SPRING PRACTICE PREVIEWS
The 2011 season marked just the second time since 2000 that LSU has rushed for over 200 yards per game. They rushed for 202.57 yards per game, and every single running back returns in 2012, to include the primary fullback.
Needless to say, LSU feels very comfortable about the running back position heading into spring
The Tigers primarily utilized four different backs throughout the season. Things started off with Spencer Ware being the workhorse. He put on the hard hat and got the tough yards between the tackles. Michael Ford complimented him well by busting some big gainers once Ware had worn down the defense. Alfred Blue was the #3 guy but was not much of a drop off, if any.
Spencer Ware sat out the Auburn game due to a suspension, and Kenny Hilliard got an opportunity to play in his absence. He did not waste it. Hilliard played very well and earned carries for the rest of the season. By season's end, many thought Hilliard was LSU's best back. Blue also played more towards the end of the season while Ware saw his workload decrease. Ford remained fairly consistent throughout the season. Terrance Magee also saw some time, but mostly in a reserve role.
True freshman Jeremy Hill will also be added to the mix this spring. Many thought Hill was the best back in the state in 2010, ahead of both Hilliard and Magee.
Here is a rundown of each player:
Spencer Ware - Jr. (707 yards, 4.0 YPC, 8 TD): Ware impressed everyone with his impressive performance in last year's Cotton Bowl. He looked like the complete package at running back. He looked very quick and had some big runs. He ran tough. He caught the ball well, and he blocked well. He reinforced everyone's optimism with 94 yards rushing and another 50 receiving in the spring game. Along with many others, I thought he was due for a big-time season. When fall rolled around, Ware seemed to have transformed himself a bit. Some of that quickness had disappeared and he played like more of a true power back. He was awfully good in that role, but it wasn't quite what I had expected. It's tough to complain too much though since Ware was voted to the All-SEC second team by the Coaches. After he returned from his suspension for the Auburn game, Ware's carries decreased dramatically. However, his rushing average stayed pretty steady at four yards per carry. And that's while facing the three best defenses the Tigers faced all year (Alabama twice and Georgia). This spring, Ware looks to re-establish himself as LSU's top runner. Hopefully, we will see some of that versatility that we saw last year at this time.
Michael Ford - Jr. (756 yards, 6.0 YPC, 7 TD): Michael Ford (pictured above) found a very nice role on this team as an all around runner who specialized in plays designed for the outside. Probably LSU's fastest back, he often took advantage of a tired defense to deliver a dagger with a long run or late touchdown. By the end of the season, Ford turned out to be LSU's leading rusher. Unlike Ware, Ford was not asked to get many of the tough yards between the tackles which is why his yards per carry is so much higher than Ware's. But Ford did show an increased level of toughness towards the end of the season. As one of LSU's top performers in the weight room, I think the coaches expect him to run tougher at times. If Ford can do anything this spring, it would be to display some more physicality and earn even more of the coaches' trust. He wants to show that he should be the guy to get the ball 15 times a game. Ford has always seemed like a guy that is extremely effective if he touches the ball enough. Here is a list of every game in Ford's career where he has carried the ball at least 10 times:
10 carries 86 yards 2 TDs (8.6 YPC)
10 carries 85 yards 1 TD (8.5 YPC)
14 carries 96 carries 2 TDs (6.85 YPC)
13 carries 72 yards 2 TDs (5.53 YPC)
13 carries 50 yards (3.85 YPC)
12 carries 82 yards 2 TDs (6.83 YPC)
12 carries 82 yards (6.83 YPC)
11 carries 72 yards (6.54 YPC)
11 carries 63 yards (5.72 YPC)
11 carries 96 yards (8.73 YPC)
TOTAL - 117 carries 783 yards (6.69 YPC)
Needless to say, that's impressive. And it makes a good argument for those who think Ford needs the ball more.
Alfred Blue - Jr. (539 yards, 6.9 YPC, 7 TD): Blue proved to be LSU's best all around back in 2011. He was physical and tough, but not the toughest. He showed breakaway speed but probably was not the fastest. He did everything well and did not show any real weaknesses in his game. He also showed a ton of improvement in the back half of the season. Blue had six games of 50 yards or more and had three runs of over 45 yards. The long rushes helped his very impressive 6.9 yards per carry average. With a "by committee" approach, the staff often went with the hot hand approach. Some weeks, Blue did not carry the ball at all. But he also had games where he carried the ball 15, 16, and 14 times. This spring, Blue will fight for carries like everyone else. The staff seems to have a high opinion of Blue and I suspect he is in the plans for next year.
Kenny Hilliard - So. (336 yards, 5.4 YPC, 8 TD): Hilliard played sparingly over the first half of the season, earning more time as a fullback than a tailback. But when given an opportunity against Auburn due to Spencer Ware's suspension, he made the most of it. He rushed for 65 yards and two touchdowns on just 10 carries. He followed that up with 59 yards and a touchdown against Ole Miss, 102 yards and a touchdown against Arkansas, and an impressive 72 yards and three touchdowns against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. In those four games where he was used as a tailback, Hilliard had 46 carries for 298 yards (6.48 YPC). While it was often more of a committee, Hilliard essentially took away the primary job away from Spencer Ware. He also became a bit of a red zone specialist, showing a knack for finding the end zone. Hilliard rushed for eight touchdowns in just 62 carries. I can't say enough about how impressive Hilliard looked when he played. This spring, he hopes to carry that over and become LSU's primary back for 2012.
Terrance Magee - So. (136 yards, 4.9 YPC, 1 TD): The coaches raved about Magee's ability throughout fall camp last year, but he did not see any action until the Kentucky game. It seems that Magee could have been redshirted, but the staff was ready for him to hit the field and start gaining experience. Magee did just OK in limited time, but we finally saw the ability that the coaches talked about against Ole Miss. Magee had some awfully impressive runs, going for 55 yards on seven carries. It's tough to see Magee passing any of the top four backs for 2012, but you never know what could happen.
Jeremy Hill - Fr.: Even though Hill is a true freshman, he was essentially part of the class that included Hilliard and Magee. He had to sit out 2011 while dealing with some legal issues. Hill enrolled at LSU for the spring semester and will participate in spring practice, hoping to crack the depth chart somewhere. With so many backs ahead of him, it will be tough for him to earn carries but he hopes to show his stuff and raise some eyebrows. I suspect he'll do just that.
J.C. Copeland - Jr: Copeland earned his stripes in 2011 as a devastating blocking fullback, and he was a big reason why LSU's running game was so successful. James Stampley is now gone and the job is Copeland's. I suspect that Copeland will be even better in 2012. He looks to be the only true fullback on the team. But I believe LSU will use a few more one back sets in 2012, so Copeland should be able to handle the workload by himself.
At the end of the day, running back is probably the deepest and most talented position on LSU's team. The #1 goal for this spring is to simply keep everyone healthy.
1.) Can Spencer Ware regain some of his quickness and in the process, regain his #1 spot on the depth chart?
2.) Will Kenny Hilliard's late season success carry over into the spring?
3.) Can Jeremy Hill and/or Terrance Magee make a move and crack the Top four of the depth chart?