Is Marcus Lattimore the Next Willis McGahee?

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterApril 18, 2013

A violent hit, a leg bent grotesquely, a dominant college running back felled.

When South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore suffered a brutal knee injury against Tennessee last October, time seemed to stop. At 662 yards and 11 touchdowns into his junior season, a helmet-to-knee hit scythed the young runner to the ground. He wouldn't gain another inch for the Gamecocks.

Laying on the turf with a battalion of doctors, trainers and coaches around him, Lattimore's season was over—and so, maybe, was his pro career, just months before it started. Lattimore told the story of his injury and rehab to Bleacher Report:

Those who saw Lattimore go down were instantly reminded of a similar injury to a similarly dominant college back.

Willis McGahee, then of the University of Miami, was leading his Hurricanes down the Fiesta Bowl field toward a possible fourth-quarter go-ahead touchdown with the national championship on the line.

Then, an Ohio State defender came in low, launched his helmet into McGahee's knee and the telltale leg-flop drew hisses and winces not only from everyone watching at home, but also the broadcasters on air:

McGahee, of course, went on to gain 8,097 yards and 63 touchdowns during a nine-year NFL career that isn't over yet.

Lattimore and McGahee suffered similar injuries, but are they similar prospects? Are their games similar, or do they only have surgery and rehab in common?

Coming into the draft, McGahee was listed at 6'0", 223 pounds. Before the injury, McGahee was blessed with incredible speed. Many publications, including Sports Illustrated, cite a pre-injury 4.29-second 40-yard dash, apparently timed by the Miami coaching staff.

McGahee's injury prevented him from pre-draft workouts, but there is consensus he was blessed with consistent sub-4.5 speed.

Lattimore is listed at 5'11", 221 pounds. Also due to his injury, Lattimore hasn't been timed in the 40-yard dash; lists his high school time as 4.43, but even if those times were gospel (and they aren't), Lattimore is much bigger now and has suffered a major knee injury in each knee. When fully healthy, Lattimore may run in the mid-4.5 range.

It's no surprise, then, that both backs ran with a mix of speed and power in college.

The trait that pops off the screen when watching Lattimore run is his vision; Lattimore is outstanding at reading blocks. When Lattimore runs, his eyes are always up and forward, looking for the block after the next one, the tackler after the next one.

Watch Lattimore run on 4th-and-1 against Missouri:

Despite the entire line drive-blocking to the left, Lattimore jump-cuts to the right around the end of his line. With the tight end picking up the outside linebacker, Lattimore has room inside. He cuts back into the middle and ploughs ahead for a big gain.

As a runner, Lattimore tends to seek the middle like this, cutting back inside on counters and off-tackle runs. He keeps his upper body very smooth. He tends to run with a shorter stride, giving him great start-stop ability and sharp cuts. 

Lattimore uses that cutting ability to set up blocks at the second level. He often lowers his head and drives through linebackers and safeties; usually multiple tacklers are needed to bring him down.

Lattimore clearly has power in his frame but isn't quite big enough to simply run at tacklers and bowl them over. This makes his balance look "off," as he often wobbles and puts a hand down where other backs would be stopped cold.

Then again, Lattimore's vision and slippery cuts mean he's avoiding, not seeking, square contact. Unlike a Trent Richardson or Mikel Leshoure, Lattimore's not looking for a defender to pop; he's looking to run straight downhill for as long as he can.

Lattimore also has excellent hands and understands the passing game very well. His second-level vision makes him outstanding on screen passes, as seen here:

What's missing from Lattimore's game? McGahee's speed.

Using a highlight reel skews things, of course, but watch this montage of McGahee at Miami:

McGahee had the benefit of playing on one of the most stacked college offenses of all time, but he had a home run gear that Lattimore simply doesn't. Lattimore can turn the corner and get big yards, but McGahee gets there faster and can outrun the secondary when he does.

Lattimore's sharp start-stop cuts make linemen miss in the box and linebackers miss in the open field, but McGahee's smooth, full-speed cuts allowed him to blaze past the secondary for scores.

This shows up clearly in the statistics.

Lattimore played very well as a true freshman and garnered massive buzz his sophomore season when he ran for 818 yards and 10 touchdowns on just 163 carries (5.0 yards per carry). His carries were cut short when he suffered his first knee injury, and this past season he wasn't quite as effective (4.8 average yards per carry).

McGahee redshirted his freshman year, and in his second season was stuck behind Frank Gore and Clinton Portis on the depth chart. In his only season as a starter, McGahee ran for a ludicrous 1,753 yards on 282 carries (6.2 yards per carry) and an FBS-leading 28 touchdowns.

McGahee was a Heisman finalist and possible No. 1 overall pick before his injury; he was still taken in the first round despite teams knowing he'd need a full "redshirt" year his rookie season. Lattimore is one of the draft's great stories, but most experts see him as a third-day prospect.

There's good news for Lattimore, though. A lot has changed in orthopedics in the past 10 years; despite suffering major knee injuries at the end of each of the past two seasons, he's already up and working out. He participated in selected drills at South Carolina's pro day.

It's likely that McGahee lost much more of himself with his college injury than Lattimore has with his.

McGahee has always been an effective NFL back, but has never been dominant. In his nine seasons he's run for 1,000 yards only four times and never for 1,250 or more. McGahee's career yards-per-attempt average is 4.1.

Even if Marcus Lattimore isn't the college player Willis McGahee was, he has every chance to be exactly the professional McGahee became—maybe even better.