Five Questions on LSU Spring Practice: Running Backs

As much as I thought this offseason would feature me actually following basketball and baseball a little more, Spring football done sprung up again, and it's time for a breakdown. There are always spring questions, and for LSU we'll break down the five most important ones at each position, starting with the bell cows of the 2012 offense, the running backs.

Running backs:

Roster Information

Height/Weight

2011 Season

No. 42 Junior Michael Ford

5'10, 215

127 carries for 756 yards (5.9 ypa), 7 TDs, 4 catches for 10 yards.

11 Junior Spencer Ware

5'11, 225

177 carries for 707 yards (3.9), 8 TDs, 11 catches for 73 yard and 1 TD. Second-Team All-SEC (Coaches)

4 Junior Alfred Blue

6'2, 215

78 carries for 539 yards (6.9), 7 TDs, 3 catches for -3 yards

27 Sophomore Kenny Hilliard

5'11, 240

62 carries for 336 yards (5.4), 8 TDs, 3 catches for 13 yards and 1 TD. SEC All-Freshman (Coaches)

14 Sophomore Terrance Magee

5'9, 212

27 carries for 133 yards (4.9), 1 TD

33 Freshman Jeremy Hill

6'2, 225

302 carries for 2,260 yards and 36 touchdowns as a senior at Redemptorist High School in 2010

Fullbacks:

44 Junior J.C. Copeland

6'0, 280

Appeared in 14 games with two carries for 0 yards

43 Sophomore Connor Neighbors

5'10, 233

No appearances

36 Junior Cleveland Davis

6'0, 289

No appearances

Should we be excited?

Well, you tell me: 87 percent of the nation's 22nd-ranked rushing offense returns, and that missing 13 percent came from quarterbacks, receivers and a single departed fullback. Thirty-three the unit's 34 touchdowns return as well, and there isn't a single senior in the group.

Most importantly, it's a versatile group. There are power backs, speed backs, receivers, blockers and two former high school quarterbacks. It's important for Tiger fans to realize that no matter how much LSU's passing offense approves in 2012, the glut of talent and depth is in the ground game.

So that would be a yes.

Who will be the lead dog in this hunt?

Go-to back is a relative term in this group but Spencer Ware, in the official sense, is the returning starter, and through the first half of the season he pile-drove opponents to the tune of a 72-ypg average with seven total touchdowns in the first seven games. But as weather turned, so did his production. Whether that's due to a one-game suspension, wearing down, the emergence of other runners or the shift to more of a spread-style running game with [quarterback redacted], Ware clearly slowed down.

Enter true freshman Kenny Hilliard, who lodged his first significant carries in Ware's absence due to said suspension and really caught fire down the stretch (7.5 ypa in the final six games, 7 touchdowns and a 100-yard outburst against Arkansas), looking like a bigger version of Ware with more of that early season burst we saw in September.

So that's 470-some pounds of beef driving the wagon train. Ware is a strong all-around back, in that he has a little bit of quickness in the open field, picks up the blitz well, can catch the ball out of the backfield and, as one of those ex-quarterbacks, gives an offense some other options as well. Staying off the baseball field will probably help with any conditioning issues, and he could probably stand to shed five pounds or so but Ware's biggest issue (aside from the obvious discipline issue), might be that he actually runs a little too violently. As weird as that is to say, at times it almost felt like Ware sought contact out at unnecessary times -- plowing into linebackers or defensive linemen he might have been able to avoid with a sidestep. While that vicious, bone-crunching style certainly helped give LSU the best fourth-quarter rushing offense in the SEC, it actually cost the team extra yardage at times, and likely played a role in his own wearing (I swear the pun's not intentional) down.

Hilliard gives the offense a second sledgehammer, and more of a prototypical I-formation tailback. He may not have Ware's versatility, but Hilliard showed more power little bit of quickness at the point of attack that I mentioned earlier. Both of these guys have also seen time at fullback, which could make for some very interesting backfield combinations if the coaching staff decides to get a little creative.

