Whenever Dreco Thomas feels like he's close to giving up on a young football player, whenever one of his assistants thinks it's too late for a kid to turn things around, he thinks of DeDe Lattimore and has hope.
Ask the coach at Cedar Shoals High in Athens, Ga., about Lattimore — closing out his second year as a starting linebacker for USF — and he remembers how proud he was to see Lattimore find the focus and determination to graduate and earn a college scholarship.
"It was remarkable," said Thomas, who uses Lattimore as a model for his players for what someone can accomplish with the right attitude.
Lattimore — his given name is Devekeyan; he's DeDe to everyone at USF — has shined in two seasons under coach Skip Holtz, finishing two tackles off the team lead as a redshirt freshman and this year leading in tackles (76) and sacks (seven), a combination that hasn't happened since the Bulls' first season, 1997.
As the Bulls seek the sixth win they need for bowl eligibility today against Louisville, they'll lean heavily on their defense and young players such as Lattimore.
Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said he has seen growth in Lattimore since he and Holtz came to Tampa in the spring of the player's first season at USF. Lattimore had thought about transferring after redshirting his first year but has embraced Snyder's system and thrived in it.
"You've got to get (Lattimore's) trust, and once you get his trust, you've got him: 'Just tell me what to do, Coach, I'm yours,' that kind of deal," Snyder said. "(He is) still a little immature at times, but he's young. My job is to get him to practice like a pro every day.
"The weeks he practices really well, he plays really well. Once you get him the looks that he needs to see, he's a very productive football player."
It's not the first time Lattimore has emerged after difficulty as a freshman. At the end of his first year at Cedar Shoals, he spent two months at the Regional Youth Detention Center in Gainesville, Ga., about an hour northwest of Athens.
"They changed my life, right then and there," Lattimore said. "I was a guy who had attitude (problems), who really didn't pay attention to too much, who hung around the wrong crowd, people that were leading me down the wrong way. My mom and everybody, I really wanted to do something for them especially. I started paying attention to myself. I ended up choosing the right way."
Thomas saw a relentless dedication in the weight room and in practice. During Lattimore's freshman year, Cedar Shoals was playing rival Heritage High, which had a senior running back, Bo Harris, who had committed to Auburn. Lattimore had a chance to tackle him one-on-one, but Harris beat him for a 63-yard touchdown. The play motivated Lattimore for the next three years.
"He told me, 'I will never let that happen again,' " Thomas said.
During Lattimore's junior year, he went to a combine workout in Atlanta and showed enough that he started getting scholarship offers. He says the first was from Michigan, with then-coach Rich Rodriguez calling him in the middle of a class to personally offer it to him. His grades didn't seem to be strong enough to meet NCAA requirements, however, so he thought he would have to start in junior college before transferring to a major-college program.
"I started studying hard, got a high SAT score, and my (grade point average) went up also. My whole life changed," said Lattimore, who chose the Bulls over Michigan, Kentucky and Oklahoma State.
Lattimore's progress has mirrored that of USF's other starting outside linebacker, Sam Barrington. The two came in together in 2009, were roommates their first two seasons and continue to provide insight and motivation.
"Sam's like my brother. We always do things together," Lattimore said. "From film to offcampus to anything. Sam always stays positive with me, tells me to keep my head up. … Now we stay on each other because we want the best from each other."
Lattimore has two more years left at USF, so his next transition is from being a starter to a leader, something he is already trying to do on the field.
"DeDe's doing a great job," Barrington said. "I'm so happy for the success he's having right now. With him being a sophomore right now, the sky's the limit."
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3346. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf. Follow him on Twitter at @GregAuman.