," says running backs coach Jay Graham. "He's been so desperate to get better."
Lattimore developed that work ethic in high school, where he rushed for 6,375 yards and was sometimes so spectacular that Byrnes coach Chris Miller would go back to his office on game nights to watch film of Lattimore's runs, eager to confirm what he'd witnessed. "The cuts he would make, the vision, stopping and cutting," Miller says. "Your mouth would drop open."
As an 18-year-old at the start of last season Lattimore publicly set a high standard for himself: to rush for 1,000 yards. Eyes surely rolled, but he backed up his words with the third-best rushing season in South Carolina history. Lattimore scored five more rushing touchdowns than the entire Gamecocks team had scored a year earlier, with a single-season yardage total that is surpassed in the school record books only by George Rogers, South Carolina's lone Heisman Trophy winner.
And there appears to be room for an impressive encore. While last year's starting quarterback, Stephen Garcia, was being suspended twice during spring practice, Lattimore was emerging as the Gamecocks' leader. He gathered with two teammates to conduct a prayer session with South Carolina fans before the annual Garnet & Black spring game and earned one of the program's off-season workout awards.
Conditions are ripe for the pass-happy Spurrier to once again put the ball in Lattimore's hands—and to trust in the sophomore's legs to drive South Carolina's success.