The NFL draft concluded Saturday, and after one Palmetto State player was chosen in Thursday’s first round (Clemson wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins) and another went in Friday’s second round (South Carolina free safety D.J. Swearinger), the selections heated up on Day 3.
Here’s a look at all the Palmetto State players who were picked, and then we’ll cover Marcus Lattimore and Ace Sanders, Saturday’s highest-selected USC players, with the rest of this entry …
First round (27th pick) … Clemson WR DeAndre Hopkins, Houston
Second round (25, 57 overall) … USC FS D.J. Swearinger, Houston
Fourth round (fourth, 101) … USC WR Ace Sanders, Jacksonville
Fourth round (30, 127) … Clemson DE Malliciah Goodman, Atlanta
Fourth round (34, 131) … USC RB Marcus Lattimore, San Francisco
Fourth round (35, 132) … USC DE Devin Taylor, Detroit
Fifth round (10, 143) … Clemson S Jonathan Meeks, Buffalo
Sixth round (17, 185) … USC OLB DeVonte Holloman, Dallas
Sixth round (19, 187) … Clemson RB Andre Ellington, Arizona
Seventh round (45, 251) … USC C T.J. Johnson, Cincinnati
Seventh round (48, 254) … USC TE Justice Cunningham, Indianapolis
As you can see, Cunningham was Mr. Irrelevant. The Colts had Mr. Irrelevant last year, quarterback Chandler Harnish from Northern Illinois, who made the team. So did USC kicker Ryan Succop, who is still with Kansas City after being Mr. Irrelevant in 2009. So there is a chance for Cunningham, who had 23 catches last year for 324 yards.
The tiny tissue grafts inside Marcus Lattimore’s right knee are what will determine, above all else, if he is ever an elite running back again.
Yet in the six months, to the day, between his serious knee injury in a game against Tennessee and Saturday, when he was drafted in the fourth round by the San Francisco 49ers, his seemingly unwavering optimism played no small role in him moving past the scar on the front of his knee.
His positive outlook during hours of rehabilitation leading up to the NFL draft came from his own personality, to be sure, but also from outside influences he sought, and those who found him in the days after a gruesome scene in which he dislocated his knee and tore three of its four major ligaments: the anterior cruciate, lateral collateral and posterior cruciate.
Lattimore, a former South Carolina running back, leaned on friends who visited him and his strong Christian faith – both of which have always been linchpins of his life. But there were also new voices of hope, like NFL running backs Willis McGahee and Frank Gore. Lattimore had never met either. But they both knew him, in a way. They spoke with him on the phone in his dark days after the injury, when he wondered if he would ever be the same player again.
“Right after it happened, I doubted myself,” Lattimore said. “I did do that, and I lost hope.”
McGahee tore three knee ligaments in his final college game at Miami, but has run for 8,097 yards and 63 touchdowns in nine NFL seasons. Gore, who also played at Miami, tore his left ACL in 2002 and his right ACL in 2003. A third-round pick in 2005, he has 8,839 yards and 51 touchdowns, and has made the Pro Bowl four times, including each of the past two seasons.
“Those guys are all inspirations to me because of what they’ve been through and how they came through it,” Lattimore said on a teleconference. “(Gore) just told me to keep that positive mindset, and that’s what I’ve been doing these past five, six months. I feel like that’s why I’m doing so great with my rehab.”
Lattimore can thank Gore in person for his guidance, because they will be teammates in San Francisco, on a team that made the NFC championship game two years ago and the Super Bowl last season.
The 49ers are plenty deep at running back, with Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James backing up the 29-year-old Gore, after being drafted in 2011 and 2012. Lattimore has expressed hope that he could play next season, but the 49ers obviously don’t need him to.
“We’re not going to put him on the field until he’s 100 percent, and that may not be this year,” said San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh, on the NFL Network.
But Harbaugh is excited about Lattimore’s eagerness and talent. If not for last season’s injury, which came after he returned from a torn left ACL suffered in 2011, most analysts believe Lattimore would have been the first running back taken in this year’s draft. In just 30 career games at USC, essentially two and a half seasons, he ran for 38 touchdowns, a school record.
“You don’t come across this kind of person very often,” Harbaugh said.
Once Lattimore slipped to the draft’s third and final day, when the fourth through seventh rounds were selected, it was almost academic where he would be picked, as long as he was. A late first-round pick gets about a $7.5 million contract, including a signing bonus around $4 million. The minute Lattimore went down against Tennessee in October, the possibility of him getting a lucrative first contract vanished.
As the 34th pick of the fourth round, 131st overall, Lattimore will get about what that pick reportedly received last year – a $2.4 million deal, with the only guaranteed money being a $300,584 signing bonus, included in the value of the contract.
