SEC: Stevan Ridley

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.

A Decade of Les: All-Miles team

August, 8, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- With Les Miles opening his 10th season as LSU's head coach this week, we’ll use each day to review the decade with Miles helming the Tigers' program. Today we take a swing at naming a roster of the best players from the Miles era.

Let's break down the picks by offense, defense and special teams and discuss some of the tougher decisions.

OFFENSE
Among the most difficult positions to settle on were running back and wide receiver.

We went with Jeremy Hill (who set a record for a back with at least 200 carries by averaging 6.9 yards per carry in 2013) and Jacob Hester at running back. Because of his ability to play fullback, Hester -- the leading rusher on the 2007 BCS championship club with 1,103 yards and 12 touchdowns -- gets the nod over a host of talented alternatives like Charles Scott, Joseph Addai and Stevan Ridley.

[+] EnlargeJarvis Landry
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertJarvis Landry had 77 catches for 1,193 yards last season before being drafted by the Dolphins in the second round.
Receiver was an even more difficult position to evaluate. Wideouts such as Dwayne Bowe, Early Doucet and Rueben Randle all belong on the list, but we went with Jarvis Landry, whose 2013 (77 catches, 1,193 yards, 10 TDs) was the best single-season effort in the Miles era, and Brandon LaFell, a two-time All-SEC pick who is LSU's career receiving leader (2,517 yards) under Miles. We added Odell Beckham Jr. as an all-purpose player thanks in large part to a standout 2013 season (59 catches, 1,152 yards, eight TDs) when he won the Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player and ranked second nationally in all-purpose yardage (178.1 yards per game).

There are quarterbacks worth mentioning aside from JaMarcus Russell, namely Matt Flynn and Zach Mettenberger, but Russell completed one of the best seasons by a quarterback in LSU history in 2006 (232-of-342, 3,129 yards, 28 TDs) before becoming the top overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft.

La'el Collins gets the nod at one offensive tackle spot over candidates like Andrew Whitworth and Joe Barksdale, so he needs to prove he deserves that distinction this season. He has the potential to be the best pro prospect LSU has had at tackle under Miles.

LINEUP
QB: JaMarcus Russell
RB: Jeremy Hill
RB: Jacob Hester
WR: Brandon LaFell
WR: Jarvis Landry
TE: Richard Dickson
OT: Ciron Black
OG: Herman Johnson
C: Rudy Niswanger
OG: Will Blackwell
OT: La'el Collins
AP: Odell Beckham Jr.

DEFENSE
Defensive line and secondary have been loaded positions under Miles and John Chavis, so picking just two players at those positions wasn't easy.

[+] EnlargePatrick Peterson
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsPatrick Peterson won the Thorpe and Bednarik awards during the 2010 season.
At defensive end, we went with two-time All-SEC pick and eventual No. 3 overall draft pick Tyson Jackson and Sam Montgomery, LSU’s sack leader under Miles with 32.5 between 2010 and 2012, over alternatives like Barkevious Mingo and Melvin Oliver.

One tackle position was easy with 2007 Outland, Lombardi, Nagurski and Lott award winner Glenn Dorsey claiming one of the spots. The other tackle was a tough call, but we went with 2012 first-round pick Michael Brockers over a ton of great options such as Drake Nevis, Al Woods, Bennie Logan, Claude Wroten and Kyle Williams.

It would have been awfully difficult to pick just two cornerbacks if we hadn’t added a nickelback spot for Tyrann Mathieu to occupy. One of the SEC’s leading defensive playmakers of the 2000s, he definitely belongs on the roster, but Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne feel like no-brainers at corner, too.

At safety, it wasn’t much fun leaving All-American Craig Steltz off the list, but Eric Reid and LaRon Landry both made All-America teams, too -- and both of them became first-round draft picks, while Steltz went in the fourth round in 2008.

Linebackers Kevin Minter (130 tackles, 15 tackles for a loss in 2012) and Kelvin Sheppard (116 tackles in 2010) posted the top single-season tackle totals of the Miles era, while Ali Highsmith earned one All-America designation when he totaled 101 tackles and nine tackles for a loss on the 2007 BCS championship club.

LINEUP
DE: Sam Montgomery
DT: Glenn Dorsey
DT: Michael Brockers
DE: Tyson Jackson
LB: Ali Highsmith
LB: Kevin Minter
LB: Kelvin Sheppard
CB: Patrick Peterson
S: Eric Reid
S: LaRon Landry
CB: Morris Claiborne
Nickel: Tyrann Mathieu

SPECIAL TEAMS
LSU has had a bunch of electric kick returners under Miles. Peterson, Claiborne and Beckham would have been among the top options among kickoff returners, but since they're already on the roster, we went with Trindon Holliday, LSU's career kickoff return yardage leader under Miles (1,806 yards between 2006 and 2009). Peterson, Beckham, Holliday and Mathieu were phenomenal punt returners, so let’s add another new name to the list in Skyler Green, who ranks second all-time among LSU punt returners with 1,064 yards between 2002 and 2005.

