BATON ROUGE, La. – An unusual set of circumstances must exist when one of the most productive running backs in school history leaves early for the NFL draft and nobody seems too concerned.
Jeremy Hill rushed for 216 yards in LSU's season-ending victory over Iowa in the Outback Bowl -- a performance that, even before he made it official, seemed as if it would be the sophomore's final college game. Then the nation's No. 1 prospect, New Orleans running back Leonard Fournette, committed to LSU the very next day.
Les Miles' staff had put all of its eggs in the Fournette basket, opting not to sign a single running back in 2013 in an effort to land the biggest recruit available in 2014. And Fournette is certainly that, earning the highest prospect rating of any running back since ESPN began grading recruits in 2006. LSU's efforts paid off when he verbally committed to the Tigers during the Jan. 2 Under Armour All-America Game, creating a sigh of relief throughout an LSU fan base that desperately wanted to see Fournette play next season in purple and gold.
How could they not? Recruiting analysts have been comparing Fournette to Minnesota Vikings All-Pro Adrian Peterson for years. ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill likened him to Georgia superstar Todd Gurley, only with better speed. And ESPN recruiting coordinator Craig Haubert weighed in on how LSU's offensive scheme was the ideal fit for a player with Fournette's well-rounded set of skills.
“They have a player who is meeting needs if you think about Jeremy Hill declaring for the NFL draft and Alfred Blue being a senior,” Haubert said in an ESPN Recruiting Nation video discussing Fournette's commitment. “That leaves only two running backs [rising seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard] on the roster, so obviously Leonard Fournette fills a big need and he's also a great fit if you think about LSU's power running game -- that two-back, downhill scheme. That is ideally the best fit for Leonard Fournette.”
LSU's sports information department might have built a Heisman Trophy campaign around Hill had he returned for his junior season. After his 1,401-yard, 16-touchdown campaign in 2013, Hill might have ranked among the nation's most dominant college backs in 2014. His final college season certainly was one of the best in school history, with the yardage total ranking second all-time at LSU and the touchdown total ranking fourth.
But with Fournette coming aboard after rushing for 1,802 yards and 17 touchdowns and totaling 745 receiving yards and six more scores as a senior at St. Augustine High School, and Magee (86 carries for 626 yards and 8 TDs in 2013) and Hilliard (68-310, 7 TDs) returning, the Tigers should be able to absorb Hill's departure without much difficulty.
Fournette and fellow running back commit Darrel Williams (Marrero, La./John Ehret) won't arrive at LSU until summer, but they seem like good fits for what LSU wants to do in the running game, frequently with young players in its backfield.
“We don't look at them as young kids -- like my freshman year, when I was able to play my freshman year, a couple of guys went down and that's what led me to play,” said Hilliard, who rushed for 336 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman while splitting time with Blue, Michael Ford and Spencer Ware. “So everybody's just got to be ready to play when their number's called.”
Magee became a productive counterpuncher behind Hill in 2013, and he will most likely continue to play a big role in LSU's backfield as a senior. And while Hilliard has never been the lead back, he has three 100-yard games on his résumé and has rushed for 21 touchdowns in just 212 career carries.
“At any point in time you can turn to a guy that's as veteran as Kenny Hilliard and know you're going to get quality play,” Miles said last week.
They're all capable of providing quality play, but everyone expects Fournette to claim the lead role at some point. He's just that good -- and he'll have to live up to those astronomical expectations if he is to make Tigers fans forget about what Hill could have brought to the offense in 2014.