BATON ROUGE, La. – Early enrollment is frequently beneficial in that it helps a newcomer address a team’s immediate need, but its value goes well beyond the short term. Imagine what LSU’s spring position battles might look like if eight signees hadn’t joined the Tigers in January 2013.

“There’s no question, if they had not been here in January and moved and advanced in their knowledge of what we’re doing, then they’d have a very difficult time competing,” LSU coach Les Miles said.

If not for the valuable experience he gained last spring, Anthony Jennings -- one of two quarterbacks who early enrolled last year, along with Hayden Rettig -- almost certainly wouldn’t have catapulted up the depth chart the way he did, much less completed a game-winning comeback against Arkansas in place of injured senior Zach Mettenberger. And Jennings and Rettig wouldn’t be as far along as they are now in learning the nuances of Cam Cameron’s offense if not for that low-pressure springtime learning environment, since the Tigers already had an established starter in Mettenberger.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsIf Anthony Jennings didn't enroll early, it's doubtful he would have been ready to step in for the injured Zach Mettenberger and lead LSU to a comeback win over Arkansas.
“I’m definitely more confident because I’ve known all the guys for a year now,” Jennings said. “I’m confident in everybody on my team rallying around me to become a better leader and a better quarterback.”

Quarterback being the high-profile position that it is, perhaps it’s the most noticeable place where the Tigers benefited from last year’s big group of early enrollees. But LSU is actually better off at several positions because of those eight players who early enrolled last January -- a group that also includes defensive tackle Christian LaCouture, tight end Logan Stokes, offensive linemen Fehoko Fanaika and Ethan Pocic and receivers John Diarse and Avery Peterson.

Nearly all of those players are in the thick of the competition to grab a starting spot this spring.

“Think about Ethan Pocic. He was our second-team center last year. He shows up here in January or he doesn’t finish at center. He’s not there,” Miles said of Pocic, who played offensive tackle throughout high school, but backed up Elliott Porter at center last season and could contribute at a number of different positions this fall.

“It’s a tremendous advantage for these guys that show up early. There’s no question,” Miles continued. “And it’s a tremendous advantage for us. We get to see what they look like, how they think and is there somebody that we should count on other than them, short term, or do we say, ‘No, move him in because he’s got it.’”

Take Diarse for example. The redshirt freshman probably would have played last season but for an ankle injury he suffered during preseason camp. But he wouldn’t have been in position to back up Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry in 2013 -- much less occupy the starting position he currently enjoys -- if not for his experience last spring.

Louisiana’s 2012 Mr. Football, Diarse was a star dual-threat quarterback at Neville High School in Monroe. He admits that he had a lot to learn about playing his current position, receiver, when he arrived last January.

“It blew my mind the first couple of months into it -- it blew my mind how much detail and technique that it takes to be a receiver,” Diarse said. “Just coming in last spring kind of put me ahead of the 8-ball and now I’m just picking up tidbits here and there to better myself every day.”

Three of the five 2013 early enrollees who played last season -- Stokes, Jennings and Pocic -- all started at least one game. LaCouture played in all 13 games as one of the top reserves on the defensive line, while Fanaika played behind Trai Turner at right guard in several games and worked on the Tigers’ field-goal unit in 12 contests.

All five players are either the leading candidate to start at their position this fall or to play in some sort of a rotation, thanks in no small part to the head start they got this time a year ago.

“You’ve got to learn quick,” LaCouture said. “Spring ball is something that really helped me out -- coming in and knowing the pace of the game, knowing the plays right off the bat. That way when we hit fall ball, it was quick and we were rolling and we were getting ready for that.”

Now he’s in position to help guide less experienced teammates at a position where LSU desperately needs leadership. NFL draft early entrants Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson played the vast majority of the key snaps at defensive tackle last season, thrusting 2013 signees LaCouture, Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain into position where they might play much bigger roles this fall.

LaCouture is the only member of the trio who played last season, so if LSU’s line performs anywhere near a championship-caliber level -- which might be one key in whether LSU becomes more than an also-ran in the SEC title chase -- the knowledge and experience he gained last year could become even more valuable.

“It was an awesome experience,” LaCouture said. “It was something for me that I’ve always grown up wanting to do. I wanted to come in here [and] it was so great for me having spring ball and preparing myself to do that with the help of Coach Brick [Haley, LSU’s defensive line coach] and the older guys, [defensive coordinator John] Chavis also and Coach Miles.

“Having Ego, Freak [Johnson] and all the guys that left for the draft helped me build my way up for now where I can lead the team this year, just do as much as I can to produce a national championship.”

BATON ROUGE, La. – Evan Washington grinned Tuesday when a reporter joked that Fehoko Fanaika said he plans to “smoke” him in the competition to become LSU’s starting right guard.

