LSU 2014 Position Previews: Running Backs

Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

It may not be the big question everybody's focused on, but this is the marquee position on LSU's offense in 2014.

Roster/Depth Chart

Tailbacks

18 Terrence Magee (Sr.)

5-9, 217

86 carries for 626 yards (7.3 ypc) and 8 touchdowns, 6 catches for 49 yards.

27 Kenny Hilliard (Sr.)

6-0, 232

68 carries for 310 yards (4.6) and 7 touchdowns.

7 Leonard Fournette (Fr.)

6-1, 230

Five-star recruit.

34 Darrel Williams (Fr.)

6-0, 230

Four-star recruit.

Fullbacks

43 Connor Neighbors (Sr.)

5-11, 229

2 carries for zero yards, 7 catches for 92 yards.

49 Melvin Jones (Soph.)

6-2, 258

Played in 9 games with 1 catch for 7 yards and a touchdown.

Who Returns?

Technically only one starter, but three senior backs with a lot of experience under their belts. This unit, and likely this offense, will be led by senior tailback Terrence Magee, who was selected to wear the No. 18 this season and clearly has the admiration of his teammates.

Magee arrived in 2011, and despite playing in a backfield with Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue, Michael Ford (all of whom are still on NFL rosters) and his more-heralded classmate Kenny Hilliard, found his way on to the field. But without many carries to go around, especially with Jeremy Hill arriving, the staff moved Magee over to receiver very briefly, in some effort to get him on the field. The move was short-lived though, and last season he asserted himself as the clear No. 2 back to Hill, helping to break open the TCU game with a long touchdown run and eventually adding three 100-plus-yard games himself as the backup.

He isn't the biggest back, but Magee's short, stocky build makes him difficult to tackle, with some quick feet in the open field and a good burst. Plus, as a former high school quarterback, he brings good field vision and awareness to the backfield in the passing game, something that might come in handy this season with young quarterbacks.

Hilliard returns as a senior, and while he's never really maintained the tremendous promise he showed late in his freshman year, he's been steadily productive and carved out a niche for himself as a short-yardage specialist. He's also considered one of the leaders of this young offense, along with Magee -- some even thought he'd land the coveted 18 himself.

Their classmate Connor Neighbors will again lead the way for the Tiger running game from the fullback spot. The walk-on son of a former Alabama center, Neighbors worked his way on to the field in 2012 and has only seen his role grow. As 2013 progressed, he not only continued to take snaps from J.C. Copeland, but had supplanted him as the starter after a few games. He doesn't have the size of Copeland, or even his backup Melvin Jones, but Neighbors is a tough bowling ball that is fearless with his body and rarely misses an assignment. He even showed some acumen in the passing game last season.

Jones, a former linebacker/quarterback in high school, was a bit of a surprise contributor as a third-string fullback, but managed to earn snaps in nine games and even caught a touchdown. He's a bit bigger than Neighbors, and that gives him a little more flexibility as a runner and receiver. Look for his role to increase substantially this year.

N00bs?

Um...yeah.

Look, jokes aside, the reason this is the glamour position of LSU's offense in 2014 is because of one kid: Leonard Fournette.

Yes, he is that big of a deal. LSU recruits five-star athletes every year, but he is the single most high-profile player that has ever come out of the state of Louisiana or to the unversity. The LSU coaching staff has been recruiting Fournette since he was 15 years old, and has purposely stacked running back recruiting to give him the best opportunity possible to contribute quickly. Yes, Les Miles said as much on national signing day in 2013: outlining that LSU passed on running backs in that class with a specific person in mind.

If that seems like a lot of pressure, that's because it is. But you roll the dice for special talents, and that's exactly what Fournette is. At 6-1 and 230 pounds, he's been timed at a 4.3 in the forty and a 10.6 in the 100-meter dash. In addition to the combine numbers, he's a smart football player that has shown the ability to play on every down, play at multiple positions and be a tremendous asset in the passing game. And on top of that, he has a maturity, confidence and calmness to him that is unlike any freshman I've seen at LSU, probably since Patrick Peterson. He spouts off expectations like thousand-yard seasons, All-American status and national championship not with a brashness, but with a reasoned matter-of-factness. Like a person in complete understanding of who and what he his, and who and what he wants to be.

And to date, from every account of practice, both on and off the record, Fournette has not disappointed. Nobody surrounding the program has even attempted to dial back expectations for Fournette to date (as if such a thing were possible at this point), although after last Saturday's scrimmage, Miles downplayed the freshman's performance with an element of coyness.

Meanwhile, Fournette's classmate just happens to be another big back that only out-rushed the superstar as a senior. Darrel Williams drew some early interest from LSU as an athlete/defensive recruit, but he took that as a challenge to earn a spot at his chosen position and did as a senior. Now he'll have a similar benefit as Fournette as a member of a shallow (by LSU's standards) running back corps and ample opportunity to get on the field as a freshman.

Where's the Competition?

Well, the starting position is pretty clearly up for grabs, but with LSU's use of a committee approach there's no doubt that all four of these backs will get their carries. Truthfully, this isn't quite the depth that LSU has usually enjoyed at this spot, but baring a very extreme injury scenario, four backs should be more than enough, especially with three of the four well north of the 220-pound mark.

Most expect that Magee will get the first snaps of the year, and that's fair to suggest, though he won't keep Fournette on the sidelines long. While No. 18 lacks the size of the other backs, it's not like he's some 185-pound scatback that won't break tackles. Magee will be productive when asked, and I doubt anybody on the coaching staff would be reluctant to give him a heavy load if his play warrants it. He and Fournette are also both assets in the passing game, and you can bet that they will get their chances in some of LSU's shotgun two-back formations as well. Both backs should also fit in well to whatever type of spread running game Cam Cameron adapts to LSU's more mobile quarterbacks.

Hilliard will likely resume his designated short-yardage role, with Williams sneaking in some carries there as well. Look for both backs to also fill in as fourth-quarter closers of late, absorbing some late carries to help keep mileage off of Magee and Fournette.

And What's the Bottom Line?

LSU might not be able to trot out another Hydra backfield a la 2011, but there's still enough talent and versatility to attack a defense in a number of ways, with Fournette providing another every down, big-play power threat like the one Jeremy Hill served as a year ago. Look for Magee and Fournette to share the majority of the touches. In 2013, Magee and Hill combined for about 300 touches or so with about a 2-1 lean to Hill. Look for that number to possibly even out a bit. My guess is that Fournette will still take the lion's share, but with Magee chipping in more in the passing and return games. In general, I expect more targets for this position -- as previously discussed, for a passing game that is inexperienced at both ends, shorter throws to the running backs are a good way to massage those new quarterbacks into playmaking roles.

And of course, Hilliard and Williams will provide another set of hammers to wail away on defenses as games, and the season, drags on.

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