COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina star Marcus Lattimore realized during his time away from football he hadn't done nearly enough to keep himself healthy and help the Gamecocks succeed.
Lattimore missed the last six games of the season and all of the team's just concluded spring practice as he rehabbed from torn ligaments in his left knee. Injure in the second half of South Carolina's 14-10 victory at Mississippi State last October, he had surgery a month later. Since then, has thrown himself into returning even stronger.
"The main thing is getting stronger," Lattimore said. "I feel like I'm almost there."
Lattimore used the time away from team workouts and practices to break down everything he did as a football player. He certainly appeared to do his share on the field, rushing for team highs of 818 yards and 10 touchdowns despite missing the last six games of South Carolina's 11-2 season.
But Lattimore acknowledges he didn't know as much as he could about the offense or follow training guidelines as closely as possible. For example, he didn't always use cool tubs and hot tubs to soothe or perk up muscles worn from working at their peak.
It might not sound like much, but in Lattimore's eyes, it was the difference between a so-so gain and a long run toward the end zone. "I'll never take my legs for granted again," he said.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier and first-year running backs coach Everette Sands expect Lattimore to be at full speed this summer. Lattimore was often seen working on high knee steps or doing sprints on the sidelines while his teammates worked out on the field.
"It's going to be nice when we get him back out there," said Sands, a former standout tailback for the Citadel.
Lattimore started right away in 2010 and became an instant star in helping South Carolina win the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division and make its first appearance in the league's title game. Lattimore finished with 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns that fall to win SEC Freshman of the Year honors.
Last season quarterback Stephen Garcia, a fifth-year senior, was kicked off the team, and his replacement Connor Shaw struggled at times to get the ball downfield to star receiver Alshon Jeffery. So it was left to Lattimore to churn out enough yards and points, allowing South Carolina to lean on its stellar defense. Against Mississippi State, though, Lattimore was blocking for receiver Bruce Ellington when a Bulldogs defender rolled up on his leg.
Without Lattimore the Gamecocks got solid ground production from Shaw, freshman Brandon Wilds and veteran Kenny Miles, all back with the team. Sands said the group will give South Carolina plenty of depth once Lattimore returns to the backfield.
When he does, Lattimore said it's with a new sense of what the sport means to him. "The day I started running" after the injury, Lattimore recalled. "I was happier than when I committed here."
Lattimore plans to test the knee with cuts on May 2, he said. "Then I'm just going to tackle it all May, June and July," he said.
Spurrier has no doubts that Lattimore will be ready. "He's right on schedule," the seventh-year coach said. "Maybe even a little ahead of schedule. He's doing fine."
Injuries like Lattimore's often take a toll on the mind along with the body. The junior-to-be is confident the knee will be better than before and won't worry about getting hurt.
Still, he has just one goal for next season: "Stay healthy."