It's tough to ignore LSU's single-season and career kicker scoring leader Colt David, but Josh Jasper is the most accurate field goal kicker in school history (83.9 percent) and trails only David on the kicker scoring list with 120 career points.

Brad Wing posted two of the top five seasons by a punter in school history in 2011 (an All-America season where he averaged 44.37 yards per punt) and 2012 (44.8), so he gets the nod over Derek Helton, Patrick Fisher and Chris Jackson.

LINEUP
PK: Josh Jasper
P: Brad Wing
KOR: Trindon Holliday
PR: Skyler Green
BATON ROUGE, La. -- With Les Miles opening his 10th season as LSU's head coach this week, we’ll use each day to review the decade under the eccentric Miles. Today we look back at the five best recruiting classes of the Miles era.

5. 2013
ESPN class ranking: Seventh
We’re making a call based on potential here, since several of the most talented members of this group have yet to make much of an impact (or haven’t played yet at all). Cornerbacks Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson and quarterback Anthony Jennings are the headliners thus far. But players like tight end DeSean Smith; defensive tackles Christian LaCouture, Greg Gilmore, Maquedius Bain and Frank Herron; and linebacker Kendell Beckwith could all become household names among LSU fans before the 2014 season is over.

4. 2007
ESPN class ranking: Sixth
Wide receiver Terrance Toliver was the highest-rated prospect in this 27-man class, and he had a fine college career, but other 2007 signees became the more important college players. The Tigers had three players in this signing class (kicker Josh Jasper, defensive lineman Drake Nevis and offensive lineman Will Blackwell) who became All-Americans according to at least one organization. They also had six players (Blackwell, Jasper, Nevis, defensive lineman Joe Barksdale, safety Chad Jones and running back Stevan Ridley) who made at least one All-SEC team and six (Jones, Ridley, Nevis, Barksdale, cornerback Ron Brooks and receiver Demetrius Byrd) who became NFL draft picks.

3. 2011
ESPN class ranking: 10th
No. 2 overall prospect Anthony Johnson was the biggest fish in this class, but “The Freak” didn’t quite live up to his advance billing in three seasons at LSU before becoming an undrafted free agent in the most recent NFL draft. However, this class was loaded with impact players -- including two of the most productive receivers (Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham) in school history, a pair of All-SEC offensive linemen from 2013 (La'el Collins and Trai Turner) and several others who should make an impact this season (running backs Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, defensive end Jermauria Rasco, safety Ronald Martin and defensive tackle Quentin Thomas, among others). LSU also added quarterback Zach Mettenberger as a junior college transfer and signed running back Jeremy Hill in this class, although Hill didn’t contribute as a member of the team until 2012.

2. 2014
ESPN class ranking: Second
Yes, this is completely unfair. These kids haven’t played a single snap in college yet. Much like the 2013 class, it will be several more years before we know the full impact that this class will have at LSU. But with the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect (running back Leonard Fournette), the No. 1 players at three different positions (Fournette, receiver Malachi Dupre and offensive guard Garrett Brumfield) and other exciting additions like quarterback Brandon Harris, record-setting receiver Trey Quinn, safety Jamal Adams and linebacker Clifton Garrett, this could conceivably become one of the best recruiting classes in school history before it’s all over. Miles said on national signing day that he believes this class can help LSU contend for several national championships, and it certainly has the talent to do so.

1. 2009
ESPN class ranking: First
No. 1 athlete Russell Shepard was initially the crown jewel in the nation’s top signing class, but he wasn’t the guy who eventually made this such a successful class. Sure there were several star prospects who panned out in this class -- including No. 1 safety Craig Loston, No. 1 receiver Rueben Randle, No. 2 defensive end Sam Montgomery and No. 11 outside linebacker Kevin Minter -- but the Tigers got as much out of the players who weren’t considered to rank among the highest-rated signees at the time. The Tigers signed 10 ESPN 150 honorees in the 25-man class. Among those who didn’t make the list of the top 150 prospects: cornerback Morris Claiborne; defensive linemen Michael Brockers, Barkevious Mingo and Bennie Logan; offensive lineman Chris Faulk and linebacker Lamin Barrow. Claiborne, Brockers and Mingo all became first-round NFL draft picks, and five members of that group made at least one All-SEC team.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- With Les Miles opening his 10th season as LSU’s head coach today, we’ll use each day this week to review the decade under the eccentric Miles. Today we look back at some of the wacky moments, gutsy decisions and memorable press conferences that helped define Les as the entertaining figure that he is today.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesLes Miles has been known to keep things interesting on the LSU sideline.
 10. The Harlem Shake: LSU wasn’t left out of the “Harlem Shake” video craze that swept the nation last spring. In the Tigers’ version, it first appears as if they are participating in their regular “Big Cat” drill before Miles breaks into an awkward solo dance while the players “argue” behind him. Then the beat drops and mayhem ensues.

