They're calling this the year of the running back in college football, like the position is Hamlet's undiscovered country or some such thing.
The LSU Tigers have news for the folks from Coral Gables to Puget Sound: It's always the year of the running back, this year as much or more than any.
During World War II, there was an assembly plant, not far from LSU coach Les Miles' beloved Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, called Willow Run. It was there that Ford produced B-24s for the war effort, at one point rolling out a new bomber every 63 minutes, 24 hours a day.
Maybe that's where Miles took his cue, because the running backs just keep rolling out of LSU's big indoor practice facility like it was an assembly plant for ball carriers — the engines of Miles' power-predicated offense.
Joseph Addai begat Jacob Hester, who begat Charles Scott. Then came Stevan Ridley, Michael Ford, Jeremy Hill and, finally, Leonard Fournette. Six of Miles' first 11 seasons at LSU have produced a 1,000-yard rusher, with four of those players posting top-10 rushing seasons in LSU history.
Fournette may be the ultimate expression of the runner's art at LSU. A heady mix of strength and speed, Fournette is, quite probably, the best running back ever at LSU. One can mount an argument for Billy Cannon and his multifaceted skills: He was a runner, had to play defense, of course returned kicks and threw the occasional pass. But on pure ability and productivity, Fournette may steal the show.
If running back numbers are up across the country, Fournette is leading the surge. On the verge of his third and certainly last season as a Tiger, Fournette is on pace to become LSU's all-time leading rusher. He has 2,987 yards in two seasons, ranking fourth in program history. He needs 1,571 yards this season to break Kevin Faulk's career rushing record (4,557 yards, 1995-98). He needs 15 touchdowns to break Faulk's career rushing touchdowns mark of 47.
Considering Fournette rushed for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns last season, leading the Football Bowl Subdivision at 162.8 rushing yards per game, Faulk should start composing his congratulatory tweet.
It's not that LSU's running backs stop and end with No. 7. By rough estimate, one figures sophomore Derrius Guice could start for at least eight other Southeastern Conference teams. Junior Darrel Williams and sophomore Nick Brossette, who returns after suffering an ACL injury Nov. 21 at Ole Miss, provide the Tigers with enviable depth.
It's hardly an original refrain for this column or any other LSU football critique to argue that the Tigers need to commit to a more effective passing game this season, that it's the only way they can hope to beat the teams they need to beat to contend for the national championship. But it's foolish to think, or suggest, that Miles' squad won't stay true to its roots as a power running team — not with a stable of backs like it has.
If this is going to be the year of the LSU championship, it's going to be the year of the LSU running back as well.
Not that we're talking about anything being different around here.
Remembering a gentle giant
Louisiana sports writing lost a legend Saturday when longtime New Orleans columnist Peter Finney died at age 88.
Hyperbole is something journalists are supposed to refrain from, but in this case it isn't anything of the sort to say Finney was the greatest sportswriter this state has produced — ever.
He wrote about everything from LSU football to the inception of the New Orleans Saints to Triple Crown races, from countless Sugar Bowls, Super Bowls and Masters to the Olympics, always with his quick wit and self-deprecating charm.
He refused to take himself too seriously. After he returned from covering the 2004 Athens Olympics, I teasingly asked him how those games compared to the first Athens Olympics ... in 1896.
"Oh, this was much better," Finney shot back, his face breaking into a wide, trademark grin. "Much better."
Like so many of us in this business, I am personally indebted to Peter. He wrote three editions of "The Fighting Tigers," the definitive history of LSU football, in 1968, 1980 and 1993. When he was asked by LSU Press in 2007 to write another edition on the Tigers to bring them up to the present day, he recommended me. Then he graciously agreed to write the foreword for my book.
Graciousness was Finney's watchword. He was a giant of our profession, but in Kipling's words, though he walked with kings, he never lost the common touch. Though he epitomized the big time, he never stooped to make anyone feel small.
He was a joy to read. He was a joy to know. And he will be missed greatly.