SEC: Darrel Williams

Draft could impact LSU offense in 2015

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
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Connor Neighbors will be long gone by then, but LSU’s senior fullback believes the Tigers have championship potential in 2015 -- as long as the roster doesn’t take too hard of a hit from the NFL draft.

“There’s a bunch of personalities on this team that I don’t think any other team has,” Neighbors said. “So if the people that are eligible to stay, if they do stay, this team could be probably the best next year. Obviously they’ve got to improve in some areas, but what team doesn’t?”

The Tigers’ title possibilities might hinge on keeping more draft-eligible players on campus than they have in recent seasons. LSU lost a whopping 17 of them to the draft in the last two years, and the on-field product has suffered as a result.

Today we’ll take a position-by-position look at LSU’s roster positioning and which players have decisions to weigh, starting first with the offense and then with the defense:

[+] EnlargeJerald Hawkins
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertKeeping Jerald Hawkins would go a long way in stabilizing LSU's offensive line next season.
QUARTERBACK

Key departing seniors: None

Key draft-eligible players: None

Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: Sophomore Anthony Jennings (104-213, 1,460 yards, 10 TDs, 7 INTs), Freshman Brandon Harris (25-42, 452 yards, 6 TDs, 2 INTs)

Comment: LSU doesn’t figure to lose one of its quarterbacks, but it will remain the most scrutinized position on the offense. Jennings started most of the season and was not consistent enough, while Harris struggled in his one start and has barely seen the field since then. LSU coach Les Miles said this week that Harris “is being groomed” to compete for the starting spot in the future, so expect the Jennings-Harris battle to resume in the spring.

RUNNING BACK

Key departing seniors: Tailbacks Terrence Magee (545 rushing yards, 3 TDs) and Kenny Hilliard (431 rushing yards, 6 TDs), fullback Connor Neighbors (four catches for 27 yards)

Key draft-eligible players: None

Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: (Tailback) Freshman Leonard Fournette (891 rushing yards, 8 TDs), freshman Darrel Williams (280 rushing yards, 3 TDs), (fullback) Melvin Jones (five catches, 22 yards, TD)

Comment: Nobody has a decision to make here. Magee, Hilliard and Neighbors are all seniors and Fournette, Williams and Jones will return in 2015. The Tigers are poised to add ESPN 300 tailbacks Nick Brossette and Derrius Guice to the backfield next season, and both will have the opportunity to contribute immediately following Magee and Hilliard’s departures. The running game will still be in great shape.

WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END

Key departing seniors: (Tight end) Travis Dickson (seven catches, 60 yards), Logan Stokes (one catch, 3 yards, TD)

Key draft-eligible players: (Tight end) junior Dillon Gordon (no catches), (Receiver) redshirt sophomore Travin Dural (37 catches, 758 yards, 7 TDs)

Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: (Tight end) Sophomore Colin Jeter (no catches), sophomore DeSean Smith (no catches), (receiver) redshirt freshman John Diarse (13 catches, 199 yards, 2 TDs), freshman Malachi Dupre (14 catches, 318 yards, 5 TDs), freshman Trey Quinn (17 catches, 193 yards)

Comment: The big news is that draft-eligible sophomore Dural said this week that he expects to be back at LSU next season. The speedster was the heart and soul of LSU’s passing game, but he’s probably making a good decision. A more consistent season in 2015 could improve his draft stock, as he started out with three 100-yard outings in the first four games, but hasn’t had one since. Gordon should also return and will contribute heavily as a blocking tight end. Both positions have youngsters who are in line to contribute more heavily. Diarse, Dupre and Quinn are all freshmen who made some good things happen in their first game action, and several freshman receivers (keep an eye on D.J. Chark) are in line behind them. Same thing at tight end, where Colin Jeter, DeSean Smith and redshirting freshman Jacory Washington all could enjoy expanded roles in 2015.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Key departing seniors: Left tackle La’el Collins, center Elliott Porter, right guard Evan Washington, right guard Fehoko Fanaika

Key draft-eligible players: Junior left guard Vadal Alexander, right tackle Jerald Hawkins

Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: Sophomore center/guard Ethan Pocic

Comment: This is the most important position group to watch. Collins has been outstanding at left tackle, winning the SEC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the conference’s top blocker. He and Porter make two starters who are definitely leaving, and Washington and Fanaika are two of the top reserves. Where things could really go sideways is if Alexander and Hawkins opt to enter the draft, as well. LSU looks to be positioned well for a championship push next season, but having to replace four of the five starting offensive linemen would not be an encouraging sign. Both players were noncommittal when asked about the draft this week, but both of them requested draft grades from the NFL’s advisory committee. Said Alexander, whom ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. rated as the No. 7 guard prospect among draft-eligible players, “You want to focus on getting better because, stay or leave, you want the type of guy who can compartmentalize things and just focus on the here and now, and that’s what I’m trying to do right now. Somebody’ll lie to you and say they never think about it, but I’m not seriously thinking about it right now and I will make a quick decision after the bowl game.”

Pluses, minuses from LSU's season

December, 1, 2014
Dec 1
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LSU’s season fell short of the expectations Les Miles has established as the Tigers’ coach, with his team failing to achieve 10 wins for the first time since 2009.

But it wasn’t all bad. Miles’ young team made progress in several areas that could serve LSU well in 2015 and beyond.

Let’s review three pluses and three minuses that marked 2014 for LSU, which finished the regular season at 8-4 following last Thursday’s win over Texas A&M:

Pluses

Defensive line growth: For years, LSU has been one of the nation’s most effective programs at turning out NFL-caliber defensive linemen, but the Tigers looked anything but impressive early in the season. Opposing offenses were running right up the middle and around the edge for huge gains, and the Tigers frequently looked inept up front. Defensive ends Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter typically played well, but the interior line was a work in progress. However, once freshman Davon Godchaux settled in alongside Christian LaCouture at defensive tackle, the Tigers’ luck began to change. By the end of the season, the interior line was no longer a liability. That bodes well for next season, when the Tigers should have experience and depth in the middle.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesFreshman Leonard Fournette needs 109 rushing yards in LSU's bowl game to reach 1,000 for the season.
Freshman stars emerge: Excitement surrounded LSU’s true freshman class, and we’re only starting to see what the group can do. We got a good taste of tailback Leonard Fournette’s capabilities, as the top overall prospect was the driving force in at least two Tigers wins (over Florida and A&M). And it’s clear that safety Jamal Adams is a future star in a secondary that ranked among the nation’s best. We also got glimpses of star potential from Godchaux, receiver Malachi Dupre, quarterback Brandon Harris and running back Darrel Williams. This season was only the tip of the iceberg, however. The 2014 class is off to a good start, but this group has yet to approach the enormous impact that it eventually will make.

Offensive line comes through: We can’t completely ignore LSU’s 123-yard showing in a shutout loss to Arkansas, but that unbelievably poor effort only reinforced how much progress the starting offensive line had made to that point -- before injuries to left guard Vadal Alexander and center Elliott Porter forced the Tigers to play shorthanded against the Razorbacks. Up to that point, the offensive line had made enormous progress over the course of the season. The veteran group struggled early, but eventually became the most dependable bunch on the offense. The Tigers’ 388 rushing yards against A&M (with Alexander back in the lineup) served as a suitable rebound from the disappointing night against Arkansas.

Negatives

Quarterback development: Perhaps the most disappointing element of the season was that the Tigers failed to improve more at quarterback. The position was one of the team’s biggest question marks entering the season, and Harris and sophomore Anthony Jennings both struggled. Sophomore Jennings started all but one game, but he was ineffective throughout the season. The problem was that Harris -- who was horrible in his lone start, a blowout loss to Auburn -- failed to take the job away from the underperforming Jennings. Miles acknowledged that Harris is the more explosive talent, but the coach said Harris is also more likely to make mistakes. This will be another huge offseason for the position, as Jennings and Harris were simply not good enough in 2014.

