LSU Tigers: Cam Cameron

LSU position breakdown: TE

July, 31, 2014
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Editor’s note: This week, we’ll take a quick look at each of LSU's position groups as the Tigers prepare to open preseason practice next week. Up next are the tight ends.

TIGHT END

Returning starters: Dillon Gordon (Six catches, 88 yards in 2013). Gordon started 12 of LSU’s 13 games last season. He had the most catches among LSU’s tight ends. Logan Stokes (no catches) started three games last season and Travis Dickson (5 catches, 109 yards) started once.

Starters lost: None.

Key newcomers: The Tigers signed the extremely athletic Jacory Washington -- ESPN’s No. 169 overall prospect and No. 5 traditional tight end -- in February. They also added junior college transfer Colin Jeter to the roster during the summer.

Player to watch: DeSean Smith (1 catch, 14 yards). Gordon, Stokes and Dickson are all established veterans and all will continue to fill roles in an LSU offensive scheme that regularly features multiple tight ends. Smith, however, stands to make the biggest leap after making only minor contributions as a freshman in 2013. He seems to be a gifted pass catcher and could become a key player if Cam Cameron’s offense begins to feature its tight ends more frequently as pass targets.

Overall: This is one of the deepest groups on LSU’s roster, although the tight ends don’t have much in the way of statistics to show for the group’s collective experience. That could change this season. Cameron traditionally has made extensive use of his tight ends, and with LSU undergoing extensive turnover at wide receiver and at quarterback, this seems like a good season to take advantage of the Tigers’ experience at tight end.

There are a couple of strong blockers in the group -- and that will certainly always rank among most tight ends’ top priorities -- but LSU has added a couple of players at the position who are capable of splitting out wide and functioning as receivers. Smith is such a player, and he might be in line for a strong season. In fact, let’s chalk the entire group for an uptick in offensive production in 2014 in addition to their traditional blocking duties.

LSU position breakdown: QB

July, 28, 2014
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Editor's note: This week, we'll take a quick look at each of LSU's position groups as the Tigers prepare to open preseason practice next week. Today we start with the quarterbacks.

QUARTERBACK

Returning starters: None.

Starters lost: Zach Mettenberger (192-296, 3,082 yards, 22 TDs, 8 INTs in 2013). The fifth-year senior was one of the nation's most improved quarterbacks and became only the third LSU quarterback ever to pass for 3,000 yards in a season. His leadership helped the Tigers rank first nationally by converting 57.1 percent of their first downs and his strong right arm helped LSU's passing game become truly dangerous in Cam Cameron's first season as offensive coordinator.

Key newcomers: Brandon Harris. (No. 37 overall prospect on ESPN 300, No. 2 dual-threat QB). The battle between early enrollee Harris and sophomore Anthony Jennings (13-29, 181, 1 TD, 1 INT) was the main story of LSU's spring practice. Regardless of who wins the job, he will have either no or next to no starting experience in college.

Player to watch: Harris. The freshman was the offensive star of the Tigers' spring game, shaking off a slow start to make a number of big plays with his feet and impressive arm. Meanwhile, Jennings tossed a pair of pick-sixes. Round 1 between the two definitely went to the rookie.

Overall: When spring practice started, it seemed likely that either Jennings or Harris would be the Tigers' next starter. Now they don't have any choice since backups Stephen Rivers, Hayden Rettig and Rob Bolden have all left the team since the end of last season. As long as Jennings and Harris remain healthy, LSU shouldn't have any problems -- they played only two quarterbacks last season, after all -- but an injury might bring a walk-on into the picture.

Let's assume for now that both will stay healthy. This is an enormous August for both players. Jennings played sparingly in 2013 before taking over late in the fall when Mettenberger suffered a season-ending knee injury. He made an instant impact, leading the game-winning, 99-yard touchdown drive in the waning minutes against Arkansas. He followed that with a shaky performance in the Outback Bowl, though, and his spring game was unquestionably a dud. The door is definitely open for the freshman to claim the job. But whoever becomes the starter, this season might be an adventure as he learns on the job.
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.

Second-year stars: LSU

June, 10, 2014
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One of the most beneficial aspects of the LSU coaching staff’s philosophy of liberally using true freshmen is that those youngsters are often ready to blossom in their second seasons. Think Tyrann Mathieu, who became one of the SEC’s most explosive players as a sophomore in 2011. Think Patrick Peterson, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Eric Reid -- all of whom emerged as stars when they were sophomores. The list could go on and on and on.

