LSU Tigers: Alfred Blue

BATON ROUGE, La. -- In April, we broke down how LSU's offense led the nation in third-down efficiency last season by converting for a first down or touchdown 57.1 percent of the time.

The three key names in that endeavor were quarterback Zach Mettenberger, receiver Jarvis Landry and tailback Jeremy Hill -- all of whom ranked among the nation's most clutch third-down performers. All three are in the NFL now, however, so it will be important for LSU to identify new players capable of keeping drives alive on those all-important downs.

Let's take a look at what could become the key factors in LSU's attempt to remain successful on third down.

Quarterback efficiency, running ability

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo, Cal Sport MediaLSU will have a hard time matching the success on third down of departed quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
One of the two April posts focused on the need for the Tigers' quarterbacks to play efficiently. Let's face it, whoever wins the starting job -- whether it's freshman Brandon Harris or sophomore Anthony Jennings -- he's not going to zing third-down completions like Mettenberger did last year.

The fifth-year senior's 96.7 Total Quarterback Rating on third down trailed only that of Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston (96.9) among FBS quarterbacks. Mettenberger was 58-for-89 for 974 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Of those 58 completions, 21 went for 20 yards or more -- a total that was second only to Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater (22).

Talented though they may be, a green freshman and a sophomore with one shaky start under his belt are not going to match that kind of passing production. As LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron indicated after the Tigers' spring game, they'll have to play it smart early in possessions in order to keep the offense in manageable down-and-distance situations.

Give the young quarterbacks this, though: both of them have an ability that Mettenberger simply does not possess, and it will almost certainly come in handy this fall. Both are good runners, so don't be surprised to see designed runs -- and scrambles after plays break down -- that result in first downs.

Jennings was credited with six rushing attempts on third downs last season, with two of them achieving first downs and another achieving a touchdown. Harris showed off some impressive wheels in LSU's spring game, rushing three times on third down for 45 yards and a touchdown. We'll certainly see more of that in 2014 than when the slow-footed Mettenberger was under center.

Filling Landry's shoes

The question isn't which LSU player replaces Landry's absurd production on third down. It's highly unlikely that one player will do that -- not this fall anyhow -- seeing as how Landry ranked third in the FBS in third-down receptions (28), second in receiving yards (474) and tied for first with six touchdown catches according to ESPN Stats & Information.

2013 FBS Leaders
Third-down receptions
35 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
30 -- Justin Hardy, East Carolina
28 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
27 -- Allen Robinson, Penn State
26 -- Willie Snead, Ball State

Third-down receiving yards
478 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
474 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
432 -- Shaun Joplin, Bowling Green
407 -- Ty Montgomery, Stanford
402 -- Antwan Goodley, Baylor

[+] EnlargeTravin Dural
AP Photo/Bill HaberTravin Dural caught the game-winning touchdown against Arkansas on third down.
LSU has only one returning wide receiver who was even targeted with a third-down pass last season -- Travin Dural caught 5 of 11 third-down passes where he was the intended target and scored two touchdowns, including the game winner against Arkansas -- so it would make sense for the Tigers to spread around the opportunities more evenly this fall.

But who will get those chances?

Dural is a given, followed by lots of uncertainty. Freshmen like John Diarse, Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch will be in the mix, but it's possible that the quarterbacks will look more often to players at other positions.

Using veterans at TE, RB in passing game

Since the receiving corps is loaded with inexperience, a good alternative might be the positions where the Tigers return some experience.

They're extremely deep at tight end, and one of the talking points of LSU's spring practice was about how the position should be more active this season.

Last season, the Tigers targeted the tight end 10 times on third down, but came away with only three completions for 35 yards and one first down. In other words, this will be a two-way street. The tight ends must hold onto the ball consistently if the quarterbacks are to look their way more often.

If LSU's spring game was any indication, the chances will be there. Jennings and Harris targeted tight ends on four of their 12 third-down passes, with DeSean Smith catching two of them for 36 yards and a touchdown.

Likewise, tailback Terrence Magee made it a point this spring that he'd like to catch more balls out of the backfield this fall. The former receiver could be dangerous as a third-down target judging by his three receptions for 46 yards in that role last season.

Fullback Connor Neighbors (one catch on two targets for 4 yards and a first down in 2013) could also become more of a factor in the passing games now that he's taking over for J.C. Copeland in the backfield.

Who handles the backfield workload?

Hill was arguably the nation's most explosive third-down back in 2013, leading the FBS with an average of 13.28 yards per carry on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Although dozens of players carried the ball more times on third down than Hill's 18 attempts, he ranked 10th nationally with 239 yards thanks in large part to his touchdown runs of 37, 49 and 69 yards.

2013 FBS Leaders
Third-down yards per carry
13.28 -- Jeremy Hill, LSU (18-239)
11.92 -- Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech (13-155)
10.76 -- Duke Johnson, Miami (17-183)
10.50 -- Larry Dixon, Army (12-126)
10.20 -- Tevin Coleman, Indiana (10-102)

Seniors Magee (eight carries, 44 yards, three first downs, one touchdown in 2013) and Kenny Hilliard (eight carries, 36 yards, two first downs, two touchdowns) have handled short-yardage duty well in limited work, but the X-factors might be freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams.

ESPN's No. 1 overall prospect for 2014, Fournette has LSU fans drooling over his combination of size, power and breakaway speed. He'll almost certainly play a leading role on third down -- and in every other type of running situation -- early in his college career. And Williams was no slouch himself as a prep star, rushing for 2,201 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior at John Ehret High School in Marrero, Louisiana.

It's possible that LSU could use all four tailbacks in some capacity, similar to a 2011 backfield that utilized Hilliard, Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Alfred Blue. Ware led the Tigers with 92 yards on 25 third-down rushing attempts that year, while Blue (16 carries for 85 yards) and Ford (13 carries for 77 yards) led the way with two touchdown runs apiece.

With inexperience at quarterback and receiver and a next-level talent like Fournette joining the backfield, conventional wisdom indicates that LSU will lean heavily on its veteran offensive line and the ground game, especially on third downs. The previously mentioned factors will certainly play an enormous role in LSU's attempt to remain effective on third down, but this might be a season where the rushing attack is the most important element in keeping the chains moving.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- This spring was a lonely time in LSU’s running backs meeting room. That’s about to change, but the Tigers still must dodge any major injuries this fall or they might have problems.

[+] EnlargeKenny Hilliard
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsDue to injuries and NFL draft defections, Kenny Hilliard was the Tigers' top tailback this spring.
After losing two tailbacks with eligibility remaining to the NFL draft -- the second straight offseason where that was the case -- the Tigers went through spring practice with only two scholarship tailbacks on the roster. One of them, Terrence Magee, missed a portion of the spring with an ankle injury, leaving fellow senior Kenny Hilliard and linebacker-turned fullback-turned emergency tailback Melvin Jones to handle most of the practice carries.

Running backs coach Frank Wilson wasn’t particularly alarmed by that reality -- LSU did sign the nation’s No. 1 prospect, tailback Leonard Fournette, and three-star RB Darrel Williams in February, after all -- but it was inconvenient at times.

“The gap is in the spring. Guys declare early for the NFL, guys graduate in that time, so we have a lull there,” Wilson said earlier this month. “Once we get all 22 or 25 of our guys here, we have a full scholarship roster, then we're fine. We have the depth that we need at every position. But it was tough at times.”