Impotent pass rush: While the defensive line’s overall play improved dramatically over the course of the season, the Tigers remained unsuccessful at rushing the quarterback throughout. LSU finished the regular season with 19 sacks, led by Rasco’s four. Just a couple of years ago, the Tigers regularly posted seasons of 30-plus sacks. Today, they rank 13th in the SEC at taking down opposing quarterbacks, leading only South Carolina (12) in sacks. The lack of sacks made the Tigers’ performance against the pass -- they are fifth nationally in passing yards allowed (162.3 ypg) and second in pass efficiency defense (98.7) -- even more impressive.

Spotty passing game: Inconsistent quarterback play and the resulting run-heavy philosophy probably affected the development of LSU’s young receiving corps, but Dupre and fellow freshman Trey Quinn disappeared for large stretches of the season. And all of the preseason talk about including the tight ends more in the passing game was apparently just talk, since the position accounted for eight receptions in the regular season. Sophomore Travin Dural (37 catches for 758 yards, 7 TDs) came into his own and redshirt freshman John Diarse had a couple of nice games, but the position still has a lot to prove in 2015. LSU’s offense wasn’t nearly balanced enough this fall, and it wasn’t only because Jennings was an ineffective passer. The wideouts need to become more consistent route runners and pass catchers next year, as well.

Four key storylines in LSU-Kentucky

October, 17, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. – Upstart Kentucky (5-1, 2-1 SEC) gets another chance on Saturday to prove that its fast start is legitimate. The Wildcats will visit LSU (5-2, 1-2), which notched its first SEC win in last weekend’s 30-27 thriller against Florida.

One of these teams will be bowl eligible by the end of Saturday night, while the other will start looking over a tough second-half schedule and hoping another win is on there somewhere.

Let’s take a look at four key factors in Saturday’s game:

Contributions from newcomers: A unique attribute that both of these teams share is how heavily their offenses rely on players who are filling new roles.

True freshman have accounted for 22 of LSU’s 31 touchdowns, and they have actually scored 16 of those touchdowns. Freshman running back Leonard Fournette, who rushed for 140 yards and scored twice against Florida, has six touchdowns. Receiver Malachi Dupre has four, and running back Darrel Williams three. Quarterback Brandon Harris has passed for six touchdowns and run for three.

After he rushed 27 times against Florida, one of only nine backs ever to run more than 25 times in a game under LSU coach Les Miles, keep an eye on whether the Tigers use Fournette as the feature back again. Previously they had distributed carries among Fournette, Williams and seniors Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee.

The Tigers have already played 17 true freshmen this season, which is the most for any LSU freshman class under Miles.

Kentucky, meanwhile, is also getting a majority of its production from players who didn’t play for the Wildcats in 2013. Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard (38-282, 3 TDs) and freshman Stanley Williams (23-202, 2 TDs) help Kentucky newcomers account for 73 percent of the team’s rushing yards. Players who didn’t play for Kentucky last season have also accounted for 67 percent of its points (147 of 171).

Williams, who also leads the SEC with an average of 36 yards per kickoff return, had a big game last Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe. He ran seven times for 104 yards and a touchdown and also returned the opening kickoff 75 yards.

Rare air for Kentucky: In Mark Stoops’ second season, the Wildcats are vastly improved from their back-to-back two-win seasons of 2012 and 2013. In fact, they would be undefeated today if their upset bid at Florida hadn’t fallen just short in a 36-30 triple-overtime loss.

They haven’t been on the road since that painful loss in The Swamp, so posting a win Saturday at Tiger Stadium would be an even greater milestone for Stoops than Kentucky’s thrilling 45-38 win over South Carolina two weeks ago.

It would also secure Kentucky’s first four-game winning streak since 2008, its first three-game SEC winning streak since 2006 and its first 3-1 start in SEC play since 1999.

If the Wildcats are 6-1 by the end of Saturday night, it would be only the fourth time since 1950 that Kentucky had won six or more games in the first seven games of the season.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLeonard Fournette got a career-high 27 carries against Florida and turned them into 140 yards.and two TDs.
Turnover battle: Finishing on the positive side in turnover margin is often a way to earn a victory, and these teams have done that consistently. LSU and Kentucky are both plus-eight in turnover margin, which ties for second in the SEC.

A remarkable turnaround by Kentucky’s secondary is the driving force in its success generating turnovers. Of Kentucky’s 16 takeaways, 11 have come on interceptions -- a total that is fourth nationally and second on the SEC behind Ole Miss’ 12. Kentucky had just three interceptions in the entire 2013 season.

Junior college transfer A.J. Stamps is the Wildcats’ leader in pass coverage, notching three interceptions and six passes defended.

Safety Marcus McWilson and linebacker Josh Forrest both returned interceptions for touchdowns last week against Louisiana-Monroe, marking the first time since 1986 that the Wildcats had two pick-sixes in a game.

LSU has been more balanced in turnovers, both in its takeaways and giveaways. The defense has generated 16 turnovers (eight fumbles and eight interceptions) and the offense has committed eight turnovers (four fumbles and four interceptions).

Linebacker Kwon Alexander is one of the Tigers to watch on the turnover front. He forced a fumble that Danielle Hunter recovered and returned for a touchdown against Mississippi State and then forced a Jeff Driskel fumble last week in Florida territory that led to a short touchdown drive.

Safety Rickey Jefferson made a key late interception against the Gators to set up Colby Delahoussaye’s game-winning field goal. Jefferson and cornerback Tre'Davious White are tied for the team lead with two interceptions apiece.

Pounding the run: If Kentucky is to win on Saturday, its success in the running game will almost certainly be a deciding factor.

The Wildcats have one of the SEC’s most balanced offenses, but LSU has been much more vulnerable against the run than the pass. The Tigers are 12th in the SEC against the run (175.6 yards per game), but boast the conference’s top pass defense (157.7).

Don’t be surprised to see the Wildcats feed Williams and Heard, have Jojo Kemp take direct snaps and even run a bit with quarterback Patrick Towles in an effort to duplicate previous teams’ successes running against LSU.

The Wildcats also must do a better job on the ground against the run-heavy Tigers. South Carolina ran for 282 yards against Kentucky two weeks ago, led by 183 yards and three touchdowns from Mike Davis. LSU runs the ball more than any SEC team; its 332 rushing attempts are 43 more than the next-closest team. So the Wildcats know that slowing down Fournette and Co. is their No. 1 task.

Kentucky is eighth in the SEC in run defense at 152.0 ypg. LSU is sixth in the league in rushing offense (209.1), but had one of its best outings of the season against Florida. Although the Gators have one of the toughest defensive fronts in the league, LSU ran 50 times for 195 yards.
BATON ROUGE, La. – Les Miles says Leonard Fournette is the type of running back who is built to handle the heavy workload he received in last Saturday’s win against Florida.

“I think he’s one of those backs that gets stronger as the day gets longer,” Miles said at his Monday press luncheon. “I think he’s cut out to be that kind of back.”

However, nothing about the way college running backs are used these days – or about how carries are typically distributed at LSU – would indicate that LSU’s star freshman will be a regular recipient of the 27 carries he handled in the 30-27 victory over the Gators.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLeonard Fournette is a throwback kind of running back, says LSU coach Les Miles, a player who gets stronger as the game progresses.
Entering Saturday’s game against Kentucky (5-1, 2-1 SEC), Fournette has led LSU (5-2, 1-2) in rushing in six straight games. The Florida game was his first 20-carry outing, however, and marked just the ninth time in Miles’ LSU tenure that a Tigers back logged 25 or more carries in a game.

It felt like something straight out of the 1980s, which of course would satisfy any run-oriented offensive line.

“It was definitely cool,” right tackle Jerald Hawkins said. “I pretty much love that type of game, the ground-and-pound game. As an offensive line, you’ve got to love it.”

Two or three decades ago, Fournette’s workload Saturday was commonplace in college football, but the game has changed drastically in the era of wide-open passing attacks and spread offenses. Only four players in the entire FBS average more than 25 carries per game, led by Central Michigan’s Thomas Rawls (30.6). The SEC’s leading ballcarrier, Auburn’s Cameron Artis-Payne (21.0 carries per game), is the conference’s only back to average at least 20.

