Like most coaches, Skip Holtz is always hesitant to turn to a freshman in a key role. But when it came to finding out more about DeDe Lattimore, the opportunity was worth the risk of starting him at weakside linebacker, even over a more experienced option.
"If a dog's going to bite you, he'll do it as a pup," Holtz said of his 6-foot-2, 230-pound pup.
"When you see a guy like DeDe running around, to see him executing and operating, it didn't take long to feel like we found a guy who has found a home there for a while."
Lattimore, a redshirt freshman, has the speed and size. So his main focus this fall has been building up his football smarts, which means late nights watching tape of opponents and getting a better understanding of his role in coordinator Mark Snyder's defense.
"It's an opportunity I'm cherishing," said Lattimore, who will help the Bulls try to contain No. 25 West Virginia's offensive speed tonight in a Big East game. "I'm trying not to let my teammates down."
He was born and raised in Athens, Ga. And despite growing up in the shadow of the University of Georgia, where his cousin, Quentin Moses, starred as a defensive end, he became an ardent Florida State fan.
"I just loved (coach) Bobby Bowden and everything they were about," said Lattimore, who was invited to camps at FSU but wasn't recruited by it.
He considered Michigan, Kentucky and Oklahoma State but chose the Bulls over Clemson.
His coach at Cedar Shoals High, Xarvia Smith, remembers the double take he did the first time he saw Lattimore cover ground in a hurry as a linebacker, his speed beyond what he believed possible for a linebacker of his size.
"He was a dynamic player and one of the best workers I've ever seen," Smith said. "DeDe wants to be great, wants to be the best player on the field. But I've never seen a kid that big and strong move that quickly. To see a young man run that fast, it's incredible."
Lattimore has 19 tackles in his first five games, putting him on pace for the most by a Bulls freshman since defensive end George Selvie's 84 in 2006. He has built a close relationship with his friend and roommate, sophomore starting middle linebacker Sam Barrington.
"We do everything together," said Lattimore, who trades insights with Barrington on opponents' tendencies during games, the two motivating each other to see who can tally more tackles.
DeDe — his given name is Devekeyan, a variation of a cousin's name that "doesn't really mean anything," he says — was working at middle linebacker with Barrington and sophomore Mike Lanaris this spring when Holtz and Snyder decided to move him to weakside even though senior Sabbath Joseph was a returning starter.
"I just thought, 'He's too talented to sit over there and stand next to us while the others play,' " Holtz said. "With the way DeDe can move and run, we thought we'd let him compete (at weakside). He's jelled in his new role. Taking him out of the middle takes a lot of the mental pressures off him as a freshman. He can line up and execute the call.
"For a (weakside) linebacker, he's a little bit bigger than I'm used to playing with. And yet when you look at his talents and the way he runs, I really think he has a chance to be a special player."
Lattimore said he understands his growth will go hand in hand with his comprehension of the defense, and his speed isn't enough to make up for putting himself in the wrong position.
"Every day is a learning experience for DeDe," Snyder said. "You see a progression after every game. He's playing well enough to continue to play, and there are times I have to get him out and settle him down like all freshmen. He's going to be very good."
As the Bulls try to beat West Virginia for the fourth time in five years, Lattimore is an unproven but key part of Snyder's defense. With players such as safeties Mark Joyce (freshman) and JaQuez Jenkins (redshirt freshman) getting more playing time and defensive ends Ryne Giddins (redshirt freshman) and Julius Forte (redshirt freshman) working their way onto the field, the present is quickly becoming the future on that side of the ball.
"I think there's some really talented underclassmen on the defensive side of the ball," Holtz said. "I think that's one of the reasons we're able to have the success we're having right now on defense.
"Not only are they maturing and growing up in it, but they're not all having to play starting roles. They get their feet wet, play on special teams, but they're all getting better."
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected]