- Gary Laney, Reporter, GeauxTigerNation
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Kenny Hilliard took a handoff and a full head of steam into the middle of the line Saturday when Idaho safety Ryan Bass filled the hole, opting to lower his shoulder to deliver a blow on the bruising LSU sophomore for what would have been a 5-yard gain.
There was one problem: The 6-foot, 231-pound Hilliard dipped his pads even lower, delivering a blow that knocked Bass sideways to the ground.
Hilliard kept going, barely impeded by Bass' effort, and after trucking 71 yards in total, evading a chasing Justin Veltung in the process, he was in the end zone.
With it, the growing reputation for the nephew of LSU great Dalton Hilliard continued to blossom. It was just another example of Kenny Hilliard being one of the toughest runners in the SEC.
"I tell you one thing," LSU coach Les Miles said after reviewing the play, "that's a really tough tackle. When he lowers that shoulder, it's not a punishing piece, it's more of a ... he lowers that shoulder and keeps his wheelhouse, those legs, from being vulnerable and he gets really low.
"The safety just cannot make a tackle. It's not so much the contact, but the safety can't make the tackle."
That physical running style is going to be what LSU likely depends on from the start Saturday when SEC play begins against Auburn.
With Alfred Blue, the Tigers' starter in the first three games, out with a leg injury for at least the Auburn game and likely several more, Hilliard appears to be the guy in the Tigers' deep stable of backs to take his place. If so, it will be his first career start.
"I have no idea," Hilliard said when asked if he would start this week, "but I'm prepared to do whatever they ask."
So far, that's been a lot, particularly for a non-starter. In LSU's dominating 3-0 start, he has a team-best 303 rushing yards on a mere 37 carries, a healthy 8.2-yard per carry average. He and Blue both have two 100-yard games, and Hilliard has got an SEC-high six touchdowns -- two each game.
Some of it is because, as quarterback Zach Mettenberger put it, he's a "touchdown vulture," the result of his physical style allowing him to be effective near the goal line.
"I know safeties tend to cower down with they see a 230-pound train coming through the hole," offensive tackle Alex Hurst explained.
Some of his scoring success has been because of an attribute perhaps not associated with many 230-pound bruisers -- surprising speed. On the 71-yard touchdown against Idaho, once Hilliard got past Bass, he didn't get caught. His yards per carry average includes runs of 38 and 60 yards for a back who was supposed to be LSU's physical runner, the "bake" half of the "shake-'n-bake" combo with Blue.
He's a self-proclaimed 4.6 40-yard dash guy, "but I've got game speed," he explained with a smile.
Miles said he's a more complete back than the one who broke in last season, coincidentally, against Auburn.
The 2011 Auburn game, a 45-10 Tigers win, came in LSU's eighth game. To that point, Hilliard, a true freshman, had only five carries and was primarily used as a fullback capable of giving LSU a running threat at the position that James Stampley and J.C. Copeland did not.
LSU needed a bruiser at tailback against Auburn because starter Spencer Ware had to be suspended for the game for violating the team's substance abuse policy. Hilliard got his chance and made the most of it with a 10-carry, 65-yard outing.
"Spencer went down with the issue he had going on, and I was able to take his slack," Hilliard said. "That's what it's all about, picking up each other's slack and continuing to do what we do."
In that regard, Hilliard won't necessarily be called to be Blue if he starts Saturday. Blue is, along with Michael Ford, one of the Tigers' two speed backs while Hilliard, Ware and emerging true freshman Jeremy Hill come with size and power.
That should mean more chances for Ford. LSU will likely also use Ware, who missed the Idaho game with an injury, but is the best pass-protector among the LSU running backs according to Mettenberger. That could be important against an Auburn pass rush that features All-SEC defensive end Corey Lemonier.
Make no mistake though, Hilliard's role will increase this week as well, likely as the starter.
"He protects the pocket, he is good on the route, he's certainly a good ball-carrier and he protects the ball," Miles said. "He's improved."
And ready, perhaps, to take the opportunity, bowl it over like an Idaho defensive back, and run away with it.
With Alfred Blue out for No. 2 LSU, big sophomore running back Kenny Hilliard gets a chance to break out and star.