Speaking of lead blockers, J.C. Copeland might not have taken ahold of the job quite as strongly as I thought he would in 2011, but he seemed to improve each week and should have that job to himself. Frank Wilson mentioned Connor Neighbors by name in a radio interview last week, but I doubt he's much more than a depth player that can offer Copeland the occasional break at the moment.

What about Michael Ford?

It's a close competition with Russell Shepard, but the fourth-year junior from Leesville has to be most maddening offensive talent on this team. If he isn't the strongest player on the roster outright, he certainly is on a pound-for-pound basis, and is the most explosive runner in the backfield. And yet, he always leaves you wanting more. Sometimes it's poor vision on a cut, sometimes it's tip-toeing between the tackles and then there's the complete lack of value he has in the passing game, as a receiver or blocker (at times last season I honestly thought he was going to get a quarterback killed).

Ford is the very definition of a boom-or-bust running back. With an open crease, he can break any play open (especially as an option-pitch back). But on a play-to-play basis, you just don't know what you're going to get, and that inconsistency is the biggest anchor dragging him down. More than anything else, Miles wants to know his running backs can do what is asked down-in and down-out, and that just hasn't been the case with Ford the last two seasons. Sadly, I would expect more of the same in 2012: a role as the team's outside/speed runner on stretches, sweeps and (more on this later) the occasional option play. None of this is to say that Ford doesn't add a lot of value in this department -- he was the 2011 team's leading rusher for a reason after all. But if that light bulb ever did come on, LSU would have a total package runner on its hands.

How will the rest of the pecking order shake out?

Firmly planted between the two extremes of Ware/Hilliard and Ford are Alfred Blue and Terrance Magee.

Blue is a tall, long-legged slasher that can find a gap and explode on spread/outside runs, but had enough power and leg drive to pick up short-yardage when asked. He also really improved as the season went on in 2011, notching his three biggest games in the season's final five (he didn't see a carry in the other two). Plus, he's developed into one of the Tigers' best gunners and blockers on special teams.

Magee reminds me of Ware in terms of running style, with quick feet that never stop moving, only in a 212-pound body instead of a 230-pound one.

The depth chart will probably be some combination of Ware/Hilliard/Ford/Blue, with an "or" mixed in here or there. Of course the only thing that's for certain is that they will all have their chance at getting in on the act. LSU has consistently used multiple running backs under Miles, and we know that won't change in 2012, but since Frank Wilson took over coaching the position the rotation has been much more steady, and if one back gets hot, he's going to keep getting carries. Five different runners topped 90 yards in a single game last season, and it wouldn't shock me at all to see that total matched in the coming one.

Another factor to consider: three backs will be draft eligible following the coming season, which means developing the underclassmen will be important as well. Which brings us to...

Who/what is the X-Factor?

That would have to be the year-late true frosh, Jeremy Hill. Depending on which recruiting analyst you subscribe to, Hill might have been the best back in the star-studded 2011 class (No. 21 RB in the Rivals rankings, 17 in Scout), a tall, slasher type with speed, similar to Blue somewhat, but bigger. If he is, in fact, more talented than Hilliard, then Hill might be the most complete back on this roster. Size and power between the tackles but with the speed to beat defenses to the corner. As good as LSU's group of backs is, there isn't that one guy that has it all, the way a Trent Richardson or Marcus Lattimore does. Hill just might be that guy. Judge for yourself.


But at the same time, those are some lofty expectations for somebody that hasn't played a down of football in over a year, and will be nearly two removed from game action by the start of the season (Hill's legal entanglement and its resolution are well known, but here's a refresher). There are five backs that will start the spring ahead of Hill on the Tigers' depth chart, which assures that any playing time he can secure will be well-earned. But if there's a surprise that could sneak up on people this spring, it's probably him.

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