Most of LSU’s freshmen are set to arrive on campus next week, potentially filling some of the holes that existed during the spring when the Tigers were far short of a full complement of players. But even when Fournette and Williams join the two seniors, LSU will still be one short of Wilson’s ideal number of five scholarship tailbacks on the roster.

That’s partially because of the NFL early entries by Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue and partially by design. Fournette was one of the most sought-after prospects in the history of Louisiana high school football, so LSU obviously made the New Orleans native’s recruitment a top priority. The Tigers signed only one tailback in 2013 -- Jeryl Brazil, who was dismissed from the team before he completed one season in Baton Rouge -- and added only Hill to the roster in 2012, a year after he initially signed with the Tigers.

So there’s a shortage for this season. It certainly won’t be a problem from a talent standpoint -- Magee and Hilliard have proven that they can be productive SEC backs, Williams rushed for 2,201 yards and 30 touchdowns as a high school senior and Fournette seems set for nothing short of superstardom -- and will become a physical issue only if injuries crop up.

As long as health doesn’t become an issue, Wilson said he’ll be able to ease in the freshmen, Fournette in particular, to complement the seniors instead of placing immense pressure on their shoulders.

“This summer’s going to be huge for [Fournette],” Wilson said. “He’ll come in and he’ll learn the system, he’ll work hard. I expect him to come in and do things in the weight room as well as from a conditioning standpoint to put himself in position to compete for a starting job. We have two quality backs here that have experience in Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee and we expect Leonard to compete with those guys. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Obviously the Tigers would be in a more comfortable position had Hill or Blue remained for another season, but Magee (626 rushing yards, eight touchdowns, 7.3 yards per carry in 2013) and Hilliard (310 yards, seven TDs) are a good insurance policy.

It would be a surprise if Fournette isn’t a major contributor in LSU’s offense this fall, but the seniors’ presence means he doesn’t have to be a superstar right away.

“I think we’re smart enough to not really think we're going to go through a 14-, 15-game schedule and lean on a guy who hasn’t played college football yet or that length of time,” LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “I think they're going to come and be a part of what we do. We’ve got depth, though it be young. We’ve got depth at every position.”
Editor’s note: On Thursday, we examined LSU’s success on third down last season (the Tigers led the nation by converting 57.1 percent of the time) and the importance the quarterbacks will play in remaining successful. Today we explore how much production the Tigers must replace at the skill positions in order to remain effective on third down.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Among ESPN’s top-10 quarterback prospects for the upcoming NFL draft, LSU’s Zach Mettenberger posted the best third-down conversion percentage (53.7) of the bunch.

Certainly it helped that Mettenberger possesses a cannon for a right arm and the experience that comes with being a fifth-year senior. But even Mettenberger would agree that he greatly benefited from the freakish playmaking abilities of receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham and tailback Jeremy Hill.

That foursome helped LSU lead all FBS teams with a 57.1-percent conversion rate on third down last season, but now all four are waiting to hear their names called in next month’s NFL draft.

That leaves offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and the other offensive assistants with the burden of replacing some incredibly productive players who were often at their best on third down.

On Thursday, we looked at the role young quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris will play in LSU’s third-down fortunes in the fall. We’ll do a bit more of that in a second, plus we’ll examine LSU’s third-down production at receiver and running back in an effort to identify which returning players have the most experience at keeping drives alive by achieving all-important first downs.

Mettenberger was outstanding on third down last season, averaging 16.6 yards per completion and throwing only one interception against nine touchdowns. That’s going to be nearly impossible for either Jennings or Harris to duplicate this season, but it should help that the two youngsters have the ability to run as well as throw.

Mettenberger hung out in the pocket as if his sneakers were made of lead, but Jennings and Harris are both quick enough to move the chains on the run. Harris, in particular, showed his speed in the Tigers’ spring game with a 41-yard run, and he also converted for a first down or touchdown on six of the last eight times he was under center on a third down.

Jennings struggled in that department in the spring game, with the offense converting for a first down just once in his seven attempts on third down. He also threw an interception that linebacker Deion Jones returned for a 67-yard touchdown on a third down.

Mettenberger should send a thank you note to Landry for all the times he made a clutch grab to extend a drive or end one with a touchdown. The junior wideout made a catch on 28 of the 35 times he was targeted, with 20 of the receptions earning a first down and six more going for a touchdown. He finished the season with 474 receiving yards and an average of 16.9 yards per catch on third down alone.

Beckham’s solid numbers are unfairly overshadowed by Landry’s, as Beckham caught a pass on 15 of the 25 times he was targeted on third down, gaining 272 yards in the process. Thanks to a pair of penalties against defenders, LSU actually picked up more first downs (16) on passes in which Beckham was targeted than there were instances when he actually caught the ball (15). He averaged 18.1 yards per catch on third down.

LSU’s problem is that only two of its top six third-down targets will be back this fall. Travin Dural (five catches, 97 yards, two touchdowns on third down) returns, but wideout Kadron Boone (four catches, 93 yards and two touchdowns) and tailback Alfred Blue (three catches, 46 yards) are both gone.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see tailback Terrence Magee (three catches, 46 yards), tight ends such as DeSean Smith, Travis Dickson and Dillon Gordon and fullback Connor Neighbors play more active roles on third down in Landry's and Beckham’s absence. The Tigers might also lean heavily on a new crop of receivers (including redshirt freshman John Diarse and signees Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn) on key downs once the season begins.

Hill was superb when Cameron called his number on third down last season, averaging 13.2 yards per carry and achieving either a first down or a touchdown 13 times in 18 tries. Included in that fairly small collection of carries was a 49-yard touchdown on a third-down run against Auburn, a 69-yard burst for a score against Mississippi State and a 37-yard score that put away the Tigers’ Outback Bowl victory over Iowa.

Magee and Kenny Hilliard, meanwhile, posted fairly pedestrian numbers in limited work on third down. Both players receieved eight carries on third down, with Magee achieving three first downs and two touchdowns (he also lost a fumble) and Hilliard getting two first downs and two touchdowns.

The fullback typically earns some short-yardage carries in LSU’s offense – senior J.C. Copeland picked up two first downs and scored twice in four carries on third down – so it will be interesting to see whether Neighbors or Melvin Jones continue that trend.

Freshman tailback Leonard Fournette will be another player to watch here, as the nation’s top overall prospect will certainly earn some carries when the Tigers need to move the chains or hammer the ball into the end zone. Fournette and fellow signee Darrel Williams aren’t on campus yet, but the Tigers’ lack of backfield depth means they must be ready to perform once the season arrives.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Barely three months removed from surgery to repair the torn ACL and MCL in his left knee, Zach Mettenberger hardly took it easy in his first public throwing session before NFL talent evaluators.

The former LSU quarterback gave NFL eyeballs plenty to see -- and looked both frustrated and exhausted by the end -- when he completed 93 for 107 pass attempts at the Tigers’ pro day workouts on Wednesday.

“I’m three months out of surgery and not in playing shape and my legs are kind of tired. So yeah, that’s kind of something to expect,” said Mettenberger, who will visit the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday and said he will work out with the Detroit Lions on Saturday. “But I’m doing everything I can to work through that to be ready for rookie camp.”

Like Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel at his pro day, Mettenberger threw passes while wearing a helmet and shoulder pads. LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said before the workout that they had been planning the move since well before Manziel did it, and Mettenberger added that the trend will likely continue.

“You play the game in pads,” Mettenberger said. “We talked about that probably three months ago and really started talking about it seriously two months ago. People can believe it or not, but I just think it’s going to be a new trend for quarterbacks to work out with pads on.”

