LSU won't sniff SEC West contention if it doesn't fix its running game issues from 2020
Lost in the shuffle of the mess that was LSU’s 2020 season was the strange and notable absence of an elite running game.
Forget elite. LSU didn’t even flirt with a mediocre run game last year.
The Tigers were No. 110 in FBS in rushing yards per game, and they were even worse at No. 113 in yards per carry (3.3). From an efficiency standpoint, it was shades of 2018 when LSU ranked No. 92 with 4.0 yards per carry. The difference between those years was that LSU team still was mediocre from a yards per game standpoint. And, well, that team won a New Year’s 6 bowl.
Last year’s team was closer to 3-7 than some care to remember, though a thrown shoe in The Swamp and a horrible display of tackling from Ole Miss turned 3-7 into 5-5. LSU only had 3 backs produce 100-yard games all season, and there was a different leading rusher in the last 4 games of the season.
Does LSU need Leonard Fournette 2.0 to have a bounce-back season? No. Thankfully, this offense is now plenty capable of winning with the passing game, and it showed it could do so with several different quarterbacks in a disappointing 2020 season.
But does LSU need its running game to be significantly better in 2021 to sniff SEC West competition? Absolutely.
Now obviously that’s not the only thing that needs fixing. Daronte Jones inherited Bo Pelini’s defense, which somehow finished dead last in FBS defending the pass despite the fact that it had Derek Stingley and Eli Ricks playing football. That’ll go down as an all-time baffling feat.
The running game, though, has a major task ahead. It must improve without really a ton of changes in personnel. Chris Curry transferred to Utah and a pair of 4-star backs are set to enroll this summer.
Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery are expected to be the main backfield duo after leading the team in rushing yards with 446 and 378, respectively. They weren’t the most efficient players, but both were in the top 20 among SEC backs in PFF run grade (Davis-Price was No. 12 and Emery was No. 17). Some of the sack numbers with relatively immobile quarterbacks for the majority of the year — until Max Johnson took over — skewed the rushing totals.
Yet at the same time, neither Davis-Price nor Emery had consecutive games with 40 rushing yards in 2020. Even the best games didn’t come easy:
Should be a loss of 3.
Turns into a gain of 7.
John Emery had 59 of 103 yards after contact Saturday.
Averaged 4.9 yard per carry AFTER contact. pic.twitter.com/iHneKgter9
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) October 5, 2020
So why was their play inconsistent?
A few reasons. None of them really had that “I’m taking over” game and ran away with the starting job. They each only had 1 run of 25-plus yards all season. Davis-Price’s came when LSU was blowing out South Carolina and Emery’s came in that blowout loss to Alabama. Neither are home-run play guys and neither really provided a lift in the passing game (either as a receiver or in pass protection). With LSU always seemingly in a hole because of its defense, those 20-carry games that both probably coveted just weren’t there.
Obviously, part of that fell on the new-look offensive line that LSU rolled out in 2020. It returned just 1 starter from the 2019 Joe Moore Award-winning group. One would think this 2021 group stands to be much better by virtue of returning all of its starters. Continuity fueled the 2019 group. In LSU’s perfect world, that’ll fuel the 2021 group, too.
Much was made about the lack of adjustments made in pass protection, where LSU struggled. Only 4 SEC teams allowed more sacks per game than LSU. Again, Myles Brennan and T.J. Finley, who started 8 of LSU’s 10 games, weren’t the most mobile, though there was plenty of blame on the offensive line. It’s hard to turn to the run consistently if you’re playing behind the sticks that much.
Ed Ingram had PFF’s No. 4 run-blocking grade among SEC guards (1 spot ahead of third-round pick Ben Cleveland), but among LSU’s 4 other offensive line starters, nobody had a run-blocking grade better than 69.6. There’s room for improvement up front, even with a multi-year starter like Austin Deculus, who is the lone remaining starter from the 2019 squad (Ingram got 2 starts that season).
This year’s group would love nothing more than to follow that 2019 script. That team actually ran the ball less frequently than the 2020 team, but it did so a full 1.6 yards per carry better.
Efficiency is the name of the game for the LSU ground game in 2021. Even in this era of high-octane passing offenses, go back and look at the FBS ranks in yards per carry of each SEC West winner in the Playoff era:
- 2014 Alabama — No. 37
- 2015 Alabama — No. 46
- 2016 Alabama — No. 8
- 2017 Auburn — No. 34
- 2018 Alabama — No. 23
- 2019 LSU — No. 27
- 2020 Alabama — No. 29
And for what it’s worth, the 2015 Alabama team obviously had Derrick Henry in Heisman Trophy form, which doesn’t necessarily require the same level of efficiency as the teams who don’t have a superman at tailback to wear down opposing defenses.
Barring some drastic rise between Emery, Davis-Price or one of the true freshmen, LSU isn’t rolling out a superhuman tailback. The Tigers also don’t appear to have a Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who was superhuman in his own, non-Henry way. But what Edwards-Helaire made a habit of was taking over games at key points. He did against Texas, he did it against Auburn and he sure as heck did it against Alabama.
More important than finding the next great LSU back is having that option to fall back on. We can talk all we want about the importance of spreading teams out and having a capable quarterback in this era, but you still need a guy who can go out and make a team pay for dropping 7 or 8 men into coverage.
The Tigers missed that last year. Maybe they’ll have it this year.
They better. Or else that bounce-back year with a legitimate shot at the SEC West?
Like LSU’s running lanes often were in 2020, it’ll be nonexistent.