Photo by Mary Ann Chastain
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- For a few moments at Marcus Lattimore's church in South Carolina last February, it seemed the Southeastern Conference's two most dynamic young runners would share the same backfield.
Instead, Lattimore slipped a Gamecocks ball cap from beneath the Auburn hat he held at his college announcement ceremony, committing to South Carolina and setting up a tailback showdown with friend and Tigers freshman Michael Dyer that should thrill fans the next several seasons. The first round comes Saturday night when the 12th-ranked Gamecocks (3-0, 1-0 SEC) travel to play No. 17 Auburn (3-0, 1-0.)
Lattimore and Dyer have known each other since their junior years in high school, when both were among the best tailback prospects in the country and both were eager to play in the SEC. Dyer, from Little Rock, Ark., latched on to Auburn and tried to sell Lattimore on the power of two -- the next generation Ronnie Brown and Carnell "Cadillac" Williams.
"He wanted me to come there real bad," Lattimore says, "but it was just a comfort level here. I loved it here."
Lattimore, from Duncan, S.C., has already made his mark his first few games at South Carolina. He shared SEC player of the week honors after rushing for 182 yards and two touchdowns in a 17-6 victory over Georgia two games ago. Lattimore had five rushing touchdowns, one from the total of last year's leader Brian Maddox.
Lattimore is second in SEC rushing behind Kentucky's Derrick Locke. More impressive, Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier has said, is the 5-foot-11, 215-pound Lattimore's ability to break tackles and keep churning out yards.
"He's a downhill runner," Auburn defensive end Antoine Carter said. "He's not going to take negative yards. He's always going to fall forward."
Dyer is 10th in the SEC with 212 yards and is expected to make his second career start this week against South Carolina. But while Lattimore has become the focus of the Gamecocks rushing attack, the 5-9, 215-pound Dyer shares the load for the Tigers. Quarterback Cam Newton is Auburn's top rusher this season with sophomore Onterio McCalebb also ahead of Dyer. Mario Fannin, who started against Mississippi State two weeks ago but missed the Clemson game with an injury, is also expected back in the rotation against South Carolina.
Dyer likes his role complementing the quicker McCalebb. "Once you're tired of tackling him, it's my turn to the get the ball," Dyer said. "And by that time, you're probably already tired. It just works out really the best."
Tigers coach Gene Chizik is proud of Dyer's progress at holding on to the football and hitting the holes along Auburn's offensive line. "I think he's been getting better as the games go along with his vision and being able to hit a crack that made he didn't see the first couple of weeks," the coach said.
Lattimore marvel's at Dyer's power to take on blockers and keep going. "He's like a bowling ball, really," Lattimore said. "He'll run you over. He's not that big, but he is strong."
That power may come in handy against South Carolina's defense, which leads the SEC and is sixth in the country against the run. The Gamecocks, though, are last in the league against the pass, perhaps giving Auburn's Newton more opportunities to throw and fewer chances for Dyer.
Dyer says patience is what Auburn's attack needs against Lattimore and the Gamecocks.
The two have plans to text each other some this week, but perhaps not as often as other times. Dyer says he won't focus on a running duel with Lattimore, no matter how many questions he gets about it. "He can text me, have conversations, that's fine," Dyer said. "But I'm not the type of person to make things bigger than what they are."
Lattimore acknowledges he came close to joining Dyer with the Tigers, even consulting former Auburn great Stephen Davis for advice. In the end, his affection for and belief in Spurrier and South Carolina won out. Lattimore's ready for his first SEC road game and to face a friend on the other sideline.
"It's going to be real fun," Lattimore said.