9. “It must have been the shoes:” The Legend of Les was already fully developed even before he filmed a 2011 backyard basketball video where he went from hapless to hero while playing against (and dunking on) two of his children. The secret weapon in Miles’ turnaround was a pair of purple-and-gold high tops sent by ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt following an on-air conversation where he made fun of Miles’ all-white game shoes.

8. Les being Les: Unlike many of his buttoned-up counterparts, Miles has never been afraid to show off his oddball side. It’s not particularly unusual to see him answer a reporter’s phone during a press conference, clap like a weirdo or fill everyone in on the difference between Columbus Day and St. Patrick’s Day. Nor is it surprising to see him kiss a pig or rappel off the side of a 24-story building, all in the name of charity. Around Baton Rouge, that’s simply known as Les being Les.

7. Crazy wins vs. Tennessee, Florida: Another example of Les being Les is how his teams have found some wild ways to win (and occasionally lose) ballgames. Two perfect examples came in back-to-back weeks in 2010, when LSU beat Tennessee and Florida to miraculously improve to 6-0.

First, the Tigers were on the verge of a devastating home loss to Tennessee -- and it looked like that’s exactly what happened when the Volunteers thwarted LSU’s last-gasp effort to score at the goal line. However, the referees determined that on the chaotic final play, the Vols actually had 13 defenders on the field instead of the allowed limit of 11. The ensuing penalty gave LSU one final chance to score, and Stevan Ridley plowed into the end zone on that play to give LSU a 16-14 victory.

Miles caught plenty of grief over the next week about LSU’s sloppy final moments in regulation before the Tennessee penalty bailed out the Tigers. It would have been understandable if he became a bit gun shy, but timidity is not in Miles’ DNA. When the Tigers’ final drive stalled late in the Florida game, Miles sent out Josh Jasper to attempt the game-tying field goal -- or so we all thought. Instead, holder Derek Helton flipped the ball over his head to Jasper on a fake field goal, and the kicker’s 5-yard run achieved a first down that kept the drive alive.

The Tigers eventually scored the game-winning touchdown on a 3-yard pass from Jarrett Lee to Terrence Toliver with six seconds to play. It was yet another example of how you never know what to expect when Miles is making decisions on the sideline.

6. Fourth downs vs. Florida: Miles already had an SEC West title on his résumé when his third team at LSU in 2007 became one of the most impressive college football squads of the 2000s. There are plenty of moments from that BCS championship season that helped cement Miles’ risk-taking reputation, but among the most memorable were his decisions to go for it on fourth down against Florida over and over. In all, Miles and the Jacob Hester-led Tigers went for it on fourth down five times. They achieved a first down or a touchdown all five times in knocking off the defending BCS-champion Gators 28-24 in one of the greatest games ever played at Tiger Stadium.

 5. “Give them a big kiss on the mouth:” It’s difficult to say whether Miles is better known for the wacky things he says behind a microphone or for the gutsy -- and sometimes crazy -- calls he makes on the field.

We’ve already discussed a couple of the crazy calls. Now let’s touch on one of the most memorable press conferences. Following a narrow 2012 win over Ole Miss, he launched into a profane rant that evolved into a standup comedy routine. In response to a story that characterized receiver (and former hotshot recruit) Russell Shepard’s college career as a disappointment, Miles vehemently defended the contributions his seniors (including Shepard) had made to the program.

The rant ended with Miles instructing those within earshot, “You go find them, you throw your arms around them, you give them a big kiss on the mouth … if you’re a girl,” before breaking into a wacky grin as the reporters in attendance laughed.

4. Touchdown bomb against Auburn: In yet another perfectly Les moment from the 2007 season, Miles’ Tigers were in position to kick the game-winning field goal while trailing Auburn 24-23 in the final minute.

Tommy Tuberville’s defense might have expected LSU to down the ball in the middle of the field to set up a more manageable kick, but Miles had other ideas -- and the unorthodox call caught Auburn off guard. LSU quarterback Matt Flynn dropped back and hit Demetrius Byrd with a 22-yard touchdown pass with just 1 second showing on the clock. The enormous risk had paid off, and two weeks after the amazing Florida win, the Tigers delivered some more Miles magic.

