Being a lifetime Saints and LSU fan, I was extremely excited when LSU signed a running back with the last name Hilliard. A great read on how Kenny Hilliard has developed into one of LSU’s most dominant running backs.
Here’s a daunting thought: That No. 1 LSU team that came into Tuscaloosa in early November and beat the No. 2 Tide? Well, that team’s gotten even better and more physical than it was two months ago. The biggest reason is a bruising 232-pound breakout star who began to blossom in the second half of the 2011 season.
To most observers around the country, Kenny Hilliard was just the latest former blue-chipper to emerge from the jaw-dropping football factory in Louisiana. But around the Bayou, the freshman from Patterson, La., is just the latest standout from an amazing local football family.
Hilliard’s uncle, Dalton Hilliard, is an LSU legend. A smaller back with dizzying moves, Dalton Hilliard is the second-leading rusher in LSU history with 4,050 yards. After leaving Baton Rouge, he played almost a decade for the Saints. And Dalton’s older brother Curtis Hilliard, Kenny’s uncle, was also a spectacular football talent from Patterson and ended up signing with Jackson State. Kenny’s cousin Ike Hilliard was a star wideout at Florida before spending over a decade in the NFL. Cousins Mike Calais, Ivory Hilliard and Anthony Skinner also played for LSU. Another cousin, Terrence Calais, played for La. Tech.
The younger Hilliard came to Baton Rouge with some pretty hefty credentials of his own. In high school, he ran for over 8,600 career yards, setting the Louisiana high school record.
“Of all the great Hilliards, this is the baby of all of ‘em,” said LSU’s running backs coach Frank Wilson,
a New Orleans native. “He has a terrific family. They’d protected him, but he still always wanted to be Kenny. He didn’t want to wear No. 21 [Dalton’s old number]. He wanted No. 27 to be his own guy, but it’s still been a huge transition for him here.”
Hilliard enrolled early as a freshman, arriving last year so he could compete in LSU’s spring practice. He impressed teammates with his rugged running style, but, Wilson says, Hilliard “struggled to adapt socially initially since he didn’t have his old friends and peers around.” It also didn’t help that he had to cope with a shoulder injury.
“I was just trying to stay patient,” Hilliard said, adding that he was trying not to get discouraged. He says there really is no pressure at all, but that he really wants to create his own legacy. He also “didn’t want to be a fullback, but I know it has made me a better player.”
What also helped him become a better back, Hilliard says, was getting in better shape. After undergoing the shoulder surgery, Hilliard says he added some unwanted extra poundage, getting up above 240 pounds. He said Friday that he’s firmed up and shed some excess baggage over the past two months and is down about 10 pounds.
“We used to tease him, ‘You don’t have any shakes,'” LSU senior cornerback Ron Brooks said joking about the big back’s elusiveness. “But he really has shown that he’s very nimble.”
The advice Wilson and his family gave Hilliard was just to stay hungry but also remain patient. In late October, he got a big break, Spencer Ware, LSU’s leading rusher was suspended for the Auburn game. The Tiger coaches were looking for that physical presence that Ware gave them and figured Hilliard was ready to provide. They were right. Hilliard pounded away at the defending national champs, scoring two touchdowns and rushing for 65 yards on just 10 carries.
The following game, Ware returned to the lineup for the showdown with the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa. Hilliard’s role was reduced. Turns out, it was Michael Ford, who proved to be the Tigers’ best option that night. Since then, though, Hilliard has emerged as a big weapon in the LSU offense. He might be even more physical than Ware. In less than half a season, Hilliard is tied for the team lead in touchdowns with nine, including eight on the ground. In the last four games, he’s scored seven TDs and is averaging over six yards per rush. The impact on the LSU attack has been significant. They’ve gone from No. 4 in the SEC in rushing to No. 2, upping their weekly rushing average per game from 194 to over 215.