The last time Marcus Lattimore was on the field, the South Carolina running back limped off with an excruciating season-ending injury.
Ten months later, Vanderbilt will get the first crack at the Heisman Trophy candidate and his rehabbed left knee on Thursday at Vanderbilt Stadium (6 p.m., ESPN) in the season opener for both teams. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier plans to throw Lattimore, who will wear a brace, back into the fire with 25-30 carries -- or closer to 40, if needed.
“I’m not going to stand up here and be real creative and come up with something else – we’ve got to stop Marcus Lattimore,” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said. “I think that’s obvious to everybody.”
While the 6-foot, 218-pounder will draw most of the attention, Vanderbilt cautions that South Carolina isn’t one-dimensional.
Quarterback Connor Shaw started the last eight games and gives the Gamecocks another threat on the ground. He rushed for 525 yards in 2011, second to only Lattimore.
“If we focus too much on Marcus Lattimore then Connor Shaw can scramble out of the pocket,” safety Javon Marshall said. “They have a lot of talent on offense.”
According to defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, Shaw is the first of four running quarterbacks Vanderbilt faces in the first five games. The 6-foot-1, 207-pounder is also accurate in the pocket, completing 65.4 percent of his passes for 1,448 yards, 14 touchdowns and just six interceptions.
He provides a different look than former quarterback Stephen Garcia, who often gave Spurrier headaches on and off the field. The Commodores pounced on Garcia’s poor decisions last year and intercepted four passes.
“The biggest thing is [Shaw] is a coach’s kid and he makes great decisions,” Franklin said. “He doesn’t really make the plays that are going to hurt your team. I don’t foresee us getting the four interceptions we had last year. ... Just with his mentality, I don’t see him doing that. He is going to manage the game well and we’re going to have to beat him through fundamentals, scheme and technique.”
Even with Shaw’s skill set, the Commodores will take their chances with him going off in lieu of letting Lattimore run wild.
In 2010, Lattimore was the unanimous choice for National Freshman of the Year after he rushed for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns. He was well on his way to surpassing those numbers before he tore his ACL against Mississippi State last year. In seven games, he rushed for 818 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Vanderbilt held him under 100 yards for the first time in 2011 with just 77 yards on 20 carries. But he turned a short screen pass from Garcia into a 52-yard touchdown right before halftime and ran 22 yards for another score in the third quarter.
“He’s a great player and he has proven he can compete at a very high level in this league,” defensive tackle Rob Lohr said. “We’re just looking to stop him, hold him and hold the entire offense. We’re excited at the opportunity to go up against him.”