With that history in mind, it should come as no surprise that LSU has plenty of candidates who are poised to repeat what Mathieu and company accomplished in recent seasons by achieving stardom in their second year in the SEC.

The Tigers are next up in our series projecting who might become a second-year star at each SEC program.

[+] EnlargeRashard Robinson
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesLocking down Texas A&M's Mike Evans gave a sign of what rising LSU sophomore Rashard Robinson can do.
Class recap: Thanks in part to LSU’s 11 early entries into the 2013 NFL draft, the Tigers had lots of holes for freshmen to fill last fall. Most notably, cornerbacks Rashard Robinson and Tre’Davious White had jumped into the starting lineup by the end of the season. But a number of other freshmen played last season, including Anthony Jennings -- who filled in at quarterback when senior Zach Mettenberger suffered a season-ending knee injury in November -- defensive tackle Christian LaCouture, defensive end/linebacker Kendell Beckwith, tight end DeSean Smith and offensive lineman Ethan Pocic. Still, some of the most talented players in the class redshirted in 2013, and there should be several breakout candidates from that bunch, including receiver John Diarse and defensive linemen Maquedius Bain, Frank Herron and Greg Gilmore. Overall, the 2013 signing class has left a small impression already, but this should be the year where its impact is truly felt.

Second-year star: CB Rashard Robinson (6-foot-1/163)

Recruiting stock: A three-star athlete from Ely High School in Pompano Beach, Fla. -- the same school that sent Peterson to LSU -- Robinson wasn’t cleared to enroll at LSU until three days before the first game. But his dynamic athleticism helped him begin contributing by Week 2 and start by the end of the season.

2013 in review: Robinson put himself on the map when he shut down Biletnikoff Award finalist Mike Evans for most of the game in LSU’s dismantling of Texas A&M. Evans averaged 107.2 receiving yards per game, but he had only three catches for 13 yards against Robinson before adding a 38-yard reception against a different Tigers defender late in the game. Robinson also notched his first career interception in the game. He finished the season with 16 tackles, 0.5 tackles for a loss, three pass breakups and four passes defended.

2014 potential: Now that he has found his footing, Robinson is poised to team with White to become LSU’s next set of shutdown cornerbacks. As long as he keeps his academic ship in order, the sky is the limit. He probably needs to add some weight to his thin frame, but Robinson has the athleticism and coverage skills to dominate in the SEC and become a pro cornerback in the not-so-distant future.

Also watch for: Aside from Robinson and White, Smith is another top candidate for the “second-year star” honor from LSU. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron typically utilizes the tight end, and Smith’s receiving skills could make him a major weapon this fall. In addition, Beckwith generated headlines by switching to middle linebacker during spring practice, and he seems ready to challenge D.J. Welter for playing time there. Keep an eye, also, on LaCouture, Tashawn Bower and the previously mentioned redshirt freshman defensive linemen, who will almost certainly all play key roles this fall. Any of these players would make sense as the LSU pick for this series, but Robinson’s potential pushed him to the top of the list.
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.”

LSU embraces playing freshmen

May, 28, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Les Miles has never been afraid to play a true freshman -- LSU’s sports information department reports that the Tigers have played 87 first-year freshmen in Miles’ nine seasons -- but it has become one of the program’s trademarks only in recent years.

The Tigers ranked among the nation’s top-five programs at playing freshmen in each of the last two seasons -- 14 freshmen in 2013 (third) and 15 in 2012 (fifth) -- and Miles has all but guaranteed at least 15 more will see the field this fall once a star-studded recruiting class arrives on campus.

It has quickly become a calling card for Miles’ staff on the recruiting trail.

[+] EnlargeTyrann Mathieu
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherTyrann Mathieu is one of many LSU players in recent years who've had a chance to contribute as true freshmen.
“I think kids like that about LSU,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “They like our style, they like Coach Miles’ philosophy that young guys are going to play early, which we do. I think we’ve averaged maybe ... at least 15 freshmen a year playing. And so all that plays into recruiting.

