COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Marcus Lattimore believes his knee injury was a test he had to pass, both for himself and South Carolina.
The junior running back tore his ACL while blocking downfield at Mississippi State last October. His mother Yolanda Smith rushed to his side and Lattimore's left leg was encased in a temporary brace as he hobbled into the locker room.
It was a devastating loss for the Gamecocks - coach Steve Spurrier announced it the next day with the words, "Our worst fears were realized" - and for the durable Lattimore, who was frightened at first he might not ever again be one of the Southeastern Conference's top rushers.
"I kind of felt like it was a test, a test to see if I was going to break, to see if I'd give up," Lattimore said. "Because there were times I wanted to give up."
Instead, Lattimore ran straight ahead into getting better. He leaned on his family and teammates and spoke with other football players like Pittsburgh Panthers running back Ray Graham and New Orleans Saints safety Roman Harper about dealing with similar injuries and their recoveries.
"I look down on my phone and see that it's Marcus Lattimore calling," said Graham, the All-Big East Conference tailback who also hurt his ACL last fall.
Lattimore said the advice, the friendly chats and inspiring words helped him focus on returning to the field, something he's ready to do when the ninth-ranked Gamecocks open the season at Vanderbilt on Aug. 30.
"It's been a long time," he said.
Lattimore was South Carolina's Mr. Football at Byrnes High in 2009 and turned down Auburn to join Spurrier's Gamecocks in 2010. Lattimore became an almost instant success for the Gamecocks, carrying 37 times for 182 yards and two touchdowns to beat Georgia 17-6 his second career game.
Lattimore became the school's first 1,000-yard rusher in 10 years with 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns as Spurrier's go-to performer on offense and helped the Gamecocks to their first SEC Eastern Division title
Lattimore was on his way to bigger things last year - his 818 yards rushing still led the team despite missing half the season - before his injury. So it's no wonder Lattimore's name has popped up on watch lists for the Heisman Trophy and other player of the year awards.
"I'm not really thinking about any of that," he said.
Lattimore says his main goal is doing what he's always done: playing hard on the field and making the right choices off it.
Despite a sore knee and long hours of rehab, Lattimore kept up his practice of visiting youth groups, speaking at church functions and mentoring young athletes at Byrnes High despite the demands of knee rehabilitation.
"It was hard to keep him away," said Lattimore's former high school coach, Bobby Bentley. "Marcus thinks those are the right things to do."
Lattimore's stepfather, Vernon Smith, said he saw an opportunity to show others you could go through rehabilitation and come back stronger.
"He saw it as a positive example," he said.
South Carolina strength coach Joe Connolly watched Lattimore throw himself into workouts, pushing as much as he could without any setbacks. Lattimore was cleared to fully run on the knee before the summer, Connolly said.
Lattimore drew strength from other players like Graham, Arkansas' Knile Davis, Notre Dame's Jonas Gray and Harper.
"We still keep in touch," Graham said. "We've become friends."
Lattimore has run strongly in fall camp, looking like the player who routinely broke tackles and cut to the right holes for big yards. He and Spurrier understand, though, that people will keep wondering about the knee until he handles those first few hits against the Commodores.
Spurrier has seen little evidence Lattimore, a projected first-round NFL draft pick, is hesitating or protecting the knee when he runs.
Spurrier recalled watching practice video this summer and seeing three defenders waiting to wrap up Lattimore.
"He just lowered the pads and powered right through them," Spurrier said.
Lattimore has changed several things about his routine since the injury, admitting he took his legs for granted instead of following proper training procedure. He spends more time on warm ups, ices his muscles down and uses the hot tub to stay fresh more than he used to.
"I do the little things," he said.
Something Lattimore won't change? His straight-ahead, power running style. If that means 35 carries, Lattimore's prepared physically and mentally to handle the load.
"I'm not thinking about it anymore. That's the main thing, just not thinking about the injury," he said. "I'm just going out there trying to be myself as I did in the past."