It would be easy to come away from the first five games of the season with questions about whether Marcus Lattimore is really 100 percent. He's averaging just 88.0 yards a game -- not a bad number by any stretch of the imagination, but not the kind of numbers we've come to expect from a player widely touted as perhaps the best running back in the SEC. And, with a season-defining game against Georgia set for Saturday, it's not an academic question for South Carolina.
But Marcus Lattimore is probably not that far off from 100 percent. (As SMQ argues as well.) He was a bit tentative earlier in the season, but there were times during the most recent game, at Kentucky, when he once again looked like the tackle-breaking running back who first shot to stardom with a breakout performance against Georgia in 2010. And judging by Lattimore's averages, he's close to full strength.
|Marcus Lattimore Rushing|
|2012, first five gms||92||440||8||18.4||4.78||8.7|
|2011, first five gms||124||677||9||24.8||5.46||7.3|
|2010, first five gms||107||459||8||21.4||4.29||7.5|
|2010-12, first five gms||323||1,576||25||21.5||4.89||7.7|
In the 2011 season, as we all know, Lattimore was injured during the seventh game of the year and never returned. He also missed a bit more than one game in 2010 after going down in the fateful Kentucky game, but he returned after the Vanderbilt game the following week, then was out after the first play of the bowl game against Florida State.
The first number that probably leaps out here isn't necessarily one of the yardage numbers; it's the carries per game. In the first five games of this season, Marcus Lattimore has carried the ball fewer times per game than at any point in his career. Part of that is the ridiculous workload he was subjected to in 2011, but part of it seems to be a real change.
Why? Steve Spurrier took a lot of heat for overusing Lattimore before he went down in 2011. The criticism was largely justified, even if the overwork didn't contribute to the injury, especially when Lattimore ran the ball 64 times in the space of two games. And Spurrier was dialing back Lattimore's workload even before the injury; since carrying the ball 37 times against Navy in 2011, Lattimore has never run the ball more than 23 times.
The pattern is even more striking this year; during the games against East Carolina and UAB, Lattimore ran the ball a combined 25 times. That is the lowest total of any two consecutive games when Lattimore was healthy since the running back has come to South Carolina. (Though you could argue that it's comparable to the 21 combined rushing attempts for Lattimore against Southern Miss and Troy in 2010.)
It's possible, or even likely, that Spurrier has decided to put less weight on Lattimore for all but the more important games -- namely SEC games. Lattimore rushed 23 times at Vanderbilt, 21 against Missouri and 23 times at Kentucky. And he's being used more as a receiver; Lattimore's seven catches against Mizzou was a career high.
And it's almost certain that some of Lattimore's runs have gone to Connor Shaw, whom Spurrier gives more freedom to run than Stephen Garcia ever had. Shaw has run the ball 50 times this year; the last time Garcia averaged 10 runs per game over a five-game period was in 2009, before Lattimore showed up.
But back to the results of the play when Lattimore is used. While the overall number of 440 yards isn't that impressive, the average per carry is actually right in line with the running back's career average. For the most part, 0.09 yards of a player's career average is statistical noise for a five-game stretch. And while the decline in rushing average from last year's opening stretch is noticeable, It's not enough to get alarmed about just yet.
All that could change against Georgia, which has never done a particularly good job at containing Lattimore. In his two career games against the Dawgs, Lattimore has run the ball 64 times for 358 yards and three touchdowns. If he has another one of his breakout performances against Georgia, we can probably put to rest the concerns about his reconstructed knee. That's a double-edged sword, of course; if Lattimore isn't his usual game-changing self against his old nemesis from Athens, all the questions will start bubbling up again.