Mettenberger, who wore a brace on the left knee, said he’s between 85 and 90 percent and predicted he’d be operating at full strength in time for a rookie camp in May. He showed the teams in attendance -- a group that was several hundred strong and included five head coaches and seven general managers -- a variety of drops and rollouts in order to indicate that his knee is stable.

LSU director of athletic training Jack Marucci, who helped coordinate Mettenberger’s rehab, said he placed no limitations on what Mettenberger would attempt in the workout.

“If he was practicing in spring ball, we would have let him do spring ball,” Marucci said.

Overall, it seemed to go well. Mettenberger has never had a problem zipping passes with authority, and although he wasn’t thrilled with the 14 incompletions -- about half of which came on dropped passes -- he understood that some rust was inevitable.

“Timing was a little off,” Mettenberger said. “It wasn’t the most disciplined route running that we’ve had here, something Coach Cam wouldn’t allow. But all things considered, with guys being gone and we haven’t been with Coach Cam every day for the last three months, it was a pretty good day.”

Mettenberger had a big collection of former LSU teammates to throw to on Wednesday. Among the 21 overall participants were receivers Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Kadron Boone and James Wright and running backs Jeremy Hill, Alfred Blue and J.C. Copeland.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanZach Mettenberger predicted he'd be operating at full strength in time for a rookie camp in May.
Not only were they looking to impress NFL execs with their pass-catching skills and positional abilities, some of them wanted to improve upon their workouts at the combine. Aside from Mettenberger’s throwing, perhaps the biggest storyline of the day would be whether Landry could complete the 40-yard dash faster than the 4.77 seconds he posted while nursing a hamstring injury in Indianapolis.

Problem solved. Landry’s two official times on Wednesday were 4.58 and 4.51, and he improved his production in all of the testing drills in which he participated at the combine.

“Even though it took a while [since the combine in late February], I feel like today was a positive day,” Landry said. “I got a lot out of today. I’m getting great feedback. I think now is just not letting up, just continue working and continuing to impress people.”

Landry has never been one to test particularly well, but his on-field production in 2013 was unquestioned. He ranked among the SEC’s top receivers with 77 catches for 1,193 yards and 10 touchdowns and flashed some of the most reliable hands of any receiver in the country -- reminding Cameron of a star wideout he once coached with the Baltimore Ravens.

“Guys know he can run,” Cameron said. “They’ve already told me, ‘We know this guy can run.’ They’re going to look at the tape when it comes to a guy like that. We had Anquan Boldin, and I don’t know that Anquan ever ran a 4.58, but all he does is catch the ball, compete and win world championships. So I guess he helped himself.”

Hill also improved upon his 40 time at the combine, going from a 4.66 in Indianapolis to a 4.52 and a 4.54 on Wednesday, helping reinforce Cameron’s prediction that he can be a valuable every-down back in the pros.

One player who didn’t need to run again, however, was Beckham. He posted a 4.43 40 time at the combine and joked that he felt so good on Wednesday that he thought about trying to beat that time at pro day.

“I was warming up and I was kind of telling my dad, ‘I want to run again.’ And they were all like, ‘There’s just no point,’ ” Beckham said. “So there was a part of me that wanted to run again, just to show that I do have that speed and it wasn’t just a one-time thing.”

He seems to be the highest-rated Tiger in this draft, with some projections placing him in the middle of the first round. Beckham -- who has workouts ahead with the New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills -- said he has already accepted an invitation to attend next month’s draft and is proud to be considered one of the best prospects in a loaded class of receivers.

“Honestly I wouldn’t say that I didn’t expect it, but it’s a little surprising now to finally see that they’re saying that if not the best, you’re one of the best,” Beckham said. “So it’s a great feeling to me and it’s something that I worked for.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- The race to become the first quarterback selected in next month’s NFL draft is apparently down to three players: Central Florida’s Blake Bortles, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo, Cal Sport MediaZach Mettenberger will get a chance to show he's 100 percent healthy at LSU's pro day on Wednesday.
But according to quarterback guru George Whitfield, who recently visited LSU to speak at a coaches clinic, there easily could have been another contender had Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger avoided the late-season injury that prevented him from showing off in postseason all-star games and at the pre-draft combine.

“If he was healthy, I think he’s right in this,” said Whitfield, who tutored Manziel and Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas this year, after working with such prospects as Cam Newton and Andrew Luck in previous draft cycles. “I don’t think it’s a conversation of three, it could be a conversation of four if Zach was healthy coming down the back stretch. But I don’t think it’s going to be a shock at all if you see him go in the top couple rounds. Not at all. I think somebody’s going to get a great return on investment.”

At LSU’s pro day on Wednesday, Mettenberger gets his first major opportunity to prove that the knee he injured in the regular-season finale against Arkansas is stable. He already has proven that his arm is NFL caliber, which is why some draft projections have Mettenberger going as high as the second round after a standout senior season.

Mettenberger (3,082 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, eight interceptions) was sixth among FBS quarterbacks with an 85.1 Total Quarterback Rating last season. According to ESPN Stats and Information, he made the biggest jump of any qualified FBS quarterback after ranking 80th out of 122 qualified quarterbacks with a 47.1 Total QBR in 2012.

“I think he’s one of the best quarterbacks in this draft,” Whitfield said. “I thought the year he had and the growth he had this year, especially with [LSU offensive coordinator] Cam Cameron, just getting a chance to get out there and operate in that system -- [and to] have more responsibility. He was better in the pocket. It was just a shame he did take that injury toward the end of the season, but he just looked more confident, and he wasn’t just a big guy [who] was pitching anymore.”

Mettenberger is just one member of a large group of LSU prospects who will work out in front of NFL scouts, coaches and player personnel executives on Wednesday. Among those expected to participate are running backs Jeremy Hill, J.C. Copeland and Alfred Blue, receivers Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Kadron Boone, defensive linemen Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson, linebacker Lamin Barrow, safety Craig Loston and offensive lineman Trai Turner.

ESPN Scouts Inc. rates seven of them among the draft’s top 150 prospects: Beckham (No. 21), Landry (47), Hill (69), Turner (109), Loston (110), Ferguson (120) and Johnson (139).

Let’s take a closer look at three of them -- Mettenberger, Beckham and Hill -- with a statistical assist from ESPN Stats and Info.

ZACH METTENBERGER
In his first season working with Cameron, Mettenberger greatly improved as a downfield passer. He raised his completion percentage on throws of 15 yards or longer 14 points, to 53.4 percent, in 2013. Among ESPN’s top-10 quarterback prospects in this draft, only Clemson’s Tajh Boyd (53.7 percent) completed a higher percentage of long balls. Of the 10, Mettenberger had by far the highest percentage of total completions (67.7) travel at least 10 yards. Bridgewater was next at 57.1.

He was also outstanding against the blitz and on third down -- assets that should help convince a team looking for a pro-style pocket passer to keep him in mind. Mettenberger (57-for-85, 883 yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions against blitzing defenses) had the second-highest completion percentage (67.1) against the blitz of any of the top-10 quarterbacks. And on third down, his 53.7 conversion percentage was the best of the bunch. Mettenberger went 58-for-89 with nine touchdowns and one interception on third down, and his 65.2 completion percentage in those situations was third among the top-10 quarterbacks.

JEREMY HILL
Because of the declining value attached to running backs in the NFL, it seems entirely likely that no running backs will go in the first round of this draft. Last year, the first running back went at No. 37 -- the latest the first running back was picked in the common draft era.

Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde is generally considered the top running back prospect in this draft, although Hill’s physical ability makes him an enticing target.

