In each NFL Draft, everybody is always looking for the "next" so-and-so, as if because it happened once, a Dak Prescott or a Carson Wentz is suddenly going to come along repeatedly instead of being a unique occurrence. College football teams face a similar struggle. While many of the top teams are capable of reloading, the "next" Deshaun Watson or "next" Myles Garrett could take decades to find. Rarely is a player of their caliber easily replaced.
LSU is fortunate, however. While finding the next Leonard Fournette seems impossible, the Tigers already know that they have the next best thing, because there's already a proven, first-round talent at running back still on their roster. They are different players and he might not be picked quite as early in the NFL Draft as the No. 4 overall pick Fournette, but Derrius Guice provides LSU with the most capable replacement for anybody selected in the 2017 draft. There is no mystery or uncertainty; LSU already knows it has a star to replace one of the most high-profile players in school history.
Clemson will roll with an unproven, to be determined quarterback to replace Watson. Other teams with top picks face similar situations. Nobody has the luxury that LSU will have in trotting out the SEC's leading rusher to replace a superstar like Fournette.
Despite being the backup last season in an offense with a problematic passing game, Guice rushed 183 times for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns, averaging 7.6 yards per carry. Guice performed well alongside Fournette and took full advantage of his opportunities when Fournette was sidelined by an ankle injury that cost him five games. Guice ran for 252 yards at Arkansas. He ran for a school-record 285 yards at Texas A&M. He had over 150 against Jacksonville State, Southern Miss and Missouri and 138 in the Citrus Bowl against Louisville. Guice broke off eight runs of 40-plus yards, according to cfbstats.com, more than all but three players nationally.
Since 2000, according to Sports-Reference, Guice is one of only 14 FBS players to average at least 7.5 yards per carry in a season with at least 175 rush attempts. He is the only SEC player in that group and joins Reggie Bush, Jahvid Best, Melvin Gordon, Larry Johnson and Tevin Coleman as the only Power Five players. Four of those five were first-round draft picks. It's early, and nobody can ever be sure about running backs in particular, but Guice is a favorite to be a first-round pick, competing at the top of the 2018 class with Penn State's Saquon Barkley, assuming they turn pro after their junior seasons.
At 5-foot-11, 212 pounds, Guice is not quite a physical marvel like Fournette (listed at 6-foot-1, 235 last year), and while he was a top-50 recruit nationally, rated with four stars, Guice also wasn't the all-world, once-in-a-generation running back recruit that Fournette was hyped as, either. Guice was a blue-chip recruit, sure, but LSU signs a lot of blue-chip recruits. And yet Guice has made the most of his opportunities thus far to break out of the shadow of Fournette before Fournette even left LSU, trampling opponents with an impressive running style that includes a low center of gravity, balance, power and relentlessness:
It includes terrific agility and vision:
And it includes breakaway, home-run-hitting speed:
As the clear-cut starter, Guice's average per carry is likely to fall a bit; after all, with Fournette in the lineup, he received a total of four carries against Wisconsin and Alabama, two of the best run defenses in the country. Still, Guice showcased otherworldly potential when given an opportunity, winning first-team All-SEC honors despite starting only six games, to set the stage for preseason All-America predictions and Heisman Trophy contender status entering 2017 now that Fournette is a Jacksonville Jaguar.
In the past 25 drafts, three schools have produced a first-round pick at running back in back-to-back years: Alabama (Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson), Wisconsin (Ron Dayne, Michael Bennett) and Michigan (Tyrone Wheatley, Tim Biakabutuka). (That's on top of Auburn and Arkansas each producing two in the same year.) Fournette has already been a top-five pick, and the door is wide-open for Guice to follow him into the first round and allow LSU to join the club.
Last year, when Fournette got hurt, running back remained the least of its worries thanks to Guice. Now, beyond Guice, it's hard to know what to make of LSU as a whole this year. Except for another debacle against Alabama, the offense clearly grew once Ed Orgeron took over from Les Miles, and Orgeron has brought in offensive coordinator Matt Canada from Pitt to lead the unit going forward. Canada earned a reputation for creativity last season, guiding a Panthers offense that finished 13th in yards per play, and he inherits a talented unit -- LSU continues to be one of the nation's top recruiters -- that has struggled to live up to its potential. LSU will deservedly be an underdog against Alabama in the SEC West, and ultimately the Tigers are judged by what they do against the Crimson Tide, who have devastated the LSU offense in recent years. Fournette couldn't beat the Tide alone, and LSU will need to get more from the quarterback position, where Purdue transfer Danny Etling is back and the presumed frontrunner for the starting job again. (Etling just underwent a "minor" back procedure but is expected to be fine.)
Regardless of how the rest of the offense develops, LSU can be comfortable knowing that, improbably, the surest thing on its entire roster is the replacement for Fournette, a motivated runner in Guice who broke out earlier than expected and allowed the Tigers to avoid dealing with a never-ending question about how they could possibly fill Fournette's shoes. While every other team faces doubts about new faces filling in for departed stars, LSU has no such worries. It has a player in Guice who has already shown that he can play like a Heisman candidate.
It's a luxury that LSU needs to capitalize on, because pretty soon, we're going to be wondering who the next Derrius Guice is, and there won't be an easy answer.