“You can’t guarantee a guy he’s going to play, but if he knows he’s given the opportunity and he’s got confidence in his ability, the track record speaks for itself. Come in and help us win and here’s the key thing, I think, that I’ve learned since being here is our veteran players -- our juniors and sophomores and redshirt sophomores and so forth -- they expect young guys to come help them play. They’re not afraid of young guys coming in and playing with them.”

Considering its recent history at the position group, it should come as no surprise that LSU recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson traces the development of this trend back to the arrival of key players in the secondary. The wheels were set in motion when cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne contributed as true freshmen in 2008 and 2009, respectively, but the freshman movement truly took off with the 2010 class that featured Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Reid and Tharold Simon.

Those players -- and several others who played bigger roles the next season when LSU won an SEC championship -- started to show what they could do in the second half of their freshman seasons, capped by an impressive win against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl where Mathieu, Reid and Simon all intercepted passes.

“It really hit because we had three guys in the secondary because so many spread defenses came (along), so we played a lot of nickel and a lot of dime with five and six defensive backs there,” Wilson recalled. “So Tyrann Mathieu took to the field, Tharold Simon took to the field as well as Eric Reid, and then offensively Spencer Ware began to emerge, et cetera. So probably in that class, the class of [2010], it kind of hit a high point from that point on. These guys have relished and looked forward to the opportunity to contribute as freshmen, and we like it.”

Mathieu went on to become the 2011 SEC Defensive Player of the Year, a first-team All-American and a Heisman Trophy finalist thanks to his dynamic playmaking ability. Reid also became an All-American and first-round NFL draft pick. Simon didn’t earn the same level of acclaim in college, but he was still able to jump to the NFL after his junior season and become a draft pick himself.

All three players had eligibility remaining when they left LSU, which exemplifies the greatest contributing factor in the program’s recent trend of playing youngsters. No program has had more players enter the draft early in the last couple seasons than LSU, and those departures created holes that talented freshmen could fill.

LSU recruited toward that end for this year's class and cashed in on signing day when it landed the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class, one that featured the top overall prospect in tailback Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 receiver (Malachi Dupre), top guard (Garrett Brumfield) and 16 players who made the 2014 ESPN 300.

“We knew our needs, we knew what we wanted to get,” Wilson said of signing day. “We targeted certain guys, so there was never a panic on our part. We kind of knew early on by way of communication and feedback who we’re in good shape with and who we’re not and have a plan on people to place and sign in those positions.”

Tailback and receiver will certainly be manned at least in part by freshmen this season, and many other freshmen such as quarterback Brandon Harris, safety Jamal Adams and linebacker Clifton Garrett also might follow Mathieu, Reid and Simon’s lead by playing key roles this fall.

LSU isn’t the only school that relies heavily on young players, but it has quickly gained a reputation as a trendsetter in that regard.

“I think that’s a little unique,” Cameron said. “Sometimes guys are afraid of young players coming in and taking their position, but here I don’t sense that. I sense guys like the competition and they know we’re going to need everybody to win a championship.”
BATON ROUGE, La. – LSU football assistants Cam Cameron, John Chavis and Frank Wilson were among six Tigers coaches -- a group that also included men’s basketball coach Johnny Jones, women’s basketball coach Nikki Caldwell and gymnastics coach D-D Breaux -- who spoke at the school’s Tiger Tour stop on Wednesday.

We’ll flesh out some of what the football coaches had to say in future stories, but here are some of the highlights from their conversations with the media before the booster function.

• Cameron, LSU’s offensive coordinator, was clearly chapped over the validity and timing of recent reports that former Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger’s drug test results were flagged at the NFL combine. Mettenberger’s drug sample was diluted, but his reps claimed that it was because he was drinking extra water to combat dehydration while recovering from offseason knee surgery.

“That information -- which tells you a little bit about the guy who released the story, No. 1, and the way the media works today -- that information’s been out 30 days. It’s been out for a while,” Cameron said. “And then to strategically, I guess, announce it at this time just goes to show what the motive was. It was either selfish motivation individually for that person or it was a message sent by somebody that wanted to see their quarterback above him. We know Zach. I’m pretty worked up over that, by the way.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsCam Cameron sees plenty of potential for improvement in Anthony Jennings.
“Zach Mettenberger is our guy, one of the great quarterbacks to ever play here, and he’s got my and Les [Miles’] and our program’s backing 100 percent. So we’ve been in contact. The guys that were really interested and are looking for that kind of quarterback have already done their homework, contacted us a long time ago, talked to Jack [Marucci, LSU’s head trainer], talked to all our people, and the teams that know, it’s a non-issue. The teams that didn’t do their homework, then they’re scrambling now to try to clarify some things.”

