SANTA CLARA, Calif. — — The advantage of having an already-loaded roster on draft day is a team can gamble.
The 49ers did that in the fourth round Saturday, selecting one of the most talented running backs in the nation but one who suffered perhaps the most gruesome injury of 2012.
South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore already had scored a touchdown and gained 65 yards by the second quarter on Oct. 27 when he was submarined by a Tennessee defender and immediately clutched his right knee. The hit left him with three torn ligaments, a dislocated kneecap and six months of intense rehabilitation.
The injury was doubly painful considering he had suffered a torn ACL in the other knee the previous season.
“Right after it happened, I doubted myself,” Lattimore said when asked if he ever gave up on making it to the NFL. “I did do that, and I lost hope.”
Any 49ers fan knows that Frank Gore also suffered two devastating knee injuries at the University of Miami, and Chris Culliver saw the similarities, too. The former South Carolina cornerback, whose locker is close to Gore's, put Lattimore in touch with Gore shortly after the injury.
Lattimore said Gore, as well as Broncos running back Willis McGahee, who tore three knee ligaments in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, were inspirations when he was at a low point.
“He knew he could come back from what he had, and he worked hard, and he was determined to come back,” Lattimore said of Gore. “He came into the league, and he's been doing his thing for a while. He just kept that positive mindset.”
Gore also is the reason there's no rush to get Lattimore onto the field this season. Gore rushed for 1,214 yards last season, the second-highest total of his career, and is signed through the 2014 season. Still, he turns 30 next month, and the 49ers must try to find his replacement.
General manager Trent Baalke said he prefers a three-headed approach at running back - three players with varying talents who can be rotated in and keep defenses off balance. Lattimore would seem to be a good eventual replacement for Gore's straight-ahead style.
Lattimore, who weighs 233 pounds, averaged 4.8 yards a carry in three seasons at South Carolina and scored 38 rushing touchdowns despite his injuries.
“Unique player, unique person,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Can't say enough about his mental toughness. … We're betting that his physical athleticism, his approach, his attitude, his work ethic - that he'll be able to overcome the setbacks he had last fall.”
Harbaugh said the 49ers would like to slow down the running back's rehabilitation and make sure he's strong for the future. San Francisco could stash him on the non-football injury list in 2013.
“If he doesn't play this year, he doesn't play this year,” Harbaugh said.