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Tuesday, January 8, 2013
After Ford, does LSU look for a RB?

By Gary Laney

Jeremy Hill
Jeremy Hill will be the leading returning rusher on a stable of LSU running backs that suddenly looks thin.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- The future of the running back position seemed to be figured out for LSU.

All five backs in the Tigers' 2012 stable were underclassmen. Freshman Jeremy Hill led the group with 755 rushing yards, meaning none of the three juniors had done enough to warrant leaving early for the NFL.

So the whole stable of backs would be coming back in 2013 and the Tigers could pass on recruiting a running back until the 2014 class, when Leonard Fournette (New Orleans/Saint Augustine) becomes the primary target.

Forget that blueprint.

Since the mass defections for the NFL draft started, the Tigers surprisingly have lost two junior running backs, the second coming with the news Monday that junior Michael Ford will skip his senior season for the NFL.

Ford, LSU's leading rusher in 2011, managed 392 yards on just 71 carries in a 2012 season when he, and all the juniors, had their production diminished by the emergence of Hill as the Tigers' go-to back. Ford joined fellow junior running back Spencer Ware, who announced last week that he would also skip his senior season to try to make a go at it in the NFL.

Ford was the ninth Tigers player to declare for the draft, joining a trio of junior defensive linemen -- Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo and Bennie Logan -- whose names emerged over the weekend. Five others -- Ware, linebacker Kevin Minter, safety Eric Reid, cornerback Tharold Simon and punter Brad Wing -- announced they would leave last week.

LSU did get some good news Monday when strong safety Craig Loston tweeted that he would return to school. He tweeted over the weekend that he was considering leaving as well.

The loss of two running backs is the biggest surprise yet in attrition that was otherwise largely expected.

Ford and Ware failed to reach the 1,000-yard mark in combined rushing yards in the 2012 season. Ware rushed for 367 yards and just 3.9 yards a carry. He was the only back in the five-man stable to average fewer than 5 yards a carry.

Both backs settled into roles. Despite being listed at 215 pounds, Ford was used as the Tigers' speed back, often coming in to run plays that would get his speed to the boundary. He was a change-of-pace to Ware and Hill, who are hard-running, between-the-tackles runners. Ware settled in as the third-down back, leading the Tigers' backs in receptions and also showing an ability to pick up blitzes as a blocker.

Those were lesser roles than they had in the 2011 season, when they were the Tigers' top two runners. Ford led the team with 756 yards and Ware, who started 10 games, finished with 707 yards. Ware seemed to fall out of favor after he was suspended for the Auburn game in 2011 for smoking synthetic marijuana.

So where does this leave the Tigers?

Hill is one of the SEC's rising stars and he took the lion's share of the carries in the second half of the season. But it's not LSU coach Les Miles' style to ride one back for an entire season. With few exceptions -- the most recent being Stevan Ridley's workhorse 2010 campaign -- the Tigers like to have a stable of fresh-legged backs.

There's a chance for that to happen. Rising senior Alfred Blue started LSU's first three games before being lost for the season to an injury. When he went down, he was leading the Tigers with 270 yards on 40 carries. If he can come back healthy, he could form a dynamic tandem with Hill.

Also returning is junior Kenny Hilliard, who rushed for 464 yards on 82 carries as a sophomore, second on the team behind Hill. His powerful running style resembles Hill's, so it might be hard for him to find a niche given that his skills may be seen as redundant to Hill.

A wild card might be rising junior Terrance Magee, who bounced from running back to wide receiver in 2012. Ford's departure might finally allow Magee to find his niche in the offense, filling Ford's "speed back" role. Considering he had good enough ball skills to be tried at receiver, he might be an option as a third-down back.

That would leave LSU with four scholarship backs, which is plenty ... unless there's an injury or two.

LSU's recruiting blueprint does not appear to include a running back to guard against that possibility. That could change now, though not necessarily considering the Tigers weren't building relationships with high-end backs in this class. If LSU were to pursue one, it could try to get a flip from Nebraska commit Adam Taylor of Katy, Texas, a player LSU was high on early.

Taylor, a bruising 200-pounder who fits the mold of Miles' LSU backs, had LSU at the top of his list but committed to Nebraska after it became clear LSU would not pursue a running back. The question now is, if LSU has a need, will he still be interested?

More likely, the Tigers will stick with their strategy of standing pat, then going hard after some 2014 prospects.