By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Editor’s note: This is the cover story of Tiger Rag’s 2017 Football Preview. Pick yours up on newsstands across Baton Rouge today, or order online below. Email us if you have any issues purchasing the magazine.
Peter Burns did his homework. Before he arrived on LSU’s campus this spring on assignment from the SEC Network, he dug deep into the Derrius Guice archive, learning all he could about the Tigers’ star back.
He read about his troubled childhood on the streets of Baton Rouge. He brushed up on Guice’s storied prep career at Catholic High in Baton Rouge, where he developed into a U.S. Army All-American. He watched clips of his electric highlight film from two seasons as a Tiger, in which he somehow managed to shine despite starting in the shadow of Leonard Fournette. He wrote down dozens of questions, all designed to get Guice to open up for the cameras.
Burns, it turns out, would need to ask far fewer than anticipated.
“From the moment he walks in, it’s a 100 miles a minute,” Burns says. “He’s already doing the interview before he’s mic’d up. I don’t think he has a slow speed to him. I got in maybe three questions in the span of 30 minutes. He just kept going and going and going.”
Part of that is Guice’s default setting. It only takes five minutes with his film to realize he’s the fulfillment of Newton’s First Law: he’s an object in motion that tends to stay in motion, and it takes incredible inertia to immobilize him. Guice runs, in his own words, “like a pinball,” bouncing off of tackles like he’s allergic to grass.
Another part, perhaps an even bigger one, is Guice loves the spotlight, and it’s finally his. He’s endeared himself to many in the media since his debut season in 2015, but Fournette’s looming shade always hovered.
Fournette, for the most part, shied from an abundance of media attention. Not Guice. He’s ready for the spotlight.
“I’m very excited,” Guice says on the first day of SEC Media Days. “I always watched Leonard come the past two years, and now I’m here. Every time he got back I always asked him how it was and wanted his experience from it. Now I’m actually there living through it.”
By the day’s end, the rest of the media in Hoover realizes what Burns figured out after 30 minutes in the spring and what SEC defenses figured out a long time ago: Guice is unstoppable. He dazzles reporters with his pink suit and quick quips. He shines for the televisions, bantering with reporters he’s just met as if they’re age-old friends. Even the tough questions, Guice takes head on, bowling over them like they’re Louisville kickers.
This is a different Guice than the one who came to LSU two years ago. The smile and charm are the same, much like the power and agility he plays with, but everything is refined. There’s an underlying seriousness, too, as Guice realizes what exactly stepping into the spotlight entails. With great attention comes great responsibility, a responsibility Guice has earned through two turbulent seasons, and one he’s ready to shoulder.
“You’ve got to be focused,” he says. “Everybody is watching you. All the eyes are on you. Not just here, at LSU, too, whether you see it or not. Teammates, coaches, everybody is watching your every move. If I have a bad day, it can reflect on everybody and everybody can have a bad day.”
His first day on the job as LSU’s star is a good one. It’s only July, but Guice nails his first assignment as the face of the team. And if it’s a reflection of the season to come, the spotlight won’t turn from Guice anytime soon.
GUICE’S JOURNEY TO LSU has been well-chronicled. The Advocate, BleacherReport.com, and others have told the tale of his rise from the streets of Old South Baton Rouge to the gridiron at LSU.
Making it to LSU? A story of persistence.
Making it at LSU? A story of patience.
Had Guice not developed into an All-SEC back with legitimate Heisman hopes heading into his junior year, it would have been a matter of timing, not talent. The year Guice joined the program from Catholic High, Leonard Fournette arrived from St. Augustine in New Orleans and set an LSU school record for freshmen with 1,034 rushing yards in 2014. By the time Guice showed up, Fournette was preparing for a record-setting sophomore campaign that would see him set LSU single-season marks for yards (1,953), touchdowns (22), and yards per game (162.75, best in the nation in 2015) to earn Consensus First-Team All-American honors.
Guice was good, too, finishing second on the team 453 yards on. But opportunities were limited. He reached the 10-carry mark in just two games. In eight games, he got four or fewer carries. His stat line for LSU’s 31-14 loss to Alabama reads “no statistics available.”
“I didn’t have much spotlight in high school or when I got here,” Guice says. “Obviously, Leonard had all of it. I was just there, happy for him.”
In the meantime, Guice made the most of his touches. He averaged 8.5 yards per carry on the ground in year one, and in his first extended action of the season, torched South Carolina for 161 yards. In practice and away from the cameras, running with the twos against a defense full of future pros, like first-rounders Tre’Davious White and Jamal Adams, Guice showed his teammates the sort of skills he possessed.
“His freshman year, he came in with a lot of hype,” says senior wideout D.J. Chark. “But I’m the type of guy that I like to see what you can do before I assess you. He was just running and never would go down. He was going against the ones, and at that time we had great defenders on that defense. We have great ones now, but we just had two first rounders, so he had guys like that stacked all across the board and he was still doing it as a freshman.
“That’s when I realized he was a freakish athlete.”
