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August 2, 2010

The Byrnes Question: Will Lattimore Be The One?

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Will he be the one?

The pressure on the shoulders of freshman tailback Marcus Lattimore is enormous. He is one of the most heavily hyped recruits to ever come from South Carolina. He chose to play for the Gamecocks, who have had a handful of great running backs, many good ones and a few too many never-were prospects.

He also is the latest ballyhooed player to come from Byrnes High School, the football factory nestled in tiny Duncan. Since the turn of the century, the Rebels have been a mainstay in state and national rankings, riding a magnificently crafted spread offense to six state championships in the past eight years. The system has produced stunning statistics and placed its standouts among the top recruiting rankings every year, yet often those players do not duplicate their high-school performances at the next level.

Not many, if any, of the previous prospects have had the numbers combined with the promise that Lattimore has. He has seen several of his former teammates not live up to the crushing weight of playing like a high-school star on a college field. He knows that perhaps the brightest spotlight a Byrnes recruit has ever had is trained directly on him.

Which again begs the question.

Will he be the one?

THE SYSTEM

Bobby Bentley began constructing Byrnes' resurrection when he arrived, not just at the high-school level but throughout Duncan. A sleepy town of around 3,000 that merits an exit off I-85, the community had had football success before being surpassed in the late 1980s-early 1990s by geographic rivals Gaffney and Spartanburg.

It took him a while, but the results paid off. Bentley's Rebels won four straight state titles from 2002-05, which brought the focus to how Byrnes could so effectively replace its graduated stars.

Simple. They reloaded from the youth system. Every level of football in Duncan teaches Byrnes' playbook, so the players will be ready and very familiar once they reach high school.

"Our youth coaches do a great job with it, as well as our middle-school coaches," Bentley said on National Signing Day, as he watched two of his latest protégés, Lattimore and fellow USC signee Nick Jones, accept their congratulations. "It does no good to teach a running system when they're little if they're going to be running the spread in high school."

Bentley tried his hand at coaching on the next level during a two-year stint at Presbyterian College before returning to Byrnes as offensive coordinator, serving his day job as the school district's athletic director. Chris Miller took over when Bentley departed and still holds the head coaching spot, overseeing the same offense.

It was this offense that fast-tracked Lattimore to stardom. Like all of the Rebels, he learned the system while young and came up through the youth leagues knowing the plays. His natural ability, coupled with the renowned Byrnes conditioning program (which rivals some colleges in routine and facilities), made him an instant standout.

Muscular enough to handle an every-down beating but speedy and elusive enough to leave defenses clutching air, Lattimore rushed for 6,434 yards in his prep career, including 1,898 as a senior when he was selected for the Shrine Bowl, the state's "Mr. Football" award and the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. His downfield vision was so impressive that the Rebels, a passing-oriented team, used him as a primary receiver -- Lattimore responded with 1,727 career receiving yards and scored 104 combined touchdowns.

His body -- a sculpted 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds -- was impressive and his speed and statistics only augmented his projectability. The instinctive cuts Lattimore made while toting the football can't be taught -- it was like Lattimore knew where each defender that futilely tried to bring him down would go, allowing him to easily dance around them.

He could have gone to any school in the country. The attention lavished upon him makes him probably the most visible recruit Byrnes has ever produced.

"I think Marcus is," Miller said on National Signing Day. "We've had quite a few to come out and go to different places. I think they're all on the same level."

Byrnes' most recent graduating class boasted 12 players who signed college scholarships, half of them pledging to major programs. It was a school record.

Perhaps they will be the group that succeeds where few have before.