Since Miles arrived at LSU in 2005, the Tigers have typically distributed the carries between a group of backs, much as they did in the first six games of this season. No LSU back has averaged 20 carries per game under Miles – Stevan Ridley came closest with 19.15 in 2010 – and Fournette (13.29) will have to have several more games like last Saturday before he comes close.

Before the Florida game, Fournette (93 carries, 504 yards, 6 TDs), Kenny Hilliard (65-324, 6 TDs), Terrence Magee (48-217, 1 TD) and Darrel Williams (39-188, 3 TDs) handled fairly similar workloads each Saturday. But against the Gators, Fournette (27-140, 2 TDs) became the center of attention over Magee (6-50), Hilliard (4-15, TD) and Williams (2-4).

“I certainly like the three other backs that we have, including Magee and Hilliard, certainly Williams,” Miles said. “But I think that Leonard gives us that big, fast back that can really push the ball at a defense.”

The former No. 1 overall national prospect certainly did that, plowing through Florida defenders, breaking away with spin moves and generally running with more confidence than he displayed earlier in the season.

“He was hitting the hole with great decisiveness,” said left guard Vadal Alexander, the reigning SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week after recording 11 knockdown blocks against Florida. “He would hit it, he’ll make a cut without thinking about it and he’ll just go and let his athleticism and talent take over.

“That’s the best thing to do as a running back is we open the holes for you and you just let your talent guide you – your vision and your feel for the defense and things like that. He did that.”

Fournette apparently agrees with that assessment, telling reporters after the game that he is starting to catch on after running more tentatively in the first few games.

“I’m a lot better than where I was when the season started,” Fournette said. “The game, it slowed down for me a lot for me now. That’s why I’m being able to see the cutbacks now. [It’s] just coaching and getting help from Kenny and Terrence and Connor and all the older guys. They help me a lot.”

Even if Fournette fails to log that many carries in a game again this season, it’s evident that he is establishing himself as the Tigers’ top option in the ground game.

He got off to a fast start against Florida with 44 rushing yards and a touchdown in the first quarter, and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron decided to keep feeding him. Why tinker with something that was working, especially when LSU was in desperate need of an offensive spark?

“We found something we liked in the run game, or a couple things we liked, and we kept doing it and it kept working, so Coach Cam usually sticks with it,” Alexander said.

Perhaps that will be the key to whether Fournette’s carry total sits in the 20s on most future Saturdays. If the offensive line keeps blocking the way it did against Florida and if Fournette keeps piling up yardage the way he did against the Gators, perhaps he will finally become the centerpiece of the Tigers’ offense that many expected when he signed with LSU in February.

Three key factors in LSU-Auburn

October, 3, 2014
Oct 3
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Nick MarshallAP Photo/Butch DillContaining Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall will be one of LSU's main tasks this week.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- This will become a familiar scenario for No. 15 LSU (4-1, 0-1 SEC) for at least the foreseeable future. Entering Saturday's game against No. 5 Auburn (4-0, 1-0), LSU probably can't afford another division loss if it wants to remain in contention in the SEC West -- much less a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

That's a tall order this weekend, considering Auburn hasn't lost at Jordan-Hare Stadium since Gus Malzahn became coach last season (11-0) and LSU will have a true freshman quarterback, Brandon Harris, making his first career start.

LSU has won six of the past seven games in this series, but getting a win Saturday will be a major challenge. Let's look at three key factors as kickoff approaches, with some help from ESPN's Stats & Information group:

Who can run and who can stop it

Both starting quarterbacks -- Harris and Auburn's Nick Marshall -- are understandably getting plenty of attention ahead of this game. But it's the teams' respective running games -- and whether the defenses can slow them -- that might be the most important factors.

Auburn ranks 17th nationally with 260.5 rushing yards per game and boasts two of the SEC's most productive runners in Cameron Artis-Payne (86 carries, 468 yards, 5 touchdowns, fourth in the SEC with 97.2 YPG) and Marshall (42 carries, 273 yards, 2 touchdowns).

Meanwhile, LSU has struggled against the run, ranking 12th in the SEC and 70th nationally by allowing 161.6 rushing YPG. Coordinator John Chavis' defense is thin at defensive tackle, and its problems there were evident against Mississippi State, which rushed for 302 yards against LSU two weeks ago. Wisconsin also rushed for more than 250 yards against LSU.

Auburn is 13-0 when it runs for at least 250 yards under Malzahn and 3-2 when it does not.

On the other side, LSU's struggling run game got a boost last week when it picked up 363 yards on 54 attempts against New Mexico State. LSU is sixth in the SEC with 226.2 rushing YPG, but Auburn has been stingy against the run (third in the SEC with 90.8 YPG). If coordinator Ellis Johnson's defense is able to shut down Leonard Fournette (LSU's leading rusher with 322 yards on 56 attempts, 64.4 YPG), Kenny Hilliard (57 carries, 298 yards, 59.6 YPG), Darrel Williams (33 carries, 165 yards, 41.2 YPG) and Terrence Magee (34 carries, 144 yards, 28.8 YPG), that will place even more pressure on Harris' shoulders.

Defending the zone read/QB run

Let's dig a little deeper into the running game. To have any chance on Saturday, LSU must contain Marshall and Auburn's option runs.

Auburn has been one of the nation's most effective teams at using the zone-read run since the start of last season. It is averaging 144.39 rushing yards and 6.8 yards per carry in those games.

It's worth noting, however, that Kansas State kept itself in the game against Auburn two weeks ago by slowing Marshall and the zone-read runs. The Wildcats held the Tigers to just 62 yards and 3.1 yards per carry off the zone-read, holding them below 200 total rushing yards for only the second time in Malzhn's tenure as Auburn's coach.

LSU was atrocious against the zone-read in its 34-29 loss to Mississippi State two weeks ago. The Bulldogs ran 20 times for 192 yards from that look, averaging 9.1 yards per carry and breaking five runs of at least 10 yards.

The key element here is slowing Marshall, but LSU has struggled to do that against mobile quarterbacks. LSU has allowed the sixth-most rushing yards to opposing quarterbacks (56 carries for 260 yards) of all FBS programs this season. That includes a 79-yard touchdown last week against New Mexico State and a 56-yard run by Mississippi State's Dak Prescott.

Marshall has 1,341 rushing yards since the start of last season, which ranks third among active FBS quarterbacks.

Harris vs. Auburn pass defense

This subject has been beaten to death all week, but Harris is in rare air for an LSU quarterback. He's the first LSU true freshman to start at the position since Jordan Jefferson in 2008 and the first since Jamie Howard in 1992 to start by Game 6.

He clearly outplayed Anthony Jennings against Mississippi State and New Mexico State, but both of those outings were off the bench. Making his first road start against a better-than-average Auburn defense -- Johnson's defense is fourth in the SEC in total defense (313.2 ypg) and sixth in scoring defense (16.2 ppg) -- won't be easy.

However, Auburn has yet to face a prolific passing team. Its opponents thus far rank 107th nationally (Arkansas, 167.8 ypg), 62nd (San Jose State, 243.0), 59th (Kansas State, 246.3) and 55th (Louisiana Tech, 248.4) in passing offense and yet Auburn still ranks seventh in the SEC in pass defense at 222.5 ypg.

We'll see whether Harris can settle his nerves enough to exploit it, but Auburn is vulnerable against the pass -- especially if veteran safety Jermaine Whitehead remains on suspension for a third straight game.
Leonard FournetteAP Photo/Jonathan BachmanLSU freshman running back Leonard Fournette was criticized for striking the pose.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- All of his life, Leonard Fournette has been ahead of the athletic curve, so naturally he was disappointed when his first college game didn't go according to plan.

In LSU's season-opening win against Wisconsin, Fournette ran eight times for 18 yards and returned five kickoffs for 117 yards, while senior Kenny Hilliard instead carried the Tigers' running game. It was an OK debut for a typical freshman running back, but not for the player who was ESPN's No. 1 overall prospect in the 2014 recruiting class, whom many college football analysts had compared to the greatest college running backs of the last 20 years.

