SEC notes: Lattimore key to Gamecocks' success

South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore has nearly been lost in the offseason antics of quarterback Stephen Garcia and the hype surrounding receiver and Sports Illustrated cover boy Alshon Jeffery.

While most of the attention has been focused on Garcia and Jeffery, much of the Gamecocks’ optimism revolves around Lattimore, who rushed for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns as a freshman in 2010.

He was the SEC Freshman of the Year, the national Freshman of the Year and first-team All-SEC while helping lead South Carolina to its first East title and berth in the SEC Championship game.

Lattimore dominated from the start, rushing 37 times for 182 yards and two scores in a victory over Georgia in the second game of the season. He rushed for 187 yards against Tennessee and had a school-record 40 carries for 212 yards and three touchdowns against Florida. He also caught 29 passes for 412 yards and two more touchdowns.

“It was amazing,” Lattimore said, referring to last season. “My decision to come to South Carolina was because I just felt at home every time I went there. I took Coach [Steve Spurrier’s] word. Coach Spurrier told me, ‘You’re going to run the ball,’ and that’s what we did. We brought the SEC Eastern championship to Columbia. We’re planning on doing more this year.”

Lattimore, Jeffrey, who caught 88 passes for 1,517 yards, and Garcia, who threw for 3,059 yards, make the Gamecocks only one of two teams in the country (SMU is the other) that returns a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and a 1,000-yard receiver, according to a school release.

Burning question

Can Vanderbilt running back Warren Norman (Chamblee), who was the SEC’s Freshman of the Year in 2009, come back from hand and knee injuries?

Norman, who is the Commodores’ active leading rusher and is one of the conference’s top kickoff returners, is trying to return from a broken wrist that ended his sophomore season last November. He also had surgery on his right knee last year and hasn’t been full speed in preseason practices, often wearing a knee brace.

Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said Norman will back up starter Zac Stacy in the opener against Elon.

Norman already is sixth on Vanderbilt’s career kickoff-return list with a 25.9-yard average and three touchdowns on 62 returns. He averaged 26.2 yards a return as a freshman in 2009, when he broke Herschel Walker’s SEC freshman all-purpose yardage mark with 1,941 yards. Norman also has 1,235 career yards rushing.

“I thought I made a big improvement from my freshman year to last year,” Norman told The (Nashville) Tennessean this month. “Not being able to play for part of my sophomore year and part of spring hurt. I’m hoping to make some big improvements.”

In focus

Tennessee freshman linebacker A.J. Johnson (Gainesville) has been so impressive this summer that he likely will start at linebacker against Montana on Saturday.

Johnson (6 feet 2, 245 pounds) is listed at No. 1 on the weak side and fellow freshman Curt Maggitt will be on the strong side, surrounding senior Austin Johnson.

It is believed to be the first time two freshmen will start at linebacker for the Volunteers.

“Picking [the defense] up as quick as they have has been impressive, and [linebacker coach] Pete Sirmon’s done an awesome job working with those guys,” defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “When they step out on the field, they don’t act like freshmen, which is a good thing, because when you go and play the teams we’re going to play, they could care less if you’re a freshman or a senior.”

Quotable

“I’m not one to brag on guys, but by the time he’s done, Barkevious Mingo will be the premier pass rusher in the SEC — bar none.” — LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis on his sophomore defensive end.

“They have a lot of good football players. You can’t win that much if you don’t. They’re incredibly coached. They’re tough. They’re disciplined. They’re smart. They play with great effort. When you watch the film, it’s no secret why they’ve had so much success. They believe in their systems. They play their tails off and they have a lot of good football players. We’re going to have our work cut out for us.” — Tennessee coach Derek Dooley on FCS (formerly Division I-AA) power Montana, Saturday’s opponent.

By the numbers

21 – Returning starters for Vanderbilt, which was 2-10 and ended 2010 on a seven-game losing streak.

2,132 – Career rushing yards for Ole Miss’ Brandon Bolden, the leading active career rusher in the SEC.

Etc.

Auburn is slated to have five Georgians in its starting lineup against Utah State on Saturday: H-back Philip Lutzenkirchen (Lassiter), offensive tackle Brandon Mosley (Jefferson), defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker (Warner Robins), and safeties Neiko Thorpe (Tucker) and Demetruce McNeal (Banneker). On special teams, Josh Harris (Carrollton) is the deep snapper, and Quan Bray (Troup County) is returning kicks. … Senior Matt Roark (North Cobb), who has 18 career catches for 235 yards, is No. 1 on the depth chart at one of Kentucky’s three receiver positions.

Schedule

Thursday

Mississippi State at Memphis, 8 p.m. (SPSO)

Kentucky at Western Kentucky, 9:15 p.m. (ESPNU)

Saturday

Utah State at Auburn, noon (ESPN2)

Kent State at Alabama, 12:15 p.m. (WPCH)

BYU at Ole Miss, 4:45 p.m. (ESPN)

Montana at Tennessee, 6 p.m.

East Carolina vs. South Carolina, 7 p.m. (FSSO)*

Missouri State at Arkansas, 7 p.m.

Florida at Florida Atlantic, 7 p.m. (ESPNU)

Elon at Vanderbilt, 7:30 p.m. (CSS)

Boise State vs. Georgia, 8 p.m. (ESPN)*

Oregon vs. LSU, 8 p.m. (ABC)*

* Neutral sites