Blue, Hilliard work way up RB depth chart
Michael Ford and Spencer Ware were LSU’s leading rushers last year, but both players have missed significant time in the preseason because of injuries.
That has opened the way for Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard, who began 2011 as afterthoughts in a multi-pronged rushing attack, to work their way up the depth chart entering Saturday’s season opener.
“It’s all about opportunity,” Blue said. “With those two guys (Ford and Ware) sitting out right now, it’s an opportunity for me and Kenny to get more reps and to get better at what we’re doing and what we’re trying to execute.”
Blue and Hilliard both finished strong last year, carried that momentum into productive off-seasons and seemingly hit their stride in fall camp.
Coach Les Miles said he expects Ford and Ware to be healthy in time for Saturday’s game, but the pair of returning 700-yard rushers may have to play catchup behind Blue and Hilliard, who generally produced the most impressive numbers during LSU’s three preseason scrimmages.
Hilliard, a sophomore from Patterson, rushed for 100 yards in the second scrimmage and had 67 yards and three touchdowns in the third, according to statistics provided by LSU. Blue, a junior from Hahnville, finished with 70 yards and two scores in the third scrimmage after rushing for 106 yards in the second.
True freshman Jeremy Hill was also productive, running for 71 yards in the first scrimmage and 43 yards and two scores in the third.
At LSU Media Day, before Ware and Ford were sidelined, Miles said he was looking for two or three backs to emerge.
“Here’s how I want to get this to work: I’d like to start with two guys and keep a third guy fresh for late in the game,” he said.
“Those two guys will be able to do the lion’s share of the work, and we’ll keep a really quality back to have fresh legs. So I’d like to start with two, but I could end up with four very comfortably.”
If it’s Blue and Hilliard who start the season as the primary one-two punch, LSU can hit opponents with two backs equally dangerous but different in style.
“It’s like thunder and lightning,” Blue said. “I’m the speed, and Kenny’s the power.”
Those attributes were on display for each player late last year.
With Ware serving a one-game suspension, Hilliard stepped off the sideline and led a 45-10 victory over Auburn, rushing for 65 yards and two touchdowns on only 10 carries. Later, the former Louisiana Mr. Football had 102 yards on 19 carries against Arkansas, then scored three second-half touchdowns in a comeback victory over Georgia in the Southeastern Conference title game.
“During the whole year, he just couldn’t wait to get on the field,” sophomore guard La’El Collins said. “He couldn’t wait for his opportunity. When he got that opportunity, he really took advantage of it and showed what he can do.”
So did Blue, who spent most of 2011 as a reserve, but found a role late in the year as the home-run hitter of LSU’s running back corps.
His most memorable effort came when he woke up a sleepy LSU team against Western Kentucky on homecoming night. He had a 45-yard touchdown to highlight a 119-yard effort — all in the second half.
He rushed for a team high-team 74 yards against Ole Miss, including a 57-yard scamper. He also led LSU with 94 yards against Georgia, highlighted by a 48-yard score.
But Blue said he’s a much better back now than he was even then.
With an eye on climbing the depth chart, he spent the offseason getting bigger and stronger and faster and quicker.
“I knew there was an opportunity for the starting spot this year,” Blue said. “I put it in my mind I wanted to be that guy. So every day when I had to condition or lift weights, that was always on my mind.”
Outside the weight room, Blue and Hilliard found another way to impress their coaches: They improved in pass protection.
“Everybody knows we can run the ball,” Hilliard said. “They want to know if we can block. You’ve got to block to stay in the game. A back’s got to pick up the linebacker or a safety.”
Both runners have shined in the preseason. But neither of them can be content.
As they return to health, Ford and Ware are sure to have a say in how the carries are divided.
“There’s friendly competition out there,” Blue said. “We try to push each other. You’ve got in the back of your mind that even though you might be that guy, you’ve still got to keep pushing. You can’t relax and think you’ve got it.”