3. The Mad Hatter: Miles has been given plenty of nicknames through the years -- some more family-friendly than others -- but the one that seems to resonate most is “The Mad Hatter.” ESPN’s Rece Davis apparently gave Miles that one, in part because of the white ball caps that awkwardly sit atop his head each fall Saturday and in part because of Miles’ general craziness that we’ve already covered, even if he once told sideline reporter Holly Rowe, “Understand something, it’s the hat I wear. There’s nothing mad underneath it.”

2. Eating grass: Shortly after LSU scored the go-ahead touchdown in a 2010 win against Alabama – just before the Tigers attempted a two-point pass that would put them up 21-14 – CBS’ TV cameras caught Miles in the middle of an unusual ritual that he said dates back to adolescence. He leaned down, pinched a blade or two of grass and put it in his mouth.

Miles has made hay out of his grass-eating ways since then, even participating in an ESPN commercial that gleefully ridiculed the practice.

1. “Have a great day:” One of the most unorthodox moments from Miles’ first nine seasons at LSU came when he participated in an impromptu press conference BEFORE the 2007 SEC championship game in order to shoot down a report that he was preparing to leave to coach at his alma mater, Michigan.

Miles told those in attendance that, “I’ve got a championship game to play, and I’m excited about the opportunity of my damn strong football team to play in it. … Please ask me [about Michigan] after. I’m busy.”

His smirking line to close, “Have a great day,” was so memorable that LSU added those words to the rear door of the football team’s equipment hauler.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Kenny Hilliard walked into the first player interview session of LSU's August camp Monday looking rather svelte.

"I'm 230 pounds," he said with pride, while explaining how he lost about 10 pounds since the 2012 season by consulting with a dietician and cutting out the fast food and soul food he loves.

A short while later, Alfred Blue came out, looking confident and healthy, far from a guy who was lost for the season to a knee injury last year in Week 3.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Hill
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertJeremy Hill led LSU in rushing with 755 yards in 2012.
"There's no fear," Blue proclaimed. "I just go out there and what happens, happens. Physically, I'm there. I'm 100 percent."

The "other" two backs in LSU's now deeper stable are the reasons why Jeremy Hill’s return to the lead role might not transpire. Hill, who had a judge extend his probation for carnal knowledge of a juvenile instead of sending him to jail, rejoined the Tigers Monday. He led the team with 755 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman last year, but that production can’t be assumed.

To see why look at where Blue and Hilliard have been, what they are capable of and Miles' history with running backs.

Blue, a senior, was the opening day starter in 2012. And Blue was fast emerging as one of the SEC's up-and-coming stars when he suffered a torn ACL against Idaho, ending his season just as it was heating up.

Before the Idaho game, he had become the first LSU back to open the season with back-to-back 100-yard rushing games since 2008.

As for Hilliard, before Hill ever got his big chance, Hilliard had already made the SEC's all-freshman team in 2011. He fumbled twice in the Towson game in Week 5 and put himself into the doghouse and opened the door for Hill, who did most of his damage in the second half of the season.

"I had a bad game against Towson and they kind of held me accountable for it," Hilliard said.

Furthermore, at LSU, the norm has been to ride the hot back until he either gets hurt (like Blue) or in the doghouse (like Hilliard after the fumbles). Some, like Jacob Hester (2007) and Stevan Ridley (2010), prove to be durable and consistent enough to carry the load to the finish line.

That's more the exception than the rule.

Spencer Ware, the 2011 starter, lost his starting job after being suspended for the Auburn game for testing positive for synthetic marijuana. He was never the "man" in the LSU backfield again.

In 2012, with the injury to Blue and with Hilliard from favor, Ware still could not reconnect to his pre-suspension role. Before the Auburn suspension, Ware had 20-plus carries in five of LSU's first seven games in 2011, with the only exceptions being two blowout, bench-clearing wins.

In his final 18 games as a Tiger, he never toted the ball 20 times in a game again.

Could this be Hill's fate?

He is, after all, is a rare talent who many thought stood out among the crowd of backs who have taken their turns in LSU's backfield in recent seasons.

Even with his enormous talents, he has work to do. After all, it was Blue, not Hill, who was the opening day starter last year and who's to say a healthy Blue, whose receiving skills make him a great fit in Cam Cameron’s offense, wouldn't have earned that job back anyway? And while Hill appeared to be a faster version of Hilliard, will he still be faster than the lighter Hilliard?

