- Gary Laney, Reporter, GeauxTigerNation
It didn't take long for LSU to segue from a disappointing end to a 2011 season to a highly anticipated start of the 2012 season. The day after the Tigers' 21-0 loss to Alabama in the BCS Championship game, ESPN's Mark Schlabach labeled the Tigers his way-too-early preseason No. 1.
LSU did its part to move the story forward by holding spring football earlier than the rest of the SEC and played its spring game Saturday, earlier than any of its conference rivals. Perhaps LSU is hoping that by playing the spring game early, it would help fans turn the page from dissecting quarterback and offensive failures in the BCS game to focusing on new starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger and the offense in the fall.
If that's the case, let's take them up on that and be among the first to look forward with the offseason's biggest issues for the Tigers.
1. Three corners: And you thought this would say quarterback, didn't you?
While the development of Mettenberger is going to be a huge story, LSU's recent identity has been built around John Chavis' dominant defense. And the identity of that defense has been built around having three dominant cornerbacks who allow the Tigers to stack the line of scrimmage to stop the run while studs like Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne keep the opponent's passing game from taking advantage.
For it to perform at its optimal level the last two years, LSU has needed not two, but three dominant corners, freeing up the dynamic talent of Tyrann Mathieu to make plays from a sort of sort of hybrid nickel safety/slot "corner" spot. In 2010, they were Peterson and Claiborne. Last year, Claiborne and Tharold Simon were a dominant pair who allowed the "Honey Badger" to take what he wanted inside.
With Claiborne gone, LSU is again looking for an outside "third corner" good enough to not only make Mathieu available to take significant snaps in the hybrid safety role, but also to be good enough in man coverage to allow Chavis to continue playing eight in the box against the run.
Simon returns to one corner spot, across from Mathieu. But when Mathieu moves inside, the most likely candidate to replace him on the outside is redshirt freshman Jalen Collins.
Collins had his moments in the spring game, but was also burned by the deep ball a couple of times. The question is, how good will he be in the fall and will he and Simon be good enough as a tandem for Chavis to continue to play the same man-to-man style of defense LSU has played in recent years?
"I think his abilities are going to be there this spring," head coach Les Miles said of Collins, who has battled with fellow freshman David Jenkins for the third corner spot. "Jalen Collins really came to play today."
2. The Mettenberger question: On his second play of the spring game, the 6-foot-5 Mettenberger let fly with a bomb down the right sideline. It fell incomplete, but you could feel the excitement from the 33,000 fans in attendance who wanted to see a quarterback with the ability, and the green light, to stretch the field.
LSU appears to have that with the former Georgia player who spent last season as the understudy to Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson. So far, the reviews have been pretty good.
"I think our quarterback has that ability (to throw deep)," Miles declared after the spring game. "He's very accurate with the deep ball. What was last year was last year."
Mathieu took it a step further.
"I think we're going to win a championship with him," he raved.
Yet, Mettenberger has never taken a snap in a Division I college game as a starter, much less taken a meaningful snap in a game of championship consequence. In the spring game, he looked good on two deep touchdown passes and several other deep passes, but he also threw a pair of interceptions, one that was not his fault (it deflected off the hands of a receiver who should have caught it, into the hands of a defender who returned it for a touchdown), but one drive-killing pick that was his fault.
So yes, Mettenberger looks like a guy with all the tools. But when the TV cameras come on and an SEC defense is lined up on the other side of the ball, how will he perform?
3. The fragile safety: Craig Loston came to LSU in 2010 as the nation's top-rated high school safety. But after dealing with initial eligibility issues that were cleared up during his first August camp, he showed up with a broken bone in his hand.
And it seems to have been that way every since. There have been more hand injuries, a serious concussion and, most recently he missed the spring game because of a toe injury.
This is the year the junior was supposed to take a starting spot in the secondary next to Eric Reid at safety. But there is a serious question on whether he'll ever be healthy, or if he's one of those players destined to always be hurt.
Loston has played enough where, if he does play, LSU will have plenty of experience. If not, the Tigers will likely look to redshirt freshman Micah Eugene or sophomore Ronald Martin as their safeties of the future.
4. Backing the Line: As good as the Tigers were on defense last season, one area where LSU clearly took a step back from 2010 was at linebacker.
In the first year post-Kelvin Sheppard, LSU was fairly pedestrian at the position, a point that was more clear at LSU's recent pro day where departing senior linebackers Karnell Hatcher and Stefoin Francois struggled.
Young talent promises to strengthen the position again. Kevin Minter emerged as a promising starter at middle linebacker in the second half of his sophomore 2011 season. Tahj Jones showed flashes of promise. And true freshmen Ronnie Feist and Lamar Louis both had good games in the spring game, including Louis' interception return for a touchdown.
"They're young linebackers and they had a young linebacker day," Miles said of the pair. "But it really gives them a great chance to understand the defense and puts them in position to play in the fall."
It seems to be a matter of time before the position once again becomes a strength. But by September? That's a question of particular importance when one considers the secondary might not be deep enough where the five-man secondary that takes a linebacker off the field with Mathieu at the nickel may not be as viable of an option as it was in the last two seasons.
5. Sheparding the receivers?: Russell Shepard has been an enigma in his LSU career.
He'll have just enough big plays - a 69-yard run as a freshman, a 50-yard scamper as a sophomore, some spectacular catch-and-runs last season - to give glimpses at his enormous potential. But most of his career has bordered on bust.
He wasn't the multi-threat quarterback he was advertised to be coming out of high school. He's too slight for running back and hasn't been a consistent enough route-runner or pass-catcher to have had sustained success at wide receiver.
Now a senior, will this finally be the year Shepard's potential turns into production? He had a nice 19-yard touchdown catch from Mettenberger in the spring game, but he's going to need much better numbers than his 14-catch junior season to be considered anything more than a bust.
Shepard is certainly exuding confidence. He and the main core of receivers have taken to calling themselves the "Fab Five." Shepard, who was frustrated by his lack of involvement in the offense in the BCS Championship game and briefly pondered entering the NFL draft, seems happy to be back for his senior year.
Time will tell if that will mean more production.
And a few more to think about: LSU has plenty back on the offensive line, but one thing to keep an eye on is whether two-year starting left guard Josh Dworaczyk, who missed all of last season with a knee injury that eventually resulted in the granting of a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, can regain his pre-injury form. Dworaczyk has 26 career starts, but he he isn't guaranteed No. 27. He played behind sophomore La'el Collins, rated by many as the nation's top offensive linemen in the class of 2011, in the spring. ... Departed senior Joey Crappel was reliable as a deep and short snapper for three years. His departure leaves LSU relying on true freshman Reid Ferguson as a new starter. The Tigers have routinely outplayed opponents on special teams. Can that trend continue with a freshman snapper? ... LSU has no proven pass-catching threats at tight end. Senior Chase Clement and backup Tyler Edwards have seen plenty of action, but mostly as blockers. With LSU showing the promise of depth at wide receiver, does that mean decreased snaps for tight ends (and, for that matter, fullbacks)?