COLUMBIA — Everybody in Williams-Brice Stadium on that gray, October afternoon had to think it as they watched the cart drive off the field with Marcus Lattimore weeping on the back: Was this the last time they would see him in a South Carolina uniform?
2010STATS: 249 carries, 1,197 yards, 17 TDs BEST GAME: 40 carries, 212 yards, 3 TDs in 36-14 win at Florida that clinched USC’s first SEC East title2011STATS: 163 carries, 818 yards, 10 TDs BEST GAME: 27 carries, 176 yards, 1 TD in 45-42 win over Georgia that gave USC back-to-back victories over the Bulldogs for the first time since 2000-01 2012STATS: 143 carries, 662 yards, 11 TDs BEST GAME: 23 carries, 110 yards, 2 TDs in 17-13 win at Vanderbilt in the season opener, his first game back from a left knee injury
Lattimore, a junior and one of the most successful players in USC history, was considered a likely candidate to enter the NFL draft before he suffered multiple ligament tears in his right knee on Oct. 27 against Tennessee. But the injury cast some doubts on Lattimore’s plans for 2013, because he likely would have to miss most or all of the season while rehabilitating.
The answer to the question everybody at Williams-Brice thought about arrived Monday, a month and a half later, in the form of an ESPN report. Yes, that was the last time you would see Lattimore wearing USC’s garnet and black, because he will enter the 2013 NFL draft.
Though USC has not officially announced anything about Lattimore’s status, the report came as no surprise.
NFL running backs typically have short shelf lives, and Lattimore faces a challenging rehabilitation. So why subject himself to more unpaid carries as a collegian?
Or so went the prevailing objective logic in the days and weeks after his injury, even as USC coach Steve Spurrier stood before 1,500 fans at a prayer-heavy, on-campus rally two days after Lattimore’s injury and told them that he expected Lattimore to return to school. They all cheered, but when the emotion faded, they had to know Monday’s news might come. Lattimore’s football future remains uncertain. He can feel encouraged that several running backs have returned from ligament tears and gone on to have successful professional careers, including Frank Gore of the San Francisco 49ers and Willis McGahee of the Denver Broncos.
Like Lattimore, McGahee suffered multiple ligament tears in his final college appearance, the national championship game for the 2002 season. Still, he turned pro, was the No. 23 overall pick and sat out the entire 2003 season while recovering. In the next four years, McGahee averaged more than 1,100 yards per season and became one of the NFL’s highest-paid running backs.
But for every Gore and McGahee, there are dozens of other backs whose knee ligaments betrayed them.
Lattimore was considered a late first-round or early second-round pick before his injury, though he probably will not be selected that high now as teams wonder about his durability. In 2011, Lattimore suffered a season-ending left knee ligament tear. The right knee injury was more severe, and because of how late in the season he suffered it, his 2013 season might be lost.
What cannot be denied is the impact he had on USC football. He arrived in 2010 from Byrnes High in Duncan as the state’s Mr. Football, and he more than lived up to that honor and his designation as the No. 1 running back and No. 10 overall recruit in his class.
While conducting himself with a quiet dignity that contributed to him becoming one of USC’s most beloved players ever, Lattimore led the Gamecocks to their first ever Southeastern Conference championship game in 2010 by running 249 times for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Many observers expected him to be a Heisman Trophy candidate in his final two seasons. But he played in seven games in 2011 before getting hurt and nine games in 2012.
He finishes his college career with 555 carries for 2,677 yards (sixth-most in school history) and 38 touchdowns. He scored 41 total touchdowns. His rushing touchdown total was seven better than the old school record and his total touchdowns were eight more than the previous USC record. In 29 career games, Lattimore ran for at least 100 yards 11 times — tied for the second-most 100-yard rushing games in school history.
His departure for the NFL doesn’t really change anything about USC’s tailback situation for 2013. This year’s No. 2 tailback, Kenny Miles, is a fifth-year senior, so he won’t return. And Lattimore was unlikely to begin the 2013 season healthy enough to play anyway.
So USC will begin next season leaning on Mike Davis. As a true freshman this season, Davis has 52 carries for 275 yards and two touchdowns. He was the highest-rated recruit in USC’s Class of 2012 and has combined with Miles to replace Lattimore in the three games since his injury.
USC will also bring back Brandon Wilds, who played as a true freshman in 2011 after Lattimore got hurt, but redshirted this season. Shon Carson carried just three times as a true freshman in 2011 before suffering an anterior cruciate ligament tear. He did not play at all in 2012 because of a wrist injury, but should be healthy for 2013.
USC’s other current scholarship running back is Kendric Salley, who redshirted as a freshman this season. USC’s only running back commitment for the recruiting Class of 2013 is from Jamari Smith, who is ranked the No. 40 running back nationally by Rivals.
They are all fine backs, but it would be unfair right now to expect any of them to match Lattimore’s stature.