Despite South Carolina’s 21–7 win on the road against Vanderbilt Saturday night, Gamecocks fans across the state are still anxiously awaiting the return of star Marcus Lattimore. The freshman running back suffered an ankle sprain in the team’s loss at Kentucky the previous week and was felt all week to be questionable to play against the Commodores. The game was televised on Fox Sports South Saturday, and pregame coverage showed Lattimore running in pregame drills. A sideline reporter noted that one of the USC athletic trainers said that Lattimore looked good in practice toward the end of the week, but that head coach Steve Spurrier felt that Lattimore was unlikely to play Saturday night.
Now I do not have any direct knowledge of the specific medical details of Lattimore’s injury, but I don’t think it is at all surprising that his status is uncertain. Presumably, the gifted ball carrier suffered a lateral ankle sprain, meaning that he partially or completely tore one or more of the three ligaments on the outside of his ankle. The team and its medical staff have not commented publicly on the specific nature of the injury, but there has been no mention of Lattimore suffering a high ankle sprain. A high ankle sprain involves not only the normal ligaments on the outside of the ankle but also the ligaments between the tibia and fibula above the ankle. This injury would likely keep Lattimore out for 4 to 6 weeks.
I am sure that the team physicians and athletic trainers at USC are doing everything possible to try to get Lattimore back on the field as soon as they can. I expect that he has been in the training room every day getting electrical stimulation and other treatments to his ankle and icing it frequently. They are working aggressively to get all the swelling down and his motion and strength back while the ligaments heal. The problem is that there is no easy way to know when the injury has healed enough that they can let Lattimore play. If they rush him out too soon, they risk further injury and a longer recovery. If they wait too long, the team potentially loses without its star rusher.
Even when the swelling has gone away and the motion and strength have returned, athletes often lose proprioception, a joint position sense, around the ankle. Proprioception is needed to cut side to side and change directions quickly. Tape or braces can help with stability, but often they cannot replace the confidence an athlete needs to push off on the injured ankle. That’s why physical therapy after an ankle sprain can be so important. Working on exercises to restore balance and joint stability can help get the athlete back on the field faster.
I think the trainers and physicians were trying to assess Lattimore in practice last week and in drills before the game Saturday. How long will he be held out? No one, including the team doctors, can know for sure, as only Lattimore can tell what his ankle feels like. However, I am confident everyone involved is trying to help his ankle heal as fast as possible.
Note: This column appears in tomorrow’s edition of The Post and Courier. It is the first in a series of biweekly sports medicine columns I am writing for the newspaper.