Spring preview: Running backs

BATON ROUGE, La. -- It might not feel like it, but the season has changed at LSU.

The weather forecast for this coming Thursday projects the exact same high as LSU’s BCS Championship Game loss -- a balmy 73 degrees. The apparent lack of any kind of winter in Louisiana makes it all the more fitting that it’s time for spring football.

The Tigers head out for their first spring practice on March 1, and with the disappointing end to what had been the best season in LSU history, all eyes are sure to be on the Charles McClendon Practice Facility starting Thursday.

With that in mind, let’s spend the next few days previewing what the Tigers bring back to the table, starting with what was and what will be the workhorse of the offense -- the running back spot.

LSU finished No. 22 in the nation on the ground and rushed a healthy 591 times for an average of 202.57 yards per game. The Tigers featured two 700-yard rushers, three 500-yard rushers and five 300-yard rushers, and their six primary ball carriers combined for 34 touchdowns.

Scarier than those numbers is one absolute truth that has LSU fans drooling: five of those six backs will be back in 2012, and the missing production comes from Jordan Jefferson -- a quarterback.

The incumbents

This time last year, Spencer Ware was the name on everyone’s tongue. Stevan Ridley had departed for the NFL draft, and Ware had opened eyes around the country with 102 hard-fought yards on only 10 carries in the Cotton Bowl.

Ware held onto that hype, earning the starting spot in Week 1 against Oregon. He was the Tigers’ No. 1 guy more often than not and notched 10 starts.

Despite all that, Ware never became the go-to guy in 2011, and finished 50 yards behind Michael Ford on 50 more carries. A lot of that might have to do with Ware’s one-game suspension, which he served against Auburn.

Ford led the team on the ground with 772 yards and added seven touchdowns. He’s not quite the bulldozer that Ware is but he brings a bit more speed, as LSU fans saw when Ford torched the Alabama defense for 72 yards on option tosses in the teams’ first meeting in Tuscaloosa.

Look for LSU coach Les Miles to continue to split carries among several backs in 2012. The ability to keep multiple runners fresh in the fourth quarters of games was the main reason why the Tigers were able to grind down their opponents last fall.

With the amount of success these two had last year, it’s almost a given these two will return as the primary contenders for carries. But they had better be looking over their shoulders.

The rising star

Through the first seven games of 2011, freshman Kenny Hilliard had five carries for 20 yards and no scores. That’s not surprising, given the amount of talent in the LSU backfield.

What is surprising is the Patterson, La., product’s complete renaissance over the second half of the season. Starting in the Auburn game (during Ware’s suspension), Hilliard took the rock for 10 carries, 65 yards and two touchdowns and never looked back.

After such an innocuous start, he finished with 62 carries for 340 yards and tied Ware for the team lead with eight scores.

Hilliard didn’t enjoy quite the same postseason success as a freshman that Ware did. But it’s worth noting that among the LSU running backs, he finished with the most carries and yards (a mere five for 16) in the 21-0 Allstate BCS Championship loss to Alabama.

With another offseason to hone his monstrous, 5-foot-11, 240-pound frame, Hilliard should be a force to be reckoned with this spring.

The odd man out

Ahead of Hilliard in the stat list comes rising junior Alfred Blue.

Blue finished third on the team in both carries (78) and yards (543). That leads to a pretty impressive average of 6.9 yards per carry. But the fact that Blue finished with less than half as many carries as Ware, despite playing in 13 games, is telling. It’s also worth pointing out that Blue tallied just 16 more carries than Hilliard, who was barely seen for the first half of the season.

Blue definitely possesses the breakaway speed that most of his counterparts don’t have, but at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, he doesn’t quite have the frame the Tigers require for the pounding, punishing offense they prefer.

He’s probably got some work to do in the weight room and on the field to have high hopes of an increased role.

The new faces

Crazy as it is to say, the Tigers will add more talent to the running back corps when spring practice opens.

After a one-year hiatus from football, Jeremy Hill, a recruit for 2011, signed with LSU’s 2012 class after resolving legal issues and accepting a misdemeanor for carnal knowledge of a juvenile, a charge that had previously been sexual assault.

Hill enrolled early and is already listed on the roster at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds. He appears to have the ideal combination of speed and power for LSU.

Terrence Magee isn’t exactly a new face, but LSU fans aren’t exactly familiar with him yet. The rising sophomore appeared in five games last year and accumulated 136 yards and three scores on just 27 carries. He certainly has a steep mountain to climb, but Miles has proven in recent seasons that he’s not afraid to give a youngster the rock if he’s capable of making plays.