Hill faced eight or more defenders in a stacked box on nearly half of his carries last season (96 of 203), and yet, he still averaged an AQ-best 8 yards per rush in those situations and scored 15 touchdowns.

He was also a phenomenal between-the-tackles runner, picking up 7.9 yards per carry on runs up the middle, with about one in every five (24 of 118) going for at least 10 yards. On runs outside the tackles, Hill had 16 of 85 attempts go for at least 10 yards.

ODELL BECKHAM
Beckham is one of the draft’s most explosive playmakers, which is why ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. had him going 18th overall to the New York Jets in his most recent mock draft. He and Landry are both among the 15 wideouts who rank among Scouts Inc.’s Top 100 players -- the most receivers in the top 100 since 2005.

Beckham (59 catches, 1,152 yards, eight touchdowns, 178.1 all-purpose ypg last season) had an AQ-high 26 receptions on passes thrown at least 15 yards last season. He had at least two catches that covered such a distance in seven of 13 games in 2013, which certainly speaks to the big-play ability that has him so high on Kiper’s mock draft board.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Les Miles’ official title is head football coach at LSU, but he might as well add "fortune teller" to the list of roles he fills in his job.

On some level, every big-time college football coaching staff deals with the dilemma that Miles currently faces, but a spate of NFL early entries in recent seasons has made predicting the future an even more vital element in LSU’s success. Specifically, Miles and his staff must lead an incomplete 2014 squad through 15 spring practices while also attempting to project whether players who aren’t yet on campus will be ready to play key roles this fall.

[+] EnlargeMalachi Dupre
ESPNMalachi Dupre won't be on campus until this summer, but he's one of several LSU freshmen who could vie for playing time immediately.
“We absolutely have to,” Miles said after last Saturday’s scrimmage. “I think we’re trying make a determination as we design the summer plans that, 'This is where this guy’s going to be, this is where this guy’s going to be’ and how to operate it.

“I think the skill players on offense are going to be musts and I think the skill players on defense, with the safeties stepping in there and being able to play -- I just think the recruiting class will hit us just where we need to be hit.”

At some positions, LSU’s needs are great. At others, it’s simply that the caliber of athlete is high enough that Miles’ staff knows to include him in its 2014 plans. In some cases, both scenarios are in play.

Take receiver and running back, for example.

When 2014 signees Malachi Dupre -- the nation’s No. 1 receiver prospect -- and tailback Darrel Williams showed up to observe the Tigers’ first spring practice, Miles joked afterward that he wished the two players could have participated in the team’s workout.

The Tigers are short on proven performers at receiver -- and thanks to several recent injuries at the position, they’ve been short on warm bodies to even run through drills -- and have only two scholarship tailbacks available this spring.

Those depth shortages are a direct result of several NFL draft early entries in the last couple of seasons. LSU lost two tailbacks to the draft after the 2012 season and two more this year when Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue both turned pro. It's a similar story at wideout, where the only two accomplished players on the roster, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, opted to skip their senior seasons.

Miles’ staff addressed those issues in phenomenal fashion on signing day, adding Williams and the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect, Leonard Fournette, at tailback, plus arguably the top collection of receivers that any program signed in 2014 -- a group that also includes No. 3 wideout Trey Quinn and two more ESPN 300 recruits in D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch.

The problem is that no member of that group is on campus yet, forcing LSU’s coaches to both evaluate what they have at present and how the signees’ summer arrival will affect the group dynamic.

“I just think that some of those guys are going to get first-[team] snaps,” Miles said of the receiver signees. “They’re going to be advantages for us and we’ve got to use them well.”

As Miles mentioned, a high-quality group of safety signees could dent the depth chart in similar fashion. The Tigers have a few returning veterans and have moved Jalen Mills over from cornerback to shore up their needs at safety, but signees such as No. 2 safety Jamal Adams, ESPN 300 prospect Devin Voorhies and John Battle could shake up the competition in August.

It’s not that those players’ absences have made this spring useless for LSU. But Miles and his staff must function this spring with the knowledge that they’re coaching an incomplete roster.

That’s not much different from Alabama or Texas A&M or Auburn, which also lost players to the draft and have key signees who haven't arrived, but the situation is more extreme in Baton Rouge. If Miles balances the magician part of his job correctly, perhaps he can pull a rabbit out of his famous hat by the end of August, when the Tigers open the season against Wisconsin in Houston.

“Here’s what you get out of 15 practices in the spring of the year: You practice the team that you have with you and you advance them and get them taught and get them improved. You teach technique and whatever you can get to, you get to with that team,” Miles said recently.

“Before the next team, that next part of your team, shows up, you anticipate where your direction goes. You anticipate that, ‘That guy goes here and that guy goes here’ and you fit it. Then in the first game, you hope that you prepared them well enough to win and play well in the first game. If you win and play well in the first game, you’re all on track.”

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Frank Wilson hasn’t been taking it easy on his players lately.

LSU’s running backs coach has been giving Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard a heavy workload in spring practice, which was partially out of necessity since the two seniors are the only scholarship tailbacks on the Tigers’ spring roster.

“It's getting pretty rough out there,” Magee said with a smile. “We're taking a lot of reps. We were rotating every play, but this week Coach Frank wants us to go a little bit longer so we've been going about every three now. So it's getting pretty taxing, but it's going to pay off in the long run.”

[+] EnlargeKenny Hilliard
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsSenior Kenny Hilliard is one of two tailbacks that LSU returns from last season, joining Terrence Magee.
This is an unusual time for LSU’s tailbacks -- a position group known in the recent past for its impressive depth. In 2011, LSU had four players (Michael Ford, Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue and Hilliard) rush for 300 or more yards and score at least seven touchdowns. It was more of the same last season, with Jeremy Hill (1,401 yards, 16 TDs), Magee (626-8), Blue (343-1) and Hilliard (310-7) all going for 300-plus and Hill, Magee and Hilliard all scoring at least seven times.

But with Hill and Blue both entering the NFL draft, the Tigers are now forced to work converted linebacker (now fullback) Melvin Jones at tailback a bit just to break up the practice reps.

“This is his first time carrying the ball, but he's getting better,” Hilliard said of Jones. “His pad level is a little high, but that's part of it. He's never really carried the ball before, so it's just a lot of teaching that he's got to learn, watch film and make sure that he stays in the film room and just look at us and let us lead by example. He can just pay attention to us and he'll be all right.”

Any LSU fan who hasn’t been living under a rock knows that this situation is only temporary. Leonard Fournette -- one of the most heavily hyped prospects ever to emerge from Louisiana, whom two recruiting services, including ESPN, picked as the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit -- isn’t on campus yet. Neither is Darrel Williams, who rushed for 2,201 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior at Marrero (La.) John Ehret.

Both players seem likely to contribute as true freshmen. And in Fournette’s case, anything short of stardom would probably disappoint most Tigers fans -- a reality that is not lost on LSU’s returning tailbacks.

“I don't feel like we get overlooked and it doesn't bother us,” Magee said of the buzz surrounding Fournette. “All the credit that he gets, he fully deserves. He was the No. 1 player in the country and he's a great running back. I've watched film of him. So everything that he's getting, I feel that he's well deserving of it.”

Fournette will still need help adjusting to life on a college campus and within a big-time SEC program, which is where the two seniors can help.

“Those guys have just got to be mentally prepared when they come in, because the transition from high school to college, it's tough,” Hilliard said. “As they get here, I'm going to mentor them -- me and Terrence -- like Spencer Ware and Alfred Blue and those guys mentored us.”

