- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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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.
“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.”
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