Without a doubt, one of our biggest problems last year was our inability to establish a running game. We ranked 112th in the country and dead last in the SEC in team rushing offense. While a lot of the talk right now is about how Stephen Garcia needs to step up for the Gamecocks to win in 2009, the truth is that, even at its worst, last year's passing game looked like a well-oiled machine compared to the running game. Even in Steve Spurrier's passing-oriented offense, we're not going to score many points with such a horrible ground game even if Garcia plays well. In fact, Spurrier's offenses rely on the run game more than many might think. Spurrier, like most coaches that run something like a pro-style offense, needs strong running to open keep defenses honest and thereby open up the opportunity to throw the ball down field. We haven't had that kind of running game since late 2006, and it's shown. Simply put, we have to improve in this as the first step to getting the offense as whole to come into its own.
I'll be honest: I'm not quite as confident in our ground game as I am in Garcia showing marked improvement. We've seen Garcia play well and therefore have an inkling as to what he's capable of when he's on. Moreover, most of his mistakes can be attributed to the kinds of decision-making difficulties that inexperienced quarterbacks often show when they're asked to do more than they're ready for. Those mistakes often disappear with experience. The problems with the running game, though, are multifaceted. For one thing, offensive line play has been a problem for most of Spurrier's time here, and it was a huge problem last year. You can mask a poor line in pass protection to some degree by running out of the shotgun and just asking the linemen to hold off defenders long enough for the quarterback to get a pass off. However, you can't mask poor run protection. Run protection requires not only holding defenders off but actually creating running lanes. Not even the best running backs can run well if that's not happening, and he certainly can't run well when defensive tackles are in his face as soon as he gets the ball in his hands, which was the case last year. Second of all, even when we've gotten relatively good run blocking, our backs haven't been the best since Cory Boyd graduated. Mike Davis was probably never destined to be anything more than a third-down back and a reliable receiver out of the backfield, and Brian Maddox and Eric Baker lacked experience last year. A lot of progress needs to be made in all of these areas for us to get to where we need to be.
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Luckily, though, while there is still cause for concern, there is also reason to believe that we will have a better running game this year. For one thing, the offensive line played better in the spring and appears to be more talented than the lines we've had in the past, the departure of Jamon Meredith notwithstanding. Part of the spring improvement, perhaps, is attributable to new line coach Eric Wolford, who replaces the much-maligned John Hunt. Wolford and Steve Spurrier have pledged to get better, tougher line play in general and better run blocking in particular as one of their primary goals this year, and they made some strides in the spring.
We also now have a relatively deep backfield. Brian Maddox has been named the starter after a solid spring, and incoming freshman Jarvis Giles, Eric Baker, and redshirt freshman Kenny Miles are all going to contribute. While none of these guys look like the next coming of Herschel Walker, each is talented and, moreover, each is talented in different ways, making the prospect of using a rotation that takes advantage of the skills of each more plausible. Maddox and Giles are all-purpose backs (although Giles may need to put on a few pounds to survive taking his licks from SEC linebackers), Baker is a good receiver out of the backfield, Miles is a home-run threat, etc.
Will this be one of the SEC's best rushing offenses? Probably not, when you consider the kind of talent teams like Alabama and Georgia have. But I do think it will be better than what we've had in the past, and if it can do its job along with Garcia, we could actually have a decent offense around here for a change.