Even if Fournette immediately emerges as LSU’s next superstar back, the Tigers have traditionally spread around the carries under Les Miles. Magee, who averaged 7.3 yards per carry last season, and Hilliard, who has a touchdown for every 10 touches in his career, will almost certainly play key roles in the offense.

“One thing about [offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s] offense: the best player's going to play and the hardest worker's going to play,” offensive lineman Vadal Alexander said. “I'll tell you one thing, Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee are two of the hardest-working players on our team. So they are going to get their carries. You can see that they're talented guys. Terrence has one of the best agility moves, side-to-side quickness, all that. Kenny is one of the most powerful backs in the nation in my opinion.”

Once Hill returned from an early suspension last season, Magee found a niche as a third-down back. The former receiver would like to expand upon that role by adding some pass-catching responsibilities out of the backfield -- plus Miles said last week that Magee will rank among the Tigers’ top candidates as a kick return man.

He has never carried the ball more than 82 times in a season, but Hilliard has proven to be an especially effective goal-line runner, and that role seems likely to remain in place in the fall.

Obviously no roles for 2014 are established yet, and they won’t be until the freshmen arrive and responsibilities begin falling into place during August practices. The only duties Magee and Hilliard are certain to claim are those of mentors -- and they seem happy to help Fournette and Williams, just as their predecessors did when they were underclassmen.

“We've just got to keep the standards and just be able to come out and execute and play hard,” Hilliard said. “That's our motto: just come out and play hard and take care of the ball and everything will be all right. We know we have two young guys coming in and we're going to mentor them and make sure they get right and keep the legacy in the room.”

Opening spring camp: LSU

March, 7, 2014
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Schedule: The Tigers open spring practice on Saturday. They will conclude with the spring game on April 5 at Tiger Stadium.

What's new: Former Auburn and Virginia Tech assistant Jeff Grimes joined the staff in January, replacing Greg Studrawa as offensive line coach. An old face will also return to Les Miles' staff, as Bradley Dale Peveto -- a Miles assistant from 2005-08 and participant in a failed experiment as co-defensive coordinator in 2008 -- was recently hired as special teams coordinator. He replaces Thomas McGaughey, who accepted the same position with the New York Jets of the NFL.

[+] EnlargeWideout Travin Dural will need to step up for the Tigers in 2014.
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsWideout Travin Dural will need to step up for the Tigers in 2014.
Attrition: The Tigers once again suffered a big hit from early NFL entry. LSU receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, tailbacks Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue, defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson and right guard Trai Turner all entered the draft despite having eligibility remaining.

On the move: If comments he made last month are any indication, Miles and the coaching staff intend to leave Jalen Mills at safety on at least a part-time basis. He started at the position in the Tigers' Outback Bowl win against Iowa. Don't be surprised if players who have played other positions -- tackle Evan Washington and center Ethan Pocic are reportedly among them -- figure into the competition to replace Turner at right guard. Also, keep an idea on how the Tigers deploy Kendell Beckwith this spring. He has the ability to contribute at defensive end or linebacker, and he might play both positions at points.

New faces: The Tigers have two early enrollees participating in spring practice in quarterback Brandon Harris and defensive back Edward Paris Jr. We'll discuss Harris, who was ESPN's No. 2 dual-threat quarterback and No. 37 overall prospect for the 2014 class, more below. ESPN ranked Paris as its No. 4 safety and No. 50 overall prospect, but LSU listed him as a cornerback when it added the freshmen to the roster.

Key battle: There will be several position battles worth watching -- right guard, defensive tackle and quarterback are among them -- but let's talk about the wide receivers. With Landry and Beckham jumping to the NFL, LSU lost nearly all of its production at wideout. Speedster Travin Dural (seven catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns in 2013) is the only receiver who has done much of anything, and even his production was limited last fall. With arguably the nation's top collection of receiver signees -- led by ESPN's No. 1 wideout Malachi Dupre and No. 3 Trey Quinn -- set to arrive in the summer, now is the time for the players on campus to show they deserve some snaps. Senior Quantavius Leslie (1-11) was disappointingly quiet last season as a junior college transfer. Freshmen John Diarse, Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears all redshirted. Conventional wisdom has Dural and Diarse as the most likely contributors in 2014. Will at least one or two of the others join that group?

Breaking out: Let's see whether cornerbacks Rashard Robinson and Tre'Davious White continue the ascent that started late last season. They started alongside one another in two of LSU's last three games -- wins against Texas A&M and Iowa -- and the secondary made strong showings in both games. Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel had one of the worst outings of his college career (16-for-41 for 224 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions), with Robinson intercepting the former Heisman Trophy winner once. LSU held Iowa to 13-for-30 passing and 157 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions -- one of which came when White picked off a Jake Rudock pass at the LSU 7-yard line in the second quarter. LSU has a longstanding tradition of excellence at cornerback, although the Tigers' entire defense needed to perform more consistently last fall. Perhaps they've found something in sophomores Robinson and White.

Don't forget about: Most of us have already penciled in No. 1 overall prospect Leonard Fournette as the Tigers' starter-in-waiting at tailback. And he very well may be. But he won't arrive on campus until the summer. For now, rising seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard will handle the carries, and both players have proved themselves capable of producing. Magee was Hill's primary backup last season, rushing for 626 yards (and 7.3 yards per carry!) and also flashing good receiving skills (six catches for 49 yards). Hilliard has never been the No. 1 tailback, but he has acquitted himself in a short-yardage role, rushing for at least six touchdowns in all three seasons. Fournette has stardom written all over him, but he won't push the veterans completely out of the way. Count on Magee and Hilliard to keep getting their touches.

All eyes on: Anthony Jennings started LSU's bowl game against Iowa after replacing an injured Zach Mettenberger -- and leading the game-winning comeback -- against Arkansas. He was shaky to say the least (7-for-19 for 82 yards and an interception) in that first career start, however. With Harris, an excellent passer and explosive runner, already on campus, Jennings needs to show he can handle the starting job. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron hand-picked Harris and is no doubt excited about what he can bring to the offense, but he needs to learn the offense first before he can truly threaten Jennings for a starting spot. Throughout the summer, LSU fans will dissect the two quarterbacks' performances in the spring game. Jennings seems like the safe bet to open the season as the Tigers' starter, but whether he holds onto that spot is up to him -- and perhaps up to his new freshman competitor, whose ability to execute the offense will be under heavy scrutiny over the next month.

LSU NFL draft combine primer

February, 20, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. – The NFL draft combine has begun, and LSU is well represented with 11 former Tigers on the list of invited players.

Here's a look at the Tigers who are scheduled to be in attendance and when their position groups will take the field for workouts in Indianapolis.

Saturday: Tight ends, offensive line, special teams
Trai Turner will be the first Tiger to take the stage. The right guard surprised some by entering the draft after his redshirt sophomore season. This is his chance to prove that decision wasn't a mistake. If Turner shows up in good shape and excels in the workouts and positional drills, perhaps he can work his way up some teams' draft boards.

Sunday: Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers
This is the showcase day for LSU talent, with five former Tigers set to take the field for workouts. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger would have made it six, but he is still rehabilitating an ACL tear suffered in LSU's Nov. 29 win against Arkansas.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Hill
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesAt the NFL combine, Jeremy Hill will try to prove any off-the-field issues are in the past.
Nonetheless, tailbacks Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue, fullback J.C. Copeland and receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham are scheduled to participate in workouts on Sunday, so the NFL Network announcers should spend plenty of time talking Tigers.

