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Are 27 carries an anomaly for LSU's Leonard Fournette?

10/15/2014

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.

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.