Leonard Fournette's return boosts LSU offense that thrived in his absence

Leonard Fournette wasn't fond of the view from the sidelines. He's expected back on the field against Ole Miss on Saturday. Gerald Herbert/AP Photo

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Even without Leonard Fournette, LSU’s offense has been on a tear of late.

Since Steve Ensminger took over the play-calling duties from Cam Cameron on Sept. 25, the Tigers are averaging 546.5 yards per game despite Fournette spending the month watching from the sideline with an ankle injury.

Now that one of the nation’s top running backs is expected to be back for Saturday’s showdown with Ole Miss (9 p.m. ET, ESPN), what does his return mean to an LSU offense that has exploded in his absence?

“We’re just going to be even more powerful,” said tight end DeSean Smith. “We should be unstoppable the way we’re playing. If we come out and do what we did in the second half against Southern Miss [when the Tigers totaled 338 yards and averaged 16.9 yards per play], it’s going to be one hell of a season.”

Especially if Fournette looks anything like the All-American who rushed for 1,953 yards in 2015. LSU has received outstanding play out of Derrius Guice, who has rushed for 155 or more yards in each of his three starts in Fournette’s absence, so having both of them available when the Tigers (4-2, 2-1 SEC) host the Rebels (3-3, 1-2) on Saturday will be important.

“He’s obviously the top back in the country so anytime you get a player like that back into the mix, it’ll be kind of big for us,” quarterback Danny Etling said.

Fournette’s return raises several questions, however.

For starters, is he anywhere near 100 percent? He rushed for more than 100 yards in each of his three starts this season, although it was evident that he had not fully recovered from the ankle injury he initially suffered in an August scrimmage.

Fournette looked sharp in the portions of Monday and Tuesday’s practices that were open to the media, but game reps will obviously be a greater test.

“I asked him yesterday how he felt his conditioning was. He felt like he was fine,” LSU interim coach Ed Orgeron said Wednesday. “Obviously we’re going to give him the football and let him do what he needs to do. He looks like he’s full speed from the first two practices, but we are going to monitor him a little bit and make sure he’s OK. I think he’s going to be able to tell me that during the game.”

Assuming he’s operating near full strength, that raises another question. We haven’t seen Fournette play since the Auburn loss that preceded head coach Les Miles’ and Cameron’s dismissals. The Tigers found a groove in his absence, complementing Guice and Darrel Williams’ running with a play-action passing game that has effectively prevented defenses from focusing heavily on the rushing attack.

Will Ensminger feel overly obligated to feed Fournette and stray from the spread-it-around style that worked so well in the past two games?

“I think everything’s just going to stay the same, be consistent,” Smith predicted. “Maybe a few more runs to get [Fournette] back in the mix of things, get him rolling, but other than that we’re a team and whatever’s working for us, we’re going to keep doing it.”

One thing Orgeron says we should definitely expect is to see more of Guice.

The sophomore failed to carry the ball more than five times in any of the three games in which Fournette played this season, but he has simply been too good to ignore. Guice is sixth in the SEC in rushing yards (564) and is second nationally in yards per carry (9.1) among players with at least 10 rushing attempts per game.

In fact, LSU practiced plays with both Guice and Fournette were on the field on Monday.

“Derrius Guice is a very, very good football player. So is Leonard Fournette,” Orgeron said. “We’re going to use them in a rotation. We’re going to keep them fresh. Both of those guys are going to get their share of carries, and we expect to have a very explosive night with those two running backs.”

Guice said Fournette remained a trusted voice in the locker room even while injured, noting that he was a vocal critic of the way the Tigers played in the first half last week against Southern Miss.

“He was just saying we had to step it up, we all look slouchy, and it was bad,” Guice said.

But while Fournette was valuable to his coach in that role because of his status as a team leader, Orgeron expects something entirely different now that his star player is back in the lineup.

“I guess the injury took a toll on him mentally and physically. He felt he couldn't help his team,” Orgeron said. “He wanted to help his team. He wanted to be a part of a few things going on. He did help me at halftime. He helped me on the sideline, and I know he's going to help us with the ball in his hand.”