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin had a similar realization later in the season. With Fournette shouldering most of the burden in the rushing attack, Guice embraced the opportunity to field kicks, totaling 20 returns for 472 yards as a freshman. None were quite as spectacular as his 75-yarder to start the second half against the Aggies in late November, in which Guice broke eight tackles and caught the eye of any coach who’d yet to take notice of his immense talent.
“I said, ‘Who in the hell is that?’” Sumlin recalls. “They said, ‘Derrius Guice.’”
It was the first time Guice emerged on Sumlin’s radar. It wouldn’t be the last.
Fastest to 1,000 yards in LSU history (by carries)
Rank, Player, Carries, Career Game, Date (Opponent)
1, Derrius Guice, 113, 18, “Oct. 15, 2016 (Southern Miss)”
2, Charles Scott, 136, 25, “Sept. 27, 2008 (Ole Miss)”
3, Justin Vincent, 148, 14, “Jan. 4, 2004 (Oklahoma, BCS Championship)”
4, Jeremy Hill, 165, 14, “Sept. 21, 2013 (Auburn)”
5, Terrence Magee, 167, 35, “Oct. 18, 2014 (Kentucky)” [/table]
ED ORGERON THINKS outside the box. Men who pound drums sans shirt and plug their bottom lips with coffee grounds when the energy drinks run low tend to view life from a different perspective than the common man.
So when he was asked, last October – fresh off a 42-7 win over Missouri in his debut as LSU’s interim coach – about all the good running backs he’s coached, and if Guice – fresh off a career-high 163 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the absence of an injured Fournette – reminded him of any of them, that his answer was a surprise should not itself come as a surprise.
“He runs the ball like Warren Sapp played defense,” Orgeron said, hearkening back to his days as Sapp’s defensive line coach at Miami. “When he strikes you, he’s wanting to go through you.”
The comment was a compliment, of course. To liken an explosive running back to a battering ram of a Hall-of-Fame defensive tackle is a testament to the power Orgeron saw in Guice in what proved to be the first of many dominant showings against SEC foes.
Guice wasn’t so sure.
“He is huge!” Guice said of Sapp, with a laugh. “I’m not that big!”
Orgeron’s second take was more position-applicable: Reggie Bush, whom he saw from the sidelines as a USC assistant.
“He has some Reggie Bush-Like cuts,” Orgeron said. “He’s bigger and stronger than Reggie was in college. Maybe not quite as fast, but he has cuts like Reggie had.”
There’s a comparison Guice, who grew up devouring clips of Bush on YouTube, could get on board with. The two share a number, a position, more pertinently, a frame.
“Watching his film paid off,” Guice joked.
The opportunity for Guice to do his best impression of a legendary college back came via an injury to another. Fournette, poised for another run at history and the Heisman in his junior year, tweaked his ankle in camp and again in the 2016 opener against Wisconsin.
It mattered little to Guice’s stats, initially. As the Tigers stumbled to a 2-2 start, a fact that would cost head coach Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron their jobs, Guice received just 10 total carries in LSU’s three games against FBS opponents.
But Fournette’s ankle worsened, and LSU tweaked its offense. Those two factors, plus some fresh legs and a desperate desire to prove himself, provided a platform for Guice to blow up.
He followed the 163-yard outing against Missouri with 162 more against Southern Miss, with a pair of touchdowns to boot. It was the first time Guice had received 10+ carries in back-to-back games since he arrived in Baton Rouge, and the country fell in love with his running style. Spectators marveled at the combination of power and straight line speed Fournette possessed, but Guice electrified with his on-a-dime cuts and bone-rattling collisions over would-be tacklers.
Fournette ran with ease. Guice ran with anger.
“I’m all over the place when I run,” he says. “That’s how I would describe my running type. I’m a slasher. I run angry.”
That anger stems from a childhood in which his father was murdered when Guice was just five years old; from years of growing up in poverty; from escaping that world, only to see his brother fail to follow. Police arrested Derrick Guice the Thursday before LSU played Alabama in 2016 and charged him as a principal to second degree murder for his involvement in a drive-by shooting in Baton Rouge.
“I’m very fortunate to be alive, from where I come from,” Guice says. “I guess I just run for better. For better days for my 5-year-old brother, for my mom, for my older brother, I run for better days for them. That’s where all the anger comes from.”
Guice’s sophomore season ran like he does: a little bit all over the place. The highs were atmospheric; the lows, seismic. His success tended to be, with some exceptions – like his 252-yard outing against Arkansas, in which Fournette also rushed for 98 yards and three touchdowns – an inverse operation of Fournette’s health. As Fournette healed, Guice’s role lessened. He picked up just 57 yards against Ole Miss, as Fournette raced to a school-record 284 yards against the Rebels. The following week against Alabama, Guice totaled eight yards on a pair of carries, once again sidelined as LSU’s offense sputtered, failing to score against the Tide defense.
