Last week, I got an email from a PR company inquiring if I was interested in interviewing San Francisco 49ers running back Marcus Lattimore. Naturally that was an easy yes. Lattimore is one of the team's more fascinating story lines heading into the offseason workout program and training camp. And of course, as soon as he was drafted last year, he quickly became one of the most popular players among fans.
The interview came available as part of Lattimore's promotion of EAS Sports Nutrition. Lattimore got into the products when he starting preparing for the draft last year at API down near Pensacola, and has continued to use them.
I had some questions in mind, but I wanted to also draw some questions from everyone here at Niners Nation. I was able to get a few of them answered, and overall he had some interesting comments that give us some insight into his development and how he is preparing for his first NFL snaps.
Over the last month, Lattimore has had a few interviews in which he discussed his status for the start of the offseason workout program. I followed up on that, asking him if expected the training staff to impose any limits when the program starts next month:
I'm going to do whatever they say, but I feel great. I rarely have any soreness. I feel like speed is back. My quickness is getting to almost there, and I feel great. My knees have no stability issues. I'm going to do whatever the trainers say, and whatever the coaches say, but hopefully I'll get out there.
The rehab is important, but he did say he's had some time to unwind as well. While hard work is important, it is also important to get time to clear your mind and prepare for the season. If he were to turn this into a 12-month grind, we might applaud the work ethic, but in reality it can lead to burnout. I asked him what he is up to this offseason to take his mind off football:
Oh yea, always. I'm here at home actually training in Greenville, South Carolina. I've been around my family for the last three, four weeks. We've had a good time. It's been good. I got a chance to take a few trips. Went to the Bahamas. Went to New York. You have to do that, you have to take some time away from football, and just reflect on how good you have it, how good your life is, no matter what has happened. I've had a good time this offseason.
As he prepares to get back on the field, one of the big issues that any recovering athlete deals with is the mental aspect. Injuries are a fairly regular occurrence in sports, but returning from a devastating injury is something on a whole different level from a sprained ankle or other relatively simple injury. I asked Lattimore about the mental side of preparing to return to the field and knowing the hits will be coming:
There's nothing you can do to prepare for it. You just got to go out there and trust it. Trust your rehab, trust what you've been doing and go out there full speed. Because if you go out there half speed you'll get hurt again. There's nothing I can do to prepare for it. I just have to go out there and play football. That's all I can do. I know my knee is good.
It makes perfect sense that confidence would be a key. For Lattimore, it presents an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, he knows how to recover from a knee injury, as he is recovering from his second knee injury. He looked strong when he returned in 2012, but then suffered the second injury. Do you have confidence that you know how to return, or is there the concern of another knee injury? Considering they were on separate knees, I can see why he would be fine with each one independently.
Lattimore has spent the last 15 months rehabbing, but how has he improved in his game? Someone brought this up, and it made sense to see how he was working to also improve his game. After all, if you're not getting better, you're getting worse. The rehab is the most important part for Lattimore, but it is still important for him to figure out ways to improve his game.
One such area for improvement is learning the playbook. I asked him how well he knows the playbook at this point:
I think I know it pretty good. It took me a while because at first, right when I came in, those first two, three months, it was like Spanish. It was so much thrown at you, and trying to learn it all, but as time goes on and you see how we prepare during the season. It's different for each opponent, so it gets easier and it becomes second nature.
I also asked him about his ball control. He's never really had significant fumbling issues, but it's always something to work on:
We've got one of the best running back coaches in Tom Rathman. He teaches no air from your elbow to your chest and we do that and it becomes a habit, and it's hard to fumble. That's one thing I'm seeing when I do fumble. I hate that, it's a bad place for your team. I try to keep that as little as possible.
I then followed up by asking what else he has done to improve his game:
Mentally. You watch Frank Gore, you watch Kendall Hunter. You see how those guys prepare, you see how they work, you see why they have so much success while they're out there. And it's just watching practice habits, see how they study, so I can kind of get in the same routine. You want that edge, everybody wants that edge, and if you know what the defense is doing, that gives you that advantage that you need to be able to do what you do. Definitely mentally, that's the way I've become a better player.
It's no surprise he would look to Frank Gore in order to improve his game. I asked him specifically what Frank Gore has taught him over the last year:
You really don't have to talk to the man just to learn something from him, to tell you the truth. All you have to do is watch him. We did talk, we talked about how much footwork is important, the hand-eye coordination and just being able to read the defense, and be a football player. Being able to think on the move, that's the biggest thing. And I feel like that is what he does great. And of course, he's the best pass protection back in the league, so his technique when he pass protects, the leverage he plays with, it's everything you want in a running back. I've taken some of that and tried to apply it to my game.
That more or less sums up what Gore is all about. Lattimore pointed out how he can learn from him without hearing a word. He also mentioned footwork and vision, which is much of what makes Gore the running back he is. He's an ideal running back to mentor Lattimore. The vision is essential, but the pass protection can be just as important. I asked Lattimore about his own pass protection, and he said "[i]t's getting better." That's all you can ask for a young back, keep improving.
I asked Lattimore about his goals for 2014 beyond just the team-specific goal of a Super Bowl, and he kept it pretty simple:
I want to score some touchdowns, I want to run for some yards, have some good games. Just go out there and play hard. Catch some touchdowns, run some touchdowns, whatever I can do to help my team reach the ultimate goal.
I wrapped up with a quick question about what he felt were his biggest strengths as a running back. We can read all the scouting reports in the world, but it helps to know what a player confidence in. Lattimore's response was not a surprising one:
I feel like my balance is good. I feel like I have good vision, and good power. Just being able to break tackles, that's what it takes. Balance and power.
Hopefully that gives everyone a bit more of an idea of what Marcus Lattimore brings to the table. He says his knee is feeling good, and he appears to have the confidence to get back out there. If all is well, it will make for a pretty fascinating competition between Lattimore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and even Jewel Hampton for carries behind Frank Gore. Lattimore and Hunter would seem to be the front-runners for the most significant work, but we'll see what the offseason program brings. There will be all sorts of carries split around during the preseason.