"I was kind of hard on myself because I was so used to having 200-plus rushing yards in a game and I didn't have that, so I was kind of disappointed," Fournette said. "But I talked to Coach, talked to my father and my mother and they were like, ‘This is college now. It's not going to happen [in college] like it used to happen.' "

Maybe that early disappointment also made Fournette want to fast forward his collegiate development. A week later came Fournette's most memorable college moment to date -- one that brought more criticism than praise.

After a 4-yard touchdown run against Sam Houston State, Fournette's first college score, he struck the Heisman Trophy pose in the end zone. LSU coach Les Miles immediately gave Fournette an earful over the freshman's me-first moment and he later apologized to his teammates for what could easily be called a premature celebration.

All of a sudden, he was the subject of national ridicule -- a rude awakening for a player who had been roundly praised since middle school.

"I prayed on it, my parents talked to me, Coach Miles talked to me and just told me, ‘Don't worry about it,' so I got over it," Fournette said of the Heisman backlash.

Ever since then, Fournette has quietly shown steady improvement. Other SEC freshmen like Tennessee's Jalen Hurd and Texas A&M's Myles Garrett have made bigger national splashes, but last Saturday's win against New Mexico State marked the fourth straight game that Fournette led No. 15 LSU (4-1, 0-1 SEC) in rushing.

Each week since the Wisconsin game, Fournette has averaged at least 5 yards per carry, which he believes is a result of improved patience.

"We'll be in the meeting room and watching practice and I'll be seeing [senior running back Terrence Magee] making cuts like I used to make in high school," Fournette said. "I'll just be like, ‘Man I wonder why I can't do that?' I'm always rushing, so I feel like I've just got to be patient, slow down. I've been taking all that to heed and I've been slowing it down and the cuts will be there for me."

Running room and cutback space were certainly available last weekend against New Mexico State, when Fournette broke the 100-yard barrier for the first time at LSU. He finished with 122 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries, all career highs, and credited his offensive line and seniors Magee and Hilliard afterward -- exemplifying another lesson in humility that he learned from the Heisman hoopla.

"Thanks to Kenny, thanks to Terrence, like they're really my mentors. Anything I have a problem with, I come to them," Fournette said. "I never really had a big brother on the football team. I always was the big brother, so I have them and they help me a lot."

The veterans, in turn, credit the rookie for his personal growth. Making the transition from high school legend to SEC freshman can be difficult, but Magee said Fournette adjusted his expectations to fit what LSU has asked of him thus far.

"Every game you're not going to go out and rush for 200 yards, 100 yards, so I think he's a lot more comfortable than what he [was] now and starting to relax and just play his game," Magee said.

That said, Fournette has not fully tapped into his massive potential yet. As Fournette mentioned, he hasn't hit holes decisively at times and, for a player listed at 230 pounds, he has been surprisingly ineffective at breaking tackles.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Fournette ranks 11th in the SEC and 59th nationally with 3.48 yards per carry before making contact with a defender. And yet he's fourth among regulars in his own backfield in yards after contact. Freshman Darrel Williams (3.64 ypc after contact) and Magee (3.18) both rank in the SEC's top 10, but Fournette's average of 2.27 ypc also ranks behind Hilliard (2.53) among LSU regulars.

His game remains a work in progress, but it is easy to envision a game-breaking finished product on the occasions when Fournette accelerates past defenders or leaves one in the dust with a well-placed stiff-arm, as he did on his first touchdown run against NMSU.

Those brief flashes are signs that Fournette is coming along fine, even if he didn't achieve instant superstardom like some expected.

"That's hard, especially with those expectations," center Elliott Porter said. "I don't think nobody in the last 10 years faced quite that much hype."

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Of course he doesn't want to come out of the game, but even Connor Neighbors understands the unique threat LSU presents by playing two of its traditional tailbacks at the same time.

The Tigers used that backfield combination -- typically featuring either Darrel Williams or Kenny Hilliard at fullback and either Leonard Fournette or Terrence Magee at tailback -- seven times in last Saturday's 31-0 win against Louisiana-Monroe. Six of those were short-yardage situations where LSU ran a simple fullback dive, achieving three touchdowns, but opposing defensive coordinators must also realize how that personnel grouping presents other threats.

"Obviously we're not going to show all of what we have in our arsenal, but it could be dangerous and I'm all for it. I think maybe I could be in there, too, but you know, it is what it is," chuckled Neighbors, LSU's regular fullback who sacrifices playing time when the Tigers go to the two-tailback look. "As long as we get the W, I don't care how it happens -- if I don't play a snap or if I play 100."

Let's give Neighbors the benefit of the doubt and agree he could do some of the same things that the tailbacks do. Even so, nobody will confuse him for any member of the foursome for whom he typically blocks. Neighbors ran the ball twice and caught seven passes in the entire 2013 season, and he does not have a touch yet this season. The four tailbacks, meanwhile, are threats to break a long run at any time.

Take Williams' 22-yard touchdown burst in the second quarter of the ULM game, for example. He lined up at fullback in front of fellow freshman Fournette on third-and-1 at the ULM 22. But after taking the dive handoff from quarterback Anthony Jennings, not only did Williams achieve a first down, he broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and escaped for the Tigers' first touchdown.

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Williams was the recipient of four fullback dive handoffs from that alignment against ULM and rushed for 28 yards, including touchdowns of 22 and 1 yards, as well as gains of 2 and 3 yards that both achieved first downs.

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Hilliard got the other two fullback carries, picking up a first down with a 4-yard run early in the second quarter and scoring a touchdown on a 4-yard run in the fourth quarter. He lined up in front of Magee on the touchdown run, flattening ULM safety Cordero Smith as he barreled into the end zone for a score that helped LSU go up 31-0.

"We all practice it," Hilliard said of the dive play. "Me and Darrel have been the main ones getting the reps at it, but it's just something that's going to stay in the playbook and in the game plan. If Coach Cam [Cameron] likes it with the opponent, it's something we're going to keep in."

The play's key to success, Hilliard said, is for the offensive line to get a strong push at the line of scrimmage and for the recipient of the handoff to read the blocking properly.

"If the big guys can move the D-line, just find a little crease and get in there and get a first down or a touchdown," Hilliard said.

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One of the Tigers' toughest runners, Hilliard said he has occasionally moonlighted in the fullback role since his freshman season. He has never caught a pass or done more than carry the ball straight ahead from the position, but there is always the possibility that LSU could add a new wrinkle to the game plan.

"We haven't gotten that fancy with it," Hilliard said of the possibility of catching a fullback screen. "Maybe throughout the year they might give it to me."

Only once did the Tigers attempt something other than a fullback dive in the two-tailback package against ULM, but that play gives opponents something to consider for the future.

On a first-and-10 play at the ULM 46, quarterback Brandon Harris rolled right after faking a handoff to Magee. Fullback Williams was available to Harris as a target for a screen pass, but the quarterback instead overthrew receiver John Diarse along the sideline.

Nonetheless, the play showed that the Tigers can do much more than run fullback dives when they move their tailbacks to fullback -- or any other skill position.

"Every guy that plays in this offense has the ability to line up in the backfield, out there at slot receiver or at the X or Z [receiver], tight end, anything," Magee said. "You have to know because at any given time, somebody may go down and you've got to go in for them and play so you have to know what's going on.

"So it's just something that when they recruit you here and you're learning this offense, it's something that you have to learn. You have to learn every position on the field."

SEC Freshman Tracker: Week 3

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
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Here are five true freshmen in the SEC who stood out (and five more worth mentioning) from the Week 3:

Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
What he did: Another week, another sack (or two) for Myles Garrett. In Texas A&M’s 38-10 win over Rice, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Garrett tallied 2.5 sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss and eight total tackles. He continues to live up to the hype that surrounded his recruitment and is now second in the country in sacks with 5.5 this season.

