IN SPOTLIGHT: Running Back by committee?

This is the second installment of a 10-day series where we take a look at each position as the LSU Tigers prepare for spring practice which kicks off on Feb. 23.

A Look Back

I hate to use clichés, but the best way to describe LSU's running game in 2006 was that it was running back by committee as the leading rusher averaged seven carries and just under 34 yards a game.

At first glance, one may think that the running game was non-existent but the numbers tell a different story.

The fact that LSU had only two guys run for 100 yards or more in a contest and that the longest run from scrimmage was only 38 yards may throw up a caution flag but on the flip side the Tigers averaged 4.8 yards a carry and 165.8 yards a contest.

Jacob Hester was steady as a rock all season and led the Tigers in rushing with 94 carries for 440 yards and six touchdowns. He may not be your typical every down back but there is no denying the fact that he gets the job done. Hester provided some stability to a running back corps that was littered with players returning from serious knee injury and true freshmen the staff was trying to develop.

Hester may not have been the fastest or most elusive back on the roster but he was the most complete back. Aside from his rushing numbers, he was the most dependable guy at picking up blitzes and was a true threat out of the backfield with his 35 catches for 269 yards and three scores. All of the other backs that saw action added a different element to the offense but none were able to put everything together and to give the coaches what they were looking for with the exception of Keiland Williams.

Williams was only four yards shy of Hester's totals on the grounds as he ended up with 436 yards and five touchdowns on 76 carries. His 48 yards a game led the team and if he had gotten one more tote in the Sugar Bowl he may have surpassed Hester as the leading rusher for the year.

Against the Irish, Williams turned in his best performance of the year with 107 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries giving him one of only two 100-yard rushing performances for the Tigers in 2006. Things started off slowly for the true freshman from Lafayette as he was not cleared by the NCAA Clearinghouse until a week before the season opener. That delay definitely hindered his development as far as learning the offense but once he started to earn the coaches' trust you could see why he was one of the most highly touted running backs in the country for the 2006 class.

Charles Scott was another prized running back in the 2006 class but after seeing some early-season success his production and playing time dropped off considerably. Some of that had to do with the emergence of Williams but some of it also had to do with his confidence level.

Through the first four games of the season, Scott led the Tigers in rushing and had a breakout performance against Tulane with 15 carries for 101 yards and two touchdowns. He followed that up with a two touchdown outing against Mississippi State and heading into the big match up with Florida on the road he was leading the way on the ground with 218 yards and five touchdowns on 35 carries.

As impressive as the Jonesboro-Hodge product was through the first five games, Scott did lay the ball on the ground a couple of times and that coupled with an injury he sustained in practice preparing for the Gators kept him out of the lineup when LSU traveled to the Swamp.

The following week, Scott was the leading rusher in a shutout of Kentucky but from that point on he carried only twice more throughout the year. The win over Kentucky was when Williams had his best outing to date and from then on it was Hester and Williams leading the way.

Entering the 2006 season, Tiger fans had hoped that Alley Broussard would bounce back from the knee injury that kept him sidelined all of 2005 but things did not go as many had hoped.

Conditioning and carrying around some extra pounds as he topped out at 250 pounds were the two biggest obstacles lying in Broussard's way and he just never could get into any kind of groove. At times, he looked like the Broussard of old but more often than not he lacked the confidence and burst that he once had.

Rumors of a possible transfer to McNeese State surfaced but never came to fruition as Broussard stuck things out. He totaled 281 yards and four touchdowns on the year but the stat that the coaches were probably most disappointed in was the 3.8 yards a carry.

Justin Vincent's career at LSU came to an end following the Sugar Bowl and he could not have written a better ending. He had his best showing of the year with 90 total yards including 71 on the ground and 19 receiving.

Vincent never was able to produce the numbers he did as a true freshman when he ran for over 1,000 yards and was named MVP of the SEC Championship Game and the BCS Championship Game. Some will say that the sophomore slump plagued Vincent and others will say that he got complacent. There is no denying the fact that he never looked as quick or fast as he did as a freshman and some of that must be attributed to the knee injury he sustained in the 2005 SEC Championship Game.

He may not be your typical sized running back but when Trindon Holiday got the ball in his hands in 2006 you just knew something good was going to happen.

Holiday carried the ball only 14 times but he averaged over 12 yards a pop and showed the type of breakaway speed that makes defensive coordinators cringe. His 155 pound frame can't take the beating that an every down running back takes in the SEC but late in the season the staff grew comfortable with giving him a few touches a game on designed running plays out of the backfield rather than on just an end-around.


A Look Ahead

When Gary Crowton was named the new offensive coordinator the LSU nation immediately started talking about the passing game and how many times a game the Tigers would put the ball in the air.

What must be pointed out, though, is that in Crowton's two most recent stops on the collegiate level his running backs at BYU and most recently at Oregon posted some impressive numbers.

