By CHRIS GOFF
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Cody Latimer smiles at a question he’d never been asked.
Why did someone who dreamed of playing in the NBA decide to pick up football midway through high school?
“That’s a good question,” Latimer said. “To tell you the truth I started playing football pretty much because my mom told me I was good at it. She was like, ‘I see it in you.’ I decided to go out and try it. I have been good at it. Now I’m out here still.”
Indiana owes Latimer’s mother, Tonya Dunson, a debt of gratitude. Had Latimer not listened to her advice and donned the helmet and pads as a junior at Dayton Jefferson Township, the Hoosiers would be missing a star centerpiece as they claw back toward respectability.
Oh, make no mistake: Latimer misses basketball. It’s always on his brain. “That was my first love,” he says. On a hoops-crazed campus, Latimer shoots around every chance he gets. On occasion that means scrimmaging at the Student Recreational Sports Center with Yogi Ferrell and other members of Indiana’s powerful basketball team.
“See if I still got it,” says Latimer, a prep standout on the hardwood.
But while he never imagined his dalliance with football would extend to college, Latimer is now one of the most productive wide receivers in the Big Ten. He was second in the conference in 2012 in receiving yards per game. Overall he posted 805 yards and six touchdowns on 51 catches. Perhaps his signature effort came in a 24-21 victory over Iowa on Nov. 3: seven catches for 113 yards and three scores.
Entering his junior season, which began with a 73-35 victory over Indiana State last week, Latimer feels even more comfortable with the nuances of a sport he learned relatively late in life. He knows more, allowing him to play faster, and he is stronger, allowing him to hit harder. At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, Latimer’s big frame and speed make him a perfect fit on the gridiron.
“Arguably the best athlete on our team,” quarterback Nate Sudfeld said.
Definitely one of its best players. Latimer models his game after Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions and Dez Bryant of the Dallas Cowboys, and like them, Latimer has a chance to compile monster numbers.
“If it happens, it happens,” says Latimer, who adds, “I’m really trying to focus on winning this year.”
He’s attempting to recreate past success. In 2010, as a junior, Latimer led Dayton Jefferson to its fourth state championship in basketball, scoring 24 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and shooting 10 for 11 from the field in the final game. Latimer said a unified commitment to coach Art Winston’s teaching allowed the Broncos to win that trophy. He says the 2013 Hoosiers exhibit similar habits and qualities.
“I see it here,” Latimer says. “I see it coming along. My whole team in high school bought in. We always worked hard. We had a great coach that pushed us every practice, always with that extra step. I see it now coming along with this group and this team. It’s about the same atmosphere.”
Coach Kevin Wilson, in his third year, cultivated a family environment by – as Latimer says – “putting the team into the leaders’ hands.” Delegating authority and responsibility to players has allowed the Hoosiers to bond after going 4-8 last season.
“You notice a big change,” Latimer says. “Inside and outside the locker room, everybody is as one. We trust in each other and trust in our coaches. It’s a totally different team.”
According to fellow wideout Shane Wynn, Latimer talks a lot during games, but nearly everyone agrees Latimer is a man of few words away from the field. He is not necessarily one of the leaders Wilson put in charge, although the coach says Latimer retains a lot of potential in that regard.
“Cody’s kind of quiet,” Wilson said. “His play is going to give him a voice if he wants to use it. It doesn’t have to be a lot of words. Coach (Deland) McCullough was a leader for us at Miami of Ohio and didn’t say a whole lot. Cody’s got a chance to be a good leader because he’s got a great performance to back it up. To me, the first thing is the way you prepare, and he’s doing that awfully (well). In time, he’s one of those guys with self-esteem and confidence who can start having a positive, strong voice if he wants to.”
Wilson said Latimer had a very good preseason camp, and in a way Latimer already leads by example. Assistant Brandon Shelby reported that Latimer was the best performer in special teams drills.
“When you say ‘Hike,’ he goes as hard as he can go for every single snap in practice,” wide receivers coach Kevin Johns said. “That’s the standard. That’s what you want. Not a lot of kids can do that. He can literally bring it for every snap of every practice.”
For now, Latimer’s main role is friend – to Wynn, Kofi Hughes, Duwyce Wilson and Isaiah Roundtree, the other talented wideouts who prevent defenses from zeroing in on Latimer.
“They make my life very easy,” Latimer says. “We’re all a big brotherhood. You can tell we’re all family. When we’re around each other it’s always going to be fun and some kind of laugh. I love it. People always get entertainment out of us.”
Meanwhile, Latimer’s modesty and friendliness are recognized and appreciated by all who meet him. A thoughtful son of Southwest Ohio, an honor roll student growing up, he is beloved around Memorial Stadium, if for no other reason than he’s always grinning, jovial and polite. Johns describes Latimer as a joy to coach.
“Other than being a great player he’s a great person,” Johns said. “He’s the type of kid I’d want to babysit my kids and marry a daughter. He’s a very unassuming guy. Cody’s phenomenal.”
On the field, what might be Latimer’s most amazing quality are his hands. Johns says they’re the best pair he has ever coached. “He catches every ball that’s thrown to him,” Johns said. He also raves about Latimer’s “outstanding” speed and quickness.
Those traits could lead Latimer to declare for the NFL draft next April, although he insists he hasn’t thought about leaving school early to play professionally. He’s simply going day-by-day, focused on helping the Hoosiers to their first bowl appearance since 2007. But Latimer is undoubtedly drawing looks from scouts who think he has the tools to play in the NFL.
“When you look at size-speed-strength combinations, he’s going to measure up,” Johns said. “Now does his play on the field back that up? We’ll wait and see.”
So far, it has. Latimer is 10 receiving yards shy of 1,000 for his career, a mark reached by only 35 players in school history. He should pass the milestone Saturday against Navy. Because Latimer judges personal success primarily by the number of touchdowns and clutch plays, he won’t do much celebrating.
“It kind of means a lot to me,” Latimer says, “but it just means I’ve performed my job to help the team win: 1,000 yards is a great achievement, a great accomplishment to get your team. It just happens. I’m doing what I can.”
And still learning, coaches say, a little bit each day. Fortunately, Latimer’s basketball background is not always a hindrance. Johns contends several of those skills carry over to football: catching, spatial awareness and merely being able to compete.
“On a basketball court, you can’t really hide,” Johns said. “You have to get used to banging around and playing some one-on-one.”
Actually, Latimer’s competitive side rarely rests. In his free time, Latimer enjoys gaming on his PlayStation 3, rolling strikes at Classic Bowling Lanes and, most of all, playing cards – Tonk, Five Hundred and especially Spades. Latimer so loves card games that he has images of playing cards tattooed on his left arm.
Funny, because he is the ace up Indiana’s sleeve, a big-play receiver with room to improve, a reliable target who relishes running deep patterns and snaring long passes. As a sophomore Latimer was named second team All-Big Ten. This fall the sky is the limit.
“Last year he was close to being really good,” Wilson said. “This year’s he flashing like he’s going to be a really good player in this game.”
Sometimes, mother knows best.