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April 6, 2009

Gamecocks' ground game pleases Graham

COLUMBIA, S.C. - Jay Graham laughs when he's asked if watching freshman running back Jarvis Giles reminds him of himself during his playing days with Tennessee more than a decade ago.

"I wasn't that quick," Graham smiled. "He reminds me of him. He's doing a great job. He's so quick."

Giles made an immediate impression upon Graham, who joined the South Carolina staff as running backs coach in January, and the rest of the coaching staff with his unique ability to make tacklers miss, a skill Graham has sought to develop in all four of his running backs in the first 12 workouts of spring practice.

But it appears to have manifested itself most in Giles, a four-star recruit from Tampa, Fla. As a result, Giles has quickly moved up the running back depth chart even though he's been on campus for only three months.

"Jarvis has been doing a great job," Graham said. "But he's young. He does some things that make him look older than his years and he does some things where you know he's just been here for 12 practices. He has to have more patience. He's starting to get there."

Like most talented young running backs, the biggest obstacle Giles must overcome is mastering pass protection and picking up blitzing linebackers when the Gamecocks throw the ball.

"He'll continue to get better, but the big thing for him is understanding protections," Graham said. "He has to do that in order for him to be in for a full series. He's doing those things, but there have been a few times when he gets confused because there are so many situations he's see defensively."

COMPETITION IS COMPETITIVE

Despite the fast start by Giles, the competition among the four running backs has been heated all spring. By all accounts, junior Brian Maddox occupies the top spot on the depth chart following another solid performance in Saturday's scrimmage.

In fact, Maddox has performed so well this spring that coach Steve Spurrier wishes he had played the junior from Anderson, S.C., more last season.

"The most important thing is he wants to do it," Graham said. "His focus is on doing things the right way. That's where it starts. He's hearing things, he's listening and he's learning. If he can just continue to do everything he's done, he'll be a good player."

What is the biggest reason for Maddox's improved performance this spring? Larger holes created by the offensive line, for one.

"I'm seeing some great things up front," Maddox said. "Coach [Eric] Wolford is doing a great job with the offensive line."

One of Graham's biggest tests during the spring has been giving all of his running backs enough carries to keep everybody happy. Has he been successful?

"We're cool with it all," Maddox said. "We're just working hard. Whatever happens, happens. I don't think anybody is jealous of anybody else."

Besides leading the team in rushing with 55 yards on nine carries, Maddox scored his second TD in Saturday's scrimmage on a swing pass that he took 33 yards into the end zone.

"You need to catch the ball," Maddox said. "That's something you have to do as a running back in the SEC. That's what coaches look for in their evaluation. I could catch coming out of high school, but you always need to work on that."

Even if Giles doesn't ascends to the top of the depth chart by the time the regular season begins in early September, he knows he's in prime position to receive a steady diet of carries.

Either way, Giles insists he doesn't want to redshirt.

"I'm not saying I expect to start, but I really don't want to redshirt," Giles said. "All I can say is I'm going to come out here and work hard and try to get better every day. I'll leave it to Coach Graham to decide who should be on the field."

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

As a four-star recruit, Giles understands many Gamecocks fans are eager for the ground game to be rejuvenated and have heightened expectations for him this season.

Graham said Giles has started to appreciate the reality that SEC running backs must run North-South, and that the opportunities to make yards trying to run wide are few and far between in the SEC.

"He's starting to get more vertical in his running instead of trying to run around guys," Graham said. "I tell him that those were things you could do in high school, but now you're on the field with a bunch of five-star guys. You can tell him, but he has to have the reps. It can be frustrating for him sometimes because he can't do things now that he's been doing his whole life. But he's learning faster than even I thought he would."

His sometimes stellar performance during spring practice has only accelerated those hopes. But Giles tries hard to block everything out and just focus on the task at hand.

"I really don't listen to all that," Giles said. "I just come out here every day to try and get better. I'm just one guy, just one piece of the puzzle. I'm probably speaking for those other guys too. They can only do so much. Football is not about one guy. It's a team sport. Everybody has to do their part and sometimes one guy stands out."

Giles is one of four true freshmen likely to have a significant impact this fall. Stephon Giles, DeVonte Holloman and Chaz Sutton should all help the defense immediately.

"You've got to know what you're doing," Giles said. "You're playing in the SEC, with grown men out here. We just have to go on the field and act like a big boy, that's it."

With Giles moving up the depth chart, where does that leave sophomore Eric Baker and redshirt freshman Kenny Miles? Both have continued to receive opportunities as the spring has gone along. Baker had eight carries for 45 yards in Saturday's scrimmage and is the top returning rusher from last season.

"[Baker] has made a lot of progress, especially in pass protection," Graham said. "His groin was a little sore for a couple of days. But right now he's one of our better pass protectors. That's key for us. He's starting to get out in the open field and make some plays. He's doing well. He's just dealing with that nagging groin injury."

Miles has probably been lost in the shadows created by all the hoopla surrounding Giles, but the redshirt freshman from Georgia has caught the eye of Graham.

"He's strong. He's probably got some of the best feet of all the guys," Graham said. "He knows how to cut off the right foot and make guys miss in small spaces. That's what really has impressed me the most. But he really has to improve as far as understanding protections and doing everything right on every play. That's easier said than done."

The running game struggled in the first scrimmage nine days ago when they totaled 107 yards on 40 carries. Giles had 80 of those yards. Saturday, in compiling 181 yards on 52 carries, the average gain increased from 2.7 yards to 3.5 yards per rush.

"The biggest thing for us is we can't go three steps forward and two steps back," Graham said. "We need to continue to improve every day. Everybody needs to do the right thing. We have a learning curve here. After 12 practices, we're starting to find plays we can hang our hat on."


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