While Miles welcomed Hill back to the team Monday, he also suggested he is playing catchup. Blue is running with the first team. Hilliard's in the mix. Hill, meanwhile, looks like he needs work.

"He's rusty as heck," Miles said after Hill's first practice. "I guarantee he didn't look anything like the Jeremy Hill we saw before. He better get back to practice if he expects to play at all."

That might sound like a lenient coach suggesting that all a troubled player needs to do is practice hard to get back to good graces.

As Hilliard and Ware in particular can attest, it's not that simple.

Hill may be back, but when, if ever, will he back?

Lunchtime links

February, 1, 2012
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I know you're focused on recruiting, but we still have some links for you.

Hogs lead way with 1,000-yard rushers

April, 7, 2011
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Going back to my post on potential 1,000-yard rushers next season in the SEC, I thought it would be interesting to see who has produced the most 1,000-yard rushers in the league over the past five seasons.

That would be Arkansas with six, including four different players. Darren McFadden did it twice, and so did Felix Jones. In fact, they both rushed for 1,000 yards in the 2006 and 2007 seasons.

Florida and Vanderbilt have not had a 1,000-yard rusher over the past five seasons.

The Gators’ last 1,000-yard rusher was Ciatrick Fason in 2004 with 1,267 yards. The last time the Commodores produced a 1,000-yard rusher was Jermaine Johnson in 1995 with 1,072 yards.

Last season, Marcus Lattimore became the first South Carolina player to rush for 1,000 yards since Derek Watson had 1,066 yards in 2000.

Here’s a rundown:

Arkansas: 6 (Darren McFadden 1,830 yards in 2007, Darren McFadden 1,647 yards in 2006, Knile Davis 1,322 yards in 2010, Felix Jones 1,168 yards in 2006, Felix Jones 1,113 yards in 2007, Michael Smith 1,072 yards in 2008)

Auburn: 3 (Cam Newton 1,473 yards in 2010, Ben Tate 1,362 yards in 2009, Mike Dyer 1,093 yards in 2010)

LSU: 3 (Charles Scott 1,174 yards in 2008, Stevan Ridley 1,147 yards in 2010, Jacob Hester 1,103 yards in 2007)

Ole Miss: 3 (Dexter McCluster 1,169 yards in 2009, BenJarvus Green-Ellis 1,137 yards in 2007, BenJarvus Green-Ellis 1,000 yards in 2006)

Tennessee: 3 (Montario Hardesty 1,345 yards in 2009, Arian Foster 1,193 yards in 2007, Tauren Poole 1,034 yards in 2010)

Alabama: 2 (Mark Ingram 1,658 yards in 2009, Glen Coffee 1,383 yards in 2008)

Georgia: 2 (Knowshon Moreno 1,400 yards in 2008, Knowshon Moreno 1,334 yards in 2007)

Mississippi State: 2 (Anthony Dixon 1,391 yards in 2009, Anthony Dixon 1,066 yards in 2007)

Kentucky: 1 (Rafael Little 1,013 yards in 2007)

South Carolina: 1 (Marcus Lattimore 1,197 yards in 2010)

SEC weekend combine recap

February, 28, 2011
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Over and above A.J. Green and Julio Jones, here's a quick snapshot of some of the highs and lows involving SEC players at the NFL combine this past weekend:

Auburn quarterback Cam Newton tested extremely well. His 10-6 broad jump tied for the best among quarterbacks, and he also ran a 4.59 in the 40-yard dash, which tied him for third fastest among quarterbacks. But in some of his passing drills, he struggled, in particular the shorter and intermediate routes. His timing was a bit off, too, and at one point, he sailed three out routes over the heads of his receivers.

Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett, along with Florida State's Christian Ponder, turned in the best passing performances of the day, according to Todd McShay and Kevin Weidl of ESPN's Scouts Inc. Mallett has the strongest arm of the quarterback class, and according to the Scouts Inc. crew, the ball exploded out of his hand. He also demonstrated nice touch on his passes.

Kentucky receiver Randall Cobb helped himself with a 4.46 in the 40, which was faster than a lot of people expected. Cobb also impressed with his route-running.

Auburn's Mario Fannin had the second fastest 40 time among running backs (4.38). Kentucky's Derrick Locke was tied for third (4.4). Fannin and Locke tied for fifth with a 37.5-inch vertical jump.

Alabama's Mark Ingram didn't run a particularly fast 40 time (4.63), but the three-year average for the running back position is a 4.59. Plus, Ingram fared very well in the drills with his balance and lateral agility.

Georgia outside linebacker Justin Houston was second among linebackers with 30 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.

LSU's Stevan Ridley was fourth among running backs with a 6.78 in the 3-cone drill. Ridley ran a 4.66 in the 40.

