Two weeks ago at SEC Media Days, Les Miles gave himself quite the unenviable task.
"I'd like to see two backs take the lead," said Miles of his running back stable entering 2012.
That sounds pretty straight forward and common for a college football team, but it's a bit of a departure from LSU's proven formula. Last fall, the Tigers accrued 2,836 total rushing yards, largely thanks to a five-headed rushing attack that produced three separate five hundred-yard rushers.
The starter to open the season, Spencer Ware, led the team in carries with 177 for 707 yards. His primary backup, Michael Ford, led the team in yards with 756 yards on 50 fewer touches. None of that accounts for surprising freshman Kenny Hilliard, who tied Ware with a team-high eight touchdowns on just 62 touches.
And that still leaves junior Alfred Blue, who at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, might be the team's best blend of power and speed, and his team-best average of 6.9 yards per carry shows it.
Fortunately for Miles -- or perhaps unfortunately for his decision making process -- all four return to the backfield in 2012. With that much talent on hand, last year's accomplishments aren't likely to mean much.
"It's a new season; nothing that happened last year matters," Ware said. "I'm just trying to keep an open mind and act like I'm playing for a position -- actually, I am playing for a position."
Despite the limited number of touches, and highlighted by the fact that all four could start for nearly any FBS program, camaraderie was the name of the game when the Tigers went back to practice Thursday. Ford said he heard his coaches comments about potentially elevating two backs, but he said it doesn't change his approach during fall camp.
"Team comes first over anything, so we're going to stick to the team," he said. "Whatever two is in the game, whichever one is in the game, we're going to cheer that guy on."
In the meantime, Miles will have his eyes on the competition. Asked if he had identified a starter on Thursday night, Miles smiled ruefully at the task in front of him.
"I've got a pretty good idea of who's going to start at running back -- it's one of four guys," Miles said. "I like how they're competing, I like a number of guys there. And if there's somebody who's not quite playing his best, he could be relegated to second team very quickly."
Instead of being discouraged, however, the Tigers' backs have thrived off that competition. Compare LSU's backfield to another running power, like Wisconsin, where leading rusher Monteé Ball averaged 22 touches per game. Conversely, none of Miles' backs averaged more than 13 carries or less than four -- which means the touches are there for whoever earns them.
"It doesn't matter who was in the game, everybody contributed. We just keep getting better and push each other," Blue said. "Every day is a new day, and (the coaches) always say, 'When opportunities are handed, you've got to seize them.' Nobody was the starter coming into the spring, the summer or camp. You've just got to keep pushing yourself and want to be the starter."
Of course, with such an embarrassment of riches, Miles could try to get as much of it onto the field at once as possible. During Thursday's morning workouts, the LSU offense spent time lined up with Zach Mettenberger in the shotgun, flanked by both Ware and Blue in the backfield.
"There's a chance we could put two big backs on the field at the same time -- that are running threats," Miles said.
There's also the added dimension of a passing game that is sure to improve under Mettenberger's guidance. Last year all of LSU's backs combined for just 93 yards on a paltry 21 receptions -- embarrassingly low. With an improved passing game, those numbers should go up, which opens a door for the best receiver in the group to step up.
"You never know what you're going to get, we have a great quarterback and we might pass it more," Ford said. "There's great teams in the SEC and we'll have to use our strengths."
In a backfield this crowded, the more strengths they can showcase this month, the more likely these backs will be to star in the months ahead.
"If you're versatile, it's more likely you're going to be in a little bit more -- the more likely they are to draw up plays to get you the ball and create mismatches," Blue said.