[+] EnlargeFehoko Fanaika
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesFehoko Fanaika, who has lost 30 pounds since joining LSU as a juco transfer, is competing with Evan Washington and Ethan Pocic to start at right guard.
“I hope that’s his mentality,” Washington said. “It needs to be a tough battle.”

Fanaika made no such comment, but make no mistake: he has no intention of handing over the job to Washington -- a senior who is shifting from offensive tackle in an effort to win the position -- or Ethan Pocic without a fight.

“We want the best out there,” Fanaika said. “If someone’s beating me out, that’s probably going to be hard to do, but I’d want him on the field more than me. I want the best.”

So does new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes, who has a long way to go before he settles on anything, however. Pocic said Grimes has been moving his linemen around throughout LSU’s early practices in order to identify the combinations he likes.

It’s unclear whether one of those combinations will include Pocic at center. An early enrollee last year, Pocic backed up Elliott Porter at center during the fall. Pocic said Tuesday that he had practiced only at guard and tackle so far this spring, but Coach Les Miles said Pocic spent about half of Thursday’s practice at center.

“When I came in, I went to center and just the whole basic stuff was pretty hard -- like snapping and stepping -- but once you really get the hang of it, you get more into a groove,” said Pocic, who played left tackle in high school. “The good part about playing center is you’ve basically got to know what everyone’s doing, so when it’s time to play a different position, I pretty much already know it because you’ve got a good overall base of what the O-line’s doing.”

If the rotation in the periods of practice that were open to the media are any indication, the seniors are Grimes’ top two options at right guard. For the most part, Washington was the first to work alongside starting right tackle Jerald Hawkins in drills, but he and Fanaika are both getting their chances to impress the new position coach.

“It’s pretty much a great battle right now,” Hawkins said. “They both know what they’re doing -- especially Evan Washington and Hoko [Fanaika]. They know the playbook from last year, so it’s just who really wants it more.”

Fanaika said he now weighs 340 pounds after tipping the scales at approximately 370 when he transferred from College of San Mateo junior college last January. He said he wants to get down to 330 pounds before the season.

In addition to dropping more weight, Fanaika said he also needs to prove to Grimes that he’s mentally and physically tough enough to claim the job.

“I’m not there, but I’m just trying to get better every day -- as well as everyone who’s trying to fight for it,” Fanaika said.

That fight will continue for the next couple of weeks, although Washington predicted there will be a clear leader by the time the spring game arrives on April 5.

“I feel like everyone has a chance right now,” Fanaika said. “[Grimes] came in actually telling us that no one has a guaranteed spot. We’re all going to come out here and work and the best five will start.”

SEC lunchtime links

March, 14, 2014
Mar 14
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It's Friday! That means some much deserved time off, the continuation of the SEC hoops tournament in Atlanta and the opening of a few more spring football practices around the SEC. Alabama gets going on Saturday, and Arkansas kicks off on Sunday. To get you ready, here's some reading material that should get you through Friday and on into the weekend.
  • Nick Saban for president! No, not that president. The Alabama head coach received a few write-in votes for SGA president, outpacing some of his own players in the process.
  • Miracle man Chris Davis is no longer in Auburn's secondary. But the Tigers do have some talent returning at cornerback. Here's a good breakdown of the position to get you ready for spring practice on The Plains.
  • As stated earlier, Arkansas opens spring camp this weekend. For those you who like to plan ahead, here's a full rundown of the Razorbacks schedule.
  • Our very own Mel Kiper Jr. sees former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney going No. 3 overall to the Jaguars in the upcoming NFL draft. But he could also see the talented defensive end ending up in other locations.
  • He's battling inconsistency, but Vols wideout Von Pearson is being described by his coach as "ultra-talented." His offensive coordinator would one-up that assessment, calling the 6-foot-3 target "very, very, very talented."
  • Maty Mauk is clearly the leader to become Missouri's starting quarterback, but he's no incumbent. Trent Hosick is aiming to compete for the job, himself. But the quarterback room, as he describes it, is "loaded."
  • It's early, but the defense is running a little ahead of the offense at LSU. Les Miles said, as only Les Miles could, that "there's a lot of speed and get-to-the-ball" on defense.
  • Vanderbilt needs more playmakers on offense with Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause gone. That's why Derek Mason moved talented freshman C.J. Duncan from quarterback/running back to receiver, where he has no game experience.
We took an expansive look earlier on Thursday on the SEC blog at the coaching changes in the league.

SportsNation

Who is the SEC's best assistant coach hire for 2014?

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    15%
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    19%
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    42%
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    16%
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    8%

Discuss (Total votes: 10,290)

Vanderbilt had the most, including the only head-coaching change with Derek Mason coming over from Stanford. Georgia was second, as the Bulldogs have an entirely new defensive staff.

Who was the most significant assistant coach addition in the SEC for the 2014 season? We'll let you tell us by going to our SportsNation poll and voting.

