On a blustery Monday, Alfred Blue stood off to the side while LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron called for the first group up to rep out a simple swing play to the left flat.
Quarterback Zach Mettenberger plodded three steps forward.
Fullback J.C. Copeland lumbered behind him.
Finally, running back Kenny Hilliard crouched into the offset I-formation.
Hands affixed to hips, Blue, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior, watched Mettenberger drop three steps, Hilliard slide into backside protection and Copeland snare a spiral.
Last August, the fleet-footed Boutte native found himself atop the Tigers’ depth charter ahead of now-departed staples Spencer Ware and Michael Ford at a loaded running back position.
Now, a left leg sheathed in a white compression protects a surgically repaired left knee, a not-so-subtle bit of evidence that Blue will traverse a course back atop the depth chart.
“It can feel like they’re moving ahead of you while you’re just stuck in the same place,” Blue said. “You can’t show coaches you can take that contact, make people miss and give them those big plays.”
A hit early in the third quarter against Idaho led to an tear of Blue’s ACL, derailing a promising start where he’d rushed for 270 yards and two touchdowns on 40 carries over three games.
A week later, a lack of swelling allowed Blue to undergo surgery, and the recovery process — pegged at roughly five months — moved quicker than expected.
By the time LSU faced Alabama on Nov. 3, Blue could tug on a uniform and watch from the sidelines, and he’d already taken on a regimen of light running and lifting since early October.
“It was definitely fast, and trainers definitely had to slow me down,” Blue said.
Practically, though, the Tigers ground game, which ranked No. 52 nationally last season at 173.7 yards per game, found a fine cog in Hill.
The Redemptorist product’s 100-yard performances against South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama —– the meat of LSU’s slate — secured his position as defacto lead back.
Behind Hill, Hilliard, Ford and Ware combined for 1,233 yards on 247 carries in a by-committee approach, sparing the need to press Blue back into the rotation before he was healed.
Two candidates to challenge Hill exited the derby when Ware and Ford declared for the NFL draft in January after a Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to Clemson.
Over seven spring workouts, Hilliard and Hill have cycled through with Mettenberger and fellow starters. Blue has also gotten reps with that group, but also been placed with reserve groups headed by sophomore Stephen Rivers and freshman Anthony Jennings.
Yet Blue clearly doesn’t read the tea leaves in regards to what such pairings might hold for his prospects.
And his backfield mates don’t think he should engage in speculation, either.
“There’s really no need for him to feel like he needs to rush back,” junior Terrence Magee said. “Everyone knows what he can do for this team, what he can provide at his spot. There’s really nothing left for him to prove.”
Irony, though, exists in the reversal of fortune from fall camp last season, when injuries to Ware and Ford helped clear the path for Blue to claim the starting spot.
Yet Blue isn’t apt to view his ascension as pure opportunism. There had been two seasons of work before then to position himself as next in line for carries.
“I’ve been in a predicament where I’ve been that underdog and behind everywhere else,” Blue said. “It was always Mike, Spence and me. I was always behind them until the start of our junior year when I passed them up. I’ve been in this position before.”
LSU’s first spring scrimmage Saturday could offer insight, albeit premature, into who Blue will need to pass in order to work prominently back into the Tigers run game.
Hill racked up 60 yards on 10 carries, while Hilliard and junior Magee each handled 10 carries for a combined 97 yards.
But LSU coach Les Miles didn’t rule out Blue seeing his first action in LSU’s next scrimmage April 13 , but without being tackled in a litmus test of where the back stands ahead of summer workouts.
“He’s got speed and strength, making the cuts and he looks great,” Miles told reporters Saturday.
Any evidence, though, is obscured by the slats of weathered fencing around the McClendon Practice Fields.
On Monday, Blue only hauled in a lone catch from Mettenberger during a quick review of pass routes out of the backfield. In the next period, running backs and fullbacks reviewed their responsibilities in pass protection.
Blue stuck close to the hip of running backs coach Frank Wilson, relaying his duties for each formation and where he needed to be in blitz pick-up.
If anything, his ability to retain a mental mastery of concepts might be just as vital.
“It’s just repetition,” Blue said. “Looking at him, and saying, ‘I got that man right there.”
For now, all there is to go on is Miles certainty and Blue professing “there are moments where I feel I’m totally back.”
Granted, there are moments that give pause, too. The burst needed coming out of a hole, or the acceleration on a vertical route are at times elusive.
“Just running, when you’re trying to stride it out,” Blue said. “You might not feel like you have that gear no more.”
Only Magee grinned when notified of Blue’s sentiment.
“He’s not going to miss a step,” Magee said. “He’s going to pick up right where he left off.”
Copyright © 2014, Capital City Press LLC • 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810 • All Rights Reserved