When LSU returned three of five starting lineman and both running backs from the 2008 squad, most expected the Tiger ground attack to be among the best in the Southeastern Conference.
Head coach Les Miles tabbed the line as one of the best in his five seasons with the program, while Charles Scott returned for his senior year after running for 1,174 yards and 18 touchdowns en route to First-Team All-SEC honors last fall.
Toss in Keiland Williams, and it appeared that Miles had his ground game right where he wanted it.
Yet, four weeks into the 2009 season, the unit is struggling to find answers as to why things have not happened quicker.
Williams leads all rushers with 184 yards and two touchdowns on 36 carries. Scott, who has carried the ball nine more times than Williams, has managed 179 yards without a score. Down the line is Jordan Jefferson, who has netted 83 yards on 31 attempts.
Though Mississippi State stacked eight men in the box last Saturday and dared Jefferson to throw, offensive coordinator Gary Crowton’s attack has been unable to put together a 200-yard rushing game or have a single runner go over 100 yards yet this season – something that came easy for Scott through four games last fall.
Some have questioned the performance of the offensive line, though Scott is quick to point the finger back at himself.
“We have not really done too much running between the tackles, but there are small cracks and we have to find them,” Scott said. “You can’t ask the offensive line to make a hole that you can drive a truck through, and you may have to take on a man. If the play has to be blocked perfectly for you to succeed, you aren’t good enough.
“We have to get ten times better at the game inside. We are not far if you look at film.”
While Scott and Williams might not be far, one Tiger has already reached the destination.
True freshman Russell Shepard, who did not see action against Washington in the opener, has totaled 74 yards on 11 touches – an average of 6.7 yards a carry, a team-high.
Used out of the Shotgun formation, the Houston-native has been called upon to do nothing more than take the snap and run the football. Despite its simplicity, teams have been unable to keep the 6-foot-1, 190-pound quarterback in check.
“Anytime he steps on the field, he can take it the distance,” Williams said. “When I looked at some cuts he made, he embarrassed a guy in the open field on Saturday. That is jaw dropping. His ability to get to top speed is impressive.”
Scott, who has been around his fair-share of talent during his four seasons in the LSU program, tabbed Shepard as one of the most electrifying athletes he has come across at the collegiate level.
“You never know where Russell is going,” he said. “He goes to daylight and finds it. Inside or outside, he will find a crack and hit it.
“And everyone forgets he is a quarterback. There is a lot more he can do; and we will see it in the next few weeks.”
What left many Tiger fans up in arms was what wasn’t seen last week in a near loss to the Bulldogs – a Shepard-less second half despite the freshman leading the team with 26 yards on four carries.
“Shepard got in the game for a short series, and we wanted to get him back in the second half,” Miles said. “But, we wanted to be in two-back and we wanted to throw the football, and that is not something we could do with Shepard in the game.”
Perhaps it was the rain, and perhaps the lack of offensive possessions. Regardless, the headman’s talk leads fans to believe that Shepard is not suited for the quarterback role yet.
With Georgia and Florida on tap, could Miles be holding his cards close to his vest?
The tone from the Tiger starting quarterback seems to lend to just that.
“Russell adds a lot to the offense,” Jefferson said. “When we were back there I threw, but I don’t mind him running or throwing it. It affects defenses because they don’t know what to do when we are in the game.”