ORLANDO, Fla. — Danny Etling assumed the talent gap between his new team, LSU, and his old team, Purdue, was big.
Derrius Guice showed him it was huge.
During his first month in Baton Rouge, Etling witnessed Guice run through two defenders during a full-speed camp scrimmage in August 2015.
“I was like, ‘Who is that guy?’ ” Etling said. “You hear so much about Leonard (Fournette).”
Someone informed Etling of Guice’s age.
He was a true freshman.
“Oh, wow,” Etling responded.
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Days later, Etling watched Guice lift a barbell, holding 350 pounds of weight, and thrust it to his upper chest area in a move called a power clean.
“I was like, ‘There are some athletes down here that weren’t quite up there with me,' ” Etling said.
What, no Derrius Guices at Purdue?
“I don’t know,” Etling answered, “if there are too many Derrius Guices around the country.”
For Etling, that’s how Guice’s story begins — a jaw-dropping true freshman who stunned this Midwestern quarterback last year with his speed and strength.
The story has only gotten better. It’s only gotten deeper and longer.
Guice, a sophomore and Catholic High graduate, can add another chapter to his tale Saturday morning in LSU’s Citrus Bowl duel against No. 15 Louisville (9-3) at Camping World Stadium in this warm and breezy central Florida city. With Fournette already graduating to the NFL, Guice is expected to receive the bulk of the carries for the No. 19 Tigers (7-4).
Etling and his teammates have seen this show before — the one where Guice fills in for an injured-and-out Fournette.
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Guice’s numbers in the four games in which Fournette missed this season are mind-boggling: 89 carries, 764 yards, 10 touchdowns. That’s a 191-yard average per game and an 8.5-yard average per carry.
None of the performances came against juggernauts. Jacksonville State plays in the Football Championship Subdivision, and Southern Miss is a member of Conference USA. Missouri (111th) and Texas A&M (75th) aren’t in the top 70 nationally in rushing defense.
This will be his biggest challenge.
Louisville’s defense ranks 10th nationally in allowing just 110 yards rushing per game. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, a man who captained Georgia’s defense for four seasons, oversees a unit that has allowed just one 100-yard rusher this season, Clemson’s Wayne Gallman (110).
Florida State’s star running back, Dalvin Cook, ran for just 54 yards on 16 attempts — a 3.4-yard average. In seven of the Cardinals’ 12 games this year, an opponent did not have a player finish with more than 50 yards.
“You’re looking at the 11th-ranked defense in the country,” coach Ed Orgeron said Monday on his radio call-in show. “They're very stout.”
However, they are short-handed.
Defenders James Hearns and Henry Famurewa, reportedly shot at an off-campus party Dec. 11, were officially ruled out for Saturday’s bowl game, a university spokesman told The Louisville Courier-Journal on Wednesday. Hearns is a starting outside linebacker/end who leads the Cardinals with eight sacks.
Guice, meanwhile, appeared to be fully healthy Wednesday.
LSU held its first practice at the bowl site Wednesday afternoon, running through drills in front of a small gathering of reporters and fans at Celebration High School. Guice manned the running back position, escaping for two long runs during a 25-play scrimmage.
Guice did not speak to reporters during an interview session before practice, walking silently by media members in the team’s hotel.
Maybe he’s just too focused to chat. Maybe he’s hoping to avoid reporters after a recent profile of him buzzed through the internet Tuesday. The story, published by Bleacher Report, detailed Guice’s turbulent upbringing — he lost his dad at age 7, for example — and the piece strongly suggested that Guice plans to leave for the NFL after his junior season next year.
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For some, it’s an obvious move for a kid raised in one of the poorest areas of the city, a child who needed coaches to drive him to high school and whose brother was arrested earlier this fall on several charges, including attempted second-degree murder.
“Read my story,” Guice tweeted Tuesday, linking to Bleacher Report’s story. “It'll open eyes to some of you people that only know the ‘football’ me.”
The football Guice has grown so much over the years — even in his short 18 months on LSU’s campus.
He no longer “dances with the stars,” fullback J.D. Moore said. It’s a phrase used by running backs coach Jabbar Juluke to describe a player who runs too much laterally while behind the line of scrimmage.
Like Fournette, it took Guice several college games to understand.
“He was coached not to do it, but he’s still trying to break that habit,” Moore said. “Now he’s had more experience and playing time. He’s beginning to realize that once he trusts the coaches, it actually works.”
The numbers don't lie.
Guice is averaging 8 yards per carry this season, and he has racked up 1,249 rushing yards. He’s easily on pace to shatter Fournette’s career yards-per-carry record (6.19). He has already broken his predecessor’s single-game rushing mark, clipping it by 1 yard with 285 his last time out, at Texas A&M.
His 37 carries against the Aggies also were more than Fournette had in any one game, and it’s fourth all-time at LSU.
“He invites it. He wants to be the man,” Orgeron said of Guice. “He wants the ball.”
More than a year after first laying eyes on Guice, the running back still surprises Etling.
“It’s a lot of spinning and making guys take real weird angles at him, and they can’t get a hold to him. That’s when you see him bounce off guys and become an elusive player. It’s really something you can’t teach,” Etling said.
“You’re kind of looking and like, ‘How did he break that tackle?’ You see him get in a pile and then come out. ‘I don’t know how he did that.’ ”