(Eds: With AP Photos.)
By PETE IACOBELLI
AP Sports Writer
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Marcus Lattimore and his repaired knees are finally on the clock at the NFL draft.
The ex-South Carolina tailback will be in Atlanta with his representatives the next few days waiting to find out when or if he will get selected in the draft that starts Thursday.
Lattimore was projected to be the first running back off the board and a certain first-rounder before the 2012 season began. But then he suffered a second serious knee injury in as many years, against Tennessee last October.
Saturday will mark six months since Lattimore dislocated his right knee cap and tore three ligaments. He had surgery in November and then gave up his senior season the next month and set off for Florida to rehab his latest knee injury. He's also worked nearly every day since to convince the NFL he's the same first-round talent he was before getting hurt.
Not all are certain that's the case.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has called Lattimore a wild card. "I want to see where Marcus Lattimore ends up in South Carolina considering his injury path with the two knee injuries," Kiper said this month.
Lattimore has done what he can to help his cause, finishing up a pre-draft media blitz to let NFL evaluators know he's OK and expects to play this season. Dr. James Andrews, who operated on Lattimore, told NFL teams at the Indianapolis combine that the player was ahead of schedule on his recovery and one of the hardest workers he'd seen. "He keeps saying I'm going to shock the world," Lattimore said.
Lattimore demonstrated the knee at South Carolina's pro timing day on March 27. He ran several drills in the school's weight room and training area and drew loud applause from the NFL personnel attending. He believes he's made great strides but doesn't have a lot of insight on what that means for his draft chances. Lattimore and his agent, Michael Perrett, keep hearing third round, also the projection from the NFL Network's Mike Mayock.
"I don't worry about that anymore," he said.
Lattimore says he's talked with several NFL teams including St. Louis, New England, Philadelphia and San Francisco and has heard positive things about his chances. He understands the business side of football, though, and if he doesn't get drafted "that's OK because once I get on a team and prove that I'm fully back, I'll be good to go," he said.
Lattimore's regimen has picked up the past few weeks with some straight-ahead sprints. Lattimore says he's still about three weeks away from some side-to-side running, hard cutting and agility work.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier believes Lattimore's character will go a long way to overcoming doubts about his durability. Spurrier has called Lattimore the most popular player in Gamecocks history. "He's going to be a success at whatever he does because of the kind of person he is," Spurrier said.
Lattimore already has returned from significant knee problems. He tore the anterior-cruciate ligament in his left knee while blocking downfield at Mississippi State during his sophomore season and missed the final six games of 2011. He threw himself into rehab and was cleared to run full-speed before voluntary summer workouts, according to Gamecocks strength coach Joe Connolly.
When healthy, Lattimore is ground-gaining machine. Spurrier still raves about his breakout performance in his first SEC game when Lattimore rushed for two touchdowns and 182 years to beat Georgia. Gamecocks coaches had Lattimore breaking 42 tackles in the game.
Lattimore's impact remains at South Carolina. The school honored his South Carolina record of 38 rushing touchdowns with a poster on the facing of one of the spiral ramps at Williams-Brice. He was voted football's MVP and given the athletic department's inspiration award Monday night.
Spurrier spoke with Lattimore and his family about potentially recovering at South Carolina and playing a final season in college to show pro teams he was healthy. Everyone agreed, though, Spurrier said "that the next time Marcus carries a ball, he ought to get paid."
Lattimore is hopeful that will start this weekend when he'll get that once-in-a-lifetime call from an NFL team he's thought about his entire life. "It'll be a dream come true," Lattimore says. "Then it's time to go to work."