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Return of Latham helps spark Columbus' push into playoffs

 

Adam Minichino

 

Quan Latham just wanted back on the field. 

 

After a junior season marred by injury, the last thing Latham wanted was to have anything prevent him from making an impact in his final season with the Columbus High School football team. 

 

A thumb injury attempted to be that stumbling block that denied Latham an opportunity to help lead the Falcons back to the playoffs. 

 

Forced to miss two games with the injury, Latham took out his pent up frustration Friday night on Grenada. The senior running back piled up 149 of his 150 yards in the second half to lead Columbus to a 41-21 victory in the regular-season finale for both teams. 

 

The victory carried added significance because it helped Columbus (7-4, 4-3 Class 6A, Region 1) claim the fourth and final playoff spot from the region. Columbus will make its first playoff appearance since 2005 at 7 p.m. Friday when it plays at Region 2 champion Madison Central (8-3). 

 

"The team looks up to the seniors and the leaders, and I am one of the leaders," Latham said. "As I keep pushing, I hope my other teammates come back and follow and try to help Columbus be a better team and continue what we're doing." 

 

For Latham, who missed the final five games of the season with a ruptured disc and two fractures of his spine, the victory was especially satisfying. Not only did he realize a plan coach Tony Stanford envisioned at the start of the season, but he also erased part of the disappointment Columbus faced last season in missing out on the playoffs due to point differential in a tiebreaker. 

 

"I really surprised myself. I thought I was going to end up making a mistake, but coach just told me to hold on to the ball and just keep on pushing," Latham said. 

 

On Monday, Latham's left hand was wrapped with enough tape and gauze to cover a mummy. He said he has big enough hands to grab the nipple of the ball and push it deep into his forearm and hold it tight to his body and close to his heart. He said he didn't feel additional responsibility knowing he was a senior and that the team was trying to keep its season alive. 

 

"I think I did pretty good," Latham said. "I got a couple of yards, and I made a couple of mistakes, but I bounced back from it. I didn't get too worried about it. I just kept pushing and gave them a big game. 

 

"Our line did a great job. Congratulations to them. They really stepped up, but we have a lot of things to work on and a lot of assignments to execute." 

 

Stanford said in the preseason Columbus would try to use a bigger and stronger Latham in the secondary and in the backfield. A season-ending injury to junior running back Kevin Jackson thrust Latham into the spotlight with junior Kendrick Conner. Stanford said Latham has responded by being a "home run hitter," or someone who can change the game with breakaway speed. 

 

"We felt like he could carry the load after the South Panola game (a 21-14 loss). It just so happened he had the thumb injury and missed two straight weeks," Stanford said. "He did some stuff in the South Panola game that we had been needing all year." 

 

Latham showcased speed and durability against Grenada. He had five consecutive rushed on a 62-yard drive that resulted in a 4-yard touchdown run by Iziah Jones. Latham's 67-yard scoring burst with one minute remaining sealed the deal. 

 

Stanford said he has heard the cries from fans and supporters encouraging him to use players like Latham and Jimmy Cockrell both ways every game. But he doesn't believe in subjecting players to that amount of work, especially in a region that is regarded as one of the state toughest. 

 

With Latham penciled in for a bigger role on offense, Stanford said the Falcons' defense has matured enough to make up for the loss of Latham. He said the offense also has bought into Stanford's ball-control style that wants to dictate tempo and keep the ball on the ground. Stanford wasn't surprised Latham shouldered such a big load to help Columbus accomplish that goal. 

 

"I really thought he could," Stanford said. "He is quick and when he breaks the line he has some speed. Nothing against any of our other running backs, but we have popped the line a number of times, but we just don't have the breakaway speed. Quan has the breakaway speed. 

 

"Conner has done a great, great, great job. He just doesn't have the speed. He is a plugger, and we have been a plugger all year because that is the style of people we have had." 

 

Latham's goal is to change that for as long as Columbus can extend its season. It is a feeling that drives him, especially considering he felt a pain in his heart not being able to play for two games in his last prep season. 

 

"I didn't think it was going to come out like this being one handed, but it is all right," said Latham, who is right-handed. "I feel I have become an offensive player, but in my heart I feel defense always will be my main thing to do." 

 

 

Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.

 

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