Running back Marcus Lattimore aims to inspire as he returns from severe knee injury

When you watch the replay in slow motion as South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore is brought down by Tennessee linebacker Herman Lathers last Oct. 27, after Lattimore’s right knee takes a direct hit from defensive back Eric Gordon, you notice the running back’s lower leg.

It is bent at an angle legs aren’t supposed to bend at, his foot twisted, his kneecap on the outside of his leg.

As you see it, your inclination is to take a deep breath, maybe even turn away.

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The junior running back, a South Carolina native who chose to remain in his home state instead of attending Auburn, severed the anterior cruciate, posterior cruciate, and lateral collateral ligaments in the knee, in addition to dislocating his kneecap.

As improbable as it sounds, doctors said it could have been worse: Frequently with a dislocation like his, the nerve that runs along the knee, the one that controls movement of the ankle and foot, allowing pushoff from the ground, is damaged.

Had that nerve also been severed, Lattimore’s football career would have been over. There is no way to repair it.

But he was fortunate it stayed intact. Lattimore was told there was a chance he would be able to play football again, and he set out to do just that.

Well wishes poured in, from Dabo Swinney, the coach of fierce in-state rival Clemson — he said it “took my breath away” to watch the hit to “a guy that represents all the good things college football should be” — to Broncos running back Willis McGahee, who as a Miami running back had suffered a similar injury a decade earlier in the national championship game, and to 49ers back Frank Gore, who had torn the ACL in each knee while at Miami.

McGahee reached out to Lattimore to offer words of encouragement, and the two kept in touch as the younger player began the arduous process of rehabbing. Gore contacted Lattimore as well.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding his health, Lattimore announced in December he would forgo his senior season with the Gamecocks and enter the NFL draft.

That day, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier acknowledged that although his star running back had missed parts of both the 2011 and ’12 seasons to knee injuries (Lattimore tore the ACL in his left knee a year before the severe right knee injury), the university’s fortunes started to turn when Lattimore committed to the school.

“The leadership and what he’s done for us is why the University of South Carolina is now not only a football program of significance but our university is talked about around the country,” said Spurrier, pointing to the 30 wins the program amassed in Lattimore’s three years.

“It really all happened three years ago. It happened when Marcus Lattimore said, ‘I’m going to the University of South Carolina.’ ”

Time and again, those who have interacted with Lattimore say he is exceedingly pleasant, the high-character, low-drama player teams covet.

But his character can’t change the fact he is making his way back from his second significant knee surgery.

“I watched him when he was healthy, and he was right at the top of the list,” said NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah. “He’s been the top running back in this draft even when he wasn’t totally 100 percent healthy this year. He still had a little bit of a hitch in his knee coming off the previous injury, but he still would have been the top guy.

“It’s a brutal injury, it’s a devastating injury, so now you’re just looking at what the doctors say, where would you take the risk. I’m sure he’ll be off some boards [but] the good thing for him is he just needs to have a couple of people believe in him, that he can make this comeback. So it’s kind of a wild card when he would go.”

Jeremiah predicts Lattimore will be taken in the fourth round, a far cry from the first- to second-round grade he was getting pre-injury.

As he lay on the Williams-Brice Stadium grass, Lattimore’s initial thought was, “Why me?” but it didn’t take long for him to change his outlook.

“The day after it happened . . . I was thinking about what could have been, what could have happened, but I don’t think about that anymore,” Lattimore said. “It happened for a reason. The reason is for me to come back and inspire a lot of people.”

An ESPN camera crew has documented Lattimore’s recovery, capturing his progress from walking in a pool to balancing on his right leg to lateral shuffling, a large black brace supporting his knee.

“Definitely, it’s very tough. You get frustrated,” Lattimore said of rehab. “But you know it’s the right thing for you, the right thing for your future. I have to think about long term. Rushing back might not be the right thing to do, but if I’m ready, I’m ready.”

At the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, where prospects are put through myriad medical tests, every organization watched Lattimore’s results.

He understood the process, noting that teams invest a lot of money in their players and want to know that he is progressing well.

“It’s a blessing to be here,” Lattimore said. “I would not take this opportunity for granted, that I have to be at the combine. I just think about guys who are less fortunate than me, guys who would kill to be in my shoes, even with the injury.

“That’s what keeps me going. That’s what keeps me motivated.”

Though he did not take part in any of the typical drills at the combine, Lattimore insisted on showing how far he’s come at South Carolina’s pro day last month. Just five months after suffering his injury, he showed off his burgeoning footwork and agility, tap-tapping his way through a speed ladder, and explosion when he jumped from the floor onto a plyometric box.

He heard applause from some of those in attendance, including family members.

Though Lattimore wants to play in the 2013 season, sitting out the year might be beneficial.

In order for that to happen, it might be that Lattimore could be drafted by a team with a high number of picks, such as the 49ers or Ravens.

Assuming he returns to a level close to what he was pre-injury, Jeremiah, a former scout for the Ravens, Browns, and Eagles, can see Lattimore getting back to his punishing ways.

“[His] strengths, you’re just talking about power is a big thing, he runs with a lot of power, he runs angry, he finishes runs, he’s got really good vision,” Jeremiah said. “The weakness, you’d probably say that that elite, elite speed [isn’t there] coming off the previous injury, and he’s not overly elusive; he’s not a big ‘make-miss guy’, just a hard running player with very good instincts and vision and balance.”

At his best, Lattimore is reminiscent of the Texans’ Arian Foster, Jeremiah said, “in terms of he runs through tackles, he’s very decisive.”

He finishes with an asterisk, so to speak: “But again it’s all subject to how he comes out of this medically.”

Mentors McGahee and Gore have enjoyed successful careers, and Lattimore sees the same future for himself.

“At this point, it really doesn’t matter where I get drafted, because I’m going to go in there and work hard, I’m going to do what I do, I’m going to do what I’ve been doing my whole career, and that’s just being myself,” he said.

“If I get a chance to play this year, I’m going to make the most of it.

“And I feel like I will.”