Kenny Hilliard and Alfred Blue remember the names.
Following LSU’s season-opening victory against North Texas in 2012, LSU coach Les Miles dubbed the former Tiger running backs “Thunder and Lightning” and “Shake and Bake” — allusions to the 2006 movie “Talladega Nights” — thanks to their pair of 100-plus yard rushing performances.
The duo, who spent three years together at LSU, has been reunited on the Houston Texans, forming part of another crowded backfield that was the norm during their years in Baton Rouge.
This weekend, they’re back to another college ritual: homecoming.
The Texans visit the Saints in their third preseason game on Sunday, and it feels like old times for the pair, the boys from Boutte and Patterson who still feel like “practically best friends” as they return to Louisiana as professionals.
“Once I met him, we clicked,” Hilliard said of Blue, “and we’ve been crossing paths ever since.”
That they have, and their reunion is a reminder of Hilliard’s favorite college memory alongside Blue.
“Those nicknames (Les Miles) had for us will stick with me for a long time,” Hilliard said.
“My mom still has a (Daily Reveille) cover with those (nick)names on the front page. It’s the centerpiece in her scrapbook of moments in my career — our careers, really.”
For now, their careers are both in the early phases at the pro level. Even though just six months separate them in age, Blue already has the feel of a seasoned veteran.
He’s a known entity: the agile, stand-up running back took significant snaps in Houston last year as the second-string option. Just like at LSU, Texans fans can be loudly heard chanting his name in the cadence of a jeer after a positive gain.
The 2014 sixth-round pick churned out 641 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns as a rookie. With starting running back Arian Foster’s recent groin injury, Blue leads the pack for a starting spot in a running back-by-committee through at least the end of September.
“I have that responsibility now,” said Blue, a Hahnville High product. “Year one, you don’t have as much, and now with the injury to Arian, it’s a bigger role, and you have to be more accountable.”
For Hilliard, it’s a classic rookie scenario: fighting just to make a roster.
His biggest preseason contributions have come on special teams, and surprisingly, he hasn’t seen much time at fullback despite his bulky frame and experience there at LSU.
The seventh-round pick back in May is right on that cutline for the 53-man roster, which the Texans have to slim down to within a week. That puts an extra emphasis on Sunday’s game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
It’s one of his final auditions before Friday’s cut date.
“Both guys will help us on special teams,” said Texans coach Bill O’Brien. “Kenny, especially, is still in a battle for a spot. They both run hard. Playing in the SEC and in a college atmosphere like LSU really helped them.”
Hilliard has Blue partly to thank for his special teams acumen. During his rookie season, Blue implored his old college friend to get more special teams work at LSU, even if he had to beg the coaches.
The former Patterson High four-star recruit and one-time LHSAA career rushing yards record holder took it to heart, moving from backup option to regular contributor on LSU’s kickoff coverage unit in his 2014 senior season.
“I was always touching base, asking how the league is,” Hilliard said. “Special teams is a big part of it, so I needed to get game tape there. Alfred made sure of it.
“That just shows the guy he is. He’s been a leader and a mentor for me at every step.”
The relationship goes back even further than their time at LSU. The duo met in high school thanks to a shared personal trainer, Duke Rousse. Rousse encouraged them to connect and even train together, despite living about 45 minutes apart west of New Orleans and Blue being a year ahead in school.
They attended some then-New Orleans Hornets games, consulted on college decisions and one-upped each other in making All-State teams.
“I took him under my wing, and he’s been like a brother ever since,” said Blue.
Hilliard had the more distinguished time in purple and gold. He collected 27 touchdowns and rushed for more than 1,500 yards from 2011-14, making the 2011 All-SEC Freshman team with a late-season surge as he helped put away Arkansas and Georgia in a pair of memorable blowouts.
Blue was on pace to star with Hilliard as tandem starters after that North Texas romp in 2012. But a season-ending knee injury, not to mention Jeremy Hill’s rise, kept the pair from spearheading the rushing attack.
They were the first LSU running backs to rush for 100 yards in a season opener since Gary James and Dalton Hilliard — Kenny’s uncle and former Saints and Tigers standout — did it in 1982.
Blue’s injury against Idaho stunted the two-headed attack, and neither ever got the chance to truly be the featured running back again in LSU’s notoriously deep backfields.
They likely won’t get that chance in Houston, either.
But they’ll have their time together in the limelight on Sunday. Hilliard said “practically everybody” in his family, including Dalton, will be in the Superdome come kickoff.
“It’s going to be great to be back in Louisiana, seeing the Saints and LSU fans — all that gold will be familiar,” Hilliard said. “I grew up a Saints fan, with my uncle, but I’m still coming there to win.”
Blue said there will be a similarly large turnout for his family, which was infamously devastated by a fire to the family’s home in 2011. That’s all in the rearview mirror now, as Blue’s burgeoning career and LSU’s relief fund setup immediately after the fire have the family living comfortably.
His mother, Erica Clement, relocated from Boutte to Raceland, settled down and is long since beyond the worst of the fire’s effects, which hit in the middle of LSU’s 2011 SEC championship season.
“That’s all in the past. She’s back on her feet, liking that country life,” Blue said. “I know she’s looking forward to (seeing me play) in Louisiana.”
It’s clearly a full circle moment for both players and one their coach plans to harness.
“This is first time (this week) I’ve thought about their LSU and New Orleans connection,” O’Brien said. “Maybe I can use that for motivation (in practice), so they can gain some yards for us and make Coach Miles, make their family proud.
“They’ve got all the tools to play well and do that.”
As for those nicknames? They’re still appropriate, even in the bruising NFL game.
“He’s a bit more power guy, and I’m a little more versatile, a little quicker,” Blue said. “To get those nicknames, we had to earn it, and we’ll have to earn that reputation here.”
“That ‘Thunder and Lightning’ style?” Hilliard added. “It’s ours.”