Interestingly enough, the guys on the Big Ten blog conducted a similar poll, and three of their five choices are moving over from the SEC -- Doug Nussmeier from Alabama to Michigan, Taver Johnson from Arkansas to Purdue and Chris Ash from Arkansas to Ohio State.

Four of the five candidates we've come up with in the SEC are coordinators. Go cast your vote, and we'll go over the results in the coming days.

Here's a quick look at the five candidates (listed alphabetically):

Jeff Grimes, offensive line coach, LSU: Grimes spent last season at Virginia Tech as the Hokies' offensive line coach, but he's no stranger to the SEC. He was Auburn's offensive line coach from 2009-12 under Gene Chizik and a part of the Tigers' 2010 national championship staff. Grimes, a 20-year coaching veteran, will also assume the role of running game coordinator at LSU. The Tigers return four starters in the offensive line.

Lane Kiffin, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks, Alabama: Kiffin and Nick Saban may seem like an odd pairing to most, but Saban has long respected Kiffin's mind for the game and his feel for calling plays. He's also a proven recruiter. Kiffin returns to the coordinator ranks after three head-coaching stints. He spent the past three-plus seasons at USC before being fired and was at Tennessee for a season (2009) before that. Kiffin was also the head coach of the Oakland Raiders for the entire 2007 season and part of the 2008 season before being fired.

Jeremy Pruitt, defensive coordinator/secondary, Georgia: Pruitt is back in the SEC after spending last season as Florida State's defensive coordinator. His FSU defense led the country in scoring defense in helping the Seminoles to the national championship. Pruitt, a finalist for the Broyles Award last season as the nation's top assistant coach, was the defensive backs coach at Alabama for three seasons (2010-12) and has been a part of three straight national championship staffs.

Kurt Roper, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks, Florida: After a long association with David Cutcliffe, Roper moves back to the SEC to try and pump some life into a Florida offense that has struggled under head coach Will Muschamp. The Gators have never finished higher than 10th in the SEC in total offense under Muschamp. Roper spent the past six seasons as Duke's offensive coordinator. The Blue Devils set a school record with 54 total touchdowns last season. Prior to going to Duke with Cutcliffe, Roper spent all of his time in the SEC with stops at Tennessee, Kentucky and Ole Miss.

Robb Smith, defensive coordinator/secondary, Arkansas: Smith spent last season in the NFL as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' linebackers coach, but his previous 14 seasons were spent in the collegiate ranks. He was at Rutgers for four seasons and promoted to defensive coordinator in 2012. His defense that season was ranked fourth nationally in points allowed (14.2). Smith was the defensive coordinator at Maine before joining the Rutgers staff. He inherits an Arkansas defense that finished 12th in the SEC in scoring defense in 2013, allowing an average of 30.8 points per game.

SEC's lunch links

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13
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LSU, Missouri, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt have all opened spring practice. Forget one day closer to the weekend, we're one day closer to more teams around the SEC starting camp. Alabama gets going on Saturday and Arkansas will follow suit on Sunday.
The only head-coaching change in the SEC following this past season was at Vanderbilt, where Derek Mason took over for James Franklin.

That's down from four head-coaching changes the previous year. In fact, Mason will be the 38th different head coach to coach in a game for one of the current SEC schools since the start of the 2004 season.

Even in the volatile world of the SEC, that's a ton. But change is a part of this league's fabric. With 11 of the 14 head coaches making $3 million or more per year, there is no such thing as a five-year plan anymore. Some would argue there's not even a four-year plan.

[+] EnlargeRoper
Jeff Barlis/ESPNFlorida hopes new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will help improve its anemic offense in 2014.
Since the end of last season, we've also seen several changes in the assistant-coaching ranks in the SEC. The five coaching staffs that will return intact next season are Auburn, Missouri, Ole Miss, South Carolina and Tennessee.

One assistant, Arkansas defensive line coach Charlie Partridge, left for a head-coaching gig at Florida Atlantic. His former colleague with the Hogs, Chris Ash, left his post as co-defensive coordinator for the same job at Ohio State.

Georgia's entire defensive staff has a new look, triggered largely by Todd Grantham's move to Louisville as defensive coordinator. Former Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt replaces Grantham along with three other new defensive assistants.

Alabama coach Nick Saban has his fourth different offensive coordinator since coming to Tuscaloosa in 2007. Lane Kiffin, who's no stranger to the SEC after his turbulent 14 months as Tennessee's head coach in 2009, will call the Tide's plays in 2014.

One of the most critical hires was at Florida, where offensive coordinator Kurt Roper comes over from Duke with the mission of resurrecting the Gators' offense.

Here's a rundown of the coaching changes (head coaches and position coaches only; number of new coaches in parentheses):

ALABAMA (2)

Who's in?

Lane Kiffin, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
Bo Davis, defensive line

Who's out?