THE OTHERS

Breaking down Byrnes' other major-college signees, from 2002-present:

* * *

2002
Terrell Allen (Pittsburgh), Bradley Robinson (Middle Tennessee), John Talley (Duke)

ALLEN caught 52 passes for 811 yards and five touchdowns as a senior at Byrnes, then went to Pitt and played as a true freshman. As a kick returner, Allen led the team with 23.6 yards per return but a torn ligament in his wrist caused him to redshirt in 2004. He again returned kicks in 2005, improving his average to 25.1 yards per return with one touchdown, but transferred to Northern Iowa after the season. There he started four games at receiver in 2006, ranking third on the team with 274 yards and returning his first touch of the season 97 yards for a touchdown. As a senior, he caught nine passes for 60 yards and a touchdown during his senior season, also returning 11 kicks for 208 yards.

ROBINSON caught 73 passes for 1,414 yards and 20 touchdowns as a Byrnes senior, then sat out the 2003 season at Middle Tennessee due to academics. He started 10 games in 2004 and had 46 tackles with two interceptions before starting every game at cornerback in 2005. That was a 41-tackle, five-interception season and he turned in 37 tackles and two picks in 2006, while also getting three catches for 31 yards. As a senior he intercepted five passes and had 30 tackles, with the first kickoff return of his career going for an 89-yard touchdown.

TALLEY had 62 tackles and three interceptions at Byrnes and continued it with two picks and 32 tackles as a Duke freshman. In 2004, Talley was on the field for 799 snaps and had 59 tackles with four interceptions before winning first-team All-ACC honors in 2005. As a senior, he again won first-team All-ACC honors and finished as the league leader in career interceptions (18) and interception return yardage (395).

* * *

2003
Jomar Wright (Duke)

WRIGHT set a state single-season record for catches (103, since surpassed) and had 1,824 yards with 20 touchdowns as a Byrnes senior. He played four years for the Blue Devils and caught 122 balls for 1,638 yards, turning in three 100-yard games and becoming the first Blue Devil receiver to break 50 catches (56) since 1999.

* * *

2004
Freddie Brown (South Carolina), Trey Bailey (Wake Forest)

BROWN caught 68 passes for 978 yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior, then headed to USC. In three years, he caught 38 passes for 408 yards and started eight games before transferring to Liberty for his final season. Brown caught 21 passes for 204 yards during his senior year.

BAILEY made all-state lineman as a junior and senior at Byrnes before redshirting in 2005 at Wake. He played in four games in 2006, including 16 snaps at center, but didn't play much in 2007 due to All-American Steve Justice being in front of him. He started the first six games of 2008 before a broken ankle ended his season; he never started another game. Bailey ended his career in 2009 as part of the winningest senior class in school history.

* * *

2005
Matt Quinn (Vanderbilt), Prince Miller (Georgia)

QUINN caught 77 balls for 1,038 yards and 15 touchdowns as a Byrnes senior, then was the long snapper during his freshman year at Vanderbilt. He transferred to Presbyterian the next fall and caught 17 passes for 337 yards with three touchdowns, then caught 17 for 174 yards in 2008. Quinn finished in 2009 with 20 catches for 300 yards and one touchdown.

MILLER recorded over 2,000 yards of total offense with 16 total touchdowns as a senior at Byrnes, also playing defense and intercepting four passes. He played in every game as a freshman at Georgia but really broke out in 2007, starting eight games and becoming a staple in the secondary and on kick return. He had 50 tackles, nine punt returns for 191 yards and a touchdown in 2008 and 42 tackles with 19 punt returns for 226 yards in 2009. He signed as a free agent with Baltimore.

* * *

2006
Willy Korn (Clemson), Chad Diehl (Clemson), Xavier Dye (Clemson), Stanley Hunter (Clemson)

KORN, perhaps the most hyped recruit before Lattimore came along, threw for 10,716 yards and 125 touchdowns during his Byrnes career and also gave defenses headaches with his rushing abilities. As a freshman at Clemson, he was mostly a backup and suffered a collarbone injury, but competed for the starting job as a sophomore until he was again hurt. A knock to his shoulder during his only start led to extensive rehabilitation through the 2009 season. Korn was 46-of-66 for 406 yards and three touchdowns in three seasons and elected to transfer to Marshall to play out his eligibility.

