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September 21, 2011
High school powerhouse Byrnes High School should have two recent graduates in the starting lineup for South Carolina on Saturday night.
One, of course, will be running back Marcus Lattimore, the nation's leading rusher with 534 yards in three games, an astonishing pace that would put him over 2,000 yards for the season if he was able to maintain it.
The other? Wide receiver Nick Jones, who is coming off a three-reception, 52-yard performance against Navy last week. One of those grabs was a critical 34-yarder on third-and-15 during a second quarter drive towards a game-tying touchdown.
"I was just patiently waiting on my opportunity, waiting on my number to be called and it finally got called," Jones said. "I knew all my assignments, and I was able to perform like I wanted to."
Jones, who broke the news to reporters following Wednesday night's rain-shortened practice, is expected to make his first career start for the Gamecocks in Saturday's 7 p.m. home game against Vanderbilt at the outside receiver spot ("B" receiver) opposite Alshon Jeffery.
"As of right now, I'm starting this week," Jones said. "We'll see from there."
Jones, who started playing football with Lattimore when both were seven years old in Greer, SC, called his parents to deliver the good news.
"They were pretty excited and told me to play like I know how to play and everything should work out," Jones said. "Marcus was really the first person I told and he was more excited than I was. It's going to be crazy since he and I have been on the same football field since we were seven years old. I'm ready for it."
The depth chart released Monday night listed Jason Barnes as the starter with the 5-foot-9, 188-pound Jones serving as the backup. But, apparently, those two receivers have now switched spots.
Wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. did not address the media following Wednesday's workout. USC's passing attack has struggled gaining a foothold in the first three games, and currently ranks ninth in the SEC with an average of 159.0 yards per game.
"We've worked real hard on the passing game and it's going to improve," Jones said. "We're expecting it to improve."
Jones will work Saturday against a tough Vanderbilt secondary that has defended the pass very well through three games in 2011. The Commodores are fourth in the SEC in pass defense (164.3 ypg) and lead the nation in interceptions. Vanderbilt has a Pick-6 in each of their first three games this season.
"They have a real good secondary," Jones said. "We have to play our assignments and get open as receivers. Stephen (Garcia) will throw the ball and the line will protect great. We should make it work."
Vanderbilt likes to blanket receivers with suffocating zone coverages, Jones said.
Since taking over as the No. 1 quarterback in the second quarter of the season opener against East Carolina, Stephen Garcia has completed 55.4 percent of his passes (36-for-65) for 456 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions.
Then again, the way Lattimore has rushed the ball, USC hasn't needed a high-powered passing attack. However, concerns have been raised this week if the Gamecocks have relied too heavily on Lattimore in the first quarter of the regular season.
Steve Spurrier was asked "the question" during his weekly press conference on Tuesday, and again on Wednesday when he participated in the SEC coaches teleconference.
Even a couple of national columnists chimed in with their opinions. Wednesday, South Carolina running backs coach Jay Graham was asked the same question.
Despite his incredible production (nation-leading 534 yards on 87 carries) in the first three weeks, is Lattimore carrying the ball too much?
Graham, a workhorse himself at Tennessee in the mid-1990s, doesn't believe an average of 29 carries per game is excessive.
"It just depends on how the game goes," he said. "I always ask him during the game how he is feeling. He's gotten stronger. Coach Fitz(gerald) has done a great job of getting him stronger. He's prepared and ready to go."
Lattimore had 70 carries for 333 yards after three games last season, including the 37-carry, 182-yard breakout performance against Georgia at Williams-Brice Stadium. Therefore, as far as Graham is concerned, Lattimore has been there, done that.
"I don't think 17 more carries is a big deal," Graham said. "We were fortunate last year to get up in some games and we had the opportunity to get him out in the third or fourth quarter. I think he's doing fine right now. Certainly, we don't want him to have 35 carries a game. Physically, I always pay attention in between series just to make sure he's doing well."
How spectacular of a season has Lattimore had to date? He is the lone non-quarterback listed among the SEC's top 10 in total offense. He ranks eighth in the league with 178.0 ypg (all rushing), just ahead of Garcia at 177.7 ypg. Lattimore is also second in the SEC in points per game, averaging 14.0 points per contest. He has seven rushing touchdowns for a total of 42 points.
Lattimore is first in the SEC and tied for seventh nationally in all-purpose yards with 600, an average of 200 yards per game.
Spurrier, though, said Wednesday he hoped to get more running backs involved in the ground game, a signal that Kenny Miles and/or Eric Baker could get some carries Saturday night in order to give Lattimore a much-needed rest.
"That's what we've been trying to do from the beginning," Graham said. "Shon (Carson) went in there and got injured (at Georgia). In the same game, Kenny Miles got banged up and he's just getting back to being healthy. A lot of it has been the other guys behind him and getting the other guys ready to go as we go through this.
"I would love to get those guys into the game. Hopefully, the game goes into a direction that we could possibly do that. But you just don't know in a game. Some of it will depend on how many reps Marcus gets in the first half."
Miles has been practicing this week with his injured right hand wrapped in a soft bandage. He initially suffered the injury during a special teams play at Georgia.
Graham, who constantly preaches ball security to his players, is confident the injured hand won't affect Miles ability to grip the ball. Miles has one carry this season for one yard.
"He's just getting used to it," Graham said. "It's going to be a different feeling for him. He is just getting back to feeling good about it."
Baker hasn't carried the ball yet this season. When he does, it will mark his first rushing attempt since September of 2009.
-- Jones contended he didn't believe Wednesday's shortened workout will set the team back. "We got a lot of individual work in and then we did some team stuff to make sure we know our assignments," Jones said. "We'll be ready."
-- If Garcia starts at quarterback on Saturday and USC wins the game, he would collect his 20th career victory, tying him with Steve Taneyhill for second place on the all-time wins list.
-- USC is 15-4 against Vanderbilt since joining the SEC in 1992. Vanderbilt has had a pair of two-game winning streaks against the Gamecocks (1998-99 and 2007-08), but has never beaten them three straight times.
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