After one of the best offseasons LSU football has had in some time, the 2016 team could be poised for some great things. Les Miles has the best running back in college football, more returning starters than any other team he’s had here, and hired one of the best defensive coordinators in the country to coach a unit that returns eight starters. The pieces could easily be in place for a run at the college football playoff -- the advanced statistics back that up as well.
But as with any team, there are question marks that have to be answered. Things that have to be improved upon, or steps that need to be taken. Over the coming weeks before we get into the meat of really previewing this team, we’ll talk about some of those issues.
This week’s question will focus on how LSU’s offense can maximize the workloads of its running backs.
Leonard Fournette’s 2015 season was a historic one for several reasons. The sophomore tailback broke multiple school records, and only missed a couple of conference marks due to Derrick Henry’s own Heisman Trophy campaign.
He also became just the 10th back in SEC history to hit 300 or more carries, joining Henry and legends like Herschel Walker, Darren McFadden, Charles Alexander and…Madre Hill. Anyway, all together, Fournette touched the ball 319 times, compiling 2,206 yards from scrimmage, averaging 6.9 yards per touch.
The question is, would Fournette, and the rest of this offense, be better served by lowering that number in 2016?
It’s a weird question to ask -- should LSU give use its best weapon less? Not necessarily, but being more efficient with his workload would be a good idea for a number of reasons.
For one, it’s better for the young man’s future. A tailback only has so carries in his body, and a talent like Fournette deserves the opportunity to maximize the value of that number. Tailbacks can have brutally short professional careers, and if there’s a chance to save Fournette some wear and tear now that may help extend that career, LSU’s coaching staff has to weigh that opportunity.
For another, this offense has a pretty deep stable of tailbacks with sophomore Derrius Guice and junior Darrel Williams. All-in-all, they may be the nation’s best trio. There’s more to this running game than just Fournette left, Fournette right and Fournette up the middle.
Guice is the obvious option, with an impressive second half against South Carolina and a big, back-breaking run against Texas A&M. He’s as close to a scat-back as you can get at 220 pounds, a lose-hipped runner that excels in open space and is a big asset in the passing and return games as well. Plus, he still has the size to take a lot of the between-the-tackles, workhorse type of carries.
At the yards-per-carry rates that Fournette and Guice established last season, if 50 carries shift from Fournette’s total to Guice, it results in a higher total and better efficiency -- 2,491 yards at 7.1 yards per carry.
But it’s not necessarily just about fewer carries for No. 7. A big part of what makes a back like Fournette such a dangerous weapon, is the way that he can break a defense’s will in the fourth quarter, and that’s going to be important for LSU in big games. The offensive staff will want to be able to give him 31 carries against a team like Florida, or 28 against Mississippi State, etc… It’s the 26 carries against Eastern Michigan or Western Kentucky that could be eliminated. A better passing game will certainly help, but so could sharing the load with Guice or Williams.
Maybe the answer is to shift more of Fournette’s touches to the passing game -- he caught 19 passes last season, essentially becoming the team’s No. 3 receiving target, so the ability is there. More screen passes or swing passes might help lower the impact on Fournette, facing defensive backs a little more and defensive linemen a little less. That would also help feed continuity with Guice, who may be even more dangerous in that role and could even be useful as a slot receiver.
A new running backs coach is a variable here too. Frank Wilson was a stark contrast from his predecessor Larry Porter. Whereas Porter liked to rotate players steadily and rarely leaned on one back for 20 or more carries, Wilson had a pretty good sense of who the workhorse was, when to ride him and when to give him a break for a series or two before bringing the hammer back down again. The new guy in town, Jabbar Juluke, is almost certainly going to ride his stallion, but it remains to be seen how he’ll involve the other backs.
Make no mistake, at the biggest moments, Fournette will be on the field and he’s probably going to get the ball. Every good coach will tell you that you think “players, not plays” when things get tight. And for LSU, that’s going to mean a healthy dose of its best player. But for LSU’s offense to take the next step, it may have to modify just how it distributes that dose.