Marcus Lattimore stepped back onto a football field -- 321 days after he’d last limped off of one -- amid a smothering Nashville rain.

The synthetic turf was slick as glass under his legs; his left one wrapped tightly in a black brace. The first time the South Carolina junior touched the ball, Vanderbilt defensive tackle Colt Nichter swallowed him from behind and safety Karl Butler jarred him from the side. The slippery ball popped free -- disaster for the presumptive Heisman candidate -- and the Commodores recovered. But he had absorbed the hits and rose unscathed. He’d failed his teammates, but wasn’t hurt. Though Vanderbilt celebrated, Lattimore’s knee, and psyche, had survived their first -- and most important -- test.

He didn’t carry the ball again until 4:55 remained in the first quarter. The confidence he gained by taking those first hits was immediately evident. A massive hole opened behind right guard Roland Patrick. Lattimore slithered to the daylight, accelerated past a Vanderbilt linebacker and cut violently five yards from the goal line. Vanderbilt safety Kenny Ladler flailed vainly as Lattimore sped by -- a 29-yard touchdown scamper. Lattimore put the fumble and the knee injury behind him and went on to gain 110 yards and score two touchdowns in South Carolina’s 17-13 win.

“I kept telling him, over and over, ‘You’re not going to believe me on this, but it’s going to take you going out there and getting the [crap] knocked out of you for your to realize that you’re okay,’” South Carolina head football athletic trainer Clint Haggard said.

It seems like it happened yesterday. I’ll never forget it ... it’s something that I’ll remember forever.
-- Marcus Lattimore

The wrecking ball from South Carolina is one of several prominent running backs -- including Arkansas junior Knile Davis and Pittsburgh senior Ray Graham -- whose 2011 seasons were snuffed out by leg injuries. Each is expected to amass more than 1,000 yards, to score double-digit touchdowns, to be the force that propels his team to a bowl game. Lattimore and Davis are early favorites to compete for the Heisman. But to do so, they’ll have to relish hits, not run from them.

“Often mental scars remain even after athletes have recovered physically,” sports psychologist Patrick Cohn said. “They perform more tentatively often because of the fear of re-injury or lack of confidence after being out for a long time.”

The last time Lattimore suited up for the Gamecocks, an errant Mississippi State tackler careened into the side of his knee as he blocked for teammate Bruce Ellington. Lattimore’s left ACL and MCL tore on impact. On November 17, little more than a month later, a surgeon harvested a sliver of his patellar tendon (the thick band below his kneecap) and strung it through the center of the joint. The procedure caused Lattimore’s powerful quadriceps, which were largely responsible for the 2,015 yards he’d amassed in only 20 games, to atrophy. In the weeks immediately following the procedure, he spent as many as six hours a day working to rebuild the leg strength that so many linebackers across the southeast once feared. 

“We’d tell him, ‘Go eat, go home, chill out for a little bit, get away from here for a minute,’” Haggard said. “He might leave and go get something to eat and then he’d come back and say, ‘I want to do some more.’ ”

The strength in Lattimore’s damaged leg was comparable to that of his good one a mere twelve weeks after surgery. His ability to pack on muscle had outpaced the graft’s ability to settle in place and grow sturdy. He wouldn’t be cleared to run for four more weeks, so he had to press on with the monotonous rehab regimen. 

Lattimore’s toughest rehab exercise, Haggard said, involved standing from a seated position on a bench using only his repaired leg. Once he stood, Lattimore had to do a one-legged broad jump. Aside from those difficult leaps and some of the early, intensely painful, stretching done to ensure Lattimore’s leg would extend fully again, the Heisman hopeful was eager to tackle his rehab assignments. Many of the exercises were measureable -- the amount of weight he could lift, the number of degrees he could bend his leg, for instance. Haggard often would hide the numbers so that the star player wouldn’t inadvertently injure himself trying to best his old marks.

“Anything that had a number associated with it that he could see that he’s getting better from day one to day two to day five, he was always trying to beat that number,” Haggard said. “Every single time.”

Lattimore also met regularly with a sports psychologist throughout his recovery in hopes of hardening his mind against the specter of re-injury. Nevertheless, the memory of that knee giving way on a sunny afternoon in Starkville lingered. 

“It seems like it happened yesterday,” he said on South Carolina’s Aug. 5 media day. “I’ll never forget it ... it’s something that I’ll remember forever.”

As he recovered, Lattimore, seeking solidarity and peace of mind, reached out to several other players who were enduring a similar plight. He connected with Graham through Twitter -- the two exchanged phone numbers and spoke frequently in the months after their surgeries.

Graham’s ACL relented in a game against Connecticut a week after Lattimore’s injury. In seven contests before the injury, Graham averaged 134.1 yards per game -- second in the nation at the time -- and scored nine touchdowns. While there was no doubt among South Carolina trainers and coaches that Lattimore would be ready, the Pitt star’s recovery hasn’t been as swift. He returned to the field during preseason practice and absorbed a few hits, including one directly to his knee on Aug. 22 that did no damage.

“Until you get hit, you’re still thinking about it,” Graham told reporters after that practice. “It kind of felt good to see where I was at, to put a couple of moves on people, even get hit.”

Though he’s made strides, Graham is doubtful for Pitt’s opener on Saturday against Youngstown State. Pitt needs their star if they hope to contend in the Big East, but are wary of risking further injury by throwing him into battle before he’s ready.

“I’d rather play him a day late than a day too soon,” Pitt head coach Paul Chryst said in an Aug. 27 press conference. “Certainly we’re a better team with him, but I also want to make sure we’re doing what’s right for him.”

Lattimore also stayed in contact with Arkansas’s Davis, who had become an acquaintance and friendly rival as the two battled to be known as the SEC’s best back. In 2010, his last healthy season, Davis made the AP’s All-SEC first team alongside Lattimore, posting 1,322 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. But Davis’s left ankle snapped in a 2011 preseason scrimmage. Though the injury and rehab regimen were different, the same fears and uncertainties could linger for Davis.

Lattimore, though he fumbled fell shy of demonstrating his pre-injury explosiveness, leapt a significant mental hurdle on Thursday. The ACL is now 23 carries, 110 yards and countless collisions behind him. Davis will face his obstacle on Saturday against Jacksonville State. For the first time in more than a year, he’ll get to touch the ball in front of tens of thousands of fans, to absorb a hit, to get up and to jog back to the huddle unencumbered by the memory of an injury. 

“I’m ready for the contact,” Davis said on Arkansas’s Aug. 4 media day. “I’m ready to get that first lick. But I’m human -- I’ve got [a few] butterflies.”