Old-school ground game is LSU’s offensive mindset in 2014

Vadal Alexander, LSU’s thick-framed left guard, stands in the huddle.

He hears the play call and smiles.

He walks to the line of scrimmage, swivels his head to the right and glares at his soon-to-be victim.

“Yeah, I’m about to come for you,’’ Alexander thinks.

Alexander enjoys the decades-old art of the pulling guard — when an offensive lineman, at the snap, races behind his fellow linemen, cuts up the field and finds his target.

Good news, Vadal: You’ll be doing a whole lot of it this year.

The ground and pound is back. Three yards and a cloud of dust has returned.

If there’s one certainty about the 2014 LSU football team, it’s that these Tigers will be of the running kind.

The ingredients to LSU’s run-heavy cocktail are aplenty.

The Tigers have the nation’s top-ranked running back signee; athletic, speedy quarterbacks; a seasoned, massive offensive line and a gaggle of unproven, inexperienced wide receivers.

The downfield, air-it-out, vertical passing game of 2013 — and 2012, for that matter — is likely to be replaced with a dose of old-school football.

LSU coach Les Miles, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and many players preach a balanced attack that won’t be afraid to challenge safeties and pick on cornerbacks.

In reality, offensive linemen like Alexander will be doing the heavy lifting.

“I think we’re still going to try to get the receiver and quarterback game going, but you’re not going to be Zach Mettenberger your freshman year,” Alexander said. “He wasn’t Zach Mettenberger his freshman year.

“We are going to lean on the running game and our strength of our team — our offensive line and running backs. To start off, we’re definitely going to focus on leaning on them.”

Losing Mettenberger is tough. Losing the first 1,000-yardreceiving duo in school history — Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. — makes the task even tougher.

Landry and Beckham accounted for 71 percent of LSU’s receiving yards (2,345) and 78 percent of receiving touchdowns (18) in 2013. Mettenberger threw all but 30 of the team’s 398 passes last season.

The nine receivers listed on the depth chart have combined to catch eight passes in college. Seven are redshirt freshmen or true freshman.

Miles has built hype around the group of young receivers and claims the Tigers “intend to throw the football,” but all signs point to a scheme the head coach — and former offensive lineman — adores more than any.

Run, run, run.

In 12 of his 13 seasons as a head coach, Miles’ teams have run more than they’ve passed. The exception was his 2002 Oklahoma State team, a squad competing in the spread-happy Big 12.

His last team at Oklahoma State ran 75 percent of the time, and the 2011 Southeastern Conference championship team ran on 68 percent of plays.

Overall, Miles’ teams run 59 percent of the time and pass it 41 percent.

“Wherever we want to run the ball, we’re going to run the ball,” left tackle La’el Collins said of this year’s group.

This team has the power to do it.

Leonard Fournette, the ballyhooed rookie running back from St. Augustine High School, is expected to show off the skills that had him ranked by some as the No. 1 recruit in the land.

Terrence Magee, the Tigers’ top returner in rushing, averaged more than 7 yards per carry in 2013, and Kenny Hilliard is a four-year player with tons of game experience.

The offensive line has a trio of players who might find themselves picked in next year’s NFL draft, and LSU has a fullback in Connor Neighbors who clears a path better than most.

OK, sometimes the path is blocked. Neighbors runs into his own offensive linemen at times, but it’s a problem usually resolved quickly.

“It mostly happens when it’s a fullback dive,” he said. “Well, I’m saying, ‘Get the hell out of the way!’ ”

The ground-and-pound game could come with less scoring. With the youth of the 2014 offense, that’s to be expected anyway, Cameron said.

Last year’s offense set a goal to score 42 points per game. The unit met that goal four times.

Don’t expect 42 to be this year’s number.

“That was the goal set by the offense. They kind of put it out there, and they wanted to set that goal,” Cameron said. “This year’s goal … we’re so young, we’ll probably revise that to some degree, but it’ll be a goal that they’ll look at and they’ll set. The goal of scoring points never trumps winning the game.”

So ... more 9-6 games?

That could be the case throughout the Southeastern Conference, a league that lost a half-dozen talented starting quarterbacks.

“You might not see the 44-41 game quite as much,” said Andy Staples, college football reporter at Sports Illustrated.

For the offensive line, that’s OK. LSU’s line returns four starters with a combined 73 starts among them.

“We’re embracing that. We take pride in that: Rely on the front line,” right tackle Jerald Hawkins said. “Game is won on the front line.”

The other wrinkle to this: the QB run — absent from LSU’s offense with the immobile Mettenberger behind center in 2012 and ’13.

Early during preseason camp and in the spring, reporters observed Cameron implementing a read-option scheme for his QBs. In the read option — or zone read — the quarterback has the option to hand off to the running back or keep it himself.

Designed quarterback runs? Just all the more reason to expect a rushing bunch of Tigers in 2014 — and pulling guards, too.

“I like coming around the line,” Alexander said, “and getting a head of steam and laying somebody out.”