Alabama Crimson Tide: Michael Ford

SEC sends several RBs to NFL combine

February, 19, 2013
2/19/13
9:02
AM ET
Several of RecruitingNation's SEC sites will look this week at the players headed to the NFL combine, which begins Friday in Indianapolis. Today: Quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers.

LSU Tigers


Perhaps it says something about LSU's offense in 2012 that among a record 13 players invited to the NFL combine from the Tigers, only two are offensive skill players who are generally considered, at this point, marginal talents. Running backs Spencer Ware and Michael Ford are the only skill players invited to Indianapolis, which is understandable when one considers LSU was 10th in the SEC in total offense. It's also a sign of youth. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger, fullback J.C. Copeland, running back Jeremy Hill and all of LSU's primary threats at wide receiver will return in 2013.

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Earlier, we ranked all 14 SEC running back groups, so it's time to look at the league's top 10 rushers heading into the 2012 season. As usual, there are some pretty talented backs in the league, so narrowing it down to just 10 backs wasn't easy to say the least. But someone had to do it!

Past rankings:
Like all the other positions, we're looking at overall talent, game-changing ability and experience. We also looked at past performances and projections for 2012.

Here are our top 10 SEC running backs:

[+] EnlargeMarcus Lattimore
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireMarcus Lattimore is apparently ahead of schedule with his rehab after tearing his ACL last season.
1. Marcus Lattimore, Jr., South Carolina: He might be the nation's best all-around running back, and all indications are that he's ahead of schedule with his rehab after tearing his ACL halfway through last season. Before his injury, he led the SEC in rushing and has a tremendous combination of size, speed and strength that make him one of the toughest players to stop.

2. Knile Davis, Jr., Arkansas: Like Lattimore, Davis is coming off of a devastating injury from last year. He had yet another ankle injury that cost him all of his 2011 season, but it sounds like he's more than ready to return to the playing field. He's one of the most dynamic rushers in the country, and when he was healthy in 2010 he averaged 146.9 yards in the last seven games of the season.

3. Christine Michael, Sr., Texas A&M: He's another back coming off a season-ending injury. Before he tore his ACL last fall, Michael rushed for 899 yards and is a true workhorse. His punch-you-in-the-mouth, explosive, downhill running style will fit right in in the SEC. He should be good to go this fall, and if he's 100 percent he'll certainly challenge for the rushing title.

4. Zac Stacy, Sr., Vanderbilt: He was a real surprise in the SEC last season and returns as the league's top statistical rusher, with 1,193 yards from a year ago. He isn't the fastest back, but he's strong, works hard and has excellent vision. Last season, Stacy tied for the SEC lead with runs of 40 or more yards, and averaged 5.7 yards per carry against SEC defenses.

5. Eddie Lacy, Jr., Alabama: Lacy takes over for the very talented Trent Richardson, but he's no slouch. Lacy has shown pretty good explosion and strength when he's had the ball, averaging 7.1 yards per carry last season. Nagging injuries have slowed him in the past, but if he's healthy he'll make plenty of defenders miserable -- and sore -- this fall.

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Jordan JeffersonChris Graythen/Getty ImagesLSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson was held to 53 yards passing and 15 yards rushing against Alabama.

NEW ORLEANS -- The ride is over.

The emotional roller coaster that was LSU’s season ended tragically inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The team that had shaken off a plethora of distractions and back-to-back games with double-digit first-half deficits never made its way out of the French Quarter as No. 1 LSU (13-1, 8-0) fell to second-ranked Alabama (12-1, 7-1) 21-0 in Monday’s Allstate BCS National Championship Game.

For once, there was no spark for the Bayou Bengals. The team that had rolled over each and every opponent it faced this season -- and was on its way to a historic finish -- fell flat when it mattered the most.

“You have to play through adversity,” defensive tackle Michael Brockers said. “That’s what our coaches teach us.

“(Alabama) made all the big plays and made all the tough plays tonight and tip my hat off to them for making all the big plays and winning tonight.”

The defense had more bend then it has been accustomed to Monday, allowing nearly 400 yards, five field goals and a late-game touchdown. Still, for staying on the field for 35 minutes that’s pretty good.

For everything the defense did for the offense, it got nothing in return. It got no adjustments, no originality. What it did get was five first downs, 92 total yards, 2.1 yards per play and zero points.

It got an offense that crossed into Alabama territory just once … and that came in the fourth quarter.

Followed by criticism throughout the season, Jefferson couldn’t get his offense moving. He couldn’t run and his arm didn’t help. The vertical passing game LSU promised wasn’t there because Jefferson admitted to holding onto the ball too long on designed deep passes because he wasn’t confident in where Alabama’s defenders were.

Some passes ranged from erratic to short. He was sacked four times and heard boos late in the first half and throughout the second when he took snaps instead of demoted quarterback Jarrett Lee.

Jefferson threw for 53 yards and an interception, and was beautifully contained by Alabama’s defense, rushing for 15 yards on 14 carries.

“I was seeing things clearly,” Jefferson said. “Making decisions with the ball wasn’t an issue.”

Jefferson turned the ball over twice, but it was his ill-advised flip-pass to an unsuspecting Spencer Ware that was extremely devastating. Jefferson thought Ware was ready for the pass, but Ware had turned up field to block before Jefferson released the ball, which was intercepted.