Doug Nussmeier, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
Chris Rumph, defensive line coach
Greg Brown, secondary

Other moves

  • Kevin Steele moves onto the field as inside linebackers coach and will serve as special assistant to the head coach. He was the Tide's player personnel director last season.
  • Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will coach the secondary after coaching linebackers last season.
ARKANSAS (3)

Who’s in?

Robb Smith, defensive coordinator/secondary
Clay Jennings, secondary
Rory Segrest, defensive line/specialists

Who's out?

Chris Ash, defensive coordinator
Charlie Partridge, defensive line
Taver Johnson, secondary

Other moves

  • Randy Shannon was promoted to senior associate head coach.
FLORIDA (3)

Who’s in?

Kurt Roper, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
Mike Summers, offensive line
Coleman Hutzler, special teams coordinator

Who’s out?

Brent Pease, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
Tim Davis, offensive line
Jeff Choate, special teams/outside linebackers

GEORGIA (4)

Who’s in?

Jeremy Pruitt, defensive coordinator/secondary
Tracy Rocker, defensive line/weak-side linebackers
Mike Ekeler, inside linebackers/special teams
Kevin Sherrer, strong-side linebackers/nickel backs

Who’s out?

Todd Grantham, defensive coordinator
Chris Wilson, defensive line
Kirk Olivadotti, inside linebackers
Scott Lakatos, secondary

KENTUCKY (1)

Who’s in?

Craig Naivar, special teams/safeties

Who’s out?

Bradley Dale Peveto, special teams/safeties

LSU (2)

Who’s in?

Jeff Grimes, offensive line/running game coordinator
Bradley Dale Peveto, special teams coordinator

Who’s out?

Greg Studrawa, offensive line
Thomas McGaughey, special teams coordinator

MISSISSIPPI STATE (1)

Who’s in?

Brian Johnson, quarterbacks

Who’s out?

Les Koenning, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks

TEXAS A&M (1)

Who's in?

Terry Joseph, secondary

Who's out?

Marcel Yates, co-defensive coordinator/secondary

Other moves

  • Jake Spavital will call plays in 2014 as offensive coordinator. He was the co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach last season.
  • Clarence McKinney moves back to running backs after calling the plays last season as offensive coordinator.
VANDERBILT (9)

Who’s in?

Derek Mason, head coach
Karl Dorrell, offensive line/quarterbacks
David Kotulski, defensive coordinator/inside linebackers
Marc Lubick, receivers
Keven Lightner, offensive line
Gerry Gdowski, tight ends
Brett Maxie, secondary
Kenwick Thompson, outside linebackers
Frank Maile, defensive line

Who’s out?

James Franklin, head coach
John Donovan, offensive coordinator/running backs
Bob Shoop, defensive coordinator/safeties
Ricky Rahne, quarterbacks
Herb Hand, offensive line
Josh Gattis, receivers
Brent Pry, co-defensive coordinator/linebackers
Sean Spencer, defensive line
George Barlow, secondary
Jameis WinstonRichard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsJameis Winston will be back to lead Florida State. But should they be 4-1 to win the title?

Top QB battles | Teams whose odds could fall | Rising odds


A year ago, I was floored to see Miami open at 25-1 to win the BCS title.

Miami? 25-1? Did I slip into a wormhole and land in the 1980s Cane Dynasty?

Vegas was banking on a number of returning starters and the seemingly soft ACC schedule. The Hurricanes looked the part in the first half of the season before devolving into the middle-of-the-road team that many, including myself, anticipated.

For all of the teams that Vegas nails, there are some Miamis in our midst. As spring practices get going across the country, which teams will see their 2014 title odds worsen before the beginning of the season? Who’s going to move? The reigning champs are up first.

Among the favorites ...



Florida State Seminoles (Bovada odds: 4-1)

With Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston returning, along with a load of talent, it’s easy to see why the Seminoles would be among the favorites to win the first College Football Playoff.

But there’s something about that word -- easy. Because winning one title is difficult enough. Two straight? Don’t let Alabama fool you into thinking it’s the norm. And then there’s the fact that no one yet knows exactly how much more difficult it will be to win in the playoff era.

FSU is hard to buy at 4-1. Put it this way: Alabama was 5-1 a year ago, when it was going for a third consecutive title. And there’s currently more faith in the Seminoles?
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Of the six receivers listed on the depth chart for LSU’s Outback Bowl win over Iowa, only two of them are still on the Tigers’ roster this spring.

The returning duo -- Travin Dural and Quantavius Leslie were in their first season of SEC competition. They combined for eight catches and 156 yards all season, nearly all of which came from Dural. Believe it or not, now they are by far the most experienced receivers on the team.

[+] EnlargeDural
AP Photo/Bill HaberTravin Dural had seven catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns last season.
That’s how dramatic the turnover has been since star juniors Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry decided to enter the NFL draft and seniors Kadron Boone and James Wright completed their college careers.