What it means: Garrett has already tied the Aggies’ school record for sacks in a season by a freshman and he is on pace to shatter Jadeveon Clowney’s SEC record for sacks by a freshman (eight). If Garrett continues to play the way he has as competition stiffens on A&M’s schedule, we're now talking about an All-SEC-caliber season. (Sam Khan)

Garrett Johnson, Kentucky
What he did: Johnson led the Wildcats with six receptions for 154 yards and two touchdowns. He had three of UK’s biggest plays of the game: A 60-yard touchdown in which Johnson danced between two Florida safeties before running to the end zone; a back-breaking third-down conversion when he beat his man on a 30-yard catch and absorbed a big hit from the safety; then on the next play, Johnson gave Kentucky a 17-13 lead back when he streaked past a confused secondary and hauled in an easy 33-yard touchdown.

What it means: Johnson was Patrick Towles' favorite receiver in a triple-overtime game that opened a lot of eyes. Although the Cats lost, Johnson must have been especially pleased with his performance in The Swamp. The three-star recruit from Winter Garden, Florida, was rated the No. 84 prospect in the state and didn’t have a committable offer from the Gators. (Jeff Barlis)

Jalen Hurd, Tennessee
What he did: Although Oklahoma’s defense completely shut down the Tennessee running game in the first half, Hurd broke runs of 43 and 29 yards after halftime as the Volunteers tried to stay in the game. Oklahoma ultimately pulled away for a 34-10 win, but Hurd gave a standout performance with 97 rushing yards on 14 carries, plus 24 receiving yards on two catches. It was the best rushing outing by a Tennessee true freshman since Bryce Brown in 2009.

What it means: Although he hasn’t started yet, Hurd is Tennessee’s leading rusher with 48 carries for 209 yards and one touchdown. Each week he emerges a bit more as a star in the Vols’ backfield. Up next for Hurd and the Vols’ young offensive line will be a Sept. 27 trip to Georgia in Tennessee’s SEC opener. If the Bulldogs don’t clean up the run defense that South Carolina exploited last Saturday, Hurd might have a field day. (David Ching)

Armani Watts, Texas A&M
What he did: Watts had six tackles against Rice, but perhaps most notable was a play that won't end up on the stat sheet. After a blocked field goal, Watts raced to his own 7-yard line to pick up the ball and run across the width and length of the field for a 93-yard touchdown return. The only problem? A&M was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct as players on the sideline entered the field.

What it means: Though Watts' return didn't count, he has had three good games in an Aggies uniform. He has been one of the pleasant surprises at a position the Aggies sorely needed help: Safety. He's fifth on the team in tackles, leads in pass breakups (three) and has made an interception and two tackles for loss. He has been an impact player with a nose for the football, huge for an A&M defense trying to improve. (Sam Khan)

Darrel Williams, LSU
What he did: Williams took the fewest carries of anyone in LSU’s four-man tailback rotation, but he scored twice -- once on a nifty fullback dive where he broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and broke away for a 22-yard scoring run -- and again showed off a powerful running style. Williams finished the game against Louisiana-Monroe with seven carries for 37 yards and is now tied with senior Kenny Hilliard for the team lead in rushing touchdowns with three.

What it means: Williams has been impressive in limited work in the Tigers’ last two nonconference games. While he won’t become LSU’s No. 1 running back this season, he has flashed some versatility by contributing at both tailback and fullback. He and Hilliard took the bulk of LSU’s short-yardage carries against ULM, so Williams has clearly done enough to expect to see more of him once the Tigers open SEC play this weekend against Mississippi State. (David Ching)

Other notables:

OLB Lorenzo Carter, Georgia: Carter recovered a Brandon Wilds fumble at the South Carolina 26-yard line to set up a field goal that gave Georgia a 10-7 lead in the first quarter. He finished the day with three tackles, a fumble recovery and a quarterback pressure.

RB Leonard Fournette, LSU: Fournette ran 10 times for 52 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown, caught a 20-yard pass and returned the opening kickoff 40 yards in a win against Louisiana-Monroe.

WR Speedy Noil, Texas A&M: Noil caught three passes for 71 yards and scored on a 14-yard touchdown pass against Rice before leaving the game in the third quarter with an injury.

CB Henre' Toliver, Arkansas: Toliver started for the first time and helped the Razorbacks put the finishing touches on an enormous win over Texas Tech by intercepting a Davis Webb pass at the Arkansas 15-yard line on the Red Raiders’ final possession.

RB Stanley Williams, Kentucky: Williams made one of Kentucky’s plays of the night against Florida. On the Wildcats’ first overtime possession, he ran right after catching a pass, then reversed field all the way to the opposite sideline and dove to the pylon for a 25-yard touchdown that put Kentucky up 27-20.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- When he and his teammates traveled to Houston last weekend, LSU safety Jalen Mills had no idea whether he’d actually play against Wisconsin.

It wasn’t until the final moments before his team took the field that Tigers coach Les Miles informed the junior safety of his decision.

“Actually right before we came out the tunnel. Coach Miles told me, ‘I hope you’re ready to play,’ ” said Mills, whose offseason arrest led to his banishment from all team activities throughout the summer before Miles reinstated him at the start of preseason practice. “So once he told me that, just a big weight lifted off my shoulders and I was ready.”

Mills made the most of his opportunity, starting at safety and intercepting a pass during the Tigers’ second-half comeback en route to a 28-24 victory. Several of his teammates weren’t as fortunate, with multiple Tigers missing the game because of suspension, injury or simply because they were not quite ready to face a big-time opponent.

That could change soon -- possibly as soon as this Saturday against Sam Houston State in some cases -- as expected contributors like cornerback Rashard Robinson, receiver Malachi Dupre and defensive linemen Frank Herron, Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore start to filter into the lineup.

Like Mills last week, some members of that group -- along with many others who did not play last weekend -- will walk into Tiger Stadium Saturday night not knowing whether this will be their chance to make their season debuts.

Miles said Wednesday evening that “everybody’s ready to roll. We didn’t lose anybody from the [Wisconsin] game” when asked about the health of the team, although he added that senior center Elliott Porter might sit out for a second consecutive game.

Miles would have to improve significantly before anyone would describe his disciplinary practices as transparent, but he responded “Yeah, absolutely” when a reporter on Tuesday asked whether the suspended players would be available this Saturday.

If they are available, and if players like Dupre are able to return from injuries, LSU could have far more firepower at its disposal in the near future -- even if Miles predicted that the starting lineup should mostly remain intact.

“I think it will be very similar,” Miles said after Wednesday’s practice. “There’s some young defensive linemen we’d like to put on the field, but it’s one of those things, you have to develop a level of competency in the call. That’s the issue. We have very talented guys there. We’re just getting them ready to play, hopefully this week. Hopefully they’ll play some time. But I think for the most part, you’ll recognize the same starting lineups.”

Regardless, the youthful Tigers are not the team they will become over the course of this season. Although nine true freshmen and two redshirt freshmen played their first college games, many more -- a group that includes Herron, Bain, Gilmore, receivers D.J. Chark and Avery Peterson, running back Darrel Williams and linebacker Clifton Garrett -- still hope to prove to their coaches that they deserve playing time.

“It’s definitely your coach trusting you and coming out here in practice every day and working hard,” senior middle linebacker D.J. Welter said. “Everybody’s been doing that, but you’ve just got to keep grinding every day to close that space and you’ll get to see the field.”

As Miles mentioned, that is apparently the issue with Herron and the other redshirt freshman defensive tackles. Players complimented Herron throughout the preseason, but Miles said he wasn’t ready to go against Wisconsin. Instead it was true freshman Davon Godchaux who played alongside veterans Christian LaCouture, Quentin Thomas and Lewis Neal against the Badgers.

“To be honest with you, we’d have loved to have gotten Frank in, and some other guys,” Miles said. “But the issue becomes one where when the game’s tight and you want to be able to count on the call, you go with that veteran that kind of understands it a little bit more. We’re hopeful that we can get Frank coached up a little bit better and get him on the field because he is, in my opinion, a very, very talented guy.”

Same with Chark and Williams -- and for that matter the freshmen who did play and didn’t exactly dominate. It’s part of the learning process, Miles cautioned, and that process sometimes requires some patience.

Regarding freshmen like quarterback Brandon Harris and tailback Leonard Fournette, Miles said LSU’s coaches are “thrilled with their performances” even if they didn’t exactly fill up the stat sheet against Wisconsin.

