Eyebrows were raised and little murmuring was heard when LSU released its first depth chart prior to the Virginia Tech game. It showed redshirt freshman Joseph Addai listed as the Tigers' No. 1 tailback ahead of returning starter Solomon Lee, a senior.
Given the propensity of head coach Nick Saban to downplay the importance of depth charts, Addai's presence in the first-string was viewed with some speculation. Some thought it to be a motivational ploy aimed toward Lee, who ended up seeing playing time against Virginia Tech and starting against The Citadel.
But Saban's plan for Addai unfolded in fall camp after he and the rest of his staff compiled a list of the top players of the team. The goal was to get as many of the best athletes on the team on the field either as starters or reserves. When it came to Addai, Saban knew there was no question that he had to contribute in 2002.
"He called me in for a meeting," Addai said, recalling his conversation with Saban about playing fullback. "Usually I don't go into his office that much, so I was kinda nervous. I thought I did something wrong.
"He started talking about the good players on the team and how they rate the team. I was like in the top 20 - me, (LaBrandon) Toefield and (Domanick) Davis. He wanted me to be on the field. He didn't want two good running backs playing and me on the sidelines."
The solution Saban proposed was moving Addai to fullback, a position not normally known for seeing much of the football under offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher. In 2001, Lee did not record any carries and had a total of three catches for 14 yards.
Admitting to a bit of reluctance, Addai says he didn't see himself as the traditional blocking back. But after he learned Saban and Fisher had a broader role in mind for the fullback, he came around.
"I saw they were going to change the offense a little bit and start doing more fullback plays so I can get involved," said Addai. "I'm not just the average fullback. I don't just block. I block, I catch passes and get the ball a lot, too. It works for the best."
Against Virginia Tech, Addai has his number called in the first quarter on a pass to the sidelines. On second-and-18 from the LSU 8, quarterback Matt Mauck threw to the right sideline. Addai glanced up the field as the ball hit his hands and failed to make the catch.
"I was a little anxious and I dropped the ball," said Addai. "People make mistakes, so I had to let that go.
Mauck, Toefield, Davis and other teammates had a similar message for Addai – forget about the drop because he was going to get another chance.
It came in the third quarter with the Tigers trailing 17-0. Following a Virginia Tech punt, LSU started its drive at its own 7-yard line. The first down play was a run over right guard for Addai, who kept his legs going for a hard-earned five yards.
On second down, Mauck went back to the play Addai muffed in the first half – the Yogi route to the sidelines. This time, Addai looked in the ball and rolled over defenders for a nine-yard gain.
"When I ran the ball I was comfortable. I had settled down some," he said. "And when they threw me the ball, I was comfortable."
LSU advanced into Hokie territory on the drive but was forced to punt the ball away. Addai wouldn't see the ball again as a 24-0 Virginia Tech lead forced the Tigers to all but abandon its running game.
Saban said after the game that his staff may have gone to the pass a bit too early, especially in the first half. But Addai said that the Tigers' running game, much like every other aspect of the team on the day, had its difficulties.
"We weren't communicating well," he said. "We weren't getting the reads right."
The lines of communication, along with the running lanes, were open for LSU
against The Citadel. Although Lee started at fullback, Addai saw his most extensive collegiate action as the Tigers No. 3 tailback. He led all rushers with 88 yards on 14 carries, including a 23-yard run in the second quarter that set up LSU's third touchdown of the night.
"I think Joseph played well," said Saban. "He played a lot better today…and looked a lot more confident than a week ago. I think that's just a young player who's starting to feel his oats a little bit."