“It’s kind of like the transformation I made in high school. Out of nowhere, I was the older guy,” said Dural, a rising sophomore who is LSU’s top returning receiver with seven catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns last season. “That’s kind of how it is here. It’s a little weird, but I’ve been waiting on this forever, so I’m kind of taking advantage of it and trying to run away with it.”

It is indeed weird. It’s rare that a player who has yet to appear in a game is able to become a leader for his position group, but that’s one of redshirt freshman John Diarse’s goals. An early enrollee last season, Diarse was in position to play last fall before a preseason ankle injury kept him off the field.

Nonetheless, Diarse is actually among the more experienced LSU receivers since he’s nearly a week into his second spring practice with the Tigers -- and as of now, he and Dural have separated themselves as the top players at their position.

“We would look forward to them playing a lot,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “We expected John to play more except he got injured just before we went into the season and it really cost him.”

LSU’s depth at the position this spring is not ideal, particularly after redshirt freshmen Kevin Spears and Avery Peterson both hobbled off the practice field earlier this week with hamstring injuries. At the very beginning of spring practice, Miles emphasized that now is the time for players such as Spears, Peterson, Leslie and converted quarterback Rob Bolden to seize some playing time because the competition will get much steeper during preseason camp.

LSU signed arguably the nation’s top collection of receivers last month when it added ESPN’s No. 1 and 3 wideouts, Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, plus ESPN 300 picks D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch. After that group arrives this summer, inconsistent performers could easily find themselves watching from the sidelines.

“There’s definitely more competition on the way. It’s going to be that way until I graduate,” Diarse said. “It’s just something you’ve got to take as motivation to stay in your spot and don’t let anybody take it from you. That’s what I’ve been taught from Day 1 -- there’s always somebody that’s going to try to come take your job, and you’ve just got to do your best to keep it every day.”

Leslie and Dural are the only members of the group with on-field experience, and even junior college transfer Leslie’s experience is fairly limited. The rising senior appeared in four games last fall -- against UAB, Kent State, Mississippi State and Furman -- and caught just one pass for 11 yards.

That puts some leadership responsibility on Dural, simply because the Tigers don’t have a better option.

“I see sometimes when they don’t really know what’s going on because they haven’t been in certain situations. I kind of step in and let them know,” Dural said. “But mainly they’re kind of getting it. They’ve been in the system. All of them have been in the system for a year, so they pretty much know what’s going on.

“But in certain instances, I step in and let them know how if you do this wrong, it would be different in a game because I’ve seen it in a game so I can critique them on what I’ve seen and what I know.”

Dural characterized the receivers’ first few spring practices as “shaky,” noting that they needed a while to get their timing down after not facing live competition for a few months. They’re also still working to build continuity with three young quarterbacks in sophomore Anthony Jennings, redshirt freshman Hayden Rettig and early enrollee Brandon Harris.

Dural's description certainly seemed accurate in the portions of practice that have been open to the media, as some wideouts frequently dropped passes and the group generally struggled to get on the same page as their quarterbacks in some drills.

It can be a rocky transition, going from being an off-the-radar freshman to a player who expects to contribute, but the young wideouts are fortunate that they don’t have to play a game for nearly six months. They will get in hundreds of valuable practice repetitions this spring without the pressure of a game approaching each Saturday -- so that they’ll be ready when the Tigers finally take the field on Aug. 30 against Wisconsin.

“I knew this time was coming. I knew I was going to have the opportunity to show the world what I can do, and now that it’s here, it’s kind of time for me to just let it all out. I’ve been holding it in for too long,” Diarse said. “I was talking to my mom the other day -- it seems like it’s been forever since I’ve played, but like I said, I’m here now and I’m letting my opportunity just take over.”

SEC's lunchtime links

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
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Hard-working reporters put in some long hours for the NFL's first day of free agency. It was so packed with news, it was almost like a mini national signing day.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU sophomore Kendell Beckwith described himself as “the happiest man ever” when he learned that the Tigers’ coaching staff planned to move him from defensive end to linebacker this spring.

After completing his second practice backing up senior D.J. Welter at middle linebacker, Beckwith discussed the position change and what he needs to improve with a group of beat reporters.

Here is a portion of that conversation:

[+] EnlargeKendell Beckwith
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsSophomore linebacker Kendell Beckwith was LSU's highest-rated signee in the Class of 2013.
Q: How has move to linebacker been so far?

A: I came in as a linebacker and moved to the D-line. I mean, it wasn’t that bad. Moving back to linebacker, it wasn’t as bad as people would think it would be. I don’t know. I try to base my play off being as athletic as possible anyway, so going back and standing up, it’s really not that bad.

Q: What was your reaction when you learned you would switch back?

A: I was the happiest man ever.

Q: Why?

A: Linebacker’s what I wanted to play. What I really wanted to play and where my heart was.

