South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore is one of the most talented preseason Heisman Trophy candidates in all of college football.
The 2012 Heisman race looks to be pretty wide open, without one distinct favorite heading into the season.
Many quarterbacks such as USC's Matt Barkley, Tyler Wilson of Arkansas, Aaron Murray of Georgia and West Virginia's Geno Smith have been tabbed as potential contenders for 2012.
On the other side, Lattimore and other talented backs, such as Wisconsin's Montee Ball and Kenjon Barner of Oregon, also have both the opportunity and talent to put up Heisman-worthy numbers.
However, many recognize the 6'0", 218-pound Lattimore as the most talented running back in the college game, including CBSSports.com, which selected Lattimore as a first-team preseason All-American.
If he can stay healthy, Lattimore has as good of a chance as anyone to take the Heisman in December.
Unfortunately, that is a serious "if" for the junior who was hampered by injury last year during his sophomore campaign.
Not unlike 2012, the Duncan, South Carolina native began 2011 on the short list to win the Heisman.
However, after just seven games, he went down with a season-ending knee injury after compiling 818 yards and 10 touchdowns at an average of 5.0 yards per carry.
His efforts through just seven games were even enough to earn him second-team All-SEC honors.
Lattimore is no stranger to receiving praise and handling expectations.
After arriving in Columbia as the nation's top running back, the James Byrnes High School product met and exceeded expectations.
He ran for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns, earning him National Freshman of the Year honors, on top of a spot on the All-SEC first team.
Then, in 2011, he was well on his way to eclipsing those numbers and potentially passing the 1,500-yard mark before going down against Mississippi State.
Now, it appears as though he will not only make a full return from that injury, but it may have even made him stronger.
On August 5, Lattimore spoke to the media for the first time since finishing rehab on his knee injury and told Bart Wright of The Greenville News that he is anxious to make his return to the field after a rough offseason of rehab:
It transformed me. For me, the whole thing was a test. It put me in a situation where I had to decide what to do with myself. If you aren’t a man when you get through this, I don’t know how you can do it, because the rehab will break you unless you can find a way to stay positive.
Fortunately for South Carolina, the injury process didn't break its star running back—it only made him tougher.
Additionally, the Gamecocks should be more stable at the quarterback position this year in support of Lattimore and the run game.
Head coach Steve Spurrier expressed his confidence in starting quarterback Connor Shaw at SEC Media Days, and if he lives up to those expectations, he could provide a dangerous balance to the USC offense.
Even if Shaw is improved, Lattimore will receive plenty of carries, as he averaged 23 touches per contest before his injury.
If that keeps up, he should absolutely rack up the yards, even against tough SEC defenses.
He has already proven that he has the talent to run against defenses stacked with NFL-caliber talent, now the only question is whether he has the durability to make his run for the Heisman.
In the end, the biggest threat to his Heisman candidacy may be his own health.
Also, USC will have a tough SEC slate to work through, including a road trip to LSU and home matchups with top conference contenders Georgia and Arkansas.
Recently the SEC has seen talented running backs have been on both sides of the Heisman voting equation.
Last year, Alabama's Trent Richardson saw his Heisman candidacy fall short to prolific quarterbacks Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck.
However, just two years earlier in 2009, Crimson Tide running back Mark Ingram won the Heisman after recording 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground.
Richardson fell just short after compiling 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns.
So, in order to win, Lattimore will not only have to have an excellent season, but he will have to be on a successful team and hope he doesn't run into a player who has an RGIII or Cam Newton-type season.
If Lattimore can stay healthy, South Carolina can beat any team in the conference, if not the nation. He holds the key to USC's 2012 season, and if the Gamecocks are successful, Lattimore will be in the thick of the Heisman race.
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