HOOVER, Ala. — Kevin Sumlin can’t forget the first time Derrius Guice popped up on his radar, though the Texas A&M coach would surely like to.
It was the second-half kickoff of the Aggies’ game at LSU in 2015. Guice, then just a freshman buried behind Leonard Fournette on the depth chart, returned the third-quarter kick 75 yards to the Texas A&M 25-yard line.
“I said, ‘Who in the hell is that?'” Sumlin recalled at SEC Media Days. “They said, ‘Derrius Guice.'”
That was only the start of Sumlin’s Guice nightmare.
Midway through that same quarter, Guice sliced through the A&M defense for a 50-yard touchdown to give LSU a lead it did not relinquish. Guice was even harsher on the Aggies last year, setting an LSU single-game record with 285 yards and scoring 4 touchdowns at Kyle Field on Thanksgiving night.
“I was looking for Leonard Fournette,” Sumlin said. “You know it’s bad when you’re looking for Fournette.”
Fournette’s gone now, a problem for teams in the NFL’s AFC South to worry about. But inheriting his place — both as LSU’s running back and the face of the SEC — is Guice.
‘I’m the same Derrius as I was last year’
Many years, Media Days leave no question as to which player is the face of the SEC.
In 2008 and ’09, it was Tim Tebow. In 2013, Johnny Manziel was the one who took up the spotlight. Last year it was shared by Fournette and Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, a pair of impending top-5 NFL draft picks.
With no returning superstar serving as the league’s clearcut star, 2017 feels like Guice’s year. SEC Network anchor Peter Burns is all-in on Guice, saying he will become “a national superstar. A once-in-a-decade type of personality.”
With Fournette in the NFL, Guice enters his junior season in a far more prominent position than he did a year ago. But he doesn’t feel any different.
“I don’t feel like it changes anything,” Guice said. “I’m the same Derrius as I was last year. Leonard’s just a step higher now. I wish to be next.”
Heisman hype is not something Guice has dealt with before. Last year’s enormous output — 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns as a part-time starter — came without the expectation and scrutiny he’ll be dealing with this year.
Guice is choosing to look at that hype for what it is — a compliment. Not just to him, but to the Tigers as a whole.
“I think that’s love for me. That’s huge for me,” Guice said. “I’m very humbled to hear my name with the Heisman. But I want better for this team. I feel like me being in the Heisman competition is a compliment to this team. I can’t do it on my own.
“That’s obviously a compliment to the O-Line, the receivers blocking downfield, the play-calling, the defense giving me more opportunity to be on the field. That’s a compliment to the team.”
Guice believes last season’s emergence prepared him for the spotlight. After all, he’s already in it.
“It’s not different because I kind of emerged as a starter last year and I did so well with the help of Leonard and [RB] Darrel [Williams] in preparing for this year,” he said. “Because it started happening sooner than we thought. I had to step up and make sure I know everything that’s going on and be ready.”
Not worried about being the best
As competitive as Guice is — you can frequently find him on Twitter challenging teammates and college football players on other teams to a game of Madden that he promises he will win — it’s somewhat surprising that he does not compare himself to other running backs.
“I’m competing against myself. That’s how I look at it,” Guice said. “It’s like boxing. You’re fighting against yourself. The other guy is just in the ring. I don’t watch other people like that.”
His rationale for not doing so is even more interesting.
“I feel like I run differently from anybody. Me watching them is pointless,” he said. “I learn stuff by going out on my own and doing it. That’s how I pick up and add things to my game. I’ve done that since I was 6 and first playing ball.”
This habit might seem like an extreme bit of self-confidence. And while there’s no question Guice is self-assured, it’s not quite cockiness.
“I don’t feel like I’m the best back coming back in college football,” Guice said. “I just feel like I’m LSU’s back, and they’ve got a great one and it will be a heck of a year for me. For us.”
For the new face of the SEC.