MOBILE, Ala. -- The timetable sounds crazy. About three months ago, South Carolina tailback Marcus Lattimore lay on the field at Williams-Brice Stadium with a gruesome knee injury that looked capable of wrecking his career. Tuesday, Lattimore said he hopes to be ready to play when the NFL regular season opens in September.
"That's my goal," Lattimore said while visiting a Senior Bowl practice. "And it is realistic."
When he injured his right knee Oct. 27, the idea of Lattimore playing football anywhere in 2013 seemed ludicrous. As Tennessee linebacker Herman Lathers pursued Lattimore from one side, safety Eric Gordon rocketed in from the other. Lathers pulled Lattimore's body to Lattimore's left. Gordon pushed Lattimore's lower leg to Lattimore's right. The knee was caught in the tug-of-war. As he tried to sit up, it appeared that Lattimore's lower leg pointed the wrong direction. Moments later, a trainer patted Lattimore on the chest as the realization sunk in that for the second consecutive year, Lattimore's season would end with a knee injury.
From that moment of pain came a moment of beauty. When Tennessee players realized the seriousness of the injury, they joined the Gamecocks around Lattimore to offer their support. Few players in college football were more respected by their teammates and opponents than Lattimore, and the outpouring of support touched him. He received cards and letters from every SEC school and from schools across the country. Anyone who had seen the injury worried whether Lattimore could ever play again, but when surgeons James Andrews, Jeffrey Guy and Lyle Cain cut open Lattimore's knee on Nov. 2, they found torn ligaments but no nerve damage. The ligaments, Guy told reporters in December, would heal. The lack of nerve damage meant Lattimore could eventually return to full speed. Doctors originally set a timetable of 12-15 months for recovery, meaning Lattimore probably wouldn't play football in 2013.
But as Lattimore rehabbed his knee recently at Andrews' facility in Gulf Breeze, Fla., the prognosis changed. "Dr. Andrews said my progress is nothing short of a miracle," Lattimore said. "I shouldn't even be walking the way I am right now. I'm way ahead of schedule." Now, Lattimore hopes to run in February and play in September. "Right now, I'm just strengthening," Lattimore said. "I'm getting my calf muscle stronger, my quad and my hamstring stronger. The main thing is just getting ready to run right now. That's my main goal -- getting ready to run in two weeks. It will look easy. I'm going to make it look easy."
At South Carolina, Lattimore made sliding between SEC defenders look easy with a smooth running style that belied his speed and power. Even though two of his three seasons were shortened by injury, Lattimore still left Columbia as the Gamecocks' all-time leader in rushing touchdowns (38) and total touchdowns (41). Now, he'll have to prove he can play just as well with a reconstructed anterior cruciate ligament.
Lattimore said Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson's success after ACL reconstruction has provided inspiration. Peterson, who had his ACL repaired in December 2011, ran for 2,097 yards in the 2012 regular season. Former Miami backs Willis McGahee and Frank Gore injured their ACLs in college and have thrived in the pros. McGahee, who required reconstruction after suffering a knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl in January 2003, was still drafted at No. 23 by the Buffalo Bills that April. Lattimore has sought the advice of McGahee as he prepares for the draft. "He said, 'You don't have time to feel sorry for yourself. You've got to get to work,'" Lattimore said.
Lattimore said he hasn't let self-pity stand in his way. "I feel like 80 percent of it is mental," he said. "If you don't do your rehab, if you keep asking 'Why me,' your knee reacts to that. You have to stay positive, or you're not going to come back."
So where might Lattimore go in the draft? That is the great unknown. "I have no clue, to tell you the truth," Lattimore said. "Could be first, could be undrafted." Lattimore's draft position will depend on the progress he makes between now and April. Lattimore certainly doesn't lack for confidence. He feels that had he not gotten hurt, he would have been the best back in the draft. He still believes he can make a huge contribution to an NFL team. "I know what I can do on the field," Lattimore said. "I can catch. I can run. I can block. I can do it all. There's no doubt I'll be a starter."
That's a bold statement from a back who suffered such a serious injury only three months ago, but Lattimore refuses to let doubt cloud his mind. He has seen recent evidence that injuries like his aren't career-enders, and he intends to carry the ball in 2013. "It can be done," Lattimore said, "and I will do it."