In front of a partisan Bulldog crowd in packed Georgia Dome in Atlanta for the Southeastern Conference Championship game, Vincent ran a toss sweep through the right side of the Georgia defense, picked his way past a couple of blockers and then he was gone, leaving tacklers spread across the field during an 87-yard touchdown run.
He followed that memorable sprint with another, just less than a month later against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Vincent was handed the ball on a draw play with the game tied 7-7 in the second quarter, dodged a linebacker or two as well as the umpire and he was gone, on his way to an impressive 18-yard touchdown gallop.
Then came last season, one in which he was supposed to lead one of the most dominant rushing attacks in college football, and Vincent was just gone. For reasons unexplained, the player named the MVP in arguably the two most important games in LSU history and just the 10th Tiger to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season, was relegated to third on the depth chart and special teams.
"I was frustrated to the full extent last season because I wasn't getting any chances," said Vincent, who finished the 2003 season with 1,001 yards and 10 touchdowns on 154 carries but was limited to 322 yards on 76 carries in 2004.
The eventual Freshman All-American finished the 2003 season with four consecutive 100-yard games. He set an SEC Championship Game record with 201 yards before befuddling Oklahoma's vaunted defense with 117 yards in the Sugar Bowl. But, those impressive feats were in no way a foreshadowing of the 2004 season.
Vincent said, without wanting to put too much blame on anyone but himself, he's uncertain why the chances didn't come last season like they had the previous year.
"There's a lot that I could say and a lot of things that people could think but I really don't know," he said. "Maybe I did something wrong. Maybe I didn't do anything wrong. I did get my chance and it was taken from me but I'm trying to work back from it. Everything happens for a reason. I'm just trying to turn it into a positive."
Vincent's way of turning his fortunes around started last season when he said he recognized he wasn't going to be the featured running back but still wanted to play as hard as he could.
Fellow sophomore Alley Broussard was given the task of being the running back workhorse and proceeded to lead the team in rushing with 867 yards on 142 carries and 10 touchdowns. Vincent also fell behind junior Joseph Addai, who carried the ball 101 times for 680 yards and also played a key role at receiver early in the season.
Instead of pouting and complaining, Vincent said he grasped at every opportunity to be on the field and play in any capacity.
"When I went out there on special teams, I went out to make plays and be noticed," he said. "I wanted to show the coaches that no matter what happens I'm still going to be me. I wanted to take those reps I should have been getting at running back and use them on special teams."
The coaches said they noticed, not just during last season when Vincent seemed to be in the middle of every tackle on punt and kick off coverage, but during the off season and spring drills as well. LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher said in late July that Vincent improved more between the end of last season and summer workouts than any other player on the team. He has added nearly 10 pounds of muscle to his stocky, 5'-10", 213-pound frame after playing last year at 205 pounds and his teammates say he's a step quicker than last season as well.
First-year LSU head coach Les Miles said he's never been associated with a player in Vincent's situation who has showed as much resolve.
"I've been around guys before who have been in Justin's situation," Miles said. "I've seen guys who were very good one year decline for whatever reason and have to take a backseat. But, I've never seen anyone respond like Justin. I've never seen anyone remain as team oriented as he has."
Miles said in order for Vincent to play a larger part in this year's Tiger offense, he simply has to continue along the same path he started last season.
"If he keeps working hard and keeps coming out to practice and improving, he should play a large role in this offense," Miles said.
Vincent said he realizes his hard work means a lot to the team and to the coaching staff, but it may not be enough to carry him to the top of the depth chart. Though Addai and Broussard entered fall camp ahead of Vincent on the depth chart, Miles said that chart is simply a measure of where he ranked the players at the end of spring practice and a number of possible factors could change the chart by the time LSU opens the season against North Texas Sept. 3.
One of those possible factors became a staunch reality Aug. 13 when Broussard was carried off the practice field with what was later discovered to be a season-ending injury to his right knee. Vincent said he felt sick to his stomach when he learned of the injury to one of his best friends.
"I really got kind of choked up when I found out how serious it was," he said. "I felt so bad for Alley because he had worked so hard during the summer. I felt bad that something like this could happen to such a good person. But it's not going to change my approach. I've been working hard to get ready and I'm just ready to play."
Vincent said despite Broussard's injury, he still feels like LSU is as deep and talented at running back than any other team in the SEC.
"We've got so much talent in the backfield," Vincent said. "It doesn't matter who you put in there. We all do something well and we all compliment each other."
And if Vincent winds up being just a compliment again, he said he'll accept whatever role he's presented as long as he has a chance to be on the field in some way.
"I don't want to go back and dwell on 2003 because that's in the past," he said. "I want to move forward and help my team in any way I can. Just being out there, especially in a place like LSU with great coaches and great fans and a great atmosphere and being able to play in front of 90,000 people and having them cheer you on is a feeling that's really hard to explain. Just the chance to be a part of something that special really means a lot."
Vincent: 'Things happen for a reason'
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