The ‘Old Ball Coach’ has an admirer in Ann Arbor, whether he realizes it or not. 

Thursday afternoon, junior running back Karan Higdon admitted he “liked what Steve Spurrier was doing” at South Carolina before his retirement in 2015.

Really, though, Higdon’s admiration for the Gamecocks goes beyond the program’s former patriarch. He rooted for South Carolina in high school, and it was a fandom born from familiarity.

He had a friend who went there, and kids in his local area took their talents to Columbia, too. He was close friends with the cousin of former Gamecock wide receiver Ace Sanders — who played at Manatee High School, just over 18 miles away from Higdon’s alma mater — so the duo frequently tuned into his games. And he said he loved the way Marcus Lattimore ran.

As it turns out, Higdon visited South Carolina a couple times.

It was an offer he coveted as a recruit. It was also one he never received.

If he did, this year’s installation of the Outback Bowl might look a little different. Asked what would have happened if the Gamecocks did offer him, Higdon didn’t hesitate.

“I would’ve went,” he said with a laugh.

Now, though, when the Wolverines face the Gamecocks on Jan. 1, Higdon’s story will have come full circle — thanks to an unconventional set of circumstances that got him to Ann Arbor in the first place.

Higdon met Lattimore on one of his visits to South Carolina. The former Gamecock running back was a fourth-round pick in 2013, drafted by the San Francisco 49ers. He never took an NFL snap, as he struggled to recover from an injury in 2012 in which he tore every ligament in his right knee and dislocated his kneecap, before eventually retiring in 2014.

But Lattimore still met Jim Harbaugh while they were a brief player-coach pairing in San Francisco.

Higdon eventually did, too — part of a whirlwind recruiting process that saw him visit Ann Arbor in the week leading up to National Signing Day and eventually flip his commitment from Iowa to Michigan.

And Lattimore was a part of it.

“Actually, before I came here I stayed in touch with Marcus Lattimore, and he helped me make my decision to come here,” Higdon said. “He informed me a lot about the type of person Jim Harbaugh was, the type of coach. He led me. He was a big part of me coming here.”

The decision has paid off. Higdon leads the Wolverines’ backfield with 929 yards on 147 carries and 11 rushing touchdowns, and he’ll be the first Michigan running back to face South Carolina since the Outback Bowl in 2012.

That game, of course, didn’t end so well for one member of the Wolverines’ backfield — as Vincent Smith was the victim of a Jadeveon Clowney tackle that popped his helmet off and turned into an internet sensation.

It’s a hit that Higdon remembers well, and it’s one that he cheered for — even if he has never admitted such to Smith.

“Now me and Vincent are cool so I’m like, ‘Dang,’ ” Higdon said with a laugh. “But I was (cheering). And that was the year I had just visited there. … That happened and I was like, ‘Gollee.’ And I had saw Jadeveon at the game when I was visiting and I was like, ‘This is a huge dude.’ And then he does that.”

Of course, Higdon won’t be facing anyone of Clowney’s stature in Tampa, and the Gamecocks rank 12th in the SEC allowing 127.6 rushing yards per game.

Higdon could very well become Michigan’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2011 at the Outback Bowl. And if he does, it will come against the team that never offered him.

“I just loved them,” Higdon said. “… They didn’t offer me, and now I’m playing against them, so, I’m back.”

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