“Other than that, I made great decisions with the ball,” Jefferson said. “Offensively, we just fell short.”

Very short.

Though there was no sign of Lee. He just stood on the sidelines, tossing the ball occasionally to keep his arm warm.

“It’s disappointing,” Lee said. “I would have liked to have gotten some snaps, but it is what it is. Didn’t get any snaps, so you gotta move on past that.”

LSU coach Les Miles' only explanation for not playing Lee was that with Lee’s lack of mobility he didn’t feel as if he could sustain Alabama’s pass rush.

Even with as poorly as Jefferson played, the pounding, wear-‘em-down running game that moved this offense never arrived. The Tigers’ got 12 carries from their running backs. (Leading rusher Michael Ford got four for 1 yard.)

Offensive lineman Will Blackwell said the plan was to run the ball up the middle, but that never materialized so the staff directed runs to outside. Even after those didn't work, adjustments weren't made.

“I feel like we got away from our game plan a little bit,” Blackwell said. “We planned on running it inside and pounding them to maybe get the edge.

“We fell away from that and I don’t know what the reason for that is. Our game plan just fell apart.

“We got away from the things we’ve been doing all season and whenever you do that in a championship game it usually doesn’t work out for you very well.”

LSU finally succumbed to all the adversity. For a team that fed off the negativity, the Tigers weren’t ready Alabama. There was no game-changing play from the Honey Badger, the defense didn’t force any turnovers, there was no emotion in the second half and the offense never showed up.

For the defense, Monday must have hurt the most. They hunkered down near their own end zone and played well enough to win.

In the end, LSU’s defense just couldn’t play both ways for the Tigers.

“It was very disappointing,” linebacker Ryan Baker said. “We were clawing and fighting out there and we were just sitting back watching them go three-and-out.”

NEW ORLEANS -- When Alabama’s defensive players think about Round 1 with LSU, all those blown assignments in the running game stand out.

LSU was one of only two FBS teams to rush for more than 100 yards against Alabama’s defense. The Tigers rushed for 148 yards on 41 carries and wore down one of the best front sevens in the nation.

No matter how good or gritty the defense is, it’s tough to stop a running game that throws fresh legs out there like LSU does. The Tigers can have four to five backs carry the ball on any given drive. It keeps the Tigers’ legs fresh and defenders exhausted.

“It’s hard for teams to prepare for us because they don’t know who they’re going to get or what they’re going to get,” said LSU running back Michael Ford, who led the Tigers with 72 rushing yards against Alabama in November.

[+] EnlargeJordan Jefferson
Spruce Derden/US PresswireOne of the Crimson Tide's biggest challenges will be containing Jordan Jefferson, who thrives at escaping pressure and breaking big plays.
Tide players are certainly giving LSU’s backs their due. They understand that those guys can play. But they feel some of their own mistakes definitely helped get the Tigers rolling.

Players were out of position. Running gaps weren’t filled. Jobs didn’t get done.

“We had guys in the right spot, but then we’d have another guy who’s not,” Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw said. “It’s on all 11 players on defense to get to the ball and be in the right spot.”

The most frustrating part for players is that stopping the run is what Alabama does. Alabama leads the nation in rushing defense and is giving up just 2.5 yards per carry.

Defensive tackle Josh Chapman said the key is to own the big uglies up front and force LSU to throw. The more teams try to beat Alabama through the air, the more mistakes are made.

“We have to go out and create a new line of scrimmage,” Chapman said. “One thing we do try to do is make teams one-dimensional, and that’s by throwing the ball. Once you throw the ball, our DBs have a mindset that once it’s in the air, it’s ours.”

But that won’t be so easy with this LSU team. The Tigers have yet another running threat that creates a supreme multiheaded backfield monster.

When asked what Alabama’s defense had to account for most during Monday’s Allstate BCS National Championship Game, linebacker Dont’a Hightower emphatically said two words: Jordan Jefferson.

“He’s their MVP,” Hightower said. “He’s the reason why they’re doing so good right now.”

He’s become such a weapon because he has the ability to run. He can squirm his way out of tough situations when the pocket collapses, opening up running lanes and passing plays.

Defensive breakdowns helped Jefferson be successful on designed runs, options and wild scrambles. Tide players are particularly worried about the option because it brings the element of Jefferson running AND one of the many running backs right back into the picture.

For Alabama’s defense to be successful in stopping LSU’s rushing attack, which led the SEC with 220.4 yards against league opponents, Hightower said it comes down to closing in on rushing lanes, filling gaps and throwing in some tricky defensive looks to confuse Jefferson.

When Jefferson keeps the ball, it’s all about containment.

“I feel like once you keep a dual-threat quarterback inside the pocket, I feel like he’s kind of done,” Hightower said.

LSU’s ground game can hurt Alabama in so many different ways. From Jefferson’s legs, to runners that average well over 220 pounds, LSU’s backfield is a physical force that overpowered Alabama the first time.

Well, Hightower says bring it. Hightower is excited for his shot at redemption and wants to prove that Alabama is just as tough.

Hightower wants that robust running game to come right at this defense.

“I like power guys,” he said. “I don’t like chasing the guys who run the 4.23s. I don’t like that. I’d rather them line up in the I-formation and just run at me.”

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