“Bent knees break jaws.”
It’s not quite as wholesome as “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose,” but it’s the semi-deranged mindset an LSU fullback has to carry to accomplish what’s asked of him.
For most of the past four years that beckoning call in Baton Rouge was answered by J.C. Copeland, a 5-foot-11, 271-pound young man most aptly described as a wrecking ball. While the majority of the country was spreading things out, LSU pounded away behind Copeland, averaging 2,575 yards and 33.7 touchdowns rushing in three seasons from 2011-13.
Now it’s time for Connor Neighbors to answer the call. According to running backs coach Frank Wilson, Neighbors – a former walk-on – has what it takes upstairs, or more appropriately has lost it enough, to handle the all-important job in the Tigers’ offense.
“Connor is our starting fullback,” Wilson said in the midst of a depth-chart breakdown. “Melvin [Jones] is developing. The mentality to play the fullback position is unique. You have to at times lose your sane mind to go in there and do the things that are asked of them. Melvin in a sense is not insane enough. He’s starting to lose his sanity. He’s getting there. It is a tough position, and we ask them to do tough things.”
Neighbors, who actually overtook Copeland as a starter during the latter portion of the 2013 season, instantly understood what Wilson meant when presented with that quote recently. By all accounts he seemed to take it as a compliment.
“I can see that,” replied Neighbors with a smile. “Off the field I’m pretty calm and collected. But when we put the pads on and I put the helmet on, like Coach Frank says, ‘We’re modern-day gladiators.’ I see it that way.
“I think you have to be a man to play this position. You can’t just come in there and fiddle-fart around and pat your feet. You’ve got to get downhill, have power angles and, like Coach [Thomas] McGaughey told us last year and I take this to heart, ‘Bent knees break jaws.’ That’s what I’m trying to do.”
The 5-foot-11, 229-pound throwback of a player also made his off-field development a priority this offseason. Neighbors intends for younger players to follow him the way LSU’s backs have through holes in a defensive front.
“I’ve expanded my role as a leader on the team,” Neighbors explained. “I’m on the unity council now. That’s a big step for me. And I’m one of the oldest people on the team, so I’ve got to get these young guys going, mold their minds and get ‘em right.”
A redshirt senior, Neighbors has been around the block on campus. He likes the way the Tigers are coming together following two weeks of Fall Camp, proclaiming the offense is slowly catching up with the defense.
“The competition in practice is very hot right now. You can just see it in our demeanor and everybody’s attitude toward getting better,” noted Neighbors. “We’ve just gotten better as a team, probably ten-fold since we started camp. Usually it’s the defense that has the upper hand when we start, but offense starts creeping in once all the young guys know what they’re doing and we solidify all our plays.”
Part of playing fullback, like a catcher with a pitcher in baseball, is knowing your battery mates, their running styles and what makes each of them tick. Neighbors acknowledged he’s gotten to know all four tailbacks well. While he indicated they all have subtle differences in their styles, Neighbors’ approach to leading them into the line won’t vary.
“I’m going to block the same no matter what and try to lead them to the promised land.”
There is, however, one member of the rushing quartet Neighbors felt compelled to take up for, forewarning doubters of Kenny Hilliard that the senior from Patterson is back on his game and primed to play a significant role for LSU in 2014.
“They’re absolutely wrong,” Neighbors said of anyone writing off Hilliard. “Kenny’s one of my real good friends, and I’ve never seen him work this hard in the offseason. I can just tell on the field he’s a totally different player. He’s about to graduate and he’s got two kids he has to provide for, so he knows that this is his chance, it’s his time to shine coming back for his senior season. I can see it on the field – he looks as fast as he’s ever been and as physical as he’s ever been.”
Coupled with Les Miles’ praise for Hilliard Saturday, when LSU’s coach told the media “Hilliard is poised to have a really big year,” it seems wise not to sleep on a former giant in the backfield who owned the SEC down the stretch of the 2011 campaign.
LSU fans would be equally as smart to keep Neighbors top of mind when watching the offense on upcoming Saturdays. You can bet opposing defenders – with their jaws in mind – certainly will.