Varied motives drive Tigers backs

Slimming down 9 pounds over the summer required junior Kenny Hilliard to avoid a 75-mile trek south to his native Patterson, a drive where the bruising LSU running back could indulge in culinary vices.

Sure, fastfood stops were the enemy in getting svelte, while trying to discover a running style that the Tigers were bullish on for his future near the end of his freshman season.

So steering clear of red beans and rice required avoiding a familiar face, too.

“My momma, she cooks those soul food meals, and it was tough for me to stay away from all that,” Hilliard said. “So I kind of stayed away from home, stayed in Baton Rouge the whole summer so I could get my body right.”

Avoidance might the unifying element for LSU’s ball carriers, too. For Hilliard, it’s ducking excess calories.

For junior Alfred Blue, it’s bolting away from the lingering affects the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that was shredded against Idaho last season.

And for freshly reinstated Jeremy Hill, it’s avoiding the cool, metallic sensation of silver bracelets on his wrists.

On Tuesday and atop the depth chart, Blue is the anointed starter, but given the Tigers tendency to dole out carries to its platoon of rushers that’s largely a symbolic position. Blue, who had 270 yards and two touchdowns before going down, sees no illusions of the philosophy being altered, either.

“They name a starter, but everybody gets in,” Blue said. “Whoever is hot, that’s who’s going to play. Once you get in, you’ve got to seize the moment and handle your business.”

And a mentality where it’s survival of the fittest was surely in play with Hill back in the fold Tuesday morning — his first practice running with the top rungs of the depth chart since spring practice.

Gauging Hill’s fitness proved somewhat elusive, though.

A cursory glance showed him to be a little bit softer in build — three months of working out alone at a student recreation center is a noble effort — next to Hilliard, Blue and fullback Connor Neighbors. Work in the backfield wasn’t exactly full bore, either. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron focused the attention of working on the read-option of the pistol formation, a task where the actions of the quarterback get as much scrutiny as the back catching a shoveled pitch from Zach Mettenberger or Stephen Rivers.

Then there’s the matter of the scheme itself — one players have been elusive in describing. At best, there is talk about putting the ball up more, being more aggressive in the passing game, and picking up the tempo. Yet when pressed for how running backs are used or what they might do in the passing game, there’s a general statement: It’s kind of the same.

Which isn’t surprising, considering Cameron comes out of a school of thinking where the passing game works from deep routes on back in progressions. Pushing the ball downfield clears out space underneath and in the box, creating room for running backs in a power-based scheme. So it figures life under Cameron might not be a dramatic shift.

“We’re really coming out in the spread,” Hilliard said. “We’ve really been pounding the ball, and now we’re trying to open everything up. The past couple of years, people have really been stacking the box on us, and (now) we just want to open that up, get mismatches on linebackers and stuff like that.”

Yet after being held out of contact in the spring, even though his knee was fully healed, Blue embraces simply being cleared for any and all action.

“It felt like I was free and a chain was taken off me,” Blue said.

There’s enough versatility in Blue’s game to put him in position to start. With the early departure of Spencer Ware, who led the running back corps with 18 catches for 230 yards and lone score, there’s a void for a receiving threat out the backfield.

Terrence Magee, who worked out with the freshmen in the afternoon, played at wide receiver last season, but Blue figures to be a more viable option.

The silver lining of standing off to the side during contact periods in the spring were the mental reps gained by Blue, particularly in terms of understanding his duties in keeping Mettenberger upright after being sacked 32 times a season ago.

“I put a lot on it,” Blue said. “I really emphasize on pass blocking and protecting the quarterback. Zach took a lot of hits last year, and we’re trying to eliminate some of that for him this year. With me back there, I feel like I’m going to have his back no matter what.”

If Blue’s physical woes began against Idaho, then Hilliard’s blended with pyschology against a 38-22 malaise-filled victory over Towson. Hilliard fumbled twice and ran for a paltry 23 yards on six carries.

Over the season’s remaining eight games, he never eclipsed 35 yards rushing and didn’t play against Alabama. Strip away 100-plus yard outings against cupcakes North Texas and Idaho, and he rushed for only 207 yards on 58 carries in the Tiger’s other 10 games.

“I guess they kind of held me accountable for that,” said Hilliard, referencing the Tigers coaching staff. “This year, I’m trying to limit the fumbles and be mentally prepared and mentally focused, and just play my game. Just go out there and have fun.”

Doing so involved slimming down. It wasn’t a dramatic drop, going from 240 pounds to 231 to open preseason camp, but Hilliard is confident being lighter on his feet might mean more production as part of the backfield rotation.

“I just laid off the fast food,” Hilliard said. “The nutrionist helped me out very well this summer coming in the weight room, seeing what I was eating and just checking my weight. I just stayed the lean and the weight they want me to play.”

His role involves a potential split. During practice, he worked at running back but also as a lead blocker during the option portion of the proceedings. And his size shares more in common with a man clearing a path than bursting through the hole created by the might of his girth.

Of course, there’s the usual start-of-camp optimism tinged in Hilliard’s voice when asked what his role might be. Granted, it’s unlikely he could truly state his preference, but the sentiment sounds convincing enough.

“My role is the same: Anything they want me to do,” Hilliard said. “Fullback (or) halfback, I’m willing to do anything for the team. My role is still going to be the same — contribute for the team.”