• Cameron said he was encouraged by the progress made by quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris in spring practice, particularly because they were still so raw.

“I’m really excited about where we’re headed at the quarterback position, and here’s the reason: We’re doing some good things and we still don’t have the fundamentals down yet,” Cameron said. “I’ve always found that to be a good sign: When you’re doing good things but you haven’t mastered the fundamentals – whether it be quarterback-center exchange, taking the proper first step, getting the exact first read – and you’re still being productive, that’s a great sign for LSU football, vs. a guy who’s doing everything right and he’s really well coached and very coachable and not getting a lot done; that’s not good.”

• Wilson, LSU’s recruiting coordinator, said the offensive line will be one priority in the 2015 signing class. The Tigers might start three seniors in center Elliott Porter, left tackle La’el Collins and either Evan Washington or Fehoko Fanaika at right guard, plus a draft-eligible junior in left guard Vadal Alexander.

“We’re top-heavy in this upcoming class at some positions: at the center position with Elliott Porter, with La’el Collins, with Vadal Alexander. That’s the way we want it,” Wilson said. “See that’s the catch. In one sense, we’re saying, ‘What are y’all going to do now?’ And then in the other sense, it’s like, ‘Get them to stay.’ Do we want them to stay or do we want them to leave? We want them to stay, of course, and have the problem that we have, which is a good problem, to be top-heavy so that the influx of incoming freshmen or junior college transfers can come in and contribute to our team.

“So our plan is just to be conscientious of what we’re losing and we have a plan in place to replace those guys that we foresee leaving.”

• Chavis, the Tigers’ defensive coordinator, listed defensive tackle Christian LaCouture and end Danielle Hunter as linemen who should make a bigger impact this season.

[+] EnlargeKendell Beckwith
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsSophomore linebacker Kendell Beckwith was LSU's highest-rated signee in the Class of 2013.
“There’s several guys, with Christian being one of those guys obviously inside [now], that we’ve got two guys to replace,” Chavis said. “I think Danielle Hunter will take his game to a different level even though he played extremely well for us last year. He’s capable of going to a different level. So there’s some good leadership there. You get Jermauria Rasco back out there and get him healthy and we get a chance to see him play healthy for a full season. We’ll be fine.”

• Chavis added that senior middle linebacker D.J. Welter – who won the Tigers’ Jimmy Taylor Award, which goes to the player who showed the best leadership, effort and performance in spring practice – was truly outstanding in the spring, in part because of the presence of talented sophomore Kendell Beckwith.

“D.J. by far had the best spring practice that you can easily say that I’ve been around,” Chavis said. “He was incredible this spring, and I think rightfully so because he’s got a big guy behind him that’s pushing him that’s going to be a great football player and that’s going to play. Kendell Beckwith’s going to play a lot of football this year and for a while here at LSU. Competition makes you better and I think he took heed to the competition.”

• Cameron, who returned to the college game last year after more than a decade in the NFL, said he has thoroughly enjoyed the recruiting aspect of his job.

“There’s no better joy I get than recruiting for LSU, I can tell you. You walk into a school and everybody takes notice. You walk into a school and every kid’s eyes light up. And every airport you walk through, I walked through the Dallas airport and it’s ‘Geaux Tigers’ at every gate I go by. Houston, ‘Geaux Tigers.’ I was in New Jersey recently, ‘Geaux Tigers.’ It’s a joy to recruit for LSU.”
BATON ROUGE, La. – As we detailed Tuesday, LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s NFL background played a role in the emergence of several Tigers as top draft prospects. Cameron knows how to coach talented players to perform at the pro level, and he knows what it looks like when said players possess legitimate NFL potential.