DIEHL played guard, linebacker and fullback at Byrnes and accumulated 111 tackles with seven sacks as a senior. As a freshman fullback at Clemson, Diehl was gaining some playing time until breaking his leg during a game and taking a redshirt season. In 2008, Diehl played 162 snaps but did not carry the ball, although he had one reception and two kick returns. In 2009, Diehl rushed three times for 4 yards while catching two passes for 20 yards.

DYE caught 32 passes for 524 yards and six touchdowns in just four games at Byrnes; his senior season was mostly negated due to transferring from Greenwood High School before the season. At Clemson in 2007, Dye caught four passes for 50 yards and a touchdown while playing 156 snaps, the second-most for a freshman offensive player. He continued his rise as a backup to Aaron Kelly in 2008 before becoming a starter in 2009. A dropped pass against Middle Tennessee demoted him to second-string; although Dye caught 14 passes for 236 yards and three touchdowns, he was making headlines for his actions away from the field. Dye quit the team, then came back. He was also given permission to transfer but never contacted anyone.

HUNTER had 102 tackles and 20 sacks as a Byrnes senior, then showed great promise as a linebacker in 2008. He had eight tackles in just 15 snaps against Georgia Tech, leading to a season total of 37 tackles in just 158 snaps. Was forced to quit football due to recurring epileptic seizures.

* * *

2007
Everett Dawkins (Florida State), Cartier Rice (Kentucky)

DAWKINS was rated a four-star defensive end by Rivals.com as a Byrnes senior, then played in the first three games of the 2008 season before he was asked to help the depth on the interior line. He found his niche at defensive tackle in 2009 and had 14 tackles with one sack.

RICE had three interceptions as a senior at Byrnes and made first-team all-state before taking a redshirt season with the Wildcats. Last year, Rice had five tackles and an interception in six games.

* * *

2008
Ricco Sanders (Mississippi State), Justin Bright (Florida State)

SANDERS caught 42 passes for 765 yards and six touchdowns as a Byrnes senior. He redshirted as a true freshman.

BRIGHT had 92 tackles and three interceptions as a Byrne senior. He redshirted as a true freshman.

* * *

2009
Chas Dodd (Rutgers), Corey Miller (Tennessee), Brandon Willis (North Carolina), Nick Jones (South Carolina), Torian Richardson (East Carolina), Marcus Lattimore (South Carolina)

These six are the latest to carry Byrnes' banner to the next level. All have impressive prep numbers and all are hoped -- and expected, on the local level -- to be standouts.

The process begins this fall.

THE REASON

Looking back over the number of standouts, several Byrnes products have had success. True, many have been on defense, but of the offensive players, some (like Diehl) were never expected to be true offensive studs and have been very good at what they do, while others (Sanders, Bright) have a way to go before their careers are over.

There hasn't been one that has put up the kind of college numbers that they did at Byrnes, but it is a completely different level, no matter how designed for college the Rebels may be.

"A lot of people have asked me that," Bentley said. "I don't know if you can put your finger on it. There are a lot of great high-school football players that aren't great in college. I think a lot of it has to do with the breaks that you get."

At Byrnes, players are identified as playmakers right away. It's easy to do in a town with so few citizens. There are only a certain number of children in each age group during the system-installing levels of youth football; the cream, as the expression says, quickly rises to the top.

In college, players may come in with shelves of high-school baubles and press clippings, but are still just one of over 100 players who come from all over. Playing time is not given at the next level, which is why there are redshirt seasons; very few hold the capability of being ready to play right away. For one to be ready, then get onto the field and become a superstar as a freshman is a trait only found in a handful of players across the country each year.

"Could be the system, could be the opportunities, injuries," Miller said. "A lot of things play into it."

The massive mania that follows college football recruiting, Miller says, could also be to blame. Assessment of a player's ability is often overshadowed by the expectation placed by fan bases, which is keyed by the simplistic joy that the player chose their school.

