Gamecocks' Lattimore a breath of fresh air

The “look-at-me” mentality in sports was way over the top a long time ago as far as I’m concerned.

Occasionally, though, a player does come along that bucks that obnoxious trend.

He plays to win and doesn’t keep count of carries, yards or anything other than wins and losses. When he does celebrate, he does so with his teammates. He’s critical of himself, but never critical of his teammates. He’s at his best when his team needs him the most and carries himself the same way whether he’s just rushed for 200 yards or 43 yards.

South Carolina sophomore running back Marcus Lattimore is one hellacious football player, and he’s also a breath of fresh air.

We probably don’t give enough props to the parents of these kids, who are showered with adulation, anointed as the next Walter Payton and generally spoiled rotten during the recruiting process, and yet manage to stay remarkably grounded.

Obviously, Lattimore’s mother, Yolanda Smith, did an outstanding job with her son.

As proud as she was of what he did on the field last Saturday in Sanford Stadium -- which was dissect Georgia for a second straight year with 176 rushing yards on 27 carries -- she’s probably even prouder of the way he conducted himself after the game.

There were no theatrics, no boasting and really very little emotion at all, save for Lattimore’s easy smile.

Rather, Lattimore praised the defense “for saving our butts.” He gave his offensive line all the credit for paving the way to his 94 rushing yards in the fourth quarter. In other words, it wasn’t Lattimore who took over the game, but rather his offensive line.

And like all the great ones, he was hardly satisfied and pointed out that he felt like he left too many yards out on the field.

“I’ve gotta get better and gotta get better this week,” said Lattimore, who’s second in the SEC in rushing with 288 yards in his first two games.

What’s especially refreshing about Lattimore is how he’s always referencing his team.

The Gamecocks didn’t play their best football last Saturday, and in a lot of ways, were fortunate to win.

But what Lattimore took away from the game was how many different players made key contributions and how the team rallied around each other.

“We proved to ourselves that if we play as a team, we can win,” Lattimore said. “Whether it’s coming back from seven points down, 14 points down or even when we’re up, we’ve just got to keep the pressure on the opponent.”

Lattimore also questioned the Gamecocks’ intensity level recently in practice and blamed himself for not being more of a tone-setter. He promised that would change and promised that he would be one of the ones making sure it changes.

I can assure you that South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier isn’t surprised by Lattimore’s attitude. The Head Ball Coach told me this spring that Lattimore worked as hard or harder as anybody on the team and was one of the most selfless players he’s ever been around.

The frightening thing for the rest of the SEC is that he’s only getting better.

He’s bulked up to 230 pounds and sure didn’t look like he’d lost any speed or burst through the hole last Saturday. Georgia coach Mark Richt said Lattimore was as good as he’s seen in a long time in terms of making yards after contact.

The more Lattimore gets the ball in a game, the harder he is to get on the ground.

“I think I just get stronger,” Lattimore said.

He’s been money in SEC games, too. In nine career league games now, he’s averaging 119.2 rushing yards.

As a comparison, former Alabama Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram averaged 80.8 yards against SEC competition in 26 career games, although Ingram shared carries with Glen Coffee his first season and then Trent Richardson his last two.

Herschel Walker averaged 157 rushing yards at Georgia in his first nine SEC games, which further puts into perspective just how great Walker truly was.

To his credit, Lattimore hasn’t allowed himself to be drawn into any comparisons with some of the great running backs to come through this league.

But he’s well on his way to joining them.

He also has a keen understanding that true greatness in any team sport is achieved by making everybody else around you better, and ultimately, by hoisting that championship trophy at the end of the season.

Along those lines, and even though the No. 11-ranked Gamecocks have made it interesting the first two weeks, Lattimore likes what he sees brewing with this team.

“We all trust in each other,” he said. “I knew we were going to Alshon (Jeffery) on that (key fourth-down) play, and I knew Alshon was going to make that catch because I trust him. That’s my brother.

“I love all these guys. That’s all it is, really, trusting in each other.”

Lattimore wouldn’t have it any other way.