(GamecockCentral.com) - Two years ago, heralded freshman Marcus Lattimore was more than simply an integral piece of South Carolina's rushing offense.
Instead, he was THE rushing attack with 1,197 yards on 249 carries despite missing almost 2-1/2 games with ankle and head injuries.
Lattimore had 47.7 percent of the total carries (522) and 55.3 percent of the total rushing yards (2,161) in 2010 en route to being the unanimous choice for National and SEC Freshman of the Year.
Last season, though, USC was forced to rely on other ball carriers when Lattimore was lost for the year early in the fourth quarter of the Week 7 road win at Mississippi State.
Over the last six games, USC had two different 100-yard rushers (Brandon Wilds reached the century mark three times, Connor Shaw once), three different leading rushers (Wilds, Shaw and Kenny Miles) and averaged an impressive 185.3 yards per game on the ground, enabling USC to finish third in the SEC in rushing offense (192.1 ypg) behind only Alabama and LSU.
USC compiled 200 or more rushing yards in four of those final six games, including the last three regular season contests against Florida (215 yards), The Citadel (256) and Clemson (210).
So, like the mythical phoenix, from the ashes of something negative (Lattimore's season-ending injury) arose something good (diversified rushing attack).
Wilds and Miles combined for 614 rushing yards in the final six games - 89 percent of their season tally of 690 yards - to make up for the absence of Lattimore.
Steve Spurrier hopes the trend of multiple ball carriers contributing meaningful yards to USC's rushing attack continues in 2012 rather than just relying exclusively on Lattimore, who is now healthy after months of seemingly endless rehab.
"We have some other good backs too like Kenny Miles and Brandon Wilds," Spurrier told a small group of reporters Tuesday at SEC Media Days.
Miles is a rarity at USC - a fifth-year senior - after deciding to return for one more season as a Gamecock.
Before suffering torn ligaments, Lattimore accumulated 818 rushing yards in seven games and sat atop the SEC in rushing average at 116.9 yards per game. However, Spurrier noticed something different about Lattimore as a sophomore compared to 2010 when he emerged as one of the most exciting newcomers in college football.
"His freshman year, they had troubling tackling him," Spurrier said. "Last year, he got tackled a little easier sometimes. But he pretty much carried the team in his first year. He carried 40 times down at Florida in the game for the SEC (East crown). I think we ran it about 50 times and threw it 20 times."
Asked why he thought Lattimore was brought to the ground a 'little easier' by opposing defenses in 2011, Spurrier quickly replied, "I don't know."
"It was just a few games there at the end," he said. "But I think he's ready to go now. He can carry it 40 times if we need him to."
While branching out the running game is an important and realistic goal for the USC offense, Lattimore will certainly return to being the centerpiece of the ground attack as long as he remains healthy.
"The doctors can do wonderful things now with those knee surgeries," Spurrier remarked. "Marcus rehabbed it beautifully and did everything they asked and probably a little bit more. He should be ready to go."
For possibly the first time in his long head coaching career, Spurrier enters a season knowing the quarterback will have a vital role in the rushing game. Connor Shaw was USC's second-leading rusher in 2011 with 525 yards and proved adept at making plays on the perimeter with his speed, giving opposing defenses fits in the process.
"He's a solid kid. He tries to do what you ask him to do," Spurrier said. "He doesn't have a lot of outside interests other than be the best quarterback he can to help our team win games and be successful, and hopefully win an SEC (title)."
Redshirt freshman Shon Carson suffered the same fate as Lattimore in 2011 by prematurely going down with a serious knee injury after carrying the ball just three times for nine yards in two games.
Spurrier looks for the Lake City (S.C.) High graduate to bounce back from the physical setback with a strong season in 2012. The swift Carson is listed in the media guide at 5-foot-8 and 192 pounds, but usually plays bigger.
Right now, Carson could be USC's best-kept secret, Spurrier said.
"We've got a little kid Shon Carson that nobody knows about yet," Spurrier said. "He's a little scooter bug that can go. We have a lot of ballplayers, all of a sudden."
In addition to returning the top four rushers from last season, USC signed gifted freshman Mike Davis, the top running back prospect in the state of Georgia for the 2012 recruiting cycle, as he joins arguably the deepest running back corps in school history.
Davis rushed for 1,923 yards and 21 touchdowns on 213 carries as a senior at Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain, Ga., and participated in the U.S. Army All-American game.
Unless USC proves capable of throwing the football downfield on a consistent basis, Spurrier hinted USC could lean heavily on the running game again.
The Gamecocks ran the ball 63.6 percent of the time (553 of 870 plays) in 2011. Will USC surpass that percentage in Spurrier's eighth season as head coach?
"If we can't throw it very well, we're not going to try to," Spurrier claimed. "With Marcus Lattimore coming back full speed, plus a bunch of other guys, we should run the ball very well."
USC utilized play-action more last year than it has in the past, and should again this season, Spurrier said.
"I don't know if we'll be a big passing team or a big running team again," Spurrier said. "We'll probably be more of a running team, play defense and pick our spots to throw the ball. That's not a bad formula. It's a little different than what I've coached in the past. You can win a bunch of ballgames doing it that way."
The existence of so many talented backs on the roster prompted Spurrier to contend USC had "a fighting chance" in 2012 to capture the one prize that remains elusive for the Gamecocks.
In the last two years, USC is unbeaten when it rushes 40 or more times in a single game, including a 10-0 mark in 2011.
"We've still not won the SEC. That's our ultimate goal," Spurrier said. "We know it's not going to be easy. It will be extremely difficult. But that's our goal. That's what we're shooting for. Who knows if it can work out for us this coming year."
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