It will come in time, as redshirt freshman John Diarse learned a season ago.

“I had the same expectations coming in last year and Coach Cam [Cameron] just told me, ‘It’s a process. It takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and just relax, stay in it, stay focused, keep working hard,’ ” said Diarse, who caught two passes and scored a 36-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter against Wisconsin.

Impact freshmen from the SEC

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
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Every season, several true freshmen make an immediate impact in the SEC. Judging by the way things look to be heading at some SEC powerhouses there might be even more than usual this season, but here are five that we predict to make the biggest splash in 2014.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLeonard Fournette was the top-ranked recruit in the 2014 ESPN 300.
Leonard Fournette, LSU: When well-respected college football writers are projecting a true freshman running back as the Heisman Trophy winner -- and more than a few have at least mentioned Fournette’s name in the conversation -- you know the kid is special. LSU fans rejoiced when Fournette announced that he would become a Tiger, and he has done nothing since then to temper their excitement. Blessed with exceptional size, speed and power, Fournette is going to become a star. The only question is when. Even if he must share carries with backfield mates Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard and Darrel Williams, Fournette’s debut will be celebrated with Mardi Gras-like fanfare around Louisiana. -- David Ching

Cam Robinson, Alabama: It might not be the toughest position to learn on the offensive line, but there’s an argument to be made that left tackle is the most critical. And considering Alabama is breaking in a new quarterback, it’s even more important to protect his blind side. Which makes it all the more impressive that Robinson, a former five-star prospect, came into spring camp as a true freshman and won the starting job for the final spring scrimmage. He has size, he has agility and, apparently, he has the consistency few rookies possess. Even in today’s day and age of young guys playing earlier and earlier, the fact that he’s gone all the way through fall camp without any setbacks or doubt about his starting from Week 1 is flat-out impressive. -- Alex Scarborough

Roc Thomas, Auburn: The hype all offseason has been on Fournette at LSU, but he’s not the only talented freshman running back in the SEC. If given the opportunity, Thomas has a chance to be just as productive his first year. The question is whether or not there will be enough carries to go around. Despite losing Tre Mason to the NFL, Auburn has four capable running backs who should all contribute this year. Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant will get the first crack because of experience, but Thomas is too good to keep off the field. Don’t be surprised if he’s the guy by mid-October. -- Greg Ostendorf

Myles Garrett, Texas A&M: After signing him in February, Kevin Sumlin jokingly referred to Garrett as "Batman" in reference to the sculpted body that the 6-foot-5, 255-pound five-star prospect boasts. Since arriving on campus this summer, Garrett has earned the respect of his teammates and performed well on the practice field. "Myles is about what we thought when we recruited him," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said last week. For a player ranked No. 4 overall in the 2014 class, that means look out. Garrett will play early and often and should provide a boost to the Aggies' pass rush immediately, something sorely needed after a down year for the Aggie defense in 2013. -- Sam Khan

Tony Brown, Alabama: The Texas native and two-sport athlete wasn’t going to let some silly shoulder injury slow him down, even if that meant wearing a protective brace. The former five-star prospect got to school early and made an interception during the final spring scrimmage, albeit with one good shoulder and a black no-contact jersey on. Now closer to 100 percent, he hasn’t given an inch, appearing second on the depth chart at cornerback. He’ll see the field plenty as is, but if Bradley Sylve or Cyrus Jones falters, we could see Brown in the starting lineup making plays. -- Alex Scarborough
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Brandon Harris and Leonard Fournette have been waiting for this opportunity since well before they became roommates at LSU this summer.

With barely a week to go before they make their college debuts against Wisconsin, Fournette and Harris -- ESPN’s No. 1 and 37 overall prospects in the ESPN 300 -- have done nothing to slow the hype about what their futures hold.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLeonard Fournette is one of several standout freshmen expected to get extensive playing time for LSU.
“We’ve talked about this since before we got here, just dreaming it up, texting all the time during the season and hearing about him breaking every record and doing this and that,” Harris said of Fournette, the only player ever to win Louisiana’s Gatorade Player of the Year award twice. “So nothing surprises me, what he does.”

LSU fans’ expectations are sky high over what Fournette might accomplish once the running back takes the field in purple and gold. But they aren’t much lower for the other offensive skill-position standouts who helped him make the Tigers’ 2014 recruiting class one of the best in school history.

You have early enrollee Harris, who is still competing with Anthony Jennings to become the starting quarterback. Harris clearly outplayed Jennings in LSU’s spring game and has flashed impressive running ability as well as a powerful throwing arm.

“At practice, man, his arm is so live,” Fournette marveled. “Everything with him is [hard]. Sometimes it’ll be hard to catch.”

And then there are receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, who are among the candidates to step into departed stars Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham’s roles as the Tigers’ go-to pass-catchers.

Dupre was ESPN’s top receiver prospect, No. 17 overall, and Quinn was the No. 3 receiver and ranked No. 29 overall on the ESPN 300. But asking them to immediately fill in for Landry and Beckham, who combined for 2,345 of LSU’s 3,263 receiving yards last season, is an awfully tall order.

“I don’t feel any pressure,” Dupre said. “I’ll leave it up to the coaches to make the proper game calls and just do what I do and make plays and try to be the best that I can be and not worry about what they did in the past. But also definitely try and pick up where they left off at because they were definitely two great receivers. Hopefully I can become as good as they were, but we’ll see what happens.”

In truth, it’s Quinn who appears more ready to take over a big role at wideout. Dupre dealt with an undisclosed injury for a portion of preseason camp -- he participated in his first scrimmage on Tuesday and LSU coach Les Miles said he should be fine now -- but Quinn has already turned heads among coaches and teammates.

He might not look like a prototypical NFL prospect -- LSU’s roster lists him at 6-foot and 194 pounds -- but don’t bother labeling Quinn as a possession receiver. Not to offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, anyway.

“He’s not a possession receiver at all. He can run, he’s tough, he can catch,” Cameron said. “I had [Denver Broncos receiver] Wes Welker as a rookie and … he got labeled that possession guy and I watched him run by corners on the outside every day in practice. So he’s a football player, he’s an outside receiver, he’s a blocker, he’s smart. All he needs is time and college experience and I think he’ll be an outstanding player.”

In fact, many an LSU veteran has complimented Quinn in particular for acting like he belonged as soon as he arrived on campus. Then again, football has typically come easily for Quinn, who set a national career record with 6,566 receiving yards at Barbe High School in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He knows his pinch-me moments are still ahead next week when LSU’s fall semester begins and then he caps the week by facing a ranked opponent in his first college game.

“I think I’m going to go through that first week of college with everybody being on campus, just seeing numbers and numbers of students, and by that first Saturday in Houston, that’s going to be that athletic part where I’m just like, ‘Wow. I’m an LSU Tiger, I play football,’” Quinn predicted. “And it’s go time from there. There’s no looking back.”

That’s the way most LSU freshmen think, and it’s particularly the case among the four freshman stars who are still trying to carve out a niche for their first SEC season. All four players would admit that they have a lot to learn, but they were recruited to contribute immediately and it seems highly likely that all four will do so.

Fournette will absolutely get his share of the carries alongside seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard and fellow signee Darrel Williams. LSU lacks proven receivers other than Travin Dural, so Miles said Dupre, Quinn and freshman D.J. Chark will all play roles in the passing game. And even if Harris doesn’t start against Wisconsin, it would be a major surprise if he fails to see the field.

Not only will the members of that group contribute, Miles said, they will hold their own. That’s the LSU way.

“Young players are going to play,” Miles said. “I say that with the idea that they’re talented and they were recruited to fill that void and we’re going to coach them hard. We’re going to make sure that we try to anticipate mistakes and avoid them. But yeah, I’m not anticipating just terrible growing pains there.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Frank Wilson's job could have been awfully difficult this season if the wrong personalities existed within his running backs room at LSU.