LSU's Terrance Toliver was third among receivers with a 6.48 in the 3-cone drill.

Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus checked in at 6-3 and 319 pounds, while Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley wasn't as tall or as big as expected. He was 6-3 and 291 pounds. He was listed at 6-5 while playing at Auburn.

Some of the other 40 times from SEC receivers were: Tennessee's Denarius Moore (4.45), Auburn's Darvin Adams (4.56), South Carolina's Tori Gurley (4.56) and LSU's Terrence Toliver (4.59).

Some of the bench-press numbers among SEC offensive linemen were: Florida's Marcus Gilbert (30 reps), LSU's Joseph Barksdale (29), Georgia's Clint Boling (28), Arkansas' DeMarcus Love (27), Alabama's James Carpenter (23), Mississippi State's Derek Sherrod (23), and Auburn's Lee Ziemba (20).

The SEC's 25 best players: No. 21

February, 18, 2011
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Breaking into our countdown at No. 21 is a guy who had 57 career carries coming into last season.

[+] EnlargeStevan Ridley
Charles Small/US PresswireLSU's Stevan Ridley had 1,147 rushing yards in 2010, the seventh highest total in school history.
No. 21: Stevan Ridley, RB, Jr., LSU

2010 numbers/honors: Finished fourth in the SEC in rushing with 1,147 yards and also scored 15 touchdowns. A first-team All-SEC selection by the coaches and second-team All-SEC selection by the Associated Press.

Preseason ranking: Not ranked in the 2010 preseason countdown.

Making the case for Ridley: When you start talking about the impact a player has on his team, imagine the LSU offense last season without Ridley. He was the Tigers’ offense and carried the load over and over again with 249 carries, tying South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore for the most in the SEC among running backs. LSU went from 122.8 rushing yards per game in 2009 to an average of 185.7 yards last season, and a big part of that was Ridley’s bruising running style. One of those backs who’s constantly churning for extra yardage, the 6-foot, 223-pound Ridley helped keep the chains moving for the Tigers despite any real threat of a passing game for most of the season. He averaged 91.5 yards against SEC defenses and ended his LSU career with a 105-yard rushing effort against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. His 1,147 yards marked the seventh highest single-season rushing total in LSU history. Ridley decided to bypass his senior season and enter his name into the upcoming NFL draft.

The rundown

No. 22: Mississippi State OT Derek Sherrod

No. 23: Alabama DE Marcell Dareus

No. 24: Kentucky LB Danny Trevathan

No. 25: Alabama LB Courtney Upshaw

The SEC's most improved players in 2010

January, 27, 2011
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We’re not going to completely turn the page on the 2010 season.

I’ve spent much of this week compiling the 10 players that I thought were the most improved players in the SEC this past season.

We’ll name it the All-Nick Fairley Team, which ought to tell you who the captain of the team is.

Here goes:

1. Auburn junior defensive tackle Nick Fairley: He went from two starts and 3.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore to the Lombardi Award winner and most dominant interior defensive lineman in college football as a junior. He led the SEC with 24 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks and could end up being the No. 1 pick overall in April’s NFL draft.

[+] EnlargeArkansas running back Knile Davis
AP Photo/Danny JohnstonKnile Davis scored 14 touchdowns last season.
2. Arkansas sophomore running back Knile Davis: He had trouble overcoming injuries and a crowded Arkansas running back stable earlier in his career. But after rushing for only 163 yards as a freshman, Davis exploded this season to lead all SEC running backs with 1,322 yards.

3. Mississippi State junior quarterback Chris Relf: He got better all season, but saved his best game for the Gator Bowl when he passed for three touchdowns and ran for one in the 52-14 rout of Michigan. Relf finished with 13 touchdown passes and only six interceptions and was second on the team in rushing with 713 yards to go along with five more touchdowns.

4. Alabama sophomore safety Robert Lester: After playing mostly on special teams as a redshirt freshman, Lester was presented with a huge opportunity this season with the Crimson Tide losing just about everybody from their secondary on the 2009 national championship team. He responded by tying for second nationally with eight interceptions.

5. Ole Miss junior offensive tackle Bradley Sowell: Remember Sowell trying to block South Carolina’s Eric Norwood early during the 2009 season? It was a mismatch, but Sowell came back strong later that season and even stronger this season, settling into his left tackle spot and earning second-team All-SEC honors from the Associated Press.

6. LSU junior running back Stevan Ridley: What Ridley really needed was a chance, and he got one this season. He finished with 1,147 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns and was the heart and soul of the LSU offense. That’s after combining for 57 carries and 272 yards in his first two seasons. Ridley entered his name in the NFL draft following the season.

