His high school coach describes Derrius Guice as “a ball of butcher knives.”
He runs angry. He runs violent.
He’s a human pinball, bouncing off tacklers as if they were the walls in the arcade game. He runs with a passion, teammate Leonard Fournette said. He runs with emotion and conviction.
He runs because he doesn’t want to fall. He runs because he doesn’t want to fail. The ground — and everything it stands for — is his enemy.
He runs for his father, murdered when Derrius was a child.
He runs for all of those who have, for more than a decade, kept him from hitting the ground. He runs for his hard-working mother and his hard-driving coaches. He runs to relieve himself from his crime-riddled street and impoverished neighborhood.
He runs to prove there’s more than just one star running back on his team. And that guy runs like a crazy man.
Why? There’s a story behind the way the LSU tailback runs. That Tasmanian devil, bat out of hell, rumbling, tumbling, hard-hitting, twisting, turning and entertaining running style is explainable.
“Derrius’ upbringing has been tough. His lifestyle has been tough,” said D’Artagnan Williams, one of the many father figures and former coaches in Guice’s life. “For most of his life, he’s been able to defeat his lifestyle. He just takes it out on football. He has an extra chip on his shoulder due to the fact that the hand he was given in life … it forced him to fight hard.”
LSU is ranked No. 6 in the nation. The Tigers are 5-0 overall and 3-0 in the Southeastern Conference. They’re two days away from hosting No. 8 Florida in an undefeated, top-10 showdown in Tiger Stadium.
It’s the game — broadcast on ESPN in prime time. It features Fournette — the Heisman Trophy frontrunner, the nation’s rushing leader and LSU’s golden boy.
But there’s someone else who runs on this team — a kid who was compared in peewee football to … Fournette.
“Dude’s a freak,” LSU safety Rickey Jefferson said. “He’s just different.”
In LSU’s win over South Carolina on Saturday, Guice, a muscle-bound, 220-pound freshman, ran for more yards than Fournette (161 to 158) and broke just as many tackles (eight).
The former Catholic High star and south Baton Rouge boy had a couple of Fournette-esque plays: a blitzing scamper down the sideline in which he out-ran defensive backs and linebackers, and a 25-yarder in which he shook off two defensive linemen in the backfield, bashed a linebacker and then twisted out of the grasps of a defensive back.
“What you’re seeing now, that’s just a taste of how good he’s going to be,” said Donald Berniard, one of Guice’s peewee coaches and father figures.
‘This is easy’
An offensive coordinator never forgets his first play call. Gabe Fertitta hasn’t forgotten it.
He started his career as Catholic High’s coordinator last year in the season opener by calling a handoff to Guice on a power running play to the left side.
“We didn’t block it worth a darn,” Fertitta said. “He made three guys miss and went 50 or 60 yards for a touchdown. I was like, ‘This is easy.’ ”
Guice ran for 3,268 yards and scored 45 touchdowns at Catholic. He split time as a sophomore with Khalil Thomas, now at McNeese State, and he had an injury-riddled junior season.
As a senior, Guice took off. He was as lethal of a kick returner as he was a running back. At one point last season, he racked up at least 200 all-purpose yards in three straight games. He didn’t start one game because of an ankle injury. By halftime, he had 264 all-purpose yards.
In a game against St. Amant last October, Guice scored four touchdowns — in one quarter. In another game, he scored on a 46-yard hook and lateral to end the first half.
The snazzy stats resulted in an invitation to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, a prestigious high school all-star game. He was named MVP after catching two passes for 153 yards, scoring on both.
“We felt like his junior and senior years, he was a legit SEC running back,” said Dale Weiner, Catholic High’s head coach, “the type you see throughout the league — sturdy, muscular.”
Guice was a fat kid. He was pudgy and chunky, and he always had one request above any others.
“He begged for a bag of Cheetos every day,” said Williams, Guice’s elementary school PE teacher.
Guice’s peewee football coaches at first thought he’d develop into a stud offensive lineman. His feet, even at age 7, were quicker than others’. Despite his proportions, coaches used him on reverses.
“He could beat them to the edge,” Berniard said.
Berniard is “Coach Q.” Williams is “Coach Dee.” The two were among a handful of male mentors for a kid whose father was murdered at age 7.
“Shot in the head,” Williams said.
Guice has two younger brothers. His mother, Beulah, spent most of her time working various jobs to raise two boys and then a third that came a few years ago.
Derrius needed rides to campus from his coaches and mentors, the father figures who helped keep him from hitting the ground. There were times when he ran from his home to the peewee field.
Imagine it: pudgy little Derrius hurrying down the street with Cheetos stains on his fingers and orange residue on his lips.
You won’t find the houses he passed in “Better Homes and Gardens.” Derrius grew up between Highland Road and where I-10 meets with I-110.
“Poverty is strong,” said Williams, a PE teacher at Children’s Charter Elementary in Baton Rouge. “Extreme poverty.”
