KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — LSU freshman running back Leonard Fournette’s plans for this season don’t include any false modesty.
“My expectations for this year are to rush for 1,000 yards, be All-SEC, be All-America and be a Heisman Trophy candidate,” Fournette said.
The Southeastern Conference’s recent history suggests at least the first goal is very much within reach.
More than any other league, the SEC has become a place where a freshman running back can make an immediate impact. Over the last four years, eight true freshmen nationwide have rushed for at least 1,000 yards. Five were from the SEC: South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore (1,197) and Auburn’s Michael Dyer (1,093) in 2010, Georgia’s Todd Gurley (1,385) and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon (1,108) in 2012 and Arkansas’ Alex Collins (1,026) in 2013.
“Those kids show up physically able to run the ball well in this league,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.
That trend could continue this season.
Five of the top eight 2014 running back or all-purpose back prospects as rated by Rivals signed with SEC schools: Fournette, Auburn’s Roc Thomas, Georgia teammates Sony Michel and Nick Chubb and Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd.
This recent wave of productive SEC freshman rushers represents a major change. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise.
While the only SEC true freshman to run for at least 1,000 yards from 2004-09 was Arkansas’ Darren McFadden in 2005, as a growing number of underclassmen enter the NFL draft each season, it opens the doors for freshmen to contribute right away at every position.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said freshman running backs and receivers have an easier time adjusting than other newcomers because those positions rely so much on instinct.
“No coach teaches you how to make a guy miss,” Saban said. “No coach teaches you how to explode through a hole and outrun anybody. No coach really teaches you how to run past the corner because you’re faster than they are. Technically, there’s probably less that (players at) those positions have to learn.”
That doesn’t mean they’re completely polished.
Richt said learning the intricacies of pass protection can slow down a freshman’s progress, and Hurd agreed that’s been his biggest challenge. Bielema said Collins could have picked up 300 additional yards last year with better decision making.
Bielema also noted that a running back’s statistics often can highlight his attributes and hide his mistakes. So even though a running back may get better as he gains more experience, he can have a big season statistically right away.
“Whereas, if you’re a linebacker, you can be the greatest player in the world, you can make a great read, a great reaction, and then everybody’s like, ‘Oh, you stink,”’ Bielema said. “The negatives of a running back don’t really show in the open world.”
If it were just a byproduct of the position, freshman running backs would have similar success in all conferences. But the only three true freshmen outside the SEC to rush for at least 1,000 yards over the last four years were San Diego State’s Ronnie Hillman (1,532) and Wisconsin’s James White (1,052) in 2010 and Louisiana Tech’s Kenneth Dixon (1,194) in 2012.
The SEC has the most productive freshman running backs because it’s usually attracting the best of the group. Over the last five recruiting classes, 24 running backs have been rated as five-star prospects by the 247Sports Composite, which measures rankings of all the major services. Eleven landed at SEC schools, while no other conference signed more than five.
“Players want to play in the best football conference in the country, and where else but the SEC?” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “I think the opportunity is there. You’re talking about the best of the best, being able to attract (them). And I think we’ve had some very talented offensive lines in this conference and also speed around them.”
Of this year’s freshmen, Chubb and Michel will compete for playing time in a Georgia backfield that already features Gurley and Keith Marshall, who have a combined 3,379 career yards rushing. Thomas will definitely play but must work his way up Tennessee’s depth chart.
Fournette and Hurd have a chance to step in right away. He was rated as the No. 1 overall prospect in his class by the 247Sports Composite. Hurd, the leading rusher in Tennessee’s spring game, is expected to share carries with senior Marlin Lane at the start.
The recent success of SEC freshman running backs is apparent to the league’s most fervent fans, who follow recruiting rankings and wonder who’s next. Hurd is eager to get started.
The Vols said he can’t wait to show “what I can do.”
AP sports writer Kurt Voigt in Fayetteville, Arkansas, AP writer George Henry in Athens, Georgia, and AP freelance writer Bryan Lazare in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, contributed to this report.