Hill is one of the more intriguing running backs in the draft because of his physical abilities, but his off-the-field issues will probably come up, as well. Hill will be fine in the workouts. The most important part of his trip to Indy won't air on television. He must satisfy at least one team that his disciplinary issues are behind him and that he can be a reliable professional. Performing well in these job interviews is essential for a player with a checkered past.

Meanwhile, it wouldn't be much of a surprise to see Blue perform well in the drills and positional workouts and elevate his draft stock. He was overshadowed by Hill at LSU, but Blue has the tools to be an NFL player and he might just emerge on some radars if he's healthy and has an impressive afternoon.

Landry can help himself with a solid time in the 40-yard dash, should he choose to run in Indy. Dependable hands are his best asset, but he will wear the possession receiver label unless he surprises scouts by flashing some top-end speed. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. wrote this week that a strong combine workout might help Landry work his way into the first round. Conversely, Beckham could help his cause by catching the ball consistently and displaying some polished route-running skills. He's electric with the ball in his hands – and ESPN's Todd McShay is hyping him as one of the draft's fastest prospects – so his biggest hurdle is proving that he's more than a raw athlete.

Monday: Defensive linemen, linebackers
All three of LSU's Monday participants – defensive linemen Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson and linebacker Lamin Barrow – have something to prove to NFL scouts.

At 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, Barrow is not the biggest guy in the world, so most teams likely view him as a situational linebacker and special-teams performer instead of an every-down player. He's athletic and has some intangibles that will probably help him interview well, but he needs to flash some physical tools during the workouts that might help him stand out a bit more.

On the other hand, Johnson and Ferguson should excel in the workouts. After all, Johnson's nickname is “Freak” and he possesses the raw athleticism to back up the hype. The problem for both players is that scouts question their motors. They look the part, but must convince teams that they can refine their games and become more consistent performers at the pro level than they were in college.

Tuesday: Defensive backs
Craig Loston closes out LSU's long list of combine participants when he competes with the defensive backs on the final day of workouts. Loston projects as an inside-the-box safety who is best as a hitter and run stopper. He was a bit brittle in college, which might affect his draft stock, but Loston can probably help his cause in Indy by flashing some fluidity and ball skills during the defensive back drills. If teams determine he can play coverage the way he can run and hit, Loston will rise as a prospect.
BATON ROUGE, La. – An unusual set of circumstances must exist when one of the most productive running backs in school history leaves early for the NFL draft and nobody seems too concerned.

Jeremy Hill rushed for 216 yards in LSU's season-ending victory over Iowa in the Outback Bowl -- a performance that, even before he made it official, seemed as if it would be the sophomore's final college game. Then the nation's No. 1 prospect, New Orleans running back Leonard Fournette, committed to LSU the very next day.

Les Miles' staff had put all of its eggs in the Fournette basket, opting not to sign a single running back in 2013 in an effort to land the biggest recruit available in 2014. And Fournette is certainly that, earning the highest prospect rating of any running back since ESPN began grading recruits in 2006. LSU's efforts paid off when he verbally committed to the Tigers during the Jan. 2 Under Armour All-America Game, creating a sigh of relief throughout an LSU fan base that desperately wanted to see Fournette play next season in purple and gold.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
Miller Safrit/ESPNLSU fans celebrated -- and were surely relieved -- when No. 1 running back Leonard Fournette donned an LSU hat at the Under Armour All-America Game.
How could they not? Recruiting analysts have been comparing Fournette to Minnesota Vikings All-Pro Adrian Peterson for years. ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill likened him to Georgia superstar Todd Gurley, only with better speed. And ESPN recruiting coordinator Craig Haubert weighed in on how LSU's offensive scheme was the ideal fit for a player with Fournette's well-rounded set of skills.

“They have a player who is meeting needs if you think about Jeremy Hill declaring for the NFL draft and Alfred Blue being a senior,” Haubert said in an ESPN Recruiting Nation video discussing Fournette's commitment. “That leaves only two running backs [rising seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard] on the roster, so obviously Leonard Fournette fills a big need and he's also a great fit if you think about LSU's power running game -- that two-back, downhill scheme. That is ideally the best fit for Leonard Fournette.”

LSU's sports information department might have built a Heisman Trophy campaign around Hill had he returned for his junior season. After his 1,401-yard, 16-touchdown campaign in 2013, Hill might have ranked among the nation's most dominant college backs in 2014. His final college season certainly was one of the best in school history, with the yardage total ranking second all-time at LSU and the touchdown total ranking fourth.

But with Fournette coming aboard after rushing for 1,802 yards and 17 touchdowns and totaling 745 receiving yards and six more scores as a senior at St. Augustine High School, and Magee (86 carries for 626 yards and 8 TDs in 2013) and Hilliard (68-310, 7 TDs) returning, the Tigers should be able to absorb Hill's departure without much difficulty.

Fournette and fellow running back commit Darrel Williams (Marrero, La./John Ehret) won't arrive at LSU until summer, but they seem like good fits for what LSU wants to do in the running game, frequently with young players in its backfield.

“We don't look at them as young kids -- like my freshman year, when I was able to play my freshman year, a couple of guys went down and that's what led me to play,” said Hilliard, who rushed for 336 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman while splitting time with Blue, Michael Ford and Spencer Ware. “So everybody's just got to be ready to play when their number's called.”

Magee became a productive counterpuncher behind Hill in 2013, and he will most likely continue to play a big role in LSU's backfield as a senior. And while Hilliard has never been the lead back, he has three 100-yard games on his résumé and has rushed for 21 touchdowns in just 212 career carries.

“At any point in time you can turn to a guy that's as veteran as Kenny Hilliard and know you're going to get quality play,” Miles said last week.

They're all capable of providing quality play, but everyone expects Fournette to claim the lead role at some point. He's just that good -- and he'll have to live up to those astronomical expectations if he is to make Tigers fans forget about what Hill could have brought to the offense in 2014.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- The damage wasn't as significant as a year ago, but early entries into the NFL draft will again hit LSU hard this season.

The Tigers lost seven players who had eligibility remaining -- five of whom came from the offense, a year after seven of LSU's 11 early entries were defensive players. That puts the onus on offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to quickly determine his top options after losing the only foursome in SEC history that featured a 3,000-yard passer (senior Zach Mettenberger), two 1,000-yard receivers (juniors Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry) and a 1,000-yard rusher (sophomore Jeremy Hill).

Let's take a position-by-position look at some of the possible replacements for the Tigers who opted to enter the draft:

[+] EnlargeTravin Dural
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesTravin Dural (83) has big shoes to fill with the departures of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham.
Wide receiver

Departing: Juniors Landry (77 catches, 1,193 yards, 10 TDs in 2013) and Beckham (59-1,152, 8 TDs). LSU passed for 3,263 yards in 2013. Landry and Beckham combined to accumulate 2,345 of those yards (plus departing tailback Hill and senior Kadron Boone were third and fifth on the team with 181 and 129 yards, respectively). In other words, LSU has a ton of receiving production to replace and no proven options.

Contenders: As the only returning receiver with more than 100 yards in 2013, Travin Dural (7-145, 2 TDs) is the most obvious choice here. He made a game-winning, 49-yard touchdown catch in the closing minutes against Arkansas, so perhaps he will be one of the Tigers' next receiving playmakers.

Otherwise, who knows? LSU would love to get more out of former junior college transfer Quantavius Leslie (1-11), but he didn't do much in 2013. And then you have Avery Peterson (brother of former LSU cornerback Patrick) and John Diarse, both of whom were big-time prospects before redshirting last season.

