So much of the spring practice focus will be on the quarterbacks, that it's easy to forget that the running back position bears just as much watching.
Talent? Absolutely, and plenty of it to be excited about. But how that talent will translate to roles in this offense will be pretty interesting.
42 Sophomore Michael Ford - 5'10, 205: 45 carries for 244 yards (5.4 ypa), 3 TDs, 2 catches for 30 yards, 1 TD.
11 Sophomore Spencer Ware - 5'11, 225: 24 carries for 175 yards (7.3), 1 TD, 10 catches for 101 yards.
4 Sophomore Alfred Blue - 6'2, 210: 20 carries for 101 yards (5.1), 1 TD, 1 catch for 1 yard.
27 (True) Freshman Kenny Hilliard - 5'11, 225 (conservatively): 279 carries for 1,804 yards (6.5) and 22 TDs as a senior at Patterson High School.
3 (Redshirt) Freshman Jakhari Gore - 5'9, 180: redshirted in 2010. May play wide receiver.
You have three experienced backs, but none with more than 45 carries. And while each back had their signature moments, nobody has the sort of resume that gives them a firm grip on the job. With three clean slates (plus a talented newbie), this may be one of the more competitive springs we've ever seen at this position.
It's funny to think of Michael Ford as the veteran of this group, but he's suddenly there as a redshirt sophomore now that Stevan Ridley has departed. Last year's spring game star took a little while to work his way into the lineup, but really found a niche in the season's final month in a "Mr. Outside" role on option pitches and sweeps. The Ole Miss game seemed like a coming out party, with 85 total yards and a 27-yard touchdown on an option pitch (that was scored as a forward pass), plus another apparently long run that came back when his foot hit the sideline.
Ford's easily the strongest player on the team, pound-for-pound, and those thick legs give him great burst and acceleration. But as much as the big things have been there, the little things haven't -- things like pass protection and ball security.
Spencer Ware is probably the best overall athlete of the group. His greatest hits came in the Cotton Bowl, but he saw time in some capacity in almost every regular season game and flashed a lot of versatility, catching some nice passes from the fullback spot and even throwing a touchdown in the Auburn game. Ware brings the size to handle larger workloads, and looked like Ridley's younger, faster brother Texas A&M. The experience of playing quarterback also provides Wildcat flexibility, something Steve Kragthorpe has mentioned. But one does have to wonder if spending time with the baseball team could slow his development these next few months .
Alfred Blue wasn't really one of the more high-profile recruits in the 2010 class. In fact, he wasn't even the most high-profile running back. But he established himself in the pecking order pretty quickly, getting the first carries of any of his classmates. Blue seemed the pick up the playbook, especially pass protection and blitz pick-up, which was a funny coincidence given his resemblance to the most veteran back on the team, Richard Murphy. Blue reminds me of what Murphy looked like before his various knee injuries. A tall, angular back that almost runs more like a receiver (a position some have thought he might get moved to). He does have a little more bulk than Murphy, and showed more skill in running between the tackles. However, his role decreased dramatically as Ware and Ford's increased -- he went from 13 carries over the first four games to just seven over the final nine.
Blue and Ware's classmate Jakhari Gore also generated a lot of training camp buzz, scoring reps at running back and receiver, plus some the return game. A leg injury (I can't remember if it was knee or ankle) led to the decision to redshirt him. Gore was ridiculously productive playing 6A football in Dade County, Fla. (he scored 31 touchdowns and averaged 12 yards per carry as a senior), and has been a player I've always been very intrigued with, personally. It seems like the coaches view him in a multi-purpose back/receiver combo role similar to Russell Shepard (that's how they should view Shepard anyway), and I imagine his first place on the field will be on special teams.
Early enrollee Kenny Hilliard is the wild card of this bunch. A big, powerful runner and Louisiana's all-time leading high school rusher, he's the perfect sort of back to see the field quickly. But his weight's been on the rise for the last two years and after watching him in the Army All-American Bowl, he may be pushing the 245-250 range. Job one will be shedding 10-15 pounds and getting closer to the low 230s. Seeing how Hilliard's workload is managed this spring will be very interesting to watch, though it wouldn't totally shock me if he winds up redshirting. But that's a testament to the talent already on hand.
That brings us to their other backfield mates.
35 Senior James Stampley - 5'10, 235: started six of 13 games, no carries.
44 Sophomore J.C. Copeland - 6'0, 260: appeared in 4 games with no carries.
48 Sophomore Kellen Theriot - 6'1, 234: no appearances in 2010.
32 (Redshirt) Freshman Brandon Worle - 6'2, 240: redshirted in 2010.
Who knew Quinn Johnson would leave such a void after 2008? Seems like we've been trying to find a full-time replacement ever since. James Stampley has filled in admirably at times, and is a mauler in a short area. But he struggles getting to targets in space, which is a problem on counters and sweeps. Copeland, an undersized d-tackle who seemed a sure redshirt, suddenly hit the field after midseason, but wasn't particularly impressive until the Cotton Bowl, where he paved the way for a couple of nice runs. If that's a sign of things to come, LSU may have found another dominant blocker.
Brandon Worle seemed like a shoe-in for the job last August, and maybe that's what he thought as well. He's a big, athletic back that blocked and ran hard at Troup County High School in LaGrange, Ga. -- but conditioning issues and a hamstring injury led to a redshirt. After the failure of FB prospect Dominique Allen a year ago, one has to wonder if the pressure will be on Worle to make an impact this year, or maybe get asked to move to linebacker. Theriot has battled injuries his entire career, and could be an attrition/medical hardship candidate.
Conclusions: Baseball and Kenny Hilliard are the X and Y factors here. Spencer Ware seems like the perfect all-around back for this offense, a big, strong back with the quickness to get outside and real versatility for the passing/wildcat game. But his dual focus could give Ford or Blue a chance to get out in front on the depth chart. If Hilliard hits the ground running in the weight and film rooms, he'll be hard to keep off the field as well (never mind classmate Terrance Magee when he hits campus). It wouldn't shock me if he gets some work at fullback, similar to Ware last year.
No LSU running back has topped the 250-carry mark in Les Miles' tenure, and I don't expect that to change this season. There's just too many ways to divide things up, and players like Shepard, Gore and Jordan Jefferson will steal rushing attempts away as well (Shepard's role will be discused soon). Kragthorpe's changes to the offense have to be accounted for as well, as he's already talked about decreasing the myriad personnel groupings we saw under Gary Crowton.
Ware seems to have the broadest skill-set, so I imagine he'll be the starting back with Copeland leading him in the hole. Ford will be first off the bench, with Blue in a third-down/all-purpose role.