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December 11, 2012

Hood: Only (mild) surprise was the timing



Despite the optimistic tenor of that public rally on the Horseshoe two days after his devastating knee injury against Tennessee on Oct. 27, I've always believed that Marcus Lattimore would not carry the football again at South Carolina.

After missing 10 games (including the upcoming Outback Bowl against Michigan) in the past two seasons because of torn knee ligaments, it was simply too risky for Lattimore to play college football again.

Thus, Monday's news that Lattimore would declare for the 2013 NFL Draft fell far short of "shocking," although I was mildly surprised that he didn't wait until 2014 in order to give himself a better chance to impress NFL scouts and make further progress on his degree from USC.

In my opinion, Lattimore reached this decision for two reasons. First, no matter which NFL team drafts him, Lattimore will be able to work closely with team doctors and get paid for it.

The minimum base salary for an NFL rookie in 2013 will be $405,000, as outlined in the collective bargaining agreement negotiated a year ago between the owners and players. But that doesn't include signing bonuses, roster bonuses or incentives.

Clearly, Lattimore believes that devoting his entire time to rehabbing the knee rather than worrying about academics will allow him to strengthen the knee at a more rapid rate, and should get him back to 100 percent by the time the 2014 season begins.

Heck, he might believe that if he works hard enough, he might have a chance to make his pro debut in the second half of next season.

Second, Lattimore and his advisors appear to believe that a year of rehab at USC won't significantly improve his draft stock for 2014. If it did, he would have waited 12 months. But his motive is undoubtedly to push his name out there into the pro football stratosphere, get the knee healthy and make an impact as quickly as possible.

Nothing wrong with that.

Interestingly, an article posted by Joe Schad on ESPN.com contained this tidbit: "Since the injury, Lattimore has spoken with other running backs who came back from knee injuries, such as Willis McGahee, Frank Gore and Eddie George."

Gee, what do you think they told Marcus? Stay in school and risk another injury? Yeah, right. I'm sure they strongly advised Lattimore to declare for the draft and trust the rehab of his injury to NFL doctors, all the while collecting an NFL-sized paycheck.

The response by some in the national media to the news of Lattimore declaring for the NFL Draft showcased the respect they have for him. ESPN analyst Robert Smith, a former NFL running back, acknowledged the difficult road ahead for Lattimore in convincing NFL teams to risk a draft pick on him, but his rare makeup and the fact that doctors needed just one surgery to repair the torn ligaments should boost his prospects of being taken. Here is what Smith said shortly after the news broke that Lattimore would declare for the draft:

"It's going to be difficult for him to come back from this injury and, more importantly, convince teams before the draft that he is worth taking a chance on because you never know how a guy is going to come back. ... But the encouraging news is they were apparently able to take care of everything with the one surgery. He's off crutches already. He's hoping by March that he will be able to jog and catch some balls to show teams he can come back. If any guy can do it, it's Marcus Lattimore. He has a great attitude and great work ethic. Hopefully, somebody will give him a chance. One way or another, if the knee is capable at all of returning from this, this guy can get it done."

Obviously, Lattimore hopes that lightning strikes as it did for former Miami running back McGahee, who suffered the same type of knee injury in the 2003 BCS National Championship Game against Ohio State, but was taken anyway in the first round of the 2003 NFL draft by Buffalo.

Lattimore will depart USC as the sixth-leading rusher in school history with 2,677 yards on 555 carries and a school-record 41 touchdowns scored (38 rushing), along with the nagging "what if" questions had he remained healthy for the past two seasons.

The ultimate question, of course, is where Lattimore will be selected when the NFL Draft rolls around in late April. Unquestionably, the two knee injuries have killed any hope of being taken in the first round. A second- or third-round scenario would require everything between now and the draft proceeding flawlessly.

It could be that Lattimore will be a middle-to-late round selection, perhaps as early as the fourth round if the team taking him is willing to perhaps wait until 2014 until the choice pays dividends.

Remember, you don't need to impress all 32 NFL teams. You just need to convince one team to take a chance. If Lattimore and his agent/advisors are able to do that, there's no telling where his name could be called on the second or third days of the draft.

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