Connor Neighbors’ longest catch was predicated on the simplest of calls on Saturday night against Kent State.
Off a play-fake from quarterback Zach Mettenberger, Neighbors leaked out of the backfield on a flat route toward the LSU sideline and cradle in a soft toss over his right shoulder.
No matter that it was only the third catch of the season and Neighbor’s career, the junior fullback’s instincts aren’t solely limited to seeking and destroying linebackers trying to fit a gap.
“My first thought is always just, ‘Run,’ ” Neighbors said. “I was just running as fast as I could for as long as I could.”
At 5-foot-11, 239 pounds, Neighbors sidestepped defensive end Nate Vance, and a sliding arm tackle by cornerback Malcom Pannell didn’t trip him up at the LSU 30-yard line.
Near midfield, safety Luke Wollet faceplanted into Bermuda grass trying to shove Neighbors out of bounds as he chugged along the Tigers’ sideline. Only the left arm of a diving Darius Polk tripped Neighbors up at the Golden Flashes’ 23-yard line on a 52-yard gain — the longest LSU reception this season.
The notion of LSU fullbacks solely serving as lead blockers is now expanded as No. 6 LSU prepares to open Southeastern Conference play at 6:45 p.m. Saturday against Auburn at Tiger Stadium. No, don’t expect Neighbors, whose three catches rank third on the roster, to wind up as the final choice as the third receiving option, but the wrinkle hints at offensive coordinator Cam Cameron utilizing backs as pass catchers moving forward.
“When that fullback cannot only block but receive it out of the backfield or hit a seam very quickly from a closer alignment to the line of scrimmage, the pressure is significant on defenses,” LSU coach Les Miles said Monday. “Obviously the advantage is to the offense.”
Already, Neighbors’ receptions equal the number totaled by fullbacks last season, all by J.C. Copeland. And who can forget Copeland rumbling down the sideline for a 47-yard gain against Alabama last season — a play Mettenberger described as watching a 270-pound “meatball” rumble down the sideline.
In stints in the NFL, Cameron has been known to utilize backs as receivers, namely LaDainian Tomlinson in his hey-day with the San Diego Chargers and recently with Ray Rice and the Baltimore Ravens.
“It’s definitely something I haven’t done in the past,” Neighbors said of the new duty. “I had to prove myself in practice and in fall camp for them to have confidence in me to do it.”
How it factors into play-calling moving forward isn’t entirely clear. A persistent curiosity has been when LSU might turn to a running back such as Terrence Magee, who saw time at wide receiver last season, as an option on calls such as a wheel route out of the backfield.
“It hasn’t gotten there yet,” Magee said. “Eventually, it will get there.”
And what awaits Neighbors if he finds the end zone via snagging a spiral from Mettenberger?
“I’ve told him, ‘When you score you’re first touchdown, I’m taking you down. Be ready,’” Copeland said.
Trio good to go
Strong safety Craig Loston was held out of action Saturday, while a undisclosed injury led to linebacker Lamin Barrow sitting out after the first quarter against Kent State.
On Monday, Miles said the seniors, along with freshman cornerback Tre’Davious White, were cleared to practice and probable Saturday night against Auburn.
Loston “probably could have played,” but the staff chose to take a cautious approach on the even of SEC play, Miles said. He added that White, who made his first career start, “played well, very aggressive,” but he was “a little nicked.”
As for Barrow, he could have re-entered the game, but LSU held off on reinserting him,
“We just say, ‘Nah, stay right here,’ ” Miles said. “The way things were going and the opportunity to just freshen him up some, we felt like that would be best.”
Keep Mett clean
After allowing 32 sacks behind an offensive line seemingly lashed together with duct tape, the front has been largely impregnable over three games.
LSU has allowed just two sacks and two quarterback hurries over three games, and only one of those is owned by the line — a missed assignment against TCU by right tackle Jerald Hawkins in his first career start.
“Our offensive line is making progress in protection,” Miles said. “This will be another challenge. I like how they are approaching it. They come to practice willing to work. They understand, you know, deciding their targets.”
Taken together, the Tigers are tied with 16 peers for No. 5 in the nation in sacks allowed and have only allowed Mettenberger to feel heet once every 17 he drops back in the pocket.
“Communication’s been good,” Mettenberger said. “Me being a year older and understanding pass protections, I’m able to give a voice and help out more than I did last year. Our guys up front are performing very well right now. They’re seeing things and picking up blitzes.”
Kickoff time set for Georgia
LSU will make its debut on CBS next week when the Tigers venture on the road to Georgia.
The nationally televised game against the ninth-ranked Bulldogs will kick off at 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 28 from Athens, Ga., and mark the program’s first appearance on the network this season.
Ferguson grabs SEC honor
Junior defensive tackle Ego Ferguson was named the SEC’s Defensive Lineman of the Week on Monday.
Ferguson, a 6-3, 309-pound native of Mims, Fla., led the Tigers on Saturday with eight tackles in a 45-13 rout of Kent State.
He also dropped Golden Flashes quarterback Colin Reardon for a 15-yard sack at the Kent State 4-yard line. Ferguson’s 16 tackles, including 2.5 for loss, leads LSU.