KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — LSU freshman running back Leonard Fournette's plans for this season don't include any false modesty.
"My expectations for this year are to rush for 1,000 yards, be All-SEC, be All-America and be a Heisman Trophy candidate," Fournette said.
The Southeastern Conference's recent history suggests at least the first goal is very much within reach.
More than any other league, the SEC has become a place where a freshman running back can make an immediate impact. Over the last four years, eight true freshmen nationwide have rushed for at least 1,000 yards. Five were from the SEC: South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore (1,197) and Auburn's Michael Dyer (1,093) in 2010, Georgia's Todd Gurley (1,385) and Alabama's T.J. Yeldon (1,108) in 2012 and Arkansas' Alex Collins (1,026) in 2013.
"Those kids show up physically able to run the ball well in this league," Georgia coach Mark Richt said.
That trend could continue this season.
Five of the top eight 2014 running back or all-purpose back prospects as rated by Rivals signed with SEC schools: Fournette, Auburn's Roc Thomas, Georgia teammates Sony Michel and Nick Chubb and Tennessee's Jalen Hurd.
This recent wave of productive SEC freshman rushers represents a major change. But it shouldn't come as a surprise.
While the only SEC true freshman to run for at least 1,000 yards from 2004-09 was Arkansas' Darren McFadden in 2005, as a growing number of underclassmen enter the NFL draft each season, it opens the doors for freshmen to contribute right away at every position.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said freshman running backs and receivers have an easier time adjusting than other newcomers because those positions rely so much on instinct.
"No coach teaches you how to make a guy miss," Saban said. "No coach teaches you how to explode through a hole and outrun anybody. No coach really teaches you how to run past the corner because you're faster than they are. Technically, there's probably less that (players at) those positions have to learn."
That doesn't mean they're completely polished.
Richt said learning the intricacies of pass protection can slow down a freshman's progress, and Hurd agreed that's been his biggest challenge. Bielema said Collins could have picked up 300 additional yards last year with better decision making.
Bielema also noted that a running back's statistics often can highlight his attributes and hide his mistakes. So even though a running back may get better as he gains more experience, he can have a big season statistically right away.