GAINESVILLE — At this time last season, South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore had just suffered an ACL injury that crushed talk of a potential Heisman Trophy and ended his season. At that same time, Florida's Mike Gillislee was playing sparingly and biding his time behind Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps.
On Saturday afternoon, a nearly fully recovered Lattimore and a renewed Gillislee will take center stage for the Gamecocks and Gators as two of the SECs top rushers in a critical SEC East game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
"Very similar," Florida coach Will Muschamp said when asked how the two compare. "He's (Lattimore) a one-cut runner. He gets the ball north and south and he pushes the pile. That's the one thing you see with him in the zone read: sometimes there's not much of a hole there, but he finds it and he sticks his face in there and gets the pile moving. …
"You like to compete against these kinds of guys. He's a guy that's going to go after it and he's going to compete and play hard and play fast and play physical. You see no issues from what he had with his injury last year. A guy that's running extremely well."
Florida has the SEC's third-best rushing game, the Gamecocks are No. 4. Gillislee, 5 feet 11 and 209 pounds, is the league's No. 2 rusher (No. 1 running back). Lattimore, 6 feet and 218 pounds, is sixth.
Both are coming off subpar performances. Gillislee, who's averaging 102.5 yards per game, rushed for 67 yards on 17 carries vs. Vanderbilt. And Lattimore finished Saturday's loss against LSU with 13 carries for 35 yards and one touchdown after getting banged up early.
"He's got a bruise on his hip a little bit," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. "Just typical soreness, he caught a helmet down around his hip area. He'll just be out two or three days, but he should be fine."
If Lattimore is healthy, the Gators expect him to be a force. Two years ago as a freshman against Florida he had 40 carries for 212 yards and three touchdowns to help seal South Carolina's first SEC East title.
"I like to think of myself as a mix of Marshall Faulk or Pierre Thomas," Lattimore said. "I can find those little holes and bursts to run you over or run around you. I'm not that fast, but I've got just enough speed. At this point, I'm just trying to stay healthy."
Lattimore outgained and outscored Florida all by himself in that game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. He had 243 yards and 18 points, the Gators had 226 yards and 14 points.
"He's one of the backs that can pretty much do it all," Florida senior linebacker Jon Bostic said. "He can do some different things.
"He's hard to really stop, you know, because he's a good single-back guy. He can run it from the I-formation. He can always line up in gun and do some zone-read stuff from there. It's kind of hard to defend because you never know exactly what they're going to come out in."
Gillislee has become a surprise for the Gators — and the SEC. In his first three years, he played in 36 games with 920 rushing yards on 145 attempts and had six receiving touchdowns. He played in all but three games last season and had 328 yards in a backup role, yet had a team-best rushing average of 5.9 yards.
Gillislee said he has always known he could play in this league, it was just a matter of getting his opportunity.
"This is more my style, downhill, getting those tough yards, being a physical back," Gillislee said. "Coach (Brent) Pease just wants us to get however many yards it takes to get the drive alive and help this team win. The running back has a big impact in this offense because Coach Pease likes to run the ball."
Count Pease, the offensive coordinator, among those who isn't surprised.
"In spring, the kid showed something every day," he said. "I think he goes to practice with great preparation, work ethic and attitude. He's always got a smile on his face. I think he wants to be good. He's a kid that. I think he's very humble. He's always asking, What was this guy like? He's trying to be like some of the good ones that he knows his coaches have been around."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SEC leading rushers
|Johnny Manziel||Tex. A&M||91||676||7.43||10||112.67|
|LaDarius Perkins||Miss. St.||105||600||5.71||7||100.00|
|Marcus Lattimore||S. Carolina||129||584||4.53||10||83.43|