COLUMBIA — Injured South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore is finished with college football. How long it takes the Gamecocks junior to make his NFL debut is anyone’s guess.
Lattimore announced Wednesday he was giving up his final season to enter the NFL Draft. He was considered a can’t-miss, first-round talent after his first two seasons. However, a horrifying right knee injury in October has dropped his draft stock and it is unclear when Lattimore might return to action.
Lattimore dislocated his knee and damaged three of four ligaments when he was tackled against Tennessee. Doctors say surgery on his knee was successful and Lattimore easily walked into his first gathering with media since the injury.
He came into this season off ligament surgery to his left knee, an injury that cost him the final six games of 2011.
Despite his injuries, Lattimore said, “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
He and Dr. Jeffrey Guy said it would take 12-to-15 months to recover, meaning it is unlikely Lattimore would play anywhere during the 2013 season. Guy, among the team that operated on Lattimore, said Lattimore’s prognosis for full recovery was good.
Lattimore finished his career as the Gamecocks’ all-time leader with 41 overall touchdowns and 38 rushing scores in 29 games.
Still, even draft experts are puzzled about Lattimore’s prospects next April.
“I just put wild card next to his name,” ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said on a media conference call Tuesday.
Lattimore had told Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier before a student rally of support in October that the player hoped to return to the field for the Gamecocks. About a month ago, Lattimore talked with his family and decided entering the NFL Draft was the choice.
“I 100 percent agree that Marcus should turn pro,” Spurriersaid. “At some point, when you can really play this game the way Marcus can, you need to be financially rewarded.”
Lattimore said he received encouraging support from two NFL stars who successfully came back from knee surgery – running backs Frank Gore and Willis McGahee. Lattimore remained composed as he thanked Spurrier, teammates and university officials.
“This has easily been the best three years of my life,” he said.
Lattimore rushed for 662 yards and 11 touchdowns this season, both team highs.
He had been South Carolina’s primary offensive force the past three seasons, starting from the time he stepped on campus as a freshman in 2010. He gained 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns to help the Gamecocks to a Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title that fall.
Lattimore was on his way to eclipsing those marks when he was hurt in an October game at Mississippi State. Following surgery, Lattimore plunged himself into rehab and returned in time for summer workouts with his teammates.
He showed few effects from that injury this season. Lattimore had three games with at least 100 yards rushing and appeared headed for a fourth against the Vols when he was hurt again.
His left leg flopped to the turf and Lattimore struggled to contain his emotions in a silent Williams-Brice Stadium. Players from both teams surrounded him as doctors and trainers worked on the knee, praying and offering best wishes.
Two days later, South Carolina held a rally on campus to celebrate Lattimore’s 21st birthday and wish him well in his recovery. Lattimore did not attend, but Spurrier told the crowd he gotten a message from the running back to tell them, “I’ll be back.”
On Nov. 10 against Arkansas, the school unveiled Lattimore’s name and touchdown record on the facing of one of the stadium’s spiral ramps. Lattimore had a taped message to fans on the stadium’s large video board, saying he felt fine and was “working to get back to football.”
Lattimore ends his college career as South Carolina’s sixth-leading rushed with 2,677 yards and had 11 games with 100 yards or more. He also finishes with 74 catches for 767 yards and three touchdown catches.