Spring Preview: The Running Backs

This series is winding down.  After we go through the running backs, we will just have special teams to go through.  This was the one I was least looking forward to writing because the running back position is so boring.  It's the most veteran unit on the field for the Tigers, with 3 seniors at the top of the depth chart and a returning All-Conference player headlining the group.  

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Then sophomore running back Stevan Ridley went and sustained a serious knee injury that will threaten his 2009 season.  Ridley is a young running back that the coaches were very high on.  He plays similar to how a Jacob Hester plays, in that he's a hard worker, he's good on special teams, he can catch out of the backfield, and he runs hard.  He's a guy who is waiting patiently behind a lot of veterans, but he has a pretty bright future on this team.  It is hoped that he will be back in time for the Fall, but I don't think ACL tears heal all that quickly.  

If his injury lingers, it will greatly affect the Tigers 2010 and 2011 seasons, as Ridley is really the only young running back on the roster right now.  As for the 2009 season, Ridley was likely to contribute as an athletic fullback.  He wouldn't really be in the Quinn Johnson mode of a fullback.  He would have been more in the Payton Hillis mold, as a runner, catcher, and sometimes blocker from the fullback position.

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Obviously, a discussion of LSU running backs for the 2009 season begins with Charles Scott.  He is the leading returning rusher in the SEC, having rushed for 1174 yards and 18 touchdowns.  The 18 touchdowns led the conference.  The 1174 yards was third in the conference, behind only Knowshon Moreno and Glen Coffee, who are now peddling their skills for the NFL draft.

Ground Chuck or Chuck The Chuck or whatever you want to call him had a true breakout season last year, and flirted with the idea of declaring for the draft, but decided to return.  He will be a bruisingly effective runner again this year.

In Scott's first two years, he caught a number of passes out of the backfield, a dimension that seemed to disappear for him last year.  Despite Scott's generally increased role in the offense last year, his receiving numbers actually declined from his sophomore year to his junior year.  As a sophomore, he caught 12 passes for 115 yards and 2 touchdowns.  As a junior, he caught only 8 passes for 67 yards and zero touchdowns.  I chalk it up to problems Jarrett Lee had throwing screen passes, where Scott had had his most effectiveness in the passing game in 2007.

It would be nice to see that dimension re-added to Charles Scott's game in 2009.

There is some noise that Scott may be moved to fullback, as we seem to be dropping fullbacks quite rapidly.  Given Scott's effectiveness as a workhorse running back, I can only see doing that if one of the guys below really emerges.  The fullback position is highly unsettled with the injury to Ridley and to backup fullback Richard Dugas.  There are no scholarship fullbacks on the roster right now unless you count Scott.

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Senior running back Keiland Williams and junior running back Richard Murphy have seen their shares of ups and downs with the Tigers.  Both entered school in 2006 after struggles to get eligible.  Murphy redshirted and Williams worked his way up the depth chart as a freshman until he became a featured back at the end of his freshman year.

In 2007, Keiland emerged as a key player, averaging 6.8 yards per carry and scoring 6 touchdowns, making some highlight reel runs along the way.  Richard Murphy was used less frequently but showed flashes of brilliance as a redshirt freshman.

In 2008, Keiland struggled at first.  He ran tentatively and did not see the production the coaches needed to see out of him, so he did not get a lot of touches.  Towards the end of season, Keiland seemed to work out whatever problems he was having and he started being more reliable.  His most productive game as a runner was late in the season against Bama when he rushed for 88 yards on 13 carries, an average of almost 7 yards per carry.

On the season, Keiland had only 83 rushes for 417 yards.  This amounted to more rushes than in 2007, but for fewer yards.  His scoring was also down, from 6 touchdowns to 2.  Considering the breakout year Scott had, it's hard to say this was a result of poor blocking.  Hopefully, this year we will see more of the Keiland we saw in 2007 and towards the end of 2008 than we saw at the beginning of 2008.

And if Keiland Williams could be described as "struggling" in 2008, then it's hard to find a nice way to say what Richard Murphy was doing at that time.  After averaging 6.6 yards per rush as a freshman, Richard Murphy's sophomore year saw him rush for only 4.2 yards per carry.  He did not find the end zone as a sophomore.  Despite a modest increase in his number of carries, his yardage numbers declined considerably from his freshman to his sophomore year.  

He is probably best remembered for a disastrous experiment as LSU's "wildcat" quarterback in 2008.  I suppose the LSU coaches decided to implement it to get Murphy on the field more, or to try to find how he could be effective.  The formation had very limited success for LSU, and its untimely use in overtime against Bama was a significant contributor to us losing that game.

To recap, LSU had the ball first in overtime and ran Charles Scott for five yards to set up a 2nd and 5.  Instead of sticking with the power running game against a tired defensive front, we instead went with the Wildcat.  Everyone knew Murphy was taking the ball himself, and he was stopped for a loss, setting up a 3rd and long pass that was then intercepted.  Sure, Lee gets the blame for the interception, but the unwise use of the Wildcat set up the 3rd and long that made it necessary for us to pass.

Hopefully Murphy can rediscover the form that made him effective as a freshman.  We know he has it in him.  He was electric with the ball in his hands in 2007, but for whatever reason it just died in 2008, when big things were expected of him after he had had a productive and highly publicized Spring campaign.

If Murphy and Williams can find the consistency to be tailbacks, it really would free up Scott to be a fullback, and it would make this team more of a speed-oriented team.  And speaking of speed, 

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Trindon Holliday returns as a specialty player, changeup option at running back.  There is some talk he may go pro in track, but for right now he is at Spring Practice and he's working with the running backs.  Everyone knows Holliday is a speedster who cannot be caught if he gets a hole, but I have always been impressed by his toughness and willingness to run in traffic.  I don't know if he's quite as good at running between defensive linemen and linebackers as Chris Rainey and Jeffrey Demps are for Florida, but he gives it a game effort.

Those are four veteran running backs returning to this team.  It's a nice luxury to have, but you have to also think about the longer term future.  

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Drayton Calhoun from Tucker, Georgia is a true freshman who has enrolled for Spring and is taking part in Spring Practice.  He has played with the defensive backs and with the running backs.  He's a speed guy, a bit like Holliday but bigger.  If he is going to be a college running back, he will have to show the ability to run between the tackles, which is an area in which he was lacking in high school if his film was any indication.  Honestly, I thought he was a defensive back when I was following his recruiting, but he's getting a look at running back.  We'll see where he ends up.

Michael Ford will be arriving in the summer, and he looks like an outstanding running back prospect.  He and Calhoun will both have a hard time breaking into the rotation though, as there are a lot of proven guys in front of them, at least until next year.

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