Q: When they told you you were playing defensive end last year, were you the unhappiest man ever?

A: It didn’t matter. I wanted to do whatever I could do to help the team win at that point in time. It really didn’t matter. But linebacker, being that it’s what I really wanted to play, you know.

Q: What all did you do last year? You were listed at linebacker.

A: I was listed as a linebacker all season. Coach [Les] Miles told me it’s just a place where he could see me helping out the team and I was for it, but I was still listed as a linebacker. They told me it wasn’t a definite move. It was for the team.

Q: Did you ever practice at linebacker last year?

A: I practiced at linebacker at the end of the season. But after the Florida game, that’s when I started practicing at defensive end.

Q: Why do you fit at middle linebacker?

A: I think it’s because of my size.

Q: Do they want you to [lose weight]?

A: Me, myself and I talked about it with Chief [defensive coordinator John Chavis], I want to play at like 240. I’m at like 245 right now. ... I’m trying. It’s been the hardest thing ever for me.

Q: Is D.J. Welter helping you with the move?

A: Oh yeah, he’s always there for me when I need him.

Q: What do you need?

A: If there’s a play that I don’t quite know, don’t remember, he helps me out. ... If it’s something I think I missed, I didn’t do well or I messed up on, I just go to the sideline and I ask him.

Q: What do you think the different position moves are going to bring to y’all’s group?

A: It just shows our athleticism, I guess, being that we can play all those different types of positions. I really like the way that Chief does that.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Chat with Lamar Louis for a minute or two and it will become clear that LSU’s linebackers have plenty of confidence.

One of several Tigers linebackers who will shift to new positions this spring -- Louis spent the first few practices at strongside linebacker after playing in the middle in 2013 -- Louis believes this could be the strongest the position group has been in his three seasons at LSU.

“I would like to think this is the best linebacker group that we’ve ever had,” Louis said. “Most definitely it’s the fastest and most athletic. I was looking at drills today and I was talking to Kwon Alexander, basically telling him that this might be the most talented, athletic group ever, period.”

[+] EnlargeLamar Louis
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsLamar Louis is one of several LSU linebackers who are switching positions to give the defense a bit more of an edge.
They certainly look capable, but still have a lot to prove about their abilities to produce in game situations. LSU’s defense took a step backward last season -- the Tigers ranked 15th nationally in total defense (340.7 ypg) after ranking second (261.5) in 2011 and eighth in 2012 (307.62) -- and the linebackers weren’t a particularly dominant group.

Obviously one of their top goals is to reverse that downward trend.

“As a defense, I think we have to prove a lot. Every year I think we have to prove a lot because LSU defense is top-notch,” Louis said. “We’re known to be tough, and we’re known to be fast. You could say that the past few years, we haven’t had that swagger from the other teams, maybe the national championship contenders and whatnot. Same talent, same great coaching. I just think we were missing that swagger, basically saying that we’re here and we’re knocking down doors. That’s what we’re trying to bring back to the game this spring.”

Perhaps that’s why defensive coordinator John Chavis is trying out some new personnel groups this spring. In the early practices, Louis shifted outside, Alexander switched from strongside linebacker to the weak side -- where he would replace Lamin Barrow -- and touted sophomore Kendell Beckwith is backing up senior D.J. Welter in the middle.

There are a lot of moving pieces in play, but they all relate to Chavis’ philosophy of putting the best three linebackers on the field.

“At LSU, you can be a starter one year, but the coaches preach that every day, you have to give your all every year,” said Welter, LSU’s leading returning tackler with 80 stops a season ago. “So definitely it’s a big-time competition at every linebacker spot, so you have to be on your A-game and just work on the small individual battles every day. If I handle mine and my buddy handles his, then somebody will end up making a play.”

Beckwith was LSU’s highest-rated signee in 2013 and said he was the “happiest man ever” when LSU’s coaches told him he’d move back to linebacker. That’s one of the positions he played in high school and where he wanted to play all along.

Welter has assisted him in learning a new position, even if both players realize that their competition for playing time has already begun.

That’s no different than any of the other linebacker positions, though, where competition is the theme of the spring.

“When you’re competing against each other, we all work hard,” Alexander said. “That’s the first thing we talked about when we were on our break -- just to work hard, go out here and just compete and whoever gets the spot gets the spot. We’re all going to back each other up regardless.”

Welter said the ideal situation for the linebackers would be for each player to prove to Chavis that he deserves a role in some package or a spot in the rotation. The veteran said he sees plenty of potential for such a situation within the group.

“I feel like we have the strongest room since I’ve been here,” Welter said. “Depth-wise we definitely have people at every position in the linebacker room that can play multiple positions.”

LSU’s defense will need to improve across the board if it returns to the dominant form of previous seasons, and the linebackers know they will play a vital role in that improvement. One area of emphasis is developing an attitude, which is why the defense has taken to calling itself the “Legion of Boom” and breaking group huddles during drills by chanting, “L-O-B.”

