The face of the NFL Draft has signed off on Marcus Lattimore’s decision to enter professional football this season.
"It makes sense to do what he’s doing," ESPN’s Mel Kiper said Tuesday. "He’s already shown when healthy he’s a great college back. There’s nothing more he can do. To go back and risk another injury at South Carolina doesn’t make a lot of sense honestly."
Lattimore has had reconstructive surgery on both knees in the last 13 months after tearing the ACL in his left knee last season and damaging several ligaments in his right knee this season. The 6-foot, 218-pound junior "can’t afford a third" injury at the college level, said Kiper, who has made his name analyzing the draft for almost three decades.
"He’s probably thinking, ‘I’ve already shown them I’m a great college back. Once I get back to 100 percent physically, why can’t I have a great career?’" Kiper said.
Few people know exactly what Lattimore is thinking because he hasn’t spoken publicly since Friday when he told The State he was uncertain whether he would remain at South Carolina or enter the NFL Draft. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said Monday there’s a chance Lattimore will return to his team, but The State, ESPN.com and the Associated Press all cited sources Monday saying he plans to leave this year.
"He is the only elite running back, when he is healthy, in this draft," Kiper said. "He’s got first-round ability."
That doesn’t mean Lattimore will be taken in the first round, though, Kiper cautioned. In fact, he’s doesn’t think he will and said almost anything is possible given the severity of Lattimore’s most recent knee injury. "I don’t even want to say for sure," Kiper said. "When he’s healthy he doesn’t have tremendous speed, but he still shows breakaway ability because he’s a great runner. I just put wild card next to his name."
Lattimore’s durability will be a concern for NFL teams, Kiper said.
"We will have to wait and see how the medical checks out," Kiper said. "Injuries are something you can’t predict. You hope for the best. If you go back to South Carolina, there is always that risk again."
Lattimore’s 2,677 career yards in 29 games rank sixth in school history. All five players ahead of him on the list played four seasons at South Carolina. His 38 career rushing touchdowns and 41 overall touchdowns are both school records, and his 11 100-yard games are tied for second in school history behind George Rogers’ 27.
While this year’s draft doesn’t have a lot of high-level running backs, it also doesn’t have a lot of teams who will put a high priority on the position in the draft, Kiper said.
Kiper also touched on three South Carolina seniors who will enter this year’s draft – defensive end Devin Taylor, safety D.J. Swearinger and spur DeVonte Holloman. Taylor is likely to be selected highest among that group but won’t be picked until the third or fourth round, Kiper said.
"Not the productive player he needs to be," Kiper said of Taylor, the 6-foot-8, 267-pounder who had 40 tackles, three sacks and five pass breakups this season.
Swearinger and Holloman will be "day three guys," Kiper said, meaning picked in the fourth round or later.
As for next year’s draft, Kiper continued his high praise of sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who set the school’s single-season sack record with 13 in the regular season. Clowney, who was named a first-team AP All-American on Tuesday, would be the No. 1 overall selection in this year’s draft if he were eligible to enter the draft. (NFL rules bar players from entering the draft until they are three or more years removed from high school.)
"It’s not exaggerating to say if he were in this draft, he would the guaranteed No. 1 pick overall," Kiper said. "He is a special player, physically, athletically incredible. You can’t block him one-on-one. The accolades just keep rolling in on Jadeveon Clowney. He is a spectacular player."