Additionally, the Tigers already have verbal commitments from Trey Quinn -- ESPN's No. 3 receiver and No. 29 overall prospect -- fellow ESPN 300 picks D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch, and are still pursuing No. 1 wideout Malachi Dupre. If Les Miles' staff lands some of these top-tier prospects, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them crack the depth chart as freshmen.

Tailback

Departing: Sophomore Hill (203 carries, 1,401 yards, 16 TDs) and senior Alfred Blue (71-343, 1 TD). Hill posted the second-best rushing totals in school history in 2013 and was an absolute force when he stayed out of trouble. Blue missed his chance to be the No. 1 tailback when he suffered a season-ending injury early in the 2012 campaign. Hill had two years of eligibility remaining, while Blue was granted a fifth season by the NCAA but elected not to use it.

Contenders: Perhaps it's unfair to 2014 seniors Terrence Magee (86-626, 8 TDs) and Kenny Hilliard (68-310, 7 TDs) to discount their roles -- and they will certainly play roles next season -- but Leonard Fournette is the guy who will attract the most attention between signing day and the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin. ESPN rates Fournette as the nation's No. 1 prospect and he is often compared to Adrian Peterson thanks to a rare combination of size (he's listed at 6-foot-1 and 226 pounds), slippery moves and breakaway speed. Magee and Hilliard will both contribute, but LSU's running game can be great if Fournette quickly establishes himself alongside the veterans.

Defensive tackle

Departing: Juniors Anthony Johnson (35 tackles, 9 tackles for a loss, 3 sacks) and Ego Ferguson (58 tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss, 1 sack). Johnson and Ferguson anchored the middle of the Tigers' line, but their early departures create a big hole for position coach Brick Haley to fill.

Contenders: Christian LaCouture (11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss, 1 sack) is the first name to mention. An early enrollee last year, LaCouture jumped into the rotation as a freshman and served as a decent third option behind the veterans. Meanwhile, Quentin Thomas (9 tackles, 0.5 tackles for a loss) entered the starting lineup against Iowa in the Outback Bowl when Ferguson didn't travel to the bowl site. Beyond those two, it's a bit of a mystery. Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain -- both of whom redshirted in 2013 -- were big gets for LSU on the recruiting trail at this time a year ago, so they could enter the mix as well.

Right guard

Departing: Sophomore Trai Turner (Started all 13 games in 2013). Turner was a second-team All-SEC pick as a draft-eligible sophomore, prompting him to jump to the pros earlier than many would have expected. His departure creates an opening at right guard -- the lone spot to fill on what could be an outstanding offensive line.

Contenders: On the day left tackle La'El Collins announced he would return for his senior season, he lobbied for Fehoko Fanaika to fill Turner's spot. At 6-foot-6 and 348 pounds, the junior college transfer -- who appeared in 12 games in 2013 -- certainly has the girth to handle the job. Other options include a pair of ESPN 300 selections from 2013, Ethan Pocic (also Elliott Porter's backup at center) and Andy Dodd, along with ESPN's No. 1 guard for 2014, Garrett Brumfield, who has already committed to the hometown Tigers.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- La'El Collins would have been an NFL draft pick this year. He might have even been an early-round pick this year. But unlike seven teammates, Collins announced on Tuesday that he will return for the 2014 season at LSU in order to complete his degree and improve his pro stock.

[+] EnlargeLa'el Collins
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsWith La'El Collins returning for his senior season, LSU will have four of five returning starters back on its offensive line.
“Going to the draft early and maybe going late first, early second -- who knows? -- I know for a fact that if I came back to school, I could earn my degree and have a better chance and a better opportunity to go higher in the draft next year,” Collins said. “It all kind of came together and it all made sense.”

Collins announced his decision at an on-campus press conference alongside coach Les Miles and fellow rising seniors Jordan Allen, Kenny Hilliard, Elliott Porter and Jermauria Rasco -- all of whom also plan to return in 2014.

Miles credited the returning players for making decisions that will allow them to further develop before making the leap for the pros -- often a risky proposition, as several of the 11 Tigers who left school early after last season can attest. Only nine of those 11 got drafted and six were taken in the third round or later.

“I'm absolutely sure,” Miles said when asked if the departed Tigers' fates this season might have impacted the decisions of the players who chose to stay. “There were some unusual decisions made last year in my mind.”

Collins, Miles said, was a safe bet to become an NFL draft pick, but he emphasized that players need to strongly consider the possibilities should their pro stock sits on shakier ground.

“What we try to tell them is this: let's not give the NFL a deal. There's no reason for it,” Miles said. “The guaranteed money, the best position to go into the draft is the first round. What we want to encourage is to really view your decision in relationship to where you can be and where you are. These guys, they made great decisions.”

Collins was a second-team All-SEC selection this season after taking over as the Tigers' left tackle. He started all 13 games in 2012 at left guard, leading to some question about where he might eventually land in the pros.

He said NFL teams have offered mixed feedback as to which position he will play, but Miles said another college season at tackle will provide an opportunity to convince scouts that he can be a tackle.

“If I was sitting in an NFL room right now, I'd be sitting there questioning that. That would be a real question,” Miles said. “I think this year his piece is to improve and to make his last year his best year. And then I see tackle (in the NFL).”

The Tigers' offense lost five productive underclassmen with eligibility remaining -- receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., running backs Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue and offensive guard Trai Turner -- as well as senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger, so LSU's 2014 offense will feature an entirely new set of skill-position players. The offensive line should return four starters, however, in Collins and center Porter, right tackle Jerald Hawkins and left guard Vadal Alexander.

Miles said he expects the group to be dominant next season and Porter and Collins both predicted that it will be the strength of the rebuilding offense.

“Last year was our first year really playing together as a whole and I think that with another year under our belt, it's going to be a great season,” Collins said. “For me the game is won in the trenches, so if we come out and do the things that we're capable of doing, I think we'll have a great season.”

Getting Collins back makes that a much more likely proposition. He didn't give the NFL a deal, to use Miles' expression, giving LSU another season with arguably its top offensive lineman and providing Collins with another season to prove where he belongs on 2015 draft boards.

“I don't think there's any question that he has the potential to be a very early draft pick at left tackle,” Miles predicted.

Five things: LSU-Alabama

November, 9, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here are five things to watch as top-ranked Alabama (8-0, 5-0) hosts 13th-ranked LSU (7-2, 3-2)

Running the football: There will be a lot of focus on the quarterbacks and wide receivers in this game, but don't forget that these games often come down to who limits turnovers and runs the football best. Alabama's ground game has improved mightily since the start of the season with T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake developing into a potent duo. LSU, meanwhile, has the top rusher in the league in Jeremy Hill. Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard, his two backups, are no slouches either.

Quarterback play: It's been a tale of two quarterbacks of late: AJ McCarron has gone one way while Zach Mettenberger has gone another. Mettenberger threw 15 touchdowns to two interceptions in his first two games, but four touchdowns and five interceptions in his last two contests. McCarron, meanwhile, has improved since his first four games where he threw six touchdowns and three interceptions, tossing 10 touchdowns and no picks in his last four contests. McCarron's 92.5 Total QBR since Oct. 1 ranks No. 1 in the FBS.

Defending the pass: Whoever starts opposite Deion Belue at cornerback for Alabama on Saturday, likely Cyrus Jones, will have his hands full. Whoever it is, the Tide corners will have their hands full defending Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, LSU's talented tandem of wide receivers. Both rank in the top 10 among SEC receivers in yards and Beckham is second nationally in all-purpose yards per game.