The ultimate low came against Florida. Guice was slated to start and handle the bulk of the workload, but a pregame scuffle between the two teams inspired Fournette – not dressed before the game – to suit up, with the staff’s permission. Guice remained the primary back, getting 19 carries to Fournette’s 12, but his rhythm and confidence appeared to be affected, and his final carry could’ve left him in an inescapable sophomore slump for the rest of the season.
Trailing 16-10 and facing fourth and goal, Guice went the wrong way on the game’s final play, going right while taking a left-designed pitch from quarterback Danny Etling and plowing directly into the teeth of the Gator defense. The Tigers came up short, ending their hopes of a Sugar Bowl berth and handing Florida the SEC East title.
The following day, Guice arrived for a team meeting buried in a hoodie. Orgeron wasn’t having it. He yanked the hoodie off, grabbed Guice, and, in his most gravelly voice, told his sophomore back he loved him. “Watch what’s going to happen this game,” Orgeron said.
That week, the torch was passed. Fournette’s time as a Tiger was done. Guice’s era was underway. When kickoff arrived for the following week’s matchup with Texas A&M, Orgeron opted to receive, rather than defer, a signal to his running back. Normally hands-off with his coordinators, Coach O gave interim offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger one final, simple instruction:
“I want you to put the ball in Derrius’ hands and see what happens.”
What happened, to be exact, was 285 yards from Guice, a new school record for rushing yards in a single game, on 37 carries, with four touchdowns to boot, as LSU thrashed the Aggies 54-39. On the Tigers’ first drive, he gashed former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis’ defense for a 45-yard scoring scamper, adding another 45-yarder in the third quarter and a pair of red zone scores in the fourth.
“I was looking for Leonard Fournette,” Sumlin said. “You know it’s bad when you’re looking for Fournette.”
That night, Guice became the first back in school history with two games of 250+ yards, and he did it in just his fifth career start. Guice didn’t succumb to the Florida failure. He used it as a springboard.
“We had Texas A&M four days later,” he says. “I couldn’t just dwell on that. Had I done that, I probably would have had two yards against Texas A&M. Instead, I had almost 300. You have to let it go and move on to the next game.”
Guice capped off a wild second year with 138 yards and two touchdowns, including one receiving, in a 29-9 Citrus Bowl win over Louisville, earning the game’s MVP honors. He’d finish the year with an SEC-best 7.6 yards per carry, and a host of lessons learned.
“I didn’t so much learn on the field things,” Guice said of his roller coaster sophomore campaign. “It was more off the field. Who to keep around you, who’s there, who’s not. That’s what I love the most about football: it teaches you off the field life lessons. Learning life lessons, it’s the bigger picture.”
BREELAND SPEAKS SPEAKS for a host of SEC defenders returning in 2017 when he heaps praise on Guice. Though it was Fournette who gashed Speaks’ Ole Miss defense last season, he’s seen enough in person and on film to feel compelled to give Guice the edge in the ongoing debate over which Tiger back is better.
“I feel like Guice has got a bit more quick twitch to him,” Speaks says. “I feel like he can do a lot more with the ball. Leonard would run you over. Guice has got the shakes for you, he’ll shake you first and he can put that hat down on you also.”
“No. 5 might be better than No. 7.”
It’s a pretty pointless conversation, but those are the sorts fans and media enjoy most, particularly in the arid news climate of the offseason. Guice bristles when reporters inquire if he’s better than Fournette, whom he calls “a legend,” and instead responds with the advice Fournette would offer him.
“He would tell me to be better than him,” Guice says.
If he pulls that off, LSU’s offense should be in for a hell of a first season under new offensive coordinator Matt Canada. With Fournette gone, Guice will, for the first time, get plenty of opportunity to be the showcased back.
“Everything we do this season is going to be based around our best player, Derrius Guice,” Orgeron says. “I think by the end of the year, Derrius Guice will be one of the best players in America in Matt Canada’s offense.”
Plenty of records are within reach. If Guice maintains his 7.8 career yards per carry average, he’ll match Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon for best in NCAA history. Even if that number dips to five yards a carry for the season, he’ll still surpass Bo Jackson’s SEC career per carry average of 6.62.
If he’s paying attention to those marks, Guice isn’t showing it. Instead, it appears his focus heading into his junior season is directed inward. That means no more hoodies after losses. That’s the price of the spotlight, and one he’s more than willing to pay.
“If I go in there yawning and tired, it can rub off on everybody else,” he says. “I’ve just got to be more cautious of that and make sure I’m always on my best behavior. I’ve got to act like Coach O 24/7, like I’m drinking Monster drinks all day.”
So far, Orgeron sees the growth for which Guice aspires. He sees him setting the tone in the weight room, enjoying the leadership role in the running back room, handling himself with maturity in the media. He sees, underneath the smiles, the jokes, and the pink suits, seriousness. He sees a running back who is ready for his time to shine, because he’s earned it.
“He is more serious,” Orgeron says. “He’s matured a little bit. Again, he was a little bit more relaxed when Leonard was going in there first.
“Now, he’s the man.”