Healthy again, South Carolina's Lattimore more than ready for return

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In his last full season, Lattimore rushed for 1,197 yards as a freshman. (Getty Images)  
In his last full season, Lattimore rushed for 1,197 yards as a freshman. (Getty Images)  

Columbia, S.C. -- The hardest part, said Marcus Lattimore, was the waiting.

"I had to wait to run," said the South Carolina running back. "Then I had to wait to cut and then wait to spin. I knew I could do it but I had to wait. It was so hard."

Lattimore had never had to wait before. Since the day he arrived on the South Carolina campus as one of the most highly-recruited running backs in America, Marcus Lattimore had gone nothing but full speed.

In just his second college football game against Georgia in 2010, Lattimore carried the ball 37 times for 182 yards in a 17-6 win over the Bulldogs in Columbia. From that moment on Steve Spurrier, the Ol' Ball Coach, knew that the days of his Fun n' Gun offense were over. He had found a thoroughbred and was going to ride him. In that season Spurrier rode Lattimore all the way to South Carolina's first-ever SEC Championship Game. Lattimore finished 2010 with 1,197 yards, the best season ever recorded by a South Carolina running back not named George Rogers.

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"Doesn't make a whole lot of sense to be pitching it around the ball park when you've got somebody like Marcus," Spurrier said.

But everything changed for Lattimore on Oct. 15, 2011 in Starkville, Miss. Lattimore wasn't even carrying the football. He was blocking for teammate Bruce Ellington when a Mississippi State defender rolled up on his left knee. He felt it give right away.

"It seems like it just happened yesterday," said Lattimore. "I'll never forget it because it changed a lot of things for me."

Lattimore's mother, Yolanda Smith, came out of the stands to comfort her son. Lattimore had a huge brace on his leg as he hobbled off the field on crutches, his mother by his side. You could see the fear on her face.

The next day Spurrier made the announcement: "Our worst fears were realized." Lattimore's season was over. His future as a football player was uncertain at best.

"Was I scared? Yeah. I knew it was bad," he said.

There was never any doubt that Lattimore was going to put in the work to rehab the knee. But Lattimore knew his recovery would be more than physical. Until Oct. 15 in Starkville, Marcus Lattimore had always run without fear. Even after the knee was healed, would he be able to run without fear again?

He wanted to know how others were responding in this same situation. He reached out to Arkansas running back Knile Davis, who is back this season after missing all of 2011 with an ankle injury suffered in preseason.

They've become good friends and, if both stay healthy, will go head to head on Nov. 10 in Columbia.

Lattimore contacted Pittsburgh running back Ray Graham, who suffered a season-ending knee injury just two weeks after his own. He called Jonas Gray of Notre Dame, Ronald Powell at Florida, Roman Harper of the Saints, and North Carolina running back Giovanni Bernard, all of whom had come back, or were in the process of coming back, from serious injuries.

"They all said the same thing," said Lattimore. "They said it was a mind thing. After nine months is over you have to get it in your mind that you're going to be okay. The point is you have to stay strong and believe that you're going to be a better player and a better person."

Last Sunday was picture day at South Carolina. Lattimore wore his familiar "21" and looked and sounded like a racehorse ready to bolt out of the gate.

"When we first started practice [Aug. 3] I asked him 'Marcus are you doing everything?" Spurrier said. "He said 'Everything coach. Don't worry about it.' We think he's going to be fine. We don't talk about it. He's just going to play ball."

Lattimore's top 5 games
OpponentCarriesYards
Florida (2010)40212
Georgia (2010)37182
Navy (2011)37246*
Tenn. (2010)29184
Georgia (2011)27176
* Career high, 4th-best in school history.

During the rehab Lattimore decided that, moving forward, he was not going to take anything for granted when it came to his football career. He used to get into the hot tub only when he was sore. Now he does it after every workout. He would stretch only when he felt tight. Now he stretches every day. He started eating healthier. No fried foods.

He enters the 2012 season not only with a healthy body, but a healthier perspective on what football is -- and is not -- in his life.

"I learned that no matter what I do, it's [football] is not going to last forever," said Lattimore. "An injury can take away what you've been doing your whole life. It put a whole lot into perspective for me."

Here's some perspective: Lattimore needs 1,041 yards to become the second-leading rusher in South Carolina history behind Rogers (5,204 career yards), the 1980 Heisman Trophy winner. He needs just five touchdowns rushing to reach 32 and pass Rogers as South Carolina's all-time leader. If he gets through this season relatively healthy, it's a fair assumption that he will not return to college in 2013.

But it is also fair to assume that Lattimore won't have to be as much of a workhorse this season. In his absence last season senior Kenny Miles and sophomore Brandon Wilds both had 100-yard games. Redshirt freshman Shon Carson suffered a torn ACL in the second game with Georgia and became Lattimore's rehab buddy. He will figure into the mix.

"I don't have to take 30 or more carries anymore," said Lattimore, who has two 37-carry games and one 40-carry game (Florida in 2010) in his career. "Our goal is to be the best running back group in America. We want to be like LSU with 4-5 guys they use to wear the defenses down."

Spurrier said he hopes to spread the carries around a little more but when the game is tight, the Ol' Ball Coach tends to lean on his superstar. Last season against Georgia Lattimore had 94 yards on 13 carries in the fourth quarter of a 45-42 win. In the very next game against Navy he got it 37 times for a career-high 246 yards.

"We hope we can have a little more balance but you don't know how the game is going to unfold," said Spurrier.

On Wednesday South Carolina will hold its first scrimmage of the preseason. Lattimore expects to get some kind of real contact for the first time since that awful Saturday in Starkville. That is the next hurdle in the road to his full recovery.

"I'll be getting it out of mind that when I get hit I'll be fine," said Lattimore. "It's been a long time since I've been in practice, anything football related. Just being out there is a great feeling."

For Marcus Lattimore, the Aug. 30 opener at Vanderbilt can't get here soon enough.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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