Cameron predicted recently that many of LSU’s offensive draft prospects possess the potential to hang around the league for a long time after being selected in this week’s NFL draft. Here are some thoughts about those ex-Tigers straight from the horse’s mouth – the horse in this case being a coach who spent more than a decade in the NFL as an offensive coordinator and head coach before joining Les Miles’ LSU staff last year.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanCam Cameron has effusive praise for the passing ability of Zach Mettenberger.
QB Zach Mettenberger
Perhaps the greatest testimony to Cameron’s impact on the LSU offense was Mettenberger’s improvement in his final fall as the Tigers’ starting quarterback. He had long possessed the raw tools to become a success – most notably prototypical size (he’s 6-foot-5) and a strong throwing arm – but he didn't put it all together until working with Cameron.

Cameron coached NFL quarterbacks Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Joe Flacco, and he indicated that Mettenberger has the skills to become a pro starter himself.

“You’re looking for innate accuracy, a guy who can just throw the ball accurately and make it look easy. A guy who’s not mechanical, a guy who just is a natural thrower and the ball goes where it’s supposed to go,” Cameron said. “Once you’ve been around great quarterbacks, you know what it feels like and you know kind of what it looks like, but it has a certain feel to it. What you [saw at LSU’s pro day was] a guy throw a football like the great quarterbacks in the National Football League.”

RB Jeremy Hill
Hill is another Tiger who, like Mettenberger, dealt with off-the-field issues before working with Cameron. But Cameron vouched for Hill’s character, saying, “I think we all, every one of us, make mistakes. May make a mistake or two. I have no issues with Jeremy Hill. He’s been a great kid since I’ve been here. In my dealings with him, he’s where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be there.”

As far as on-the-field possibilities, there isn’t much to question when it comes to Hill. He rushed for 1,401 yards and 16 touchdowns last season and set an SEC record for a back with at least 200 rushing attempts by averaging 6.9 yards per carry.

Hill’s versatility and intelligence inflate his value even further.

“Really look at backs in the league. Go count how many can play on first down, second down and third down, third-down-and-short and inside the 3-yard line. You’re not going to find many,” Cameron said.

“He’s an every-down back and he’s an ascending player and he’s off-the-charts smart. He is LaDainian Tomlinson-smart and LaDainian is a lot like Darren Sproles, Ray Rice – it’s a who’s who of guys that were great players in our system and the one thing that they all had that most people didn’t know is how smart they were, football smart they were. He’s just a young smart, but I think he’ll be a brilliant player in the National Football League.”

WR Odell Beckham
Beckham will probably be the first Tiger selected in the draft – ESPN’s Todd McShay has him going 13th overall to St. Louis in his newest mock draft – thanks to his explosive skills as a receiver and return man.

That ability existed before Cameron’s arrival, but Beckham made big strides at receiver in 2013, improving from 713 receiving yards in 2012 to 1,152 last season. Cameron credited LSU receivers coach Adam Henry, another former NFL assistant, for teaching Beckham and Jarvis Landry how to attack the ball as pass catchers.

“Adam Henry does a tremendous job teaching our guys how to run into the football,” Cameron said. “Of course, guys who have great hands aren’t cushioning the ball into their body. They just come attack the ball. And those two are the best college receivers I’ve been around at attacking the football, which you have to do in the NFL.”

WR Jarvis Landry
Landry received plenty of love from draft analysts for his strong all-around game – as a blocker, reliable receiver and route-runner – that should translate well to the pros.

After a disappointing result running the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, Landry helped his cause a bit by running a 4.58-second 40 at LSU's pro day. But straight-line speed is not the only kind of quickness required to play in the NFL, particularly at receiver.

“If you can’t win in the first 5 yards, if you don’t have short-area quickness, you’re not going to last in that league because corners aren’t going to play off of you,” Cameron said. “And the one thing he’s got … He’s got NFL explosion, NFL quickness. You’ve got to win those first 5 yards because now they’re going to get their hands off of you.”

OL Trai Turner
Turner surprised some when he announced that he would turn pro after an All-SEC redshirt sophomore season. But the Tigers’ former right guard has generated positive buzz since the season ended and could come off the board in the draft’s early rounds, a possible outcome again strengthened by versatility.

“He has guard-center value,” Cameron said. “Most people don’t know that about him: If he has to play center, he could play center, because you have to. You only dress seven linemen in the National Football League on Sundays, so you’ve got to have a guy who can play guard and center. At least one, if not all your guards have to play center. So I think his versatility’s critical.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- It’s no mystery why NFL scouts like the offensive skill players that LSU is sending into the draft this year.