On-field results allow such a motto to evolve from idle chatter to a defensive identity -- just ask the inspiration for the L-O-B label, the Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks -- but the process has to start somewhere. It might as well be with a linebacker group that’s trying to bring some fire back to LSU’s defense.

“We look at the Seahawks and we’re just trying to resemble them in what we do and the swagger that we approach the game with,” Louis said. “We’re all competing with each other and the thing about it is we’re all trying to be great. We’re all practicing like we’re the No. 1 guys and we’re developing great relationships outside of football at the same time.”

SEC's lunch links

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
12:00
PM ET
Half of the SEC teams have started officially-sanctioned football-related activities with Missouri and Vanderbilt opening spring practice on Tuesday. There's a lot going on.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris were both supposed to roll right before attempting a pass during a drill at LSU’s practice on Monday, but Harris ran right up Jennings’ back and disrupted his timing enough to prevent him from even making a throw.

Jennings’ frustration quickly evaporated into empathy, however, because it was only a year ago that he was doing the exact same thing to Zach Mettenberger.

“That’s fine with me,” Jennings chuckled after practice, the Tigers’ second team workout of the spring. “I did the same thing to Zach, so Zach was in the same predicament. I guess I’m like the veteran of the quarterbacks [now]. That’s hard to say coming in when I guess I’m a sophomore now. But I know how it is. You’re not going to be perfect right when you arrive on campus. You’re working to start. It’s all fun; it’s all fine. I’m just ready to get him going and teach him everything that I know -- and I’m still learning, too.”

[+] EnlargeJennings
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesSophomore Anthony Jennings is looking to jump into being LSU's starting quarterback, but he'll be challenged by Hayden Rettig and Brandon Harris.
Jennings put himself on the map as an early enrollee last spring, eventually claiming the Tigers’ backup quarterback job as a true freshman and starting the Outback Bowl in place of injured senior Mettenberger. Harris is on campus as an early enrollee not only in an attempt to learn Cam Cameron’s offense prior to preseason camp, but to try to win the starting job.

Understandably, Harris still has plenty of work to do on that front. He’s only been on campus for two months after all. He doesn’t possess a veteran’s understanding of the offense or a feel for the personnel around him yet. And that’s enough to rattle anyone’s confidence -- even a player whom every recruiting service ranked among the nation’s top dual-threat prospects for 2014.

The constant theme that everyone seems to be reinforcing to the freshman is positivity. Even when Cameron would chastise Harris for reflexively clapping after misfiring on a pass Monday, he'd give his young quarterback a fist-bump moments later in an attempt to encourage him.

“It’s definitely going to benefit him,” said receiver John Diarse, who is in line to start as a redshirt freshman after enrolling early a year ago. “I’ve been trying to talk to him here and there whenever I get an opportunity, just stay encouraging, stay upbeat because everybody can’t do it and apparently you have your opportunity because somebody believes you can do it. So just believe in yourself, stay confident and like [strength and conditioning coach Tommy] Moffitt tells us every day, practice positive self-talk and just believe that you can do it and take your time with it.

“Don’t try to be in a rush, don’t worry so much about the media or just the pressure around you. Just focus on yourself and what you can do.”

The media probably won’t be an issue for Harris. As a freshman, he is off limits to reporters until further notice. His plate is full enough in simply adapting to college life and trying to decipher LSU’s offense -- much less compete against Jennings and redshirt freshman Hayden Rettig.

But with nearly six months remaining until the Tigers’ opener against Wisconsin, nobody is winning the quarterback job now.

“The older guys obviously know cadence, and there’s some comfort there,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “We want to allow a quality competitive environment for Brandon Harris and the other quarterbacks, so we have to bring Brandon to speed, just a comfort of the offense, and then let’s have at it. Let’s see who’s best.”

For now, Jennings wants to prove that he’s more like the player who came off the bench to lead the game-winning touchdown drive against Arkansas than the one who struggled in his first start, the bowl win over Iowa where he completed just 7 of 19 pass attempts for 82 yards and an interception.

“I don’t think that game was one of my best games. If it was, I don’t think I would be starting,” Jennings said, later adding, “I watched [film of the Iowa game] so many times, I don’t think you’d believe it.”

Jennings and Rettig were both in Harris’ position a year ago, so while they both have the advantage of a year in Cameron’s system, nobody has a decided experience advantage -- particularly now that senior Rob Bolden has shifted to receiver in an attempt to earn some playing time.

Everyone in the quarterback room has plenty to prove, which is why Jennings said he has been spending six days a week at LSU’s football building in an attempt to learn as much as possible from his offensive coordinator.

It should be a competition where knowledge of the offense and daily consistency become enormously important factors as the coaches weigh their options at the position. Jennings is in the lead for now, but he knows -- and Miles guaranteed on Saturday -- that the starting privilege against Wisconsin is “going to be given to no one, earned by the one that plays.”

