COLUMBIA -- Marcus Lattimore put together one of the best seasons by any running back in the University of South Carolina's football history -- but it sure could have ended better.

It ended, in fact, in the back of an Atlanta ambulance. It's tough to close on a note more off-key than that one.

Lattimore was crushed by a punishing hit from Florida State's Greg Reid early in the Dec. 31 Chick-fil-A Bowl. He suffered a concussion and a mouth laceration that was serious enough to send him to the hospital.

"It hurt," Lattimore said, intending the words in more than one way.

As doctors at the hospital weaved stitches into his lip, the freshman clamored for the TV to be changed to the bowl. He watched as the Gamecocks dropped their second consecutive game in the building, coupled with an embarrassing blowout loss earlier in the month to eventual national champion Auburn in the SEC championship game.

The events of December, and especially that final scene -- in a hospital and not on a football field -- only worked to drive the already motivated Lattimore through the winter months. Once his mouth healed, he became one of the team's more vocal and physical leaders in the weight room.

Lattimore weighed 217 pounds when the 2010 season began. He's up to 232 now.

That's not fat, either.

"He's a freak of nature right now," quarterback Connor Shaw said last week. "In the weight room, you should see him."

The Gamecocks are now in the heart of their spring drills, which conclude April 9 with the annual Garnet and Black Game. Lattimore is a part of the practices, open to the public, but his work this spring is more or less fine tuning. He does not have to prove a thing to coach Steve Spurrier and his staff; that happened quite definitively last fall.

"The biggest thing for him is to rest his body here in the spring," running backs coach Jay Graham said, "and we can get him revved up and going in the fall."

The Duncan native and Byrnes High grad was one of the nation's most hotly recruited running backs a little more than a year ago. He arrived on the Columbia campus, spurning Auburn and others to stay home, with the expectation that he could help elevate USC to a level it had not yet reached -- ever, let alone on Spurrier's watch.

The Gamecocks won games against Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida and Clemson in the same season. They won the SEC's Eastern Division and played for the league title.

Lattimore was a huge reason why. He rushed 249 times for 1,197 yards -- the third most in a single season in the school's history. The only name ahead of Lattimore is George Rogers and his Heisman-winning total of 1,894 yards in 1980 and his 1,681 yards the previous season. Lattimore breezed past the 28-year-old USC freshman record of 848 rushing yards.

With 19 total touchdowns, including 17 on the ground, Lattimore broke the school's single-season record, a mark that had stood since 1987.

With 182 rushing yards against Georgia, 184 against Tennessee and 212 against Florida, Lattimore saved his best for the teams South Carolina has been working to climb over since joining the SEC in the early 1990s.

Lattimore was a unanimous selection as the best college football conference's best freshman. He was also a first-team All-SEC selection.

Breathlessly listing the accolades from his freshman season, the corresponding question is natural: What will Lattimore do for an encore?

Privately, he has told friends and family he wants to move even closer to Rogers' neighborhood. He wants to earn an invite to New York as a Heisman finalist.

Don't laugh. Already, professional oddsmakers are installing Lattimore as one of the leading candidates to win the award. And some rolled their eyes a year ago when Lattimore said he wanted to rush for 1,000 yards, something that hadn't been done by a USC back since 2000.

"I want to be the best. I want to be the best running back in the country," Lattimore said. "To do that, I've got to work hard and keep working hard."

Still taking freshman classes, Lattimore's worth to South Carolina's program is already clear. Beyond the yardage, Lattimore consistently makes himself available for public appearances to promote the team. Before the spring game, he will be among a handful of players sharing their Christian testimonies with kids gathered for a Fellowship of Christian Athletes event.

And the once-recruited Lattimore is now doing the recruiting for South Carolina. Several coaches have said Lattimore's influence helped the Gamecocks reel in Rock Hill's Jadeveon Clowney, the nation's top recruit.

Lattimore said Clowney could be an All-American this fall. It would not at all be a surprise if Lattimore joined him on that list.

"Every year, I just say the same thing: I'm going to be myself," he said. "It's been working."