Wilson -- the Tigers' recruiting coordinator and running backs coach -- just bolstered his depth chart by adding the nation's top overall prospect, Leonard Fournette, plus Darrel Williams, who rushed for 2,200 yards as a high school senior. If the other scholarship tailbacks on the roster, seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, were jealous types, the dynamic in Wilson's meeting room could easily have turned poisonous.

Instead, it seems to be the exact opposite.

"They're so humble," Wilson said of Magee and Hilliard. "They've been so patient in their careers and they understand what it is to be a young pro and put themselves in position to embark on this senior year and have great success. So to have both of those guys here who are unselfish and lead our group is certainly positive for us."

[+] EnlargeLSU's Terrence Magee and Leonard Fournette
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertTerrence Magee is wearing the No. 18 jersey this season -- given to LSU's top leaders each fall -- in part because of his mentorship of young running backs like Leonard Fournette (7).
Even during spring practice, a few months before Fournette and Williams arrived on campus, Magee and Hilliard answered frequent questions about the new signees without balking. Despite the possibility that the Tigers' top back might become a freshman, the veterans immediately embraced the newcomers in an effort to get them ready for the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin.

"I've been happy with that," Fournette said. "They're still teaching us, all the young running backs. Without them, we'd kind of be lost. Every day they teach us and we get better."

And they're happy to teach, Hilliard said, just as Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue, James Stampley and J.C. Copeland did for him as a freshman in 2011.

"They were all brothers to us," Hilliard said. "They all took us underneath their wing and carried us."

The freshmen seem to be taking the right approach, as well.

"One thing I love about Darrel -- just like I love about Leonard -- I love his attitude," Magee said. "He might call me 20 times a day to ask me, ‘What do I do on this?' or 'What do I do on that?' He was blowing me up [the night before preseason camp opened]. But you like guys like that because they want to learn. For me, I want to teach him because I want to look back and say I was able to help that guy get to where he is today."

That's exactly the kind of selflessness those at LSU expected from Magee. The coaches handed him the No. 18 jersey for the season -- an honor that goes to one of the Tigers' top leaders each fall. And leadership is what he has shown toward Fournette, who might be the most heavily-hyped recruit in LSU history.

"You know when you meet someone and you know you're kind of alike? That's how it is with me and Terrence," Fournette said. "I enjoy being around him. He's another jokester. He likes to have fun and I think the brotherhood that we're creating, it's fun.

Fournette continued, "Without him I'd be lost. Every day he's taking his time after practice, he's coming by my house teaching me and telling me this is what this call means, this is what that call means. So that means a lot. I'm catching on faster outside of football practice with him helping me."

Magee and Hilliard aren't na´ve about what the 2014 season holds. They know that despite rushing for a combined 936 yards and 15 touchdowns last season as Jeremy Hill's backups, they will probably touch the ball fewer times as the freshmen adapt to SEC football.

All of them envision some sort of backfield timeshare, as that has become a common feature of LSU's running game in recent seasons.

"I think all of us are going to get a lot of carries, a lot of play and contribute to the team," Williams predicted.

And that's just fine with Magee and Hilliard.

Some players view their senior seasons as a final chance to shine -- and show NFL scouts that they're worthy of becoming draft picks. LSU's senior backs certainly hold that mindset, but realize they can think that way without being selfish toward their young teammates.

"When things get hard and people question our team, when it's tough out there when we're practicing, [his predecessors wearing No. 18 were] the first guys to step up and just lead this team, show everybody how it's done. ‘Follow me. Watch me,' " Magee said. "I really admire that about those guys. Sometimes you have young guys and they're looking around and looking for somebody to follow. Each guy that I've seen wear that since I've been here, they got it."

He and Hilliard seem to have willing followers in the two freshman backs.

"I really don't think about [starting] because we're still learning and the veterans are teaching us," Fournette said. "I don't expect to come in and right away in the game and start. So I'm just following Kenny and Terrence."

Fortunately for LSU, and for the future of its running game, Magee and Hilliard seem to be two good players for a freshman to follow.

LSU Tigers season preview

August, 12, 2014
Aug 12
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» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC 

Previewing the 2014 season for the LSU Tigers:

2013 record: 10-3 (5-3 SEC). Beat Iowa 21-14 in the Outback Bowl.

Key losses: QB Zach Mettenberger, RB Jeremy Hill, WR Odell Beckham, WR Jarvis Landry, LB Lamin Barrow, S Craig Loston, DT Ego Ferguson, DT Anthony Johnson, RB Alfred Blue.

[+] EnlargeLa'El Collins
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesLa'el Collins will anchor an LSU offensive line that will try to pave the way for the Tigers' inexperienced, albeit talented, skill-position players.
Key returnees: OT La'el Collins, DE Danielle Hunter, DE Jermauria Rasco, RB Terrence Magee, CB Tre'Davious White, OG Vadal Alexander, WR Travin Dural, LB D.J. Welter, LB Kwon Alexander, OT Jerald Hawkins, S Jalen Mills.

Instant impact newcomers: RB Leonard Fournette, QB Brandon Harris, WR Malachi Dupre, WR Trey Quinn, LB Clifton Garrett, S Jamal Adams, CB Ed Paris, DB John Battle.

Breakout player: It’s tempting to focus on Hunter or sophomore cornerbacks White and Rashard Robinson here, but let’s go with Fournette. As the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect and headliner of ESPN’s second-ranked 2014 recruiting class, the star tailback has already generated a ton of buzz. Magee, Kenny Hilliard and freshman Darrel Williams will all get some touches, but anything short of immediate stardom for Fournette would be a bit of a letdown.

Key position battle: Quarterback competitions always generate the most attention, and that will be the case this August at LSU. The battle between early enrollee Harris and sophomore Anthony Jennings started in spring practice -- and the freshman won the first round by clearly outplaying Jennings in the spring game. LSU’s coaches were in no rush to name a starter at the time, though, so Jennings still has a chance to prove he deserves the job. He engineered the game-winning, 99-yard touchdown drive to beat Arkansas after replacing an injured Mettenberger and got a win (despite a disappointing performance) in his lone start, the bowl win over Iowa. Impressive dual-threat talent Harris is going to be awfully difficult to hold off, however.

Most important game: Oct. 4 at Auburn. Sure, the Alabama game (Nov. 8 at Tiger Stadium) is the game every LSU fan has circled, and the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin carries plenty of intrigue, but the Tigers’ midseason visit to the defending SEC champs might be the key to the season. LSU handed Auburn its only regular-season loss last season and has won six of the past seven in the series.

Biggest question mark: LSU is inexperienced at several key positions (most notably quarterback, receiver and defensive tackle), so the new starters’ abilities to quickly adapt to the grind of SEC football will likely determine whether the Tigers become serious contenders in the Western Division this season.

Upset special: Oct. 11 at Florida. The Tigers will be only a week removed from what could be a street fight against Auburn when they visit The Swamp. Injury-depleted Florida became a punch line last season, but the Gators have plenty of talent and a chip on their shoulders after crumbling in 2013. LSU is understandably favored here, but getting a win will not be easy here.

Key stat: 12-211. With Landry and Beckham combining for 72 percent of LSU’s receiving production (2,345 of 3,263 yards), there weren’t a lot of balls to go around to everyone else. LSU’s tight ends combined for just 12 catches and 211 yards, led by Dillon Gordon (6-88) and Travis Dickson (5-109). Cam Cameron’s offenses have typically made good use of the tight end, and the group believes it will be more active in the passing game this fall. Keep an eye on sophomore DeSean Smith (1-14), who caught a touchdown in LSU’s spring game -- a day when the tight ends combined for eight catches and 131 yards.

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Information: 8.01 wins

Bovada over-under: 9 wins

Our take: Les Miles has led the Tigers to a school-record four straight seasons with at least 10 wins. Because of the massive production losses on offense -- including the first combination of a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers in SEC history -- the Tigers are one of the biggest wild cards in the SEC. The defense looks like it’s rounding into the impressive form that characterized LSU’s best teams of the 2000s, but the Tigers’ record will likely rest on the progress the new quarterback makes, whether Fournette immediately lives up to his advance billing, and whether at least a couple of the young receivers can handle big roles. The window for this team is probably somewhere between eight and 10 wins. Let’s split the difference in our prediction and go with 9-3.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Count LSU coach Les Miles among the supporters of the NCAA Division I Board of Directors' vote on Thursday to allow more autonomy for the biggest five conferences.