7. Kentucky senior quarterback Mike Hartline: The suspension for the bowl game was unfortunate, but it doesn’t diminish what was a brilliant senior season for Hartline. He’d been plagued by inconsistency throughout much of his career and had the knee injury as a junior, but passed for 3,178 yards and 23 touchdowns while completing 66.2 percent of his passes this season.

8. Kentucky senior receiver Chris Matthews: In his first season at Kentucky after coming over from junior college, Matthews showed flashes. But this season, he emerged as one of the most productive receivers in the league. He was second only to South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery with six touchdown catches against SEC competition.

9. Tennessee sophomore cornerback Prentiss Waggner: He moved from safety to cornerback midway through the season, developing into one of the best ball hawks in the league. Waggner intercepted five passes, returning three for touchdowns, on his way to second-team, All-SEC honors by the Associated Press. That’s after finishing with six total tackles and no interceptions as a redshirt freshman.

10. Arkansas senior linebacker Anthony Leon: A position change made a world of difference for Leon, who seemed a step slow at safety, but was a disruptive force at outside linebacker. He was one of the chief reasons the Hogs improved so much this season on defense and finished second on the team with 12.5 tackles for loss.

LSU's Ridley leaving early for NFL

January, 13, 2011
1/13/11
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The door just swung open a lot wider for LSU running backs Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Alfred Blue.

Stevan Ridley has decided to declare for early entry into the NFL draft and won't return for his senior season. He led the Tigers in rushing this season with 1,147 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Ware, a true freshman, had a big AT&T Cotton Bowl with 102 yards on 10 carries. He's one of those guys who could easily be one of the top breakout players in the SEC next season. Ford, a redshirt freshman, and Blue, a true freshman, have also shown a lot of potential.

Here's an updated list of the SEC underclassmen declaring for the NFL draft. The deadline to declare is Saturday:

LSU runs all over A&M Wrecking Crew

January, 8, 2011
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- LSU knew what it wanted to do, or needed to do, rather.

Texas A&M finished its season as the Big 12's best rush defense, reclaiming the "Wrecking Crew" nickname in the process.

"We had to mix it up," said Tigers offensive coordinator Gary Crowton. "We felt like if we could loosen them up with some big passes, we'd be able to run the football."

Few figured the Tigers would have the kind of success they did doing both, but they did. Quarterback Jordan Jefferson had thrown four touchdown passes in 12 games entering Friday's Cotton Bowl, including just two in his past 11 games.

[+] EnlargeLSU's Terrence Toliver
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezLSU softened the Texas A&M defense with long passes to Terrence Toliver, who finished with a three touchdown catches. The Tigers then ran for 288 yards.
He threw three on Friday, and two were longer than 40 yards, softening up the Aggies defense exactly as planned to help beat Texas A&M 41-24 in the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic in front of 83,514 fans at Cowboys Stadium.

"I thought he threw the ball about as good as I've seen him throw on tape," Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman said. "He was decisive, aggressive and accurate."

With Jefferson keeping the Aggies honest, LSU rolled over the Wrecking Crew for 288 rushing yards. Running backs Stevan Ridley and Spencer Ware both topped 100 yards, and Jefferson made a handful of plays with his legs, extending drives on third down on plenty of occasions and finishing with 67 yards on 12 carries.

"For our run game, I thought we were doing a really good job of dominating the line of scrimmage," Crowton said.

Early on, the Aggies were up 10-0, but with one torque of a knee they were down a leader. Senior linebacker Michael Hodges suffered a sprained ACL in the first quarter, and Texas A&M's leading tackler never returned.

"He is the heart and soul of our defense in many ways," Sherman said. "At the same time, you can't use that as a reason why we didn't perform the way we should have been capable of performing. ... One guy gets hurt, another guy has to step in and make the play."

His replacement, Kyle Mangan, managed just four tackles, the same amount Hodges had already accumulated in the first quarter.

"I think Kyle, put in the situation he was in, he played well," defensive end Lucas Patterson said. "You can't replace a player like Hodges."

With Jefferson having one of his best games of the year, and the Aggies patching together a run defense that often looked out of character, there was little expectation after Texas A&M's 10-0 lead had evaporated that chants of "Wrecking Crew" would make an encore in Cowboys Stadium.

Early on, it might have. Jefferson's first deep pass -- and the Tigers first attempt to soften the defense -- was interecepted with one hand by Coryell Judie. But Jefferson's first of three connections in the end zone with senior receiver Terrence Toliver assured an end to the Aggies' six-game winning streak.

