Lattimore primed for big year

Marcus Lattimore has worked to improve his game for the 2011 season and he hopes it pays off in a big way. It starts with an East Carolina defense that was 117th in rush defense in 2010.

Steve Spurrier and quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus are not sure who their quarterback is. Steve Spurrier, Jr. is not quite sure how he's going to use his wealth of receivers. Brad Lawing is not sure which combination he's going to start out with on the defensive line. Lorenzo Ward and Jeep Hunter have concerns in the secondary.

None of the above listed are negative concerns with the exception of the depth in the secondary. One coach that hasn't had to worry about naming a starter is running back coach Jay Graham. Reigning Freshman of the Year and multiple school record breaking Marcus Lattimore is back for his sophomore season and is hoping to be even better this season.

"I've been studying more than I did last season - watching a lot more film," Lattimore said. "I think I'm going to make better decisions while I'm running and catching and I think I know our protections pretty good. All three phases I expect to be better."

The thought of seeing a better Lattimore in 2011 is a scary thought for any defensive coordinator. After rushing for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns and catching 29 passes for 412 yards and two more scores, Lattimore quickly etched his name in Gamecock lore. His rushing yardage shattered Thomas Dendy's freshman record of 848 yards that stood for 28 years. It was also third-best in school history, behind only George Rogers. His 19 touchdowns broke Harold Green's school record, and his 114 points broke Collin Mackie's record of 113.

It can get better than that?

The 6-0 running back is up to 232 pounds, 18 pounds heavier than he was as a freshman, and coaches and players alike have commented that he's even quicker than he was last year. If that is the case, ECU defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell has probably bought enough Tums this week to keep the company in business for the next five years.

The Pirates were absolutely atrocious defensively in 2010. The Pirates were either dead last or close to dead last in the FBS in every defensive statistic, including rush defense. The Pirates were 117th out of 120 FBS teams, giving up 227 yards per game and 41 touchdowns. Marshall was the only opponent that did not rush for 100 yards against ECU, falling six yards short. Six opponents rushed for more than 200 yards, Rice - yes Rice - rushed for 410 yards, and Navy ran for 521 yards.

The only challenge for Lattimore and the Gamecocks appears to be figuring out the new 3-4 defense that Mitchell is installing this season. The coaching staff has been studying BYU - where Mitchell played college ball and coached for 11 seasons - and Air Force - where ECU visited in the offseason.

"It's still early," Graham said. "You don't know exactly what to expect. They've made some changes on their defense, but I think our guys are ready.

"The biggest thing is, whatever we face, we're going to try and do our part. We know how to block against certain three-down schemes, and in certain four-down schemes. It just depends on how they line up.

The one phase that Lattimore has worked on improving the most is protection. Obviously gaining 14 pounds will help when opposing defensive linemen and linebackers are bearing down on whichever quarterback will be starting.

"Definitely blocking," Lattimore responded on what he's improved the most. "270 (pounds) coming at you full speed running 4.6 (forty yard) you've got to make a quick decision. There was a lot of mistakes I made last year in blocking, but I think they will be minimized this year."

While the running back who will get the first touch of the season is a certainty, who will be backing him up is still up in the air. Spurrier said at his weekly press conference that junior Kenny Miles will be the primary back-up and true freshman Shon Carson will be third in line. The gap between the two is minute. When the depth chart for the ECU game was released it stated that Miles or Carson would be the back-up. According to Lattimore, it doesn't really matter who the number two and number three guy will be, they all bring something to the table.

"I have (two) great backs behind me that are going to get a lot of carries," Lattimore said. "Fresh legs coming into the game is going to be real hard for a defense to stop that. We can get the speed of Shon and the quickness of Kenny. I'll just come in and do what I do."

Carson has been one of the surprises of the fall so far. In the four scrimmages Carson rushed for 109 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 20 carries. Where Miles has the advantage that will likely end up giving him the back-up role for Saturday night is experience.

"Knowing what you're supposed to be doing on every single play being the first game," Graham said. "For the young guys understanding that it's a faster tempo. We go fast in practice but it's nothing compared to the game tempo."

Depending on how fast Carson - and any other freshman - has picked up the system will determine when and how often he plays against the Pirates.

"Out here they're picking it up," Graham said. "That's something that's important for us whether you're young or old. You're being taught the right things to do so you have to understand these different schemes if you want to be in there for an entire series. We don't spot-play guys. You have to understand exactly what we're doing in pass protection. Doing it out here is different than doing it in the game. When the live bullets start flying and things start happening I want to know that you understand what's going on. When there's not a coach behind you and there's 70,000 fans you have to know what you're doing."

At the end of the day, it's all going to come down to execution.

"We know what we have to do," Lattimore said. "We're going to listen to our coaches and run our plays and if we execute we should be fine."

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