Hester: Competition in RB rotation at LSU behind Guice
BATON ROUGE, La. – Since the 2007 five-headed monster running back corps led the way for the Tigers’ last national championship, LSU has enjoyed a seemingly limitless wishing well of talent in the backfield, featuring running backs of every size, shape and speed you can imagine.
From the days of 5-foot-5 Trindon Holliday gashing SEC defenses with his blistering speed to Jeremy Hill hurtling defenders to Leonard Fournette making GIFs out of SEC defenders, the Tigers faithful has been a bit spoiled by LSU’s riches at running back.
Despite the Tigers’ history of rotating through a roster of would-be starting running backs, LSU faces an almost unprecedented problem in 2017: a backfield full of untested talent behind the SEC’s leading rusher, junior Derrius Guice.
“It will be a little different, even going back to when Leonard (Fournette) was a freshman (in 2014),” former LSU running back Jacob Hester (2004-07) told Saturday Down South. “They still had some very good, proven running backs (including Kenny Hillard and Terrence Magee). … Having groups like that, it’s special because any of those guys can be starters. Now you’re coming into this year, where there is a lot of talent, but there hasn’t been a guy really that had to prove himself as a starter. It’s going to be a competition.”
Senior Darrel Williams, junior Nick Brossette, sophomore Landard Fournette and incoming freshman Clyde Edwards-Helaire will contend for touches within LSU’s running back rotation despite the returners recording just two starts in 59 games played.
Williams enters the summer as the Tigers’ frontrunner for the backup spot and the most experienced running back besides Guice, appearing in all but one game in the past three seasons.
Despite playing most of his LSU career at more than 230 pounds according to The Advocate, Williams focused on slimming down to 225 pounds after the 2016 season to add a quicker first step while maintaining his power running style.
“Darell is a guy who seems to be wanting that job,” said Hester, a television and radio broadcaster now after a six-year NFL career. “Every article you see (LSU strength and conditioning coach Tommy) Moffitt is talking about what he has done in the weight room, how he has lost weight. He’s gained a step … He does have experience, but there is a difference between playing experience and starter experience. Hopefully, he’ll be that guy that if for some reason that something happened and Derrius couldn’t go that he’d be able to grab the bull by the horns and be the starter.”
While Williams has impressed with his dedication in the weight room, Brossette shined in the Tigers’ spring game, showing glimpses of his 4-star recruit form coming out of University High School in Baton Rouge.
Brossette earned limited action throughout his first two years in purple and gold, tallying 17 carries in 21 games, after being beaten out by Guice as the heir apparent to Leonard Fournette. This season Brossette could become a more consistent playmaker for LSU as he continues to develop.
“It’s weird saying a junior has got to keep growing, but he just hasn’t had that time on the field,” Hester said. “You’ll see flashes of why he was so highly recruited when he has had a chance, but he just hasn’t been given many opportunities.”
At 5-foot-10, Fournette’s frame doesn’t resemble his older brother, Leonard, and neither does his style, which relies less on pure power and could be integral to new OC Matt Canada’s use of running backs in the passing game.
“What he brings is a little bit different than the other running backs; all three other running backs are much bigger guys and have different running styles,” Hester said. “If LSU decides to use a little bit more of a scat-back or a smaller back in passing situations, I think he’ll probably be the guy that they turn to. We don’t really know what to expect from Matt Canada’s offense as far as how he utilizes everybody.”
Last season, Guice tallied nine catches for 106 yards. The Tigers top two running backs combined for just 13.8 percent of all receptions. Comparatively, Canada’s top two running backs at Pittsburgh accounted for 22.8 percent of the Panthers’ total catches while notching nine receiving touchdowns in 2016.
Edwards-Helaire joins Brossette and Guice as yet another Baton Rouge native in the Tigers’ all-Louisiana backfield. Fresh off tallying 496 yards on 58 carries with 10 touchdowns during his final campaign at Catholic High School, Edwards-Helaire provides another passing-game threat out of the backfield.
In the 2015 Class 5A State Championship Game, Edwards-Helaire set the championship game record with 161 yards on eight catches while also tallying 88 yards and a touchdown on the ground, earning him the game’s Most Outstanding Player award.
Although his offensive scheme remains a mystery overall, Canada’s focus on showcasing the skill sets of each playmaker, including the running backs, was the talk of the spring.
There’s no question Guice returns as the Tigers’ top playmaker on offense. His dynamic ability to make defenders miss combined with his speed and power makes the Baton Rouge native a threat in the air and on the ground, opening up defenses on his own or acting as a decoy.
“He’s not one of those guys who thinks, ‘I’m a superstar. I’m not going to work out,'” Hester said. “He’s grinding and working harder than anybody. I fully believe that if Derrius stays healthy and everything goes his way, he’ll be one of the five names that we talk about for a Heisman Trophy, because I think he’s that talented. … There’s really not a talent or something on the football field that Derrius can’t do.”
Although Guice could be set for a historic individual season, the Tigers’ lack of a clear backup could play to Canada’s advantage, allowing him to collectively use the rest of the backfield to support Guice.
While the Tigers have excelled using a clear 1-2 punch in the backfield (prime example: Leonard Fournette and Guice in 2016) in the last few seasons, LSU’s offense thrived throughout former LSU coach Les Miles’ tenure by showcasing the depth of its running corps.
By utilizing each of these backs’ strengths in particular packages and schemes, much like former LSU offensive coordinator Gary Crowton did with the championship team in 2007, Canada can force defenses to prepare for a wide variety of skill sets, providing a change of pace and giving Guice a breather.
“Even when you go back 10 years ago to our championship season with Gary Crowton, he had special packages for each running back,” Hester said. “Everybody had a set of plays that they were good at. … (Canada) will use those running backs in different roles when years past it’s been more of a pro-style, I-backfield, hand the ball off, and there really hasn’t been a lot of moving parts.”