Injuries hit LSU's power run identity

BATON ROUGE, La. -- When you envisioned LSU's power-run identity coming into the season, you might have thought of this:

Alfred Blue, the running back who emerged from the Tigers' five-man competition at the position, carrying the ball behind bruising 270-pound fullback J.C. Copeland to the left side of the line and through a hole opened by arguably the Tigers' most talented offensive lineman, left tackle Chris Faulk.

A daunting sight for defenses, indeed, but not one No. 11 Florida will have to worry about when No. 4 LSU visits The Swamp Saturday.

With the loss of Copeland for an undetermined period, but certainly at least for the Florida game, because of a knee injury, LSU is now without three of its original starting offensive players for the beginning of a brutal five-game stretch for the Tigers. Faulk and Blue were lost earlier this season.

LSU coach Les Miles said Monday that Copeland was "nicked" in Saturday's game against Towson and hinted that he may be out for a while. "We're hoping rehabilitation is all that it will take, a little bit of time," Miles said. "At the back end of the week we'll know more."

That's encouraging news for LSU considering how serious the fullback's injury looked. When he went down in the fourth quarter of LSU's 38-22 win over Towson, he was helped off the field without putting any weight on the injured knee. It was iced and he left the field on crutches, putting no weight on the leg.

LSU uses fullbacks more than most college teams, so the loss of Copeland is more significant that one might think. With Zach Mettenberger, a drop-back passer, starting at quarterback this year, LSU got away from many of the spread plays it used in recent seasons with former starter Jordan Jefferson and has run I-formation plays on close to 60 percent of its snaps during a 5-0 start.

LSU doesn't have endless depth at fullback, a position LSU rarely fills through recruiting. The Tigers' roster does not include a player recruited to the program as a fullback. Even Copeland came to Baton Rouge as a defensive tackle before making the move. His backup, and likely starter this week, is Connor Neighbors, a walk-on who played linebacker in high school.

"I think Connor Neighbors is a great way to go," Miles said.

Neighbors, a 236-pound sophomore, is not as physically daunting as Copeland, who was not only a good blocker, but has also given the Tigers three rushing touchdowns in goal-line situations. Neighbors backups' are LSU's bigger running backs, Kenny Hilliard and Jeremy Hill, also considerably smaller than Copeland.

"The identity of (Copeland) as a 275-pound guy who can literally take out anybody is going to hurt," said Mettenberger, Neighbors' roommate. "But Connor is a 245-pound kid who's not afraid to hit anybody. I think our running game is going to be the same. We still have the offensive line coming back that's been blocking downfield."

Speaking of the offensive line, LSU is coming off a week where it experimented with its lineup, starting true freshman Vadal Alexander at right tackle and resting left tackle Josh Dworaczyk, who had been the starter since Faulk was lost for the season to a knee injury suffered the week of the Tigers' second game against Washington.

Miles said Dworaczyk will likely be "in a better position to play," this week, but a determination would not be made until later this week.

"I like how we played (on the offensive line) last week," Miles said. "I like the lineup. I think those guys will get more comfortable game-in, game-out and we'll keep getting better and better.

It would certainly be a work in progress. With Alexander at right tackle and Alex Hurst, the usual starter at right tackle, playing left tackle against Towson, LSU rushed for a season-low 158 yards while allowing four sacks of Mettenberger.

The one injury-hit area on offense where LSU remains fine is running back. Since Blue went down in the Tigers' third game against Idaho, LSU production at the position has continued with Hilliard, Spencer Ware and Michael Ford.

"The other 35 running backs we have besides Blue have done a good job," Mettenberger joked.

LSU isn't that deep everywhere though. The Tigers are still dealing with the best way to replace Faulk and now heads to Gainesville with big shoes to fill at fullback.