Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney draws all of the headlines at South Carolina, but one of the more important pieces of the Gamecocks' puzzle in 2013 is at running back, where head coach Steve Spurrier has to replace Marcus Lattimore.
Sophomores Mike Davis, Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson emerged as the top candidates, and—as expected—Davis nailed down the starting spot for South Carolina's opener versus North Carolina on Aug. 29.
"We'll see all three, but right now Mike is a little bit ahead," assistant coach Everette Sands said after Tuesday's practice, according to Gamecocks Online. "He's going to be the starter."
Davis had 52 carries for 275 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman last season, 118 of which came in the final month of the season after Lattimore was lost for the year.
The 5'9", 215-pounder was the favorite heading into fall camp after capping off a solid spring with a dazzling 25-yard touchdown run in the spring game. He is built like a bowling ball, but light enough on his feet to be slippery and has home run speed.
"(Mike) made a few more plays in the scrimmages," Sands said. "All of them are getting better in the pass protection. They can all get it done, he just made a few more plays."
Considering he's stepping into the role that for parts of three seasons was occupied by Lattimore, comparisons to the former Gamecock superstar are inevitable.
Davis doesn't have to be Lattimore in order for the Gamecocks to be successful. He just has to be Davis. He will be the featured running back, but being a work horse like Lattimore is a completely different goal that Davis doesn't necessarily have to meet for the Gamecocks to be successful.
Winning without Lattimore is nothing new.
They've only lost one game over the last two seasons after he went out of the lineup. The reason for South Carolina's success without Lattimore is due in large part to the ability of quarterback Connor Shaw to make things happen on the ground.
The rising senior signal-caller has averaged 59.4 rushing yards per game in games not started by Lattimore, and scored nine of his 11 career rushing touchdowns. In games in which Lattimore has started, he averaged 36 rushing yards per game.
For Davis, finding a happy middle ground is where he needs to be and where Spurrier needs him to be. He needs to provide the offense with a solid, reliable option at running back that can keep Shaw from taking too many hits, but still allow the versatility of the Gamecock offense to shine through.
Trying to be Marcus Lattimore is too much, even if the Gamecocks may be limited offensively due to injury early in the season.
Bruce Ellington is limited by a hamstring injury, but has proven throughout his career that he's a reliable deep threat. Tight ends Rory Anderson and Jerell Adams were also unable to practice on Tuesday due to hamstring and ankle injuries, respectively.
It should be an interesting season in Columbia. Shaw will be the unquestioned No. 1 at quarterback, but backup Dylan Thompson should see the field in specific situations. That alone makes the offense incredibly dynamic since both players excel in different areas but are capable of running the entire offense.
If Davis can gobble up 15-20 carries per game and be reliable in pass protection, that would be a perfect scenario for the 2013 Gamecocks.