After watching former teammate Michael Ford make the Chicago Bears roster as an undrafted free agent last summer, it would have been rather easy for LSU running back Kenny Hilliard to think about making the leap to the NFL, too.
Then again, it was just the opposite for Hilliard.
It was real easy for him to come back despite three mostly forgettable seasons with the Tigers and the prospect of sharing backfield time and perhaps being overshadowed by incoming freshman Leonard Fournette, the nation’s No. 1 recruit last winter.
Eleven days after Fournette picked LSU, so did Hilliard — again.
“To (sic) close to graduating … NFL can wait,” he tweeted shortly after Tigers backfield mate Jeremy Hill announced he was giving up his final two seasons of eligibility to turn pro.
Seven months later, Hilliard isn’t second-guessing his decision for a moment as he prepares for his final college season.
He’s not at all concerned about having to split carries with Fournette, fellow senior Terrence Magee and quite possibly another promising freshman — Darrel Williams — in Les Miles’ backfield-by-committee approach.
Hilliard, who is six hours shy of a general studies degree, is content with doing what he can to help LSU win games while completing his schoolwork.
“I want to be a great role model for this team and to the young guys,” Hilliard said when asked what he wanted to accomplish this season. “I just want to stay on top of my game.”
If that means helping Fournette and Williams become the latest in a long list of star LSU running backs, that’s fine with him.
“Terrence and I have to make sure those young guys are good and ready to go, just like Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Alfred Blue did for us,” Hilliard said. “We’ll have those guys right.”
He said he never considered packing his bags and declaring for the NFL draft, partly because his career hasn’t played out the way he and so many others thought it would.
Save for a seven-game stretch at the end of his freshman season and beginning of his sophomore year, when he looked like the devastating 230-pounder who rushed for 8,603 yards and 106 touchdowns at Patterson High School, Hilliard’s career has been unfulfilling.
In those seven games — the final four games of 2011 and first three of 2012 when he gained 552 yards and scored 10 touchdowns in averaging 7.1 yards a carry — he gave LSU fans a taste of what they thought they were going to get from the state’s all-time high school rushing king.
In the 21 games since, Hilliard has just 471 yards and a 4.2 average with seven scores, although he isn’t blaming the coaches for his three-year total of 1,110 yards and 21 touchdowns in 37 games.
“I can say that there were probably some other issues that I had to hold myself accountable for,” he said. “From those mistakes, I have learned, and I made progress. So now, I’ll be ready.”
One of the problems the past three seasons, was playing with and behind the likes of Hill, Ford, Ware and Blue.
Like Ford, Ware gave up his final year of eligibility. And Blue left this winter even though he was granted another year by the NCAA after a serious knee injury wrecked his 2012 season.
“Those guys, I guess, had different reasons to go,” said Hilliard, the father of twin 1-year-old daughters, Kambri and Korinne. “My goal was to come back and get this degree for my family and my girls.
“I never had a thought about leaving, because I know I didn’t put out the numbers that I needed to have a shot to go. So why leave and probably go undrafted, or in the later rounds?”
So Hilliard stuck around and worked on becoming more consistent in the spring when he and Magee handled most of the ball-carrying duties before Fournette and Williams arrived earlier this month.
“I’ve just tried to stay consistent on my game, day-in and day-out,” he said. “I’ve tried to give great effort in picking up my pass protections and running the ball violently.”
“I think Kenny really is doing what exactly he should be doing,” Miles said. “He looks good, (he’s) running the ball well, and blocking protection is good. Kenny will have a big impact to this season.”
Hilliard plans to be ready when his time comes.
“There were down times, but that’s a part of it,” he said of his first three seasons at LSU. “Sometimes, it may not look that good for you, and the next thing you know a guy goes down. Or you make a big play and just get on a roll.
“I feel like we’re all going to get an opportunity. You just have to seize the moment when you do get it.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter: @MicklesAdvocate.