COLUMBIA — Exactly five months ago, Marcus Lattimore spent the morning as he spent so many others during his three seasons playing running back for South Carolina. He left the team hotel with his teammates and boarded a bus bound for Williams-Brice Stadium. He pulled on his pads and cleats in a locker room under the stadium’s stands. He walked through a tunnel and ran onto the field as 80,000 people cheered.
By the time that Saturday afternoon game against Tennessee ended, many of those people wondered if Lattimore would do any of those things before any football game ever again. On his 11th carry of the game, he sustained a direct hit to his right knee, dislocating it and injuring multiple ligaments. His leg bent so awkwardly that some teammates averted their eyes.
Wednesday morning, Lattimore walked into the stadium for the first time since his injury on Oct. 27. He stood in a room under the stands. Representatives from 31 NFL teams stared at him. He felt anxious and excited. Those who saw his gruesome injury replayed over and over on that October Saturday perhaps felt surprised by what they watched him do next. He did not break any tackles or sprint 40 yards, or do any of the things he must do to prove he can become a productive professional running back. Doctors warn him that his knee isn’t ready for such rigorous activity. But in that room, with scouts watching on USC’s pro day, Lattimore did all he could, at this point, to demonstrate that he might again play at a high level.
A rope ladder was laid on the floor, and Lattimore quickly stepped into and out of its squares, in different patterns. Five times, he jumped from a standing position onto an 18-inch box, and then did it five times with a 24-inch box. He did step-up exercises onto the box, driving his legs upward. He did lunges and reverse lunges, to show stability in his knee. He balanced on one leg and lowered himself as far as he could.
Out on the field that brought him so many vivid memories of program-changing touchdowns and life-altering trauma, he could only watch his teammates participate in Wednesday’s drills. That did not dampen his enthusiasm for a future in which he said he “no doubt” expects to play in the first half of next season.
“I could be out there doing something, but it’s not smart to be doing that at this time,” he said. “I wanted to be out there bad, just get out there and run some routes. (But scouts) were able to see me use my feet, use my knee and see that my knee is fine. It felt great, but I know I’ve got a lot of work to do and I need at least three or four more months before I put on some pads.”
Lattimore is a natural optimist, an attitude that supported him while recovering from a serious injury. He said his highly regarded surgeon, Dr. James Andrews, first noticed in February that his rehabilitation was ahead of schedule because of how quickly his hamstring and quadriceps regained muscle mass.
Lattimore was equally wowed by the thorough medical exams at last month’s NFL combine, where he only did the exams and interviews with teams.
“Ah, man, it was crazy,” he said. “It was like a zoo in there. But they’re investing a lot of money into you, so it’s important.”
Before the combine, he ran only on an underwater treadmill, to limit the stress on his knee. During the first week of March, he ran on solid ground for the first time, at the facility where he trains in Pensacola, Fla.
“I knew nothing was going to happen,” he said. “Everything was working out good. I wasn’t worried about it. I was just ready to do it and get it over with and get that next step in.”
He has been sprinting in Pensacola, though not at full speed, and will soon begin agility workouts as he resumes cutting. The primary thing he wanted to demonstrate Wednesday was his knee’s stability and “that I could still move,” he said.
“I feel like my step-ups showed a lot, when I stepped up onto the box with my right leg,” he said. “Just showing how stable it is, showing that it’s still good and it’s progressing.”
At the advice of his agent and trainers, he will not hold his own pro day. But he will go to Indianapolis next Friday and Saturday for a follow-up medical exam by NFL teams. He will meet with the Patriots and Rams, after already meeting with the Eagles. But he hasn’t looked at his draft projections and won’t watch the draft on TV, because he said he simply doesn’t want to.
“Everything has been progressing perfect,” he said. “I know I’ll be back playing football, no doubt. One team is going to believe in me. I know that.”
USC’s four other prominent draft-eligible players participated in pro day’s on-field drills. Like Lattimore, they are expected to be picked between the third and sixth rounds.
Wide receiver Ace Sanders, who turned pro early, is stronger at changing direction than running in a straight line, but he could have helped himself Wednesday by improving his 40-yard dash time. He ran 4.58 seconds at the NFL combine, and 4.56 on Wednesday.
Free safety D.J. Swearinger wanted to run 4.5 Wednesday because he wasn’t happy with his 4.67 at the combine. But at pro day, he ran just 4.63. Outside linebacker DeVonte Holloman ran 4.76 at the combine and 4.79 at pro day. Defensive end Devin Taylor ran 4.72 at the combine (eighth among defensive linemen) and 4.88 at pro day.