Trent Richardson smiled, stutter stepped, and ran past it.
So, what about the Heisman Trophy? Will it stay in the SEC another year?
“I embrace it and I have a great shot to win it,” Lattimore said at SEC Media Days.
The stable of pedigreed, bruising running backs have a case to continue what Mark Ingram started in 2009 and Cam Newton continued last December. But it’s not just Lattimore and Richardson who have a case.
Michael Dyer also took a top recruiting ranking to Auburn campus last year when he sewed up a 1,000-yard season.
Arkansas’ Knile Davis is the dark horse despite posting the second-best rushing total in the SEC last year (101.7 yards per game) behind Newton.
He’s also one of the three SEC backs listed among the 10 favorites for the Heisman on Bodog.com, joining third-choice Lattimore (7-to-1) and sixth-choice Richardson (10-to-1).
“I think I’m right up there with the rest of the great backs in the SEC, and we do have some very good ones,” Davis said.
And with few experienced quarterbacks returning around the league, rushing attacks across both divisions are primed for the return of power running.
Make no mistake about this group. They’re a shoulder-ducking, straight ahead group that’ll take some hits while delivering a few of their own.
“We’re a powerhouse conference, and that’s what we do,” Richardson said. “We run the ball.”
Few run it as well as Lattimore and Richardson.
The seeds of this uprising were sown a few years back.
National recruiting rankings lit up with SEC-bound backs in 2009. The top three ranked by Scout that year all went to the league with Richardson ranked second behind Tennessee-bound Bryce Brown and one spot ahead of LSU’s Michael Ford.
The 5-11, 224-pound Pensacola native quickly lived up to his five-star name in Tuscaloosa as Ingram’s sidekick for the Heisman and national championship journey. He ran for 751 yards on 145 carries and eight touchdowns as a freshman. Brown transferred out of Knoxville after running for 460 yards on 101 carries as a reserve. Ford is still looking for the breakout year after redshirting in 2009 and running 41 times for 235 yards last season.
The same fall as that three started college, Lattimore and Dyer ranked first and second respectively among running backs according to Scout.
From his home in Duncan, S.C., the similarly-built Lattimore (6-0, 231 pounds) said he admired the Floridian Richardson’s style as a bruiser who embraced the contact.
“It’s an honor for him to say that,” Richardson said. “He’s one of the top running backs too. I look at his game and try to take one or two things and put it in my game.”
If Lattimore, Richardson, and Dyer have anything in common, it’s their authoritative style.
The Alabama junior’s 52-yard touchdown run against Arkansas in 2009 remains his trademark moment by shedding five tacklers en route to the end zone.
For the 5-9, 207-pound Dyer, his spinning roll over an Oregon tackler set up the winning field goal in January’s BCS Championship Game to cap his freshman season. Dyer, who ran for 1,093 yards on 182 carries, was not among the three players Auburn brought to last week’s SEC Media Days.
Lattimore pinballed his way to an average of 4.8 yards per carry and 14.2 per reception. He out-rushed Richardson 93 yards to 23 when the Gamecocks ended Alabama’s 19-game winning streak Oct. 9. Late that afternoon, he barreled through the Tide’s C.J. Mosley and Mark Barron for a 2-yard touchdown — his third of the day and the icing on a 35-21 win.
“Lattimore, he’s got a lot of power, man,” Richardson said. “He runs straight ahead and he always keeps his legs going. Dyer, he’s hard to take down too. He’s more of a shorter guy, so he can get underneath the tackles.”
There’s no secret to the formula.
“It’s our pad level,” said Lattimore who averaged 4.8 yards in his 249 carries. “We stay low. We have good hips and we have great balance. All the backs do the same thing. They stay low.”
Richardson observes the same when watching tape.
“I watch Adrian Peterson all the time and Ricky Williams,” he said. “They really get low and rub out their pads. That’s something I try to put in my game.”
Lattimore said he spends time watching film of the other top backs in the SEC. The similarities pop out.
“I’m just looking to see their pad level to see how low they are and how they hold the ball. I try to critique myself off them sometimes – just the little things we do.”
The weight room helped carve the lower-body engines that power Lattimore and Richardson.
Speaking to the Charleston Post and Courier, Gamecock quarterback Conner Shaw called Lattimore a “freak of nature,” in the weight room. And Richardson’s training routine became famous when ESPN cameras went behind the scenes last August. He’s regularly regarded as the strongest player on the team, pound for pound.
Taking a beating
With the physicality comes a downside.
Injuries kept Lattimore from playing Vanderbilt in October and knocked him out of the Chick-fil-A Bowl after one carry. He also missed time against Kentucky and Alabama while still piling up 1,197 rushing and 412 receiving yards.
There just wasn’t a second top back behind him to lend a hand. Quarterback Stephen Garcia’s 105 rushes ranked second behind Lattimore’s 249.
For two years, Richardson was that No. 2 that Lattimore didn’t have. The more balanced attack gave Ingram 158 attempts to Richardson’s 112. Injuries still kept Ingram from the first two games of his Heisman defense and Richardson’s torn MCL against LSU took him out of the next two games.
“You can’t win the game with one running back,” Lattimore said. “You’ve got to have more than two. We got great running backs.”
Incoming Gamecock running back Shon Carson turned down a pro baseball career to back up Lattimore in Columbia.
At Alabama, Richardson saw first-hand what a solid No. 2 can accomplish. The shared load in 2009 gave him 145 carries to Ingram’s 271.
This year sophomore Eddie Lacy becomes the Robin to Richardson’s Batman.
“Oh man, I can’t wait for Eddie to get out there. Everybody’s so focused on me and they’re going to sleep on Eddie. Eddie’s just going to go out there and overcome everything.”
The disappointment of the knee injury drove home the importance of balance for Richardson.
“In this league here, you get beat up. For Eddie to step in, that’s something we need. Even Jalston Fowler, that’s something we need to keep my legs fresh, to keep his legs fresh. You never know. He could bring something to the game I don’t even have.”
The wave of top running backs continues to flood the SEC.
Isaiah Crowell became the third straight No. 1 back in the Scout rankings to choose an SEC school when opted for the home-state Georgia Bulldogs in January.
“I saw (Crowell) play in high school,” Lattimore said. “He’s the No. 1 back. He’s going to be great and he’s probably going to be the man for Georgia.”
All five of the top uncommitted running backs on Scout’s 2012 rankings have SEC schools in the running though none live in a state home to a league school
Lattimore’s advice to the next crop involves the intangibles. Chapter 1 is pass protection.
“That was the biggest thing,” Lattimore said. “It was so fast, it was hard to react to. All the blitzes Nick Saban throws at you? It’s crazy. But I think it slowed down after three or four games.”
Learn that, survive the beating and find success is all it takes to land among the Heisman favorites.
Both Lattimore and Richardson walk past stiff-armed statues every day at their respective football complexes. The Gamecock sophomore says he gazes at George Roger’s 1980 Heisman every day.
“It’s a dream,” he said.
Richardson is more passive on the matter of Heisman candidacies.
“If it happens, it happens,” he said. “… When it comes down to it, you have to make sure you win that game first. It’s not just one person that wins that thing because that’s a team goal. I don’t think Mark would have won it without the offensive line or the defense putting him on the field.”