COLUMBIA — As dusk approached Friday, tailback Marcus Lattimore jogged through the black iron gates and onto the grass for his first South Carolina football practice in 10 months. The few hundred fans who lined the practice field cheered his arrival and, amid all the applause, Lattimore felt blessed and grateful.
Most important for Lattimore and the Gamecocks’ hopes of experiencing another magical season in 2012, he also felt 100 percent healthy after a torn ligament in his left knee prematurely ended his 2011 season.
He believes his recovery, an agonizing process at times, made him wiser about caring for his body. And as he returns to the field, he is indeed an old, experienced soul on this team, which is preparing for an encore to last year’s 11-2 record.
With receiver Alshon Jeffery in the NFL and quarterback Connor Shaw beginning his first full season as the starter, Lattimore is USC’s most tested offensive asset. A potential Heisman Trophy candidate, he ran for 1,197 yards (92.1 per game) and 17 touchdowns as a freshman in 2010 and 818 yards (116.9 per game) and 10 TDs in seven games last season before getting hurt Oct. 15 at Mississippi State.
His coaches think he can return to that level after his injury, and if he does, the Gamecocks would stand a strong chance of improving upon last season’s 373.5 yards per game, which ranked No. 73 nationally.
Lattimore’s effectiveness and style, which he vows not to alter to guard against another injury, might be the same as they once were. But at least some parts of his role and outlook have changed.
While Lattimore is still USC’s primary running option, the Gamecocks have senior Kenny Miles and sophomore Brandon Wilds, who combined to replace Lattimore last season. In the 2010 regular season, Lattimore carried 20 times per game and had games of 29, 37 and 40 carries against Tennessee, Georgia and Florida. In 2011, he averaged 24 carries in the six games before he got hurt, including 27 against Georgia and 37 against Navy.
“I don’t have to take more than 30 carries anymore,” Lattimore said. “That’s a good thing for me.”
His rehab brought a range of emotions — anxiousness and pain, predominantly — and waiting to conquer each step of the process proved to be the toughest part.
“I had to wait to run, I had to wait to cut, I had to wait to spin, I had to wait to do certain things in the weight room,” he said. “It was just real frustrating, because I knew I could do it, but I know it’s for my benefit if I just waited it out and just gave my graft time to heal.
“I kind of felt like it was a test, a test to see if I was going to break, to see if I was going to just give up. Because there were times I did want to give up. But I feel like God was just testing my faith. I got through it and I’ve still got the love for God that I had. That’ll never change.”
Lattimore also leaned on other players who experienced knee ligament tears, including Roman Harper of the New Orleans Saints and Ray Graham of the University of Pittsburgh. Graham, a running back, hurt his knee last season, 11 days after Lattimore’s injury. Lattimore reached out to Graham on Twitter and they spoke often on the phone during their rehabs, “just to stay calm when (the knee) got sore and it got swollen,” Lattimore said.
The players who deal with knee injuries all told Lattimore the same thing: “It’s a mind thing. After your nine months (of rehab) is over with, you’ve got to get in your mind that you’re going to be all right.”
Physically, Lattimore has felt fine since mid-July agility drills. The next step: trusting his knee when he gets hit. That will happen for the first time in Wednesday’s scrimmage.
He said the moment of his injury is “something that I’ll remember forever,” but he believes he grew from it. He used to get in the cold or hot tub only when he was sore. Now, he does it every day. He stretched more diligently and gave up fried food this summer — “everything possible to strengthen my knee,” he said.
He kept thinking about what the players who dealt with this had said: “It makes you stronger in the end. A year from now, two years from now, you’re going to be a better player and a better person.”