“[Harris and Rettig] wouldn’t be here if they couldn’t play on this level,” Jennings said. “They’re going -- just like I am -- to try to progress every day. Brandon’s throwing the ball well, still has a lot of things to learn in the offense, but I was in the same predicament last year. Hayden’s just learning along with me. He’s throwing the ball well, he’s speaking, he’s vocal. So we’re all trying to get better as spring goes along, and I think they’re progressing rapidly.”

SEC's lunchtime links

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
12:00
PM ET
Was HBO's "True Detective" one of the best shows ever? Did Les Miles turn out to be the Yellow King? Hopefully you were able to watch the finale and find out.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- In the weeks leading up to Saturday’s first spring practice, we offered our best guesses -- some on the mark and some off -- on how LSU’s lineup might look when the Tigers took the field.

Nothing is settled yet, but at least we now have an idea of what the coaches are thinking.

Coach Les Miles addressed some of the Tigers’ biggest position battles and lineup alterations after Saturday’s initial team workout -- starting with the quarterback battle that will likely be the talk of this camp. Here is where things stand at the positions that are in flux as the Tigers enter today’s second practice:

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Jennings is the early favorite to start for the Tigers in 2014, but two freshmen remain in the competition.
Quarterback: Miles said Saturday that “I think I have a good idea, anyway” about who the Tigers’ starting quarterback will be, but the competition for the job still figures to be fierce. By all accounts, the early leader is rising sophomore Anthony Jennings, but redshirt freshman Hayden Rettig and immensely talented early enrollee Brandon Harris could challenge Jennings for the job.

This competition is only beginning, however. Miles said the coaching staff is in no rush to settle on a starter now, preferring to allow the competition to progress over the next few months before making any decisions.

“The idea that you make the decision early is foolish,” Miles said. “I think there’s always going to be that point in time where a young guy gains speed late or an injury makes the decision or the old guy, the more veteran [player], just shows that he’s worthwhile.”

Wide receiver: We learned Saturday that there is one less contender in the quarterback battle since Rob Bolden has shifted to wideout. Bolden actually “made a couple nice catches today” after making what “appears to be a pretty good move,” Miles said.

Bolden’s position change made for an interesting side note, but he isn't the headliner at receiver. Who among the returning players is the headliner? That’s still to be determined.

It apparently starts with Travin Dural and redshirt freshman John Diarse. Candidates such as Quantavius Leslie, Kevin Spears and Avery Peterson need to use this spring to solidify their spots in the rotation before a star-studded freshman class led by Malachi Dupre -- who attended Saturday’s practice -- and Trey Quinn arrives this summer.

“Travin Dural and John Diarse are both guys that really look good. We’re going to have the ability to put those guys on the field and go,” Miles said. “Q. Leslie and Kevin Spears and those guys that are really behind that group need to come on. This is the time for that. This is an opportunity for those guys. But those first two guys, we would look forward to them playing a lot.”

Right guard: Miles emphasized that for new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes, “playing the best player is obviously the key.”

Four offensive line jobs have clear leaders, with returning players who started nearly every game a season ago. But the right guard position is wide open, and Evan Washington is shifting from tackle to try to grab the job.

Fehoko Fanaika and Ethan Pocic -- who can also play center -- are among the other candidates at right guard, Miles said, but “we’re going to have to see how that all goes.”

Linebacker: It looks like the Tigers will do some juggling at these spots. Kendell Beckwith, a utility player last season, worked at middle linebacker on Saturday. Kwon Alexander shifted from strongside linebacker to the weak side. Lamar Louis practiced on the strong side after playing in the middle in 2013.

“We’re really taking the time to multi-train these linebackers so we can put the best three guys on the field,” Miles said. “Kwon has moved from his starting spot to the other side, so we think this spring will allow them to be put in either side.”

The quarterback battle will attract most of the headlines, but this might wind up becoming the Tigers’ most interesting competition this spring. Lots of moving pieces here.

Safety: We know this much: Jalen Mills is a safety and early enrollee Edward Paris Jr. -- who is working at cornerback -- is not. Beyond that, we’ll see where this battle goes.

Mills and Ronald Martin might be the top options here for now, but this is a competition that will begin in earnest when signees Jamal Adams, Devin Voorhies and John Battle IV arrive on campus this summer.

“We’ll have guys back, but I think we’ll be looking at some of these young guys that are coming in,” Miles said. “Ed Paris is lined up at corner right now and getting some corner work and then some of these young guys coming in will get opportunities to fit in there.”

Junior safety Corey Thompson (knee) might participate at some point this spring, but Miles said did not sound particularly optimistic on that front. Incidentally, he shared a similar spring-time prognosis for defensive end Jermauria Rasco (shoulder).

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