BYU had one of its most productive running backs in the school's history in Crowton's first season as head coach. Luke Staley averaged 145 yards a game and finished the year with 1,596 yards and 24 touchdowns which were good enough to win the Doak Walker Award.

At Oregon, Crowton's offense led the Pac-10 in rushing in 2006 with 182 yards a game so any thought that LSU would abandon the run game and become pass-happy like some of the other teams in the Pac-10 can be laid to rest.

So, now for the million dollar question of how will Crowton's run game fare at LSU?

That question will not get answered for many months but the man in charge of the offense will have plenty to work with.

Heading into camp the top four rushers all return from last season in Jacob Hester, Keiland Williams, Alley Broussard and Charles Scott. When you factor in Trindon Holiday, redshirt freshman Richard Murphy and sophomore R.J. Jackson then the biggest question is how do you keep all of those talented players happy with only one ball?


What to Look for This Spring

The biggest thing to look for this spring is the type of running formations will LSU use.

Les Miles' background is in running out of the I-formation and out of the one-back set with two tight ends. Rarely did the Tigers run the ball out of the shotgun last season unless it was JaMarcus Russell on a designed quarterback draw but that will likely change.

I suspect we will see more formations with a running back flanked on one side of the quarterback and we will also see some formations with a back flanked to each side of the signal caller.

The light seemed to come on for Keiland Williams in the second half of the season and this spring I look for him to start running more instinctively. The only thing that may be of some concern is that it took him a little while to get comfortable with recognizing the blitz and picking it up but having a full spring and fall camp should make it a little easier for him. The guy has a great burst at getting to the outside and once he puts everything together he could be the next great back at LSU.

While Williams may be the most talented back on the roster, Jacob Hester should still have a big role in the offense because of his versatility. He is an excellent receiver out of the backfield and could have a little more success running between the tackles if he is not lined up seven to eight yards deep in the backfield and gets some totes out of the shotgun.

Coming into camp in great shape should be at the top of Alley Broussard's list of priorities because this is his money year. Late last year, he did show some good tough running against Arkansas when yards were tough to come by and the coaches hope that is a prelude of things to come this spring and for the 2007 campaign. I think the biggest obstacle for Broussard will be how he will handle it if he is running No. 3 at the end of camp behind Hester and Williams? Will it be motivation for him to get in the best shape of his life or will he take the opposite approach?

There has been some talk of Charles Scott possibly moving to linebacker and that will be worth keeping an eye on. He has the physical skills to be a very productive back in the SEC but his running style is very similar to that of Williams and he doesn't really provide that change-of-pace that coaches like. However, it's really too early to say that Williams is the No. 1 or No. 2 back and Scott will not hand him either of those spots on a silver platter.

Speed is something that you can never have too much of and that is exactly what Trindon Holiday brings to the table. With his size he will always be a situational player on the offensive side of the ball but something that I look for Crowton to do is to match Holiday up on some linebackers or safeties in the short passing game. Give him an end around and one or two carries a game to go with a couple of passes and some returns in the kicking game and Holiday could be a dangerous weapon and not take too big of a beating.

Out of all of the running backs, Richard Murphy is the one I am most eager to see in the new offense. He worked exclusively out of a spread offense at Rayville and he could be a terrific complement to the running styles of Williams, Hester, Broussard and Scott. He is a slasher that has the speed to get to the outside but he is also a tough inside runner. With all of the depth at running back there was some talk of Murphy possibly moving to another position but when Joe McKnight decided to take his game out West to USC it created an opportunity for Murphy to stay put. LSU fans and coaches may have been disappointed that McKnight signed with the Trojans but you probably will not hear any complaining from Murphy. If he looks as good as he did in practice and on the scout team last year then LSU fans may just forget about the whole McKnight saga.

R.J. Jackson is fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered as a true freshman and now it's time for him to find a permanent home. The few reps he did get in practice last year were at running back except for the week he spent working at wide receiver but with Dwayne Bowe and Craig Davis graduated to the NFL, combined with the uncertainty of whether DeAngelo Benton and/or Terrance Toliver will qualify, look for him to get a strong look at receiver this spring and possibly even in the secondary. He is athletic enough to play either position but he needs to load up on the reps to have a shot at getting some qualify playing time.

Shawn Jordan should still have his role as the blocking fullback in short yardage situations with Quinn Johnson also trying to earn some time on the field but when LSU does go with the I-formation in regular down and distance Hester should line up at fullback.


Help Is On the Way

Signing a running back was not a priority in the 2007 class because of the obscene amount of depth on the roster but the Tigers did sign one in Stevan Ridley.

Initially, Ridley was going to fill the same role as Jacob Hester but with the changing of the guard there may be plans to move him to linebacker. He is versatile enough to play either position and if Crowton has plans to utilize Hester in the same capacity as he was used last year then he will love having Ridley waiting in the wings. Some were not overly impressed with the numbers he put up at Natchez (Miss.) Trinity Episcopal but 3,089 yards and 28 touchdowns on the ground at any level is pretty impressive.

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