RB competition still going
LSU has five backs it can rely on at any point on the field
BATON ROUGE, La. -- With back-to-back 100-yard rushing games to start the season, Alfred Blue is one of the hottest running backs in the SEC.
Yet, quarterback Zach Mettenberger feels sympathy for him.
Such is life in the crowded LSU backfield. The run-first Tigers, second in the SEC in both rushing yards (279 per game, 11th nationally) and yards per carry (5.7) are five deep with tailbacks head coach Les Miles won't hesitate to use. The emergence of Copeland as a running threat from his fullback spot (he has two rushing touchdowns already) gives the Tigers six potential options on a given play.
"You can't sleep on anybody in the running back room," said Blue, the starter and, for now, the running back of the moment. He has rushed for 224 yards on 30 carries and (because of what Mettenberger says is Hilliard's touchdown vulturing) one touchdown in the first two games.
The top four running backs have had their chances to shine since the start of the 2011 season and each has taken advantage of their moment.
Spencer Ware, a bullish 225 pounder, began 2011 as the starter. But he dropped down in the rotation after a one-game suspension and a nagging injury that took a toll late in the season. Michael Ford was consistent and led the team in rushing (756 yards on 127 carries) for the season. And Kenny Hilliard emerged late to be the physical back in the rotation as Ware moved down the depth chart.
Blue was a consistent (539 yards, third on the team), if it only meant he provided depth in 2011. However, this year he's started both games and has shown a mix of explosiveness and power that has him on the verge of SEC stardom.
Add in Jeremy Hill, who made an impression during spring and August camps and the Tigers have an embarrassment of riches at the position.
"I have a competitive nature, so competition is one thing I won't be discouraged by," Ware said. "And I think I can speak for the other running backs in the room, competition is what makes you better.
"That's what makes you become a great one. And we are all good."
Ware emphatically announced his return to the competition in last week's 41-3 rout of Washington. After missing the opener against North Texas with a leg injury, Ware looked like his old self, physically punishing UW tacklers for 38 yards on nine carries that were better visually than the statistics suggested.
Ware twice ran over would-be tacklers for extra yards and had an edge to him that hasn't been seen since he started the 2011 season with 512 yards in the first seven games. He was suspended for the Auburn game then managed just 195 yards in the last six games, finishing with 707 yards.
For the first seven games of the season, he was the man at the position, seemingly headed to a 1,000-yard, breakout year. By the end, he was the forgotten man.
He's back now.
Blue has felt his presence too.
"Spencer's a great runner," Blue said. "With him starting last year, the coaches have a lot of confidence in him being back there running the ball. With me being the new starter this year, I know he's right on my back so any mistake in a game can hurt me because Spencer was their guy first and I know they've got trust in him.
"Very easily, they could just put him out there."
That could be said of any of the four. Miles sells running backs on getting out of the program with fresh legs, thus helping them extend pro careers. Usually, that might be a tough sell to the ego of an athlete who might want to be "the man" at his position.
At LSU, there's buy-in to the notion.
Hilliard, the bruising 230-pounder who already has a 100-yard rushing game and four rushing touchdowns this season, did not emerge until the Auburn game last season when he took over Ware's physical runner role and impressed with 65 yards on 10 carries in his first serious look as a true freshman.
He never looked back and started this season as part of a two-man tandem with Blue.
"We compete," Hilliard said. "But we don't compete in that style and in that way everybody thinks. We compete at practice, but it's whoever they want to put in on a given play. As a unit, we cheer each other on."
Who and when they'll be cheering is definitely up in the air.
Blue has the starting job, but knows he has to work hard to keep it. Ware is trying to get that role back. Hilliard continues to impress and score touchdowns and Ford keeps doing his thing. Hill, meanwhile, waits in the wings.
And Miles, ever the fan of power football, smiles.
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