Lattimore went 30 spots behind USC wide receiver Ace Sanders (Jacksonville) and one spot ahead of defensive end Devin Taylor (Detroit). Two rounds later, outside linebacker DeVonte Holloman went to Dallas with the sixth round’s 17th pick. Center T.J. Johnson was picked by Cincinnati with the draft’s fourth-to-last selection. Tight end Justice Cunningham went last overall. The Clemson players selected Saturday were defensive end Malliciah Goodman (fourth round, Atlanta); safety Jonathan Meeks (fifth, Buffalo); and running back Andre Ellington (sixth, Arizona).
While Meeks was one of Saturday’s stunners, because he was not expected to get drafted, Lattimore was probably the day’s most fascinating player. Not because of his draft position or the guaranteed money that his injury cost him, but because of what comes next – the chance to prove he can rebuild his career, just like Gore did.
Gore went from at third-round pick to signing a four-year, $28 million extension in 2007, with about $14 million guaranteed. At February’s NFL combine, Lattimore likened his playing style to Gore’s. Lattimore is 5-11 and 221 pounds, Gore 5-9 and 217 pounds.
“He runs like nobody’s there,” Lattimore said. “He runs with total destruction.”
On Saturday, when one difficult process in Lattimore’s comeback dovetailed into another, it was a comparison he happily embraced again.
“He can catch the ball,” Lattimore said. “I feel like I catch the ball well. He can pass protect. He’s an all-around back. That’s what I’m trying to emulate my style off, because with his success, there’s no question that it works.”
Here are some more quotes from Lattimore …
“I really only talked to (Gore) a few times, after my injury and just through texts, but I know he’s a great guy. I know he’s a hard worker and I know he’s determined. I know I’m going get to know him a little bit better once I get there. So I’m real excited about that. He contacted me. And, he called me and then we actually talked on the phone. (San Francisco cornerback) Chris (Culliver, who played at USC) actually got my number and he gave it to Frank Gore. He was just asking me how I’m handling all this situation because he’s been through the same thing with the injuries and all.”
In terms of his rehab progress, Lattimore said he is “running sprints. I’m doing everything I can. Been running straight ahead, been doing box jumps and been doing a lot of different things that really get you back out there on the field. It’s just been great. I’ve been working hard.
“My main goal right now is to go in there and work hard, go in there and learn the offense. And, if I’m ready to play (next season), I’m going to play. If I’m not, I’m not. I know it’s going to be the best decision. I know the coaches and the doctors were going to make a great decision. So, I’m not worried about it.”
Sanders was the only other USC player to leave school early, besides Lattimore. Jacksonville could use his punt returning skills, because the Jaguars ranked No. 29 in the NFL last season, with 7.3 yards per punt return.
The word from Ryan O’Halloran, who covers the Jaguars for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, is that the team views Sanders as more of a punt returner at this point than a slot receiver.
Here are some things Jaguars general manager David Caldwell said about Sanders …
“He’s an extremely reliable receiver. His hands are really exceptional in terms of being able to catch the ball on a down in, down out basis.
“He can play both (inside and outside receiver) and he played both at South Carolina, so he can play inside in the slot and he can play at outside receiver too.”
Caldwell isn’t overly concerned with Sanders’ relatively slow 40 times leading up to the draft.
“When you time the 4.58 at the combine and you watch the game film, his quickness is electric. This guy’s got serious juice in terms of his ability to get off the mark and to separate in a short area. The time speed is what it is but the video shows that this guy can get behind defenders in the SEC and run away from guys in the SEC, as you guys have seen.”
And here are some Sanders comments …
He talked about why he decided to turn pro.
“This is a long process of thinking. It took me all the way down to the 15th, the last day to declare. It was just me on that long drive home. I was actually leaving Bradenton (his hometown in Florida), driving back up to South Carolina to go to school and I was just thinking the whole trip on all of the information I got back. The only thing I could change from my draft spot by next year would be my size and I’m not going to get any taller, so there was no point in going back and putting more wear and tear on my body before the draft next year and for it to be the same spot.”
Naturally, Sanders believes his 40 time isn’t indicative of his speed.
“I believe I’m faster than 4.5. When I watch my game film, I don’t know, but I believe I am. (On punt returns) I attack the defense. The first step, I’m going north and south. I’m not an east and west runner on punt return. I get the yards that’s needed and I really just try to flip the field and just give the offense a better field position. I’ll go at it relentlessly with no fear and just try to make a play. A lot of people have not really gotten time to see me really excel as a slot receiver, but I know my ability and everything. With the right coaching and the right system I can really excel as a slot receiver as well as a punt returner.
“Yeah, I was disappointed (with the combine 40 time), but at the end of the day it all comes down to football. My 40 time was that. I had to deal with it. I couldn’t let it keep me down and affect the rest of my day at the combine, so I just put it behind me and just kept moving.”