MOBILE, Ala. -- When he was driven off the field on a cart with a towel draped over his face, Marcus Lattimore thought his football career was over.
Barely one year after tearing the ACL in his left knee, South Carolina's superstar running back tore three ligaments and dislocated his right knee on Oct. 27 against Tennessee. When he declared for the NFL Draft on Dec. 12, he said he didn't think he'd be ready to play for 12 to 15 months.
A couple weeks ago, Lattimore's timetable accelerated considerably upon meeting with renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews.
"Dr. Andrews came in, he said, ‘You're doing remarkable. You're doing everything you can,'" Lattimore said after watching the South squad practice at the Senior Bowl. "His words were, ‘You're going to shock the world.'"
Now, Lattimore is eyeing a shocking comeback. He wants to play in Week 1. That's Week 1 of the 2013 season, not Week 1 of the 2014 season.
"That's my goal and it is realistic," he said.
If healthy, Lattimore certainly would have been considered the best running back in the draft. He was a prep phenom at Byrnes High School in Duncan, S.C. Lattimore was the state's Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior and closed his career with 6,375 rushing yards and 104 touchdowns. As a true freshman at South Carolina, he was the nation's unanimous Freshman of the Year after rushing for 1,197 yards and setting a school record with 19 touchdowns.
He rushed for 818 yards and scored 11 touchdowns in seven games before the injury in 2011. In 2012, he rushed for 662 yards and scored 11 touchdowns in nine games. In just three seasons, he set school records for rushing touchdowns (38), total touchdowns (41) and finished sixth with 2,677 rushing yards.
If healthy, Marcus Lattimore is the premier RB talent in this NFL Draft.
"If healthy, Marcus Lattimore is the top back in the NFL Draft," Scout.com national recruiting analyst Jamie Newberg said. "This is a kid that can do it all. He has a very good combination of size and power and can run between the tackles. While he doesn't have elite speed, Lattimore is fast enough to take the perimeter and run by the defense. When he wants to, he can be shifty and elusive in the hole or in the open field. Lattimore also excels as a receiver out of the backfield. This kid is a complete back and an every-down back that was a workhorse at South Carolina. He was one of the best players in the SEC from the moment he played as a true freshman for the Gamecocks."
Lattimore said he's been training twice a day at the Andrews Institute in Gulf Breeze, Fla. A big milestone in his comeback is on the horizon.
"I'm running in the pool and doing squats, doing single-lift squats, doing a lot of balance drills. Two weeks from now, I'll be jogging on land, so I'm real excited about that," he said.
On the comeback trail, Lattimore draws inspiration from Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson. After tearing his ACL on Christmas Eve 2011, Peterson played all 16 games in 2012 and finished just nine yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record. Lattimore also looks to Willis McGahee, who tore three ligaments in his left knee in the 2002 national championship game. McGahee shocked observers by declaring for the 2003 draft. A first-round pick by Buffalo, McGahee didn't play as a rookie but topped 1,100 yards three times in his first four seasons in the NFL.
"I've talked to Willis McGahee," Lattimore said, "and he said, ‘You haven't got time to feel sorry for yourself. You've got to get to work.'"
That's exactly what Lattimore has done. He said he got past thinking "Why me?" just a couple days after the injury. He attacked his rehab with a vengeance and has surprised himself in how far he's come in less than three months.
Lattimore's talked to a few teams while at the Senior Bowl but said he has "no clue" when -- or even if -- he'll be drafted. Even with the injuries, he considers himself the best back in the draft.
"I know when I get on that team, I'm going to work as hard as I can," Lattimore said. "I know what I can do on the field: I can catch, I can run, I can block. I can do it all. There's no doubt that I'll be stronger."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.