"I came back with the next deep ball call when we got in the right situation," Crowton said. "Jordan stood in there, took a big hit, but got the touchdown. I knew we'd be alright from that point on because we were going to run the ball. We pound it in there."

The Aggies had no answer for the majority of the night. Gaps went unfilled and runners sliced through wide lanes. The Tigers ran the ball 55 times, and averaged 5.2 yards per carry.

"Our offensive line came to play," LSU coach Les Miles said. "Our offensive line said this is a challenge they wanted. I think they played to that challenge."

AT&T Cotton Bowl keys: LSU

January, 6, 2011
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Here are three keys for LSU in its AT&T Cotton Bowl matchup Friday night against Texas A&M:

1. Make the Aggies go the distance: If LSU’s defense could take away a few big plays the Tigers gave up in both the Auburn and Arkansas games, they might be playing in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game on Monday night. Keeping the Aggies from striking quickly and making them drive the football the length of the field will be critical for LSU in this game. The Tigers struggled in that department at the end of the regular season.

2. Hit some plays in the passing game: Getting leading rusher Stevan Ridley back for this game after he was initially ruled ineligible was a huge win for the Tigers. But he can’t do it by himself. LSU will need to spread out that Texas A&M defense by hitting some plays in the passing game, similar to what the Tigers did in their win against Alabama. The threesome of Terrence Toliver, Rueben Randle and Russell Shepard will all have opportunities to make plays down the field and need to take advantage of them. LSU had just seven touchdown passes and 10 interceptions during the regular season.

3. Play with the lead: The tricky part for the Tigers is throwing the football when they want to, not when they have to. That’s going to entail playing well early and making Texas A&M play from behind. The Tigers’ comfort zone is running the ball, controlling the clock and then loading up and coming after the other team on defense. They’re completely out of their element if Jordan Jefferson is having to throw the ball to make up deficits.
LSU shoots for its fourth 11-win or better season under Les Miles when it takes on Texas A&M on Friday at 8 p.m. ET on FOX.

Here’s a quick preview of the AT&T Cotton Bowl:

WHO TO WATCH: Now that his eligibility has been restored, LSU junior running back Stevan Ridley should be raring to go. He’s been practicing with the Tigers all along and waiting to hear on his appeal. The news came earlier this week that he would be allowed to play. That’s obviously good news for the Tigers, who leaned heavily on Ridley this season. For much of the year, he was their only offense and enters this game with 1,042 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. He’s a power runner who also has the speed to break away and get yards in chunks. The Tigers will need him to be effective on first down running the ball.

WHAT TO WATCH: LSU finished up the regular season with strong defensive numbers, but the Tigers seemed to lose a little bit of their edge in those final few games and gave up too many big plays. Can they get that edge back against Texas A&M? This will almost certainly be junior cornerback Patrick Peterson’s final game in an LSU uniform. Peterson is expected to declare for the NFL draft after winning several national awards this season. The burden will be on the Tigers’ defense similar to the way it’s been all season. They’re holding teams to an average of 17.8 points per game, which ranks ninth nationally.

WHY TO WATCH: The rumblings about LSU coach Les Miles and Michigan are heating up, even though Miles said he hasn’t been contacted by Michigan and that he doesn’t think anybody at LSU has any reason to be concerned about his possibly returning to his alma mater. It will be interesting to see how the Tigers play with all this shaking about Miles and Michigan. They ended the regular season with a disappointing loss to Arkansas. Texas A&M, meanwhile, has won six in a row. This is a renewal of a longstanding rivalry between the teams, although they last met in 1995.

PREDICTION: LSU 24, Texas A&M 20. Miles had been perfect in bowl games at LSU until last season’s loss to Penn State in the Capital One Bowl. Getting Ridley back for the bowl game was huge for the Tigers. Now, they won’t have to rely as much on their passing game, which was terribly inconsistent this season. The difference will be LSU’s team speed on defense and the Tigers’ ability to create some timely turnovers in the second half.
LSU and Stevan Ridley got the news they were hoping for this week.

Ridley, the Tigers' leading rusher, was cleared by the NCAA to play in Friday's AT&T Cotton Bowl game against Texas A&M.

Ridley had been ruled ineligible because of an academic dishonesty issue, but LSU appealed on Ridley's behalf. The news came down Monday that Ridley's eligibility had been restored for the bowl game and that he wouldn't face any sanctions during the 2011 season.

Getting Ridley back is a huge coup for the Tigers, who struggled all season on offense. In fact, Ridley was the only real constant on offense for LSU, which finished 11th in the SEC in total offense. He rushed for 1,042 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Even though he was ruled ineligible during the pre-Christmas practices, he has continued to practice with the Tigers and should be ready to go in the bowl game.

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