MIKE O'HARA

O'Hara: Best and Leshoure are walking a similar path in their short careers

Posted Jun 22, 2012

Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure are walking a similar path in their short careers, with some bumps in the road that both hope they have put behind them.

If they remain on course in their rehabilitation programs from last year’s season-ending injuries – a concussion for Best, a torn Achilles for Leshoure – they can give the Lions’ running game a potent combination of speed and power.There are hurdles to clear for them to line up together, and Leshoure already is guaranteed to start the season in neutral. He has been suspended by the NFL for the first two games for violating the NFL’s rules on substance abuse.But the potential of having the young backs in the same backfield excites offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.

Linehan has seen Best in action. He played all 16 games as a rookie in 2010 and the first six last season before a concussion sustained in a loss to the 49ers put him down for the year. Leshoure has to be considered more of a wild card. As a rookie last year, he was impressive early in training camp before the Achilles injury ended his season.

“I love youth, because youth gets better, as long as it’s talented,” Linehan said. “We had a setback losing Mikel in training camp. Multiply that times 10 when we lost Jahvid after the sixth game.”

The Lions ranked fifth in the league last season in total offense, averaging 396.1 yards per game. Most of that came from the passing game, triggered by Matthew Stafford’s golden arm. He passed for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns.The running game was 29th, averaging 95.2 yards per game.

Best led the team with 390 yards. His rushing total was the lowest to lead the Lions in 24 years. James Jones had 342 in the 1987 season, and that should have an asterisk. The ’87 season was shortened to 15 games by a players strike, and replacement players were used in three of those games.

Linehan projects Best and Leshoure fitting the mold of the present-day offenses, when it’s rare for teams to rely on one runner to carry the load. More often, teams rotate backs. “The teams that are winning on a consistent basis are scoring a lot of points with multiple personnel groupings,” Linehan said. “I don’t want to call it a stable of backs, but a group of backs that have specific roles.”

Best and Leshoure missed out on a lot fun last season, although Best made a mark. The Lions won their first five games and were 5-1 when he went out. Best and Leshoure were spectators – with a vantage point almost 2,000 miles apart – on Dec. 24 when the Lions clinched their first playoff berth since 1999 with a 38-10 win over the Chargers at Ford Field.Best was recuperating at his home in northern California. Leshoure, still early in his rehab program, was on the sideline at Ford Field.

It was a special moment for the Lions and their fans, stripping away more than a decade of frustration of failure. The Christmas Eve setting added to the joyous celebration, and the players added an emotional finale by parading around the stadium to shake hands with their fans on the way to the locker room.Even as spectators, Best and Leshoure said they shared their teammates’ joy.

“I watched every game,” Best said. “I was just as excited as if I was out there. It was great. The city loved it. The fans loved it. We definitely loved it.”

Leshoure’s feeling was basically the same. He felt part of the team, even though he wasn’t part of the action.

“Definitely, man,” Leshoure said. “It definitely felt good being there. I felt like part of the team. It wasn’t the only game that I was at.”

The goal for both this year is to participate, not watch celebration parties.They have separate styles. At 5-10 and 199 pounds, Best relies on speed, elusiveness and acceleration. At 6 feet and 230 pounds, Leshoure runs with more power and is a sturdier blocker. But he’s more than a straight-ahead runner.

Best is a known commodity in the offense. He was drafted in the first round by the Lions in 2010 and has had the chance to show his potential as an explosive playmaker.As a rookie, he played in all 16 games. He rushed 555 yards, had 487 receiving yards and scored six touchdowns – four rushing, two on receptions. Best was hampered most of his rookie season by nagging foot injuries.

Best can be a lethal playmaker. One member of the Lions’ front office described him as “a matchup nightmare” for the way he can create mismatches with linebackers.In a Game 2 blowout win over Kansas City last year, Best rushed for 57 yards and TD and caught six passes for 66 yards and another score. On the TD catch, he caught a pass in the left flat, froze a linebacker with a quick fake and ran untouched into the end zone.

In a 24-13 win over Chicago on Monday Night Football, Best had 12 carries for 163 yards. He broke through a hole up the middle on one run and sprinted 88 yards for a touchdown late in the third quarter that gave the Lions a 21-10 lead.Best admits he likes the tag “nightmare matchup.”

“I believe it’s true,” he said. “When we get in situations where linebackers have me one-on-one, that’s personally my favorite opportunity. “It just creates something else they have to worry about.”

Concussions, and the lingering symptoms, are not to be taken lightly. They might be on his medical chart, but Best insists they aren’t in the forefront of his mind.A bracelet he wears has the words “Young and Reckless.” “We’re not worried about any of that,” Best said.The Lions have other experienced backs on the roster. Kevin Smith filled in capably when he was re-signed after Best went down. Keiland Williams has played in short-yardage situations, and former Wayne State star Joique Bell was signed late for depth.But if all goes according to plan, Best and Leshoure will carry the load. Both have questions to answer, and Best is confident that they will.

“Tune in and watch,” he said. “We look forward to a great season, but you’ve just got to watch.”