The board granted new flexibility to the 65 schools from the SEC, ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and Big Ten for changing rules in specified areas, and the process could go into effect as early as Oct. 1.

“It’s fair and safe to say that those five conferences have advantages, and even within those five conferences, there’s those schools that have greater advantages,” Miles said after Thursday morning’s practice. “To me, I think that it’s a quality decision to allow like teams to be governed by like rules. I think the major five conferences should have some say.”

Native Ohioan Miles cited the Mid-American Conference as an example, noting that while he loved growing up watching teams from the conference, the smaller schools in that league simply don’t have the resources to compete with major-conference programs on an annual basis.

That, Miles said, is why Thursday’s decision benefits the big schools, and is also good for the NCAA.

“I recognize the premises by which it was always done,” Miles said. “As you were in a football job over time, you realize that the NCAA was governing a wide group of schools and it was very difficult for them to come up with rules that really fit everybody.”

Defense ahead: Miles said that LSU had installed about half of its offensive scheme by Thursday and that offensive coordinator Cam Cameron should have the entire playbook in place by next week.

As of now, the Tigers’ defense has been the more impressive group in practice.

“I think our defense is ahead. I think they’re ready for the situation and ready for the heat and the good offense and the challenge,” Miles said. “Offensively, I think we played hard and tough, but I don’t know if we quite got it done today. But that happens, and certainly happens against a good defense.

“We’ll have enough on offense, I’ll guarantee it, but it’s like this: When the defense does good, then the offense will have to answer. So that’s the challenge at this point.”

Asked about the defensive tackles, Miles said sophomore Christian LaCouture “looks really good. I think Frank Herron is a beast -- a big, strong, fast man. I think he’s learning, coming to play.”

Pocic with starters at center: Sophomore offensive lineman Ethan Pocic is known for his ability to play every position on the offensive line -- senior center Elliott Porter called him “probably the most versatile lineman I’ve seen here in about three or four years” -- but he’s listed as Porter’s backup on the preseason depth chart.

Pocic worked with the first-teamers in position drills during the early portion of Thursday’s practice that was open to the media. He lined up alongside right guard Fehoko Fanaika and right tackle Jerald Hawkins to practice a combo blocking drill with offensive line coach Jeff Grimes while Rimington Trophy watch list member Porter watched.

Porter later replaced Hawkins as a right tackle in the same drill, which backs up his comments from a day earlier, when he said many members of the offensive line occasionally work at positions other than the ones where they are listed on the depth chart.

“It gets confusing, so it gets hard. But we do hard things, and in the NFL that’s what they do, so you have to prepare for it,” Porter said. “I have to prepare to play guard. If I don’t, you don’t know how long you’re going to make it.”

Morning changes: After quarterback Anthony Jennings and running backs Terrence Magee and Leonard Fournette worked with the first-team offense in Wednesday morning’s practice, LSU switched things up again on Thursday. Quarterback Brandon Harris and running backs Kenny Hilliard and Darrel Williams were with the starters on Thursday morning, allowing Jennings, Magee and Fournette to shift back to the afternoon session.

Thursday’s practice in helmets and shoulder pads was the final day of split-squad workouts, as the Tigers will assemble for a full-squad practice -- for the first time in full pads -- on Friday.

“These two practices were teaching in nature,” Miles said. “There was not a real emphasis on the physicality, although this was a very physical practice today. What will happen when we get to the pads is there will be a little bit more emphasis on the physicality and there won’t be as many reps. There’ll be guys standing on the perimeter really waiting to go.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- By now it's no secret that LSU's offense will be loaded with freshmen and inexperienced underclassmen. Perhaps that's why offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has emphasized since spring practice that his veterans have to do more than lead by example.

"There's no room for quiet leaders anymore. It's time for people to step up and start talking," said running back Terrence Magee, an understated senior who admitted that vocal leadership does not come naturally. "And if that's what I've got to do, then I'm willing to do it."

That's a theme that has resonated throughout the offensive roster. A crew of future stars like Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupre and Brandon Harris joined the team this year, and the older players understand that the rookies need to see -- and hear -- things being done the right way.

Many older players already wanted to mentor the youngsters through their actions, but the verbal portion of leadership is new to some. Magee and senior left tackle La'el Collins both identified right tackle Jerald Hawkins as a naturally quiet starter who has become more verbal since Cameron sent that message in the spring. Collins added running back Kenny Hilliard and quarterbacks Harris and Anthony Jennings to the list of burgeoning vocal leaders.

"It's definitely more natural to me because that's just the way it was when I got here," Collins said. "That's something that I picked up on and it kind of died down a little bit, but it's just something that Coach Cam is kind of reinstating."

If Cameron's efforts are successful, they can have an impact far beyond the 2014 season as the young players continue to mature, Collins said.

"Guys around here and our younger guys especially, they need to see that. They need to see that is what sets the trend," Collins said. "That's what gets the young guys on one accord with us, makes sure we're moving in the same direction and when they become veterans, they'll be able to pass that along."

Moving around: As Coach Les Miles indicated before camp, quarterbacks Harris and Jennings switched practice groups in Monday and Tuesday's split-squad workouts. And they weren't alone.

Jennings practiced with the varsity on Monday -- a group largely composed of starters with a handful of freshmen mixed in -- and shifted to the reserves/freshmen group on Tuesday afternoon, and vice versa for Harris. That gives both players a chance to work with a full range of personnel.

"This is designed so that everybody's getting maximum reps, and it may be as deceptive as we want this linebacker to be with that linebacker so he can see it being done extremely well," Miles said. "So don't spend a lot of time saying, ‘Why's he here, why's he there?' It is fully for a teaching purpose and for everybody to get really great reps."

In addition to the quarterbacks, several other players switched from the afternoon to the morning group on Tuesday. Among Tuesday's morning newcomers were tight ends DeSean Smith and Logan Stokes, after Dillon Gordon and Travis Dickson worked with the first-teamers on Monday, and safety Jalen Mills. Backup quarterback Jared Foster also practiced with the morning group after working in the afternoon Monday.

Right guard competition: LSU has four starters back along the offensive line, but the competition for the vacant starting position could last well into the season.

Hoko Fanaika was the first to line up at right guard with the starting offensive line Tuesday, but he and fellow senior Evan Washington know their battle will truly renew once the team begins practicing in pads on Friday.

"We've been getting pretty much equal reps," Fanaika said after Tuesday morning's practice.

Miles and offensive line coach Jeff Grimes -- both former right guards in college -- have individually worked with the guards in practice this week, and Fanaika said their instruction has been helpful.

"[Miles] just pretty much sharpens up my technique," Fanaika said. "Whatever Grimes teaches me, he just adds on, so he's just helping me better my craft."

Plenty of reps for RBs: LSU has only four scholarship tailbacks on the roster -- Magee and fellow senior Hilliard, plus Fournette and fellow freshman Darrel Williams -- so there have been plenty of carries to go around for the backs in the split-squad workouts.

That's a major change for the veterans, who encountered a significantly different depth-chart situation when they first became Tigers. Hilliard was a reserve who rushed for 336 yards and eight touchdowns for the 2011 SEC championship club, while Magee played much less, totaling 27 carries for 133 yards that season as Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue and Hilliard played bigger roles.

"When I got here, it was about six or eight of us and we were fighting for reps. You might get one or two a day," Magee chuckled on Monday. "But me and Kenny, we're getting our share of them right now, and Darrel and Leonard, they're going to get their share of them this afternoon. We'll be glad when we all come together and it's all four of us so we don't have to take the whole load."

Quote of the day: Miles on watching freshman tailback Fournette practicing Monday for the first time at LSU in helmet and shorts, since the team doesn't practice in full pads until Friday: "That's kind of like having Tiger Woods on a golf course with a putter. You just want to see him tee off, don't you? Well, we have to put pads on before we can see him tee off."

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