Blue Collar: LSU running back’s absence is more than just about football

Junior Alfred Blue pushed his way into the Tigers’ starting tailback position, but he represents so much more to this LSU team than what is seen in rushing statistics. PHOTO BY THE DAILY REVEILLE.

It seemed like such a meaningless play. LSU was up 28-14 on Idaho and running back Alfred Blue was running for a nine-yard gain to midfield. After the play he limped to the sidelines, but because no trainers had come on to the field, one might have thought it was something as minimal as a thigh bruise or tweaked ankle.

Then Blue was seen walking off the field with the aid of a crutch with about nine minutes to go as the Tigers were putting the final touches on a 63-14 blowout of the Vandals.

Rumors circulated. Prognostications were made. And early in the week Head Coach Les Miles gave Tiger fans the verdict on Blue’s return.

“I don’t know if this week (against Auburn) is realistic. It may be a couple of weeks.”

The consensus opinion is that LSU is so loaded at the running back position that the loss of Blue to a knee injury will not affect the team on the offensive side of the ball.

Out for Auburn? Out for a couple to four or five weeks? No problem. Just start Tigers leading rusher Kenny Hilliard and move up last year’s leading rusher Spencer Ware on the depth chart. Michael Ford will be happy to see more playing time.

Oh yeah, and just insert freshman Jeremy Hill, maybe the best of the bunch, into the mix.

“Blue is down for a little while,” said Hilliard. “The next (running) back just has to step up in the rotation, whatever name is called has to be ready to go on the field and do their assignment. We’re not missing a beat at all.”

It is a luxury for Miles and the Tigers to boast such an embarrassing array of talent at one position. There is no doubt that from a strictly depth chart perspective, as Hilliard said, LSU will adapt for however long it needs to in the absence of Blue, who was perhaps on his way to a third consecutive 100-yard rushing performance before the injury.

Hilliard, a true sophomore, leads LSU with 303 yards on 37 carries and has rushed for a nation’s best six touchdowns. He is the first Tiger to rush for two touchdowns in each of LSU’s first three games since All-American Charles Alexander did it in 1978. One could say that Hilliard has been LSU’s best back so far this year, and his response to Blue’s injury is a natural one given the violent nature of the game and the fact that LSU specifically recruits to have depth in situations like this.

But that doesn’t mean Blue will not be missed.

Blue is an icon for the culture of this LSU Tiger team. The victim of two house fires in his life, both of which left him and his family without a home, Blue is built to overcome adversity when life rears its ugly head, when the tiger inside him is forced to fight for some sense–any sense–of stability. So affected by these events, Blue last year asked of LSU’s Sports Information Director that no more requests for interviews concerning the house fires be filled.

He wasn’t being arrogant. He was simply putting the past where it needed to be so that he could move on as a human being.

He was being an LSU Tiger.

Blue’s stripes have been tested on the field as well. After he dealt with injuries as a freshman in 2010, the coaching staff considered moving him to linebacker in that offseason.

Blue stayed in the backfield, however, but as a fourth-stringer who did not play at all in several games. He still managed 539 yards and seven touchdowns on 78 carries, despite his low spot on the depth chart and the distraction of the second house fire.

Then late this past summer, Blue emerged from the ashes. He quietly earned the starter’s role and had rushed for over 100 yards in each of LSU’s first two games of 2012.

And then Vandals linebacker Homer Mauga landed on Blue’s knee. The potential for a long-term injury is possible, as even an MCL or ACL strain typically requires 4-5 weeks of rehabilitation.

It is yet another setback for Blue. His season could possibly be over. Best case scenario has him coming back this season only to find himself buried on the depth chart yet again.

Miles and the Tigers pride themselves on a blue-collar approach to playing the game of football, and the fallen running back is aptly named in carrying that identity with him on the field. Blue is a stalwart for younger players to look to as a benchmark for what it means to represent LSU football. He is a symbol  for a team rising from the ashes of an embarrassing defeat to Alabama in the national championship game last January, a team working to establish a new identity as a legitimate contender to the crown this year.

There is no doubt that LSU will produce at the running back position, and all the backs represent LSU’s character well in their own right. But just because leader Alfred Blue is replaceable on the depth chart doesn’t mean his entire presence is expendable. Blue is a strong, high-character young man whose unique traits cannot be replaced, and while he yet again finds stability in his life and on the playing field, it would be good for football enthusiasts to take time to appreciate the finer aspects of the game and stop treating such harrowing times for the injured Blue simply as an opportunity for the next guy to get his chance.