Tale of two defenses: Alabama's defense has been nearly perfect this season. Since giving up 42 points to Texas A&M, Alabama has outscored opponents 246-26. The Tide has five more touchdowns (31) than its opponents have points during that time. LSU, on the other hand, has endured some ups and downs on defense. The Tigers have allowed 21.9 points and 351.7 yards per game, compared to the Tide which has allowed an average of 9.8 points and 280.9 yards per game.

Bye week help: If you think having a bye week before Saturday's game helps Alabama, think again. While getting players close to 100 percent helps, the final outcome hasn't been affected by having a week off. Alabama has lost three games under Nick Saban when coming off a regular season bye week. All three have come against LSU.

Week 8 helmet stickers

October, 20, 2013
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OXFORD, Miss. -- It wasn't the result LSU was hoping for Saturday, losing 27-24 to Ole Miss, but there were still some individual performances worth noting for the Tigers.

RB Kenny Hilliard: There were times when LSU looked dominant rushing the football against Ole Miss. Jeremy Hill led the team in yards, but it was Hilliard who played as well as, if not better than, the Tigers' starter. The junior rushed for a season-high 58 yards on just 11 carries. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry and put LSU on the board with a 3-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Hill is still the primary running back on this football team, but no coach has ever complained about having too many backs. Coming into Saturday's game, Hilliard was fourth on the team in rushing, but he's quickly emerging as the Tigers' No. 2 running back

DB Ronald Martin: The return of Martin was big for LSU. He missed the Florida game due to injury, but he came back in a big way against Ole Miss. The junior safety led the Tigers with 12 tackles, including eight solo stops. In the third quarter, Martin stripped running back I'Tavius Mathers and recovered the fumble on the same play. The turnover led to an LSU touchdown. Both Martin and Craig Loston have battled injuries throughout the first half of the season, but when healthy, they form one of the top safety tandems in the SEC. Cornerback Jalen Mills also has played well in the secondary. He had two sacks on Saturday.

The special teams: LSU never would have had a chance to tie the game late if not for the efforts of its special teams. The first big play was more of a mistake by Ole Miss when Korvic Neat muffed a punt, but Alfred Blue was there to jump on it for the Tigers. Later in the game, Ego Ferguson got his big paw in the air to block a chip-shot field goal attempt by the Rebels. The block kept it a one-score game and allowed LSU to tie it on the ensuing drive. Freshman kicker Colby Delahoussaye remained perfect on the season, making his only attempt from 41 yards out, and although Odell Beckham didn't break a big kickoff return he averaged more than 20 yards per return.

Honorable mention: WR Jarvis Landry
It's easy to look at LSU's success offensively this season and believe that Cam Cameron has the Midas touch. The night-and-day difference has been that startling. The eye-popping numbers -- 488.7 yards per game, 45.5 points per game -- are leaps and bounds better than they've been in years past.

But truth be told, Cameron walked into the perfect situation when he was signed on as LSU's offensive coordinator in February. He didn't have to overhaul anything. He didn't arrive in Baton Rouge twirling a magic wand in one hand and a spellbook of plays in another. The parts were already in place. He just had to get them running efficiently.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Zach Mettenberger is only one of several worries for defenses facing LSU.
Les Miles would have told you so if you'd only asked. LSU's often eccentric head coach would have you believe he envisioned this kind of turnaround when he hired Cameron.

"I felt like it was just exactly the right pieces or factors to come together," Miles told reporters on Monday. "You have a veteran quarterback that can really throw it. You have a veteran receiving corps that can really run routes and receive the ball. Yeah, I really did [see it coming]. I don't underestimate our offense, nor do I underestimate Cam."

Whether you believe Miles' premonition is one thing. But understanding the root of LSU's offensive turnaround is cut and dried. What it comes down to is simple: balance. Cameron didn't bring an innovative scheme or better personnel with him, he simply unpacked his bags and used what was already there more effectively than his predecessors. His deft touch was golden, but not glaringly so.

LSU's scheme, as best summed up by its leading receiver, is downright elementary. It's old school in that it operates mostly under center and uses two or more running backs 72 percent of the time.

"You know, you can't run without passing and you can't pass without running," Odell Beckham Jr. said after LSU thumped Mississippi State 59-26 this past weekend. "We have great running backs in the backfield, and that's a threat. They have to respect that. If they load the box up we're going to throw the ball and then if they back off a little bit we're going to break big runs."

If Beckham's explanation seemed coy, it wasn't meant to be. Stopping LSU's offense isn't as simple as stopping the run or the pass. You can't blitz your way out of it or scheme against any one player in particular. As a defensive coordinator, you're basically left to hope for the best.

You can't double-team Beckham. If you do, Jarvis Landry will get you. The two receivers are first and second in receptions per game in the SEC. Beckham leads the country in all-purpose yards while Landry is tied for fourth in touchdown receptions. You can try playing off coverage and they'll burn you just the same. Mississippi State tried, playing 6 and 7 yards off of Beckham all night, and he still managed 179 yards and two touchdowns.

You can try playing two safeties back and shading them toward Beckham and Landry for help over the top, but that won't work either. If you leave only seven in the box, you're likely to regret it. With LSU's stable of running backs, they'll make you pay. Jeremy Hill, a 235-pound bowling ball of power and quickness, is second nationally with nine rushing touchdowns. When he leaves the game, Alfred Blue comes on, averaging 5 yards or more on 51.4 percent of his carries.

If you do everything right and somehow double-cover Beckham and Landry and stop the run, then you're still left with the matter of Zach Mettenberger. There might be no bigger turnaround in college football than LSU's senior quarterback. Mettenberger, thanks to the tutelage of Cameron, is first in the SEC and fifth nationally in raw QBR (86.7).

Mettenberger is fitting balls into windows that make scouts blush. The "oohs" from three pro scouts sitting next to me were audible even over the clanging of thousands of cowbells in Starkville, Miss., on Saturday night. You can do everything right and he'll still get you. The Bulldogs' defense played well and he still managed to complete a ridiculous 25 of 29 passes for 340 yards, defying blanket coverage and pass-rushers nipping at his heels.

"When you play LSU you have to prepare for the run," Mettenberger said matter-of-factly. "[Mississippi State] came out hyped and they did a really good job executing their run defense. But again that left holes in the secondary and we were able to execute and really soften them up for the run game."

Even LSU defensive tackle Ego Ferguson had to laugh.

"I told Coach Cam, 'What did you do that for?'" said Ferguson on LSU hanging 59 points and 563 yards of offense. "It was a great game, man. I've never seen an offense like that before. Zach Mettenberger is playing great. I call him old Drew Bledsoe."

And like those old Patriots teams, the theory on offense is balance. LSU doesn't run to set up the pass and it doesn't pass to set up the run. Cameron isn't using a gimmicky scheme. Instead, defenses make a choice: Would you like Hill and Blue to beat you, or Mettenberger, Beckham and Landry?

Pick your poison.

Florida will have to when it travels to Baton Rouge on Saturday. The 17th-ranked Gators have allowed the lowest Total QBR (13.0) of any defense and the second fewest rushing yards per game (65.0).

"They’re going to get movement in the run game, they do a nice job in protection, but again, balance is the word you’re looking for," Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "You have to try and make this a one-dimensional game as best you can and understand they’re very effective at throwing the football, and that’s where they’ve hurt some people."

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