Palmer: Marcus Lattimore is Heisman candidate

ESPN analyst Jesse Palmer was featured on ESPN's College Football Live program Wednesday afternoon. Palmer discussed Marcus Lattimore coming back from injury and he expects South Carolina to compete for the SEC Championship and a possible darkhorse for the BCS Championship game.

Jesse Palmer, former quarterback under South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier and current college football analyst for ESPN, joined ESPN's College football live Wednesday afternoon to discuss the ninth-ranked Gamecocks and the expectations for the 2012 season. Palmer believes special things can happen in Columbia this season, but that all depends on the health and durability of who Palmer says is a Heisman hopeful, Marcus Lattimore. Palmer believes the offense tomorrow night will look just like the offense has always been with Lattimore in the line-up.

"I don't think it is going to look any different than when we've seen this offense with Marcus Lattimore healthy," Palmer said. "I think we should expect for Lattimore to be a Heisman hopeful this season. All reports out of camp are that he's back to 100%, he's running hard, and Marcus has vowed that he's not going to change his running style after his ACL injury."

If ever there was a freak accident to tear an ACL, Lattimore's injury was just that. He did not tear it making a cut or getting tackled like what happens to most running backs who suffer the injury. Lattimore's injury was blocking in the open field with a defender falling on the knee from behind. That is why Lattimore will change nothing about his running style.

Lattimore has been a machine the past two years, rushing the ball 412 times in 20 games, an average of nearly 21 carries per game. That does include the 2010 Troy game when Lattimore only carried the ball seven times and the Chick-fil-A Bowl match-up with Florida State where he went out on the first series with an injury after carrying the ball just one time. Those are the only two games of his career that he did not carry the ball at least 10 times.

With Connor Shaw's great performance in the second half of the season and the emergence of senior Kenny Miles at the end of the year, Lattimore may not reach that average in 2012. Shaw provides the same dual-threat that Stephen Garcia, the quarterback for most of Lattimore's 20-game career, but Shaw has proven to have more of a passing game than Garcia possessed. Miles emerged at the end of the 2011 season to take over the number two spot ahead of Brandon Wilds, who was the starter for much of the season after Lattimore's injury. Miles has an impressive 4.7 yards per carry for his career, just one yard shy of the school record average of 5.7 per carry by Carl Brazell.

"Certainly he's been a workhorse in years past, but I think his carries are going to go down this year," Palmer said. "I think part of that is because of Connor Shaw at quarterback, a true running threat. I also think this backfield has more depth than it's had in years past. Steve Spurrier told us that Kenny Miles, the back-up running back, is good enough to start on many other teams."

It isn't the first time Spurrier has said that he'd like to limit Lattimore's carries, but at the end of the day it is all about winning and there's no doubt that Lattimore gives Carolina the best chance of winning the game.

"Spurrier also said that he's going to give Lattimore the ball as many times as it takes to win games, and we should expect a monster year out of Lattimore," Palmer said.

It's players like Lattimore, Shaw and Miles that have helped change the culture around the South Carolina program. It wasn't too long ago when Carolina would have been thrilled just to have a winning season and play for a bowl. With Spurrier in Columbia and the program he has built and the funds that have been raised that is no longer the goal. Gamecock fans now expect the team to compete for the SEC Championship every year, and this year Carolina has a good chance of making it back to Atlanta despite a difficult schedule.

"I think Steve Spurrier sets the goal this year to compete for and win the SEC Championship," Palmer said. "The expectation level in Columbia, South Carolina has changed drastically since years past. Two years ago they went to their first ever SEC title game, and last year had their first ever 11-win season. I think Steve Spurrier understands he has the formula to win an SEC title. Play great defense led by Jadeveon Clowney on the defensive line. He has the Heisman hopeful in Marcus Lattimore at running back. I think the real x-factor is Connor Shaw at quarterback. He gives them the opportunity to win an SEC title."

If the last six years are any indication, Carolina would have a real shot at playing in the BCS Championship game if they are able to win the SEC Championship. While it seems hard to believe that South Carolina can play for a national championship, it is possible this season.

"They're probably a dark-horse to win the National Championship, but no doubt this team's goal is to win the SEC," Palmer said.

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