Gamecocks’ fullbacks are pushing for their place

It’s not a flashy position, but the fullbacks know their spot is more guts than glory

dcloninger@thestate.comAugust 18, 2013 

It’s not a position of vital importance to No. 6 South Carolina’s offensive plans, but it’s still a part of the playbook. Even if it’s a situation of “in case of emergency, break glass,” the Gamecocks’ fullbacks will take it.

Only by first toiling in anonymity will they someday be known. The motto could replace the nameplates on the jerseys.

“We work on our run-blocking game, our pass-blocking game, that’s what we are — we’re blockers,” junior starter Connor McLaurin recently said. “We get the ball thrown to us, we try to do the best we can with that.”

Even as USC has emphasized the zone-read scheme the past three years to take advantage of Marcus Lattimore, the fullback spot has gone the opposite way. Not that McLaurin or Qua Gilchrist weren’t capable of doing the same things the departed Patrick DiMarco could, but Lattimore worked best on his own.

DiMarco, who caught passes as well as he opened holes, ran the wheel route so efficiently that it was often an automatic try when the Gamecocks entered the red zone. With pal Stephen Garcia taking the snap and rolling left, DiMarco would separate and find himself open on the right sideline for an easy toss-and-catch.

McLaurin feels he’ll be able to catch if his number is called during a game, but he is content in his present role if not. Placed on scholarship after playing in 18 games the past two years, mostly on special teams, McLaurin is ready to block for a new fleet of tailbacks.

“I was here (DiMarco’s) last year,” McLaurin said. “I’ve watched his film, and I’ve tried to learn from him. He was obviously a great blocker for us and a great receiver, also, playing a little tight end. He’s helped me a lot.”

The Gamecocks may not use the fullback much this year, as they sometimes run a three-wide receiver set or remove one wide receiver for a two-tight end look. With the tight end duo of Rory Anderson and Jerell Adams this year, the latter may be much more of a weapon, which leaves the fullbacks with limited duty.

But there always will be the Power I at the goal line. That’s where the 237-pound McLaurin, the 233 pounds of backup Jordan Diaz and the near-freakish strength of third-stringer Garrison Gist comes in handy.

“We’re normally in the Power I or the slot,” McLaurin said. “We’ve got two or three fullback sets.”

Gist, a newcomer, enters with a mild bit of fame. A right tackle that protected quarterback Justin Worley (now starting at Tennessee) during Northwestern High’s 2010 state championship season, Gist came to USC as an art studio major who was considering football in the future. At that time, he was discovering a talent for competitive weight-lifting.

“My senior year of high school, track season, I had a coach who said, ‘You’re strong, but you could be a whole lot stronger. Do you want to try the power-lifting thing?’ ” Gist said. “My first summer I did it, my first competition, I ended up breaking four national records. I did another one that September, and I broke four more. I thought, ‘I might be kind of good at this weightlifting thing.’ ”

Gist made the team this year and has been working to learn the playbook, inspired by former walk-on McLaurin earning a scholarship. Nearly as wide as he is tall (5-foot-10), Gist may be the future of the position.

“I’m just out here every day working hard, trying to break that two-spot so I can get on the road and travel and see some new places,” Gist said. “I can’t imagine trying to block some of these guys without the weightlifting background. Might not be too pretty.”

If the two never get their hands on a ball this year, that’s fine. McLaurin is used to being on the field for special teams; Gist is trying to get there.

Seeing the ball hover toward them during a game would be nearly an unbelievable moment. McLaurin feels ready for it — to be able to ignore what’s happening and play on instinct, make the catch and move forward. Leave the celebration for later, which is the credo of linemen and fullbacks alike.

“I work hard every day, and this is something you dream about when you’re little,” McLaurin said. “You get to play at a big school with such great coaches, such great players and such a great conference, you get a chance to actually get on the field? That’s a dream.”

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