"That's what I worry about a little bit," Miller said. "I worry about some of the other guys being worked up so much."

THE RECRUIT

Lattimore certainly has the hype and ability. But is USC right for him?

"I'm a great fit for their offense, I think," Lattimore said on the day of his decision. "I think I'll be a good receiver out of the backfield. I'm just another piece to the puzzle that they're adding."

He credited the style preferred by coach Steve Spurrier and the predictions made by first-year offensive line/running game coordinator Shawn Elliott as factors in his decision, overlooking the other concerns he had. Those centered on two ominous signs -- first, the Gamecocks have finished last in the SEC in rushing for three straight years; and second, two other recent high-profile running back recruits did not pan out at USC.

The first has been a mixture of inconsistent line play, Spurrier's heavy leaning on the passing game and simply not having an every-down back during Spurrier's tenure. The line heads into 2010 with an experienced, if not dripping with talent, group across the front and several behind that will have to quickly grow up.

The backs behind the line, of which Lattimore is now a part of, bring various skills and experience to the position. Spurrier says the line's troubles -- it also tied for the SEC's worst mark with 37 given-up sacks last year -- are more the fault of the quarterbacks not throwing the ball away quickly enough, and the sacks play a major hindrance in subtracting from the total rushing yardage.

Lattimore knows he can come in and compete for a spot, ceding to the already showcased talents of the group around him. "I was never guaranteed a starting spot, I can tell you that," he said. "I know I got to come in and work hard. I think if I work hard, I can be on the field for the first game."

As for the other hovering cloud, Lattimore has nothing to do with them as they have nothing to do with him. It just happens that two other lauded prospects, Derek Watson and Demetris Summers, are remembered much more for what they didn't do than what they did.

Watson had a 1,000-yard season in 2000 (the last 1,000-yard rusher the Gamecocks have had), but crashed a teammate's car before the Outback Bowl, which led to his suspension and the hero's mantle for backup Ryan Brewer. The next season was a nice 618-yard effort, only to culminate in a dismissal in January 2002 after an arrest for marijuana possession.

Summers, like Lattimore the top-ranked running back in the country as a high-school senior, earned freshman All-SEC honors in 2003 but took a step back in 2004. He never got to play for Spurrier after several failed tests for marijuana kayoed his career.

Both of those examples were a while ago. Lattimore remembered glimpses of them but wasn't nearly afraid of that legacy, instead mentioning the wonderful careers of George Rogers and Brandon Bennett.

"I'm going to be focused," he replied to a question specifically about Watson and Summers. "It's just really starting fresh. You need a great tailback to win."

THE BEGINNING

USC begins fall camp on Tuesday. Lattimore will be in attendance, wearing his No. 21 jersey, and is expected to receive quite a reaction when he jogs through the Bluff Road practice gates as a Gamecock for the first time.

Some have already canonized him as The Next Big Thing, one fan hollering "Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Marcus Lattimore!" at his announcement as Lattimore grinned and modestly said, "That sounds good." Some are taking the cautious approach, knowing that while Lattimore's talent is unique, USC's offensive line and lack of a running game may not be the best way to display it.

"He knew the best place for him," said Jones, Lattimore's best friend and teammate since the two first learned how to adjust their chinstraps. "To go down there and do the same thing is really going to be good."

That's what everyone hopes. Lattimore wants it because all he has ever known is being a major part of a winning team. USC wants it to prove it can be in championship discussions and be a launching pad to the NFL for next year's five-star prospects. Spurrier wants it so he can show everyone he hasn't lost the touch that made his name feared to every defensive coordinator on his schedule during his time at Florida.

Byrnes wants it too. Although the closest look reveals that the college careers of Byrnes players have been good, to be great is the goal. Greatness is a common word in Duncan, and Lattimore was possibly the greatest of them all.

Now to be great again, forever answering The Byrnes Question.

Will he be the one?

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