Guice’s reaction to the death of his father was “more anger than crying,” Williams said. He took over as the man of the house as an elementary school student. Soon enough, Williams said, Guice was washing his own clothes and ironing his shirts.
For the next 10 years, he stayed mostly off the ground — figuratively and physically.
“I don’t like the ground,” Williams said Guice would say. “Me and the ground don’t get along. I have no intentions on going down.”
“The No. 1 thing I’d say to Derrius,” Berniard said, “is real backs don’t go down on the first lick.”
That other running back
It took Guice about three games to work his way up to second on LSU’s running back depth chart. It’ll take him much longer to work his way to the top.
He plays behind a guy who has racked up seven straight 100-yard rushing games. Fournette is the heaviest Heisman favorite this early in a season in at least seven years.
His 6-1, 230-pound shadow lurches over Guice. But that’s no problem.
“It makes him more hungry,” Williams said. “He doesn’t want to be Leonard but wants to be at Leonard’s status. He feels like it’s 1A and 1B. He takes from him. He takes a lot of pointers. He turns it up an extra notch because he knows, playing behind the best in the country, he’s going to have to show the coaches.”
Don’t believe Guice has turned it up a notch? He worked out so hard and so much over the summer that he passed out twice on one day while not working out and needed to be transported to the hospital.
It was a message: Slow down.
Guice’s intense workouts are well-documented. He lifts like a crazy man.
“His body responds to lifting weights differently than anybody else I’ve ever seen,” Fertitta said. “For most guys to make an improvement in the weight room — 20 pounds on squat, for an example — that might be a six-month goal. Derrius? If he just decided, ‘I’m going to squat 20 more pounds than I ever have,’ he’d do it.
“He’d gain weight and strength faster than anybody I’ve ever seen. He’s blessed to have the genetics.”
Guice can squat more than double his body weight.
“He’s in the 500s,” LSU defensive tackle Christian LaCouture said.
In high school, Guice power-cleaned 350 pounds. He weighed a bit over 200 pounds at the time.
“That’s quite a feat,” Weiner said.
His legs are thick, powerful columns, resembling those of an offensive lineman. That sounds familiar to Williams. He remembers that chunky kid in peewee football looking the same.
“He had muscle under the fat, but at that time we didn’t know how much muscle there was,” Williams said. “After playing outside, that weight started to shed. He got down to a weight where he could carry the ball. When those pounds were shed around 9 years old, it was like man against boys.”
Williams said Guice’s legs always remained large. They became defined and muscular, but they’re still larger than a normal person’s in size. It helps him stay off the ground.
“He gave us trouble — I’m not even going to lie to you,” linebacker Kendell Beckwith said of Guice during preseason camp. “His lower body is strong.”
Berniard recalled the first time LSU coach Les Miles laid eyes on Guice during a camp at LSU.
“It’s like they dropped Derrius out of space,” Berniard said Miles uttered. “Never seen a kid with moves like that.”
‘It was a big turning point’
You might know about Guice’s suspension from Catholic High’s spring football practice before his senior season. But you probably don’t know how it affected the star running back whose head grew too large.
Missing spring knocked him back down.
“It was a big turning point,” Williams said. “It was an eye opener. He had to understand the value of what football was in his life. It was like a big piece of his heart was missing. The structure that was set in life started to disappear. He was down on himself. He had many days where we got together one on one, and I made him understand that this is life now, but it doesn’t have to be this in the future.”
Williams calls Guice’s success as a junior “poison.” He failed to maneuver in life with that success.
“The world doesn’t stop because you had a hell of a game,” Williams said.
The suspension had nothing to do with academics, Weiner said, and it wasn’t for anything “malicious,” the coach said.
“Following through on stuff. Making sure you’re on time. Showing up when you’re supposed to and doing what you’re supposed,” said Weiner, who reinstated Guice late in the spring. “He had to understand that’s part of growing up and being an adult.”
Guice is a different person now than he was in the spring of 2014, those close to him said. LSU coaches rave about his work ethic. Guice was named LSU’s student-athlete of the month in June, his first semester in school. He has a 3.4 GPA, Williams said.
Guice, a true freshman, is not allowed to speak to the media, but he and “Pop” — his nickname for Williams — talk or message each other twice a day. They say prayers in the morning and at night. They have a play each day for that day and that week.
“He’s locked and loaded,” Williams said.
On the field, too. That has always been the case, though. About six years ago, Guice’s youth football team, the South Baton Rouge Jaguars, played Fournette’s youth football team, the Goretti Saints. Guice was 13, in his last season in the youth league. Fournette already had moved on to middle school football.
Guice scored four touchdowns in a Jaguars win, said Berniard, who helped create the youth team. Goretti’s coach, after the game, told Berniard he did not believe “No. 5” was within the age restrictions.
“He’s in high school!” he told Berniard in a playful manner.
Said the Goretti coach: “I coached Leonard Fournette last year, and I hadn’t seen anything like him until I’ve seen No. 5.”