No holding back for Gamecocks' Lattimore

Much like one of his customary dashes to daylight, Marcus Lattimore's mind will be racing Thursday night as South Carolina’s 2012 opener against Vanderbilt nears.

He joked earlier this week that he’d been carrying around an imaginary stopwatch with him to count down the minutes.

“I can’t wait. It can’t get here soon enough,” Lattimore said.

This is more than just a football game for Lattimore. It’s a culmination of hard work, pain, faith and undying commitment, and he knows his emotions will run the gamut right up until kickoff.

“I’ll be thinking about all that time I spent on crutches, all that time I spent in a cast,” said Lattimore, who hasn’t played in a game since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee last Oct. 15 against Mississippi State.

“I’ll think back to the day I started running again for the first time, the day I cut for the first time, just everything I went through to get to this point. It’s going to be a special night. It’s been a long time, too long.”

Lattimore already has tested his surgically repaired knee in preseason scrimmages. His coaches liked what they saw, and so did Lattimore.

But it’s the games that count, and that’s where he’ll have to earn back the distinction of being college football’s most complete running back.

“I’ve been hit in preseason, so I think I’m past the whole mental part of this thing,” Lattimore said. “It’s definitely something I’ve anticipated, that first carry and bouncing right back up. That’s when I’ll get all my jitters out. It’s not nervousness. It’s more anxiousness and just being ready to go and go at the same speed I’ve always played this game.

“After that first carry, I think it will be back to the way it always was.”

That’s good news for South Carolina and bad news for everybody else in the SEC.

Vanderbilt coach James Franklin is well aware what awaits his defense on Thursday night. Lattimore helped break open the game last season against the Commodores with a 52-yard touchdown catch and 22-yard touchdown run.

“There are a lot of guys who are fast or strong or quick or elusive, but there aren’t many across the country who have the whole package,” Franklin said. “That’s what you’re looking for. You’re looking for guys who have it all. He’s got size, speed, vision, all those things you’re looking for. He’s a rare guy.”

Lattimore said he will play at 220 pounds this season after playing closer to 230 pounds a year ago. He’s ready to carry the ball as many times as the Gamecocks need him. But whereas he’d already logged 107 carries through the first four games last season, he doesn’t think that kind of load will be necessary in 2012.

Senior Kenny Miles has had an excellent camp, and freshman Mike Davis was one of the Gamecocks’ top signees.

“Kenny could start anywhere around the country, and Mike has a lot of talent,” said Lattimore, who has 412 carries and has caught 48 passes in 20 career games, which equates to an average of 23 touches per game.

“I could carry it 30 or 40 times. I know I could. That’s my game, but I don’t know that I’ll have to carry it that much this year. I have two great backs behind me that will get a lot of carries.”

That’s vintage Lattimore, whose unselfishness is rivaled only by his competitive fire.

Like any great running back, he wants to be fed the ball. But he’s motivated by championships and not rushing records, and he understands unequivocally that the Gamecocks’ best chance of getting back to Atlanta for the SEC championship game centers around Lattimore being at his best come October and November.

“You go back and watch LSU last year, and I think that’s the kind of backfield we’re going to have, just rotate and rotate and wear a defense down with fresh legs,” Lattimore said. “We’re always going to have somebody fresh in the fourth quarter.”

Lattimore’s easy smile can light up a room, but he admits he wasn’t the most pleasant guy to be around during his rehabilitation. He’d never been away from football that long, and he ached to get back onto the field with his teammates.

“I know I was hard to be around, and I was real down at times,” Lattimore said. “But I kept my faith and kept believing.”

Fittingly, one of the guys Lattimore leaned on during some of his darkest hours was Arkansas' Knile Davis, the SEC’s leading rusher among running backs in 2010 and the most serious challenger to Lattimore’s crown as the SEC’s premier running back.

Davis felt Lattimore’s pain last season. The Hogs’ junior running back had been there himself after fracturing his ankle in the preseason and missing the entire 2011 season. It was the third fractured ankle of Davis’ football career.

They texted each other, consoled each other and even needled each other at times about who truly was the SEC’s best back. Most of all, they picked each other up when they needed to be picked up.

“That’s my boy. We text all the time,” Lattimore said of Davis, who has his own special night ahead on Saturday when he plays in his first game since the 2010 season.

“I knew it was hard on him, and then I tore my ACL, he called me and told me to keep my head up, that he was going through the same thing I was going through and that we were going to get through it. We encouraged each other and pushed each other. He’s a great guy and a man of God, and I respect him a lot.”

Even though Lattimore didn’t finish the season a year ago, he said there’s no substitute for having gone against SEC defenses for two straight years. It’s taught him to study the game even closer.

“I honestly think the game is more mental than physical anyway. I’ve always thought that,” said Lattimore, who’s averaged 104.4 rushing yards in 13 games against SEC defenses.

“I believe my vision will be a lot better. I believe I’ll have a better feel for what defenses are trying to do. I believe I’ll be even better at keeping my pads low and getting the extra yardage.

“It’s all going to be good.”

And here’s the best news for South Carolina fans: Lattimore believes the best is yet to come for the Gamecocks after winning 11 games for the first time in school history last season and going to the SEC championship game for the first time ever two years ago.

“There’s a lot more that we want to do here at South Carolina, a lot of goals that we want to accomplish,” Lattimore said. “The way we look at it is that we’ve just got a taste.”

With No. 21 back in the lineup, the next bite for the Gamecocks could be scrumptious.