SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Marcus Lattimore was not ready to return to the field in 2013 when he practiced with the 49ers, a year removed from his gruesome knee injury that ended his collegiate career at South Carolina.
"(I) didn’t have any confidence going out there last year," Lattimore said this week.
Confidence is everything, especially for a running back - a position that typically has the shortest shelf life due the constant pounding the body takes.
"I feel stronger. The knee feels better. It was a huge injury so I knew it would take time. I just didn’t think it would take this long. But I feel good," he said.
Lattimore practiced for the first time this season Wednesday after the team opened his three-week window allowed to players on the non-football injury list, giving him a truncated training camp simulation that will lead to the 49ers deciding if he's worthy of a spot on the active roster. Otherwise, he would be placed on injured reserve and miss his second straight season to start his NFL career.
And if everything goes smoothly, there's a role to be had for Lattimore. San Francisco has just two running backs on the active roster and are short on insurance should Frank Gore or Carlos Hyde suffer an injury. The other remaining internal option would be Kendall Gaskins, a second-year player on the practice squad. Last year's No. 2 back Kendall Hunter tore an ACL during the first weekend of training camp.
The key for Lattimore will be to get himself ready to take on the constant grind of playing football on a daily basis - and not try to force himself into game shape after building up two full years of rust.
"Consistency. That’s the main thing," Lattimore said. "Make sure I know what I’m doing. Make sure I have a good practice, consistent practice, so I can be able to get out on the field."
Lattimore spent time after that first practice Wednesday with position coach Tom Rathman and reserve defensive players to get extra contact work. He hasn't gone through contract drills since the offseason program when he was in and out of OTAs while dealing with a hamstring injury.
It's been a long, tumultuous process of constant rehabilitation for Lattimore, who spent his afternoons doing vigorous individual workouts while his teammates prepared for the next Sunday's opponent.
Some days were good. Others weren't. But Lattimore's support system helped guide him to this point.
"(I) talked to people," he said. "Just don’t keep it in when you’re having those bad days. Because I had a lot of bad days. Me knee was sore. I had to do a lot of different things. Talk to my girl, talk to my mom, talk to my sister. Just let them know. That was the biggest thing. And of course, my faith. My faith in the Lord knowing that no matter what happens, no matter if I play another down, everything is in his plan and I trust in his plan."
In the meeting room, Lattimore has been active participant with his teammates, hoping that knowing his responsibilities eases his transition back into pads. He said he's unsure of how long it will take to regain the natural rhythm of running, cutting, waiting for blocks and hitting holes.
"Once I get out there, I just got to keep going," he said.
In watching tape, Lattimore's habits have stood out.
"He’s not just here sitting around waiting to play," fullback Bruce Miller said. "But he gets a lot of the attention in the meetings when coach is asking questions. Because we’ve all repped it. We know the answers. We know what we’re supposed to do.
"For him to sit there and know he’s not playing, know he’s not practicing, and still absorb all the information and be able to know where he’s going, that’s pretty impressive."
For now, the 49ers aren't banking on Lattimore being ready to come in and contribute in a major way this season. Instead, the right approach might be to remain cautiously optimistic with the three-time All-SEC honoree. This part of the process is about taking incremental steps.
"Just constant improvement throughout these next three weeks and just how he moves," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "Really everything about his game, just the way it should look, just seeing that coming into focus."
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