Watch Zach Mettenberger launch a pass downfield or Jarvis Landry haul in another clutch reception or Odell Beckham Jr. run circles around would-be tacklers or Jeremy Hill rumble for a long touchdown and the ex-Tigers’ physical tools are apparent. But they also credit a common source for expediting their development in their final college season: offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

[+] EnlargeCam Cameron
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesCam Cameron brought more than a decade of NFL experience to LSU's offense.
“He just knows what teams are looking for and that’s an advantage that all of us offensive guys have going into the draft,” Mettenberger said last month at LSU’s pro day. “So many guys have worked in great college systems or worked with gurus for different positions and stuff, but we have a very successful NFL offensive coordinator that’s been with us for the last year and three months, so that’s definitely an advantage that we have going into the draft.”

As the Tigers’ former quarterback mentioned, Cameron isn’t your run-of-the-mill college assistant. He returned to the college game a year ago after more than a decade as an offensive coordinator and head coach in the NFL. He was able to instill a professional mentality into his star players that helped them make enormous progress in 2013, to the point that all of them rank among ESPN Scouts Inc.’s top 125 prospects Insider in this week’s draft.

His influence, plus that of receivers coach Adam Henry -- who came to LSU in 2012 following a five-year stint with the Oakland Raiders -- played a huge part in Landry and Beckham developing into perhaps the nation’s top receiver tandem last season.

“I can’t say enough about the attitude that he brought to the script that we had, to coaching me this final year,” said Landry, who led the Tigers with 77 catches for 1,193 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. “And not only that, but being able to let Coach Henry do his job, also -- being able to let Coach Henry coach us the way that an NFL receiver is supposed to be coached.

“I think that his mentorship and the things that he did for us off the field allowed us to be a stronger band of brothers. I think that his contribution to LSU not only this year, but for years to come, is going to be great.”

At pro day, the coaches provided clear evidence that their relationship with the ex-Tigers didn’t end when the underclassmen announced in early January that they would enter the draft. With hundreds of his former NFL colleagues observing, Cameron was the ringleader when the quarterbacks, running backs and receivers worked out in position drills, just like it was any other LSU practice where he would instruct the offense.

It made perfect sense to all involved, seeing as how he knows better than most what those in attendance wanted to see.

“I told our guys, ‘They’re going to have an opinion of you coming in here. We’re not going to reinvent the wheel. We’re just going to go out there and show them how we practice. This is not some drill that we’ve conjured up for pro day. We’re going to go out there and you’re going to see us do exactly what we do every day in practice, ” Cameron said. “When I was a pro coach, I wanted to get a feel for if a guy has great practice habits and he’s got talent, he’s going to be successful in our system. But if a guy’s lazy or he skips out of this drill or you just get that feel -- he’s not a worker or whatever those things would be -- I’m going to have concerns because if a guy’s not going to work, if a guy doesn’t know how to practice, then he’s not going to be a great pro.

“Our guys know how to work, they know how to practice. I think all our guys offensively will have extensive NFL careers.”

If they do, their final developmental season at LSU will have been instrumental in that success.

Mettenberger was arguably the country’s most improved quarterback as a senior, ranking sixth among FBS quarterbacks with an 85.1 Total QBR last season after he was 80th with a 47.1 Total QBR as a junior.

Likely first-round pick Beckham (59 catches, 1,152 yards, eight touchdowns, plus 178.1 all-purpose yards per game) and Landry both became focal points in LSU’s revived passing game, and both players were able to flash skills that jumped out at scouts.

Despite serving a suspension that kept him off the field at the start of the season, Hill still rushed for 1,401 yards and set a new SEC record for a back with at least 200 carries by averaging 6.9 yards per rushing attempt.

Perhaps they might have made such progress last season even if Cameron hadn’t joined Les Miles’ coaching staff. LSU didn’t have any problems sending players to the pros before he arrived, after all. But the players acknowledge that he made an impression, helping them advance to their current positions as probable early-round draft picks.

“He just made us think like pros,” Mettenberger said. “For Jarvis and Odell being three years removed from high school playing their final season and thinking like Steve Smith, who’s been in the NFL for 13 years, they approach the game that way. The same for me. I had one online class. I was basically an NFL quarterback as a senior in college and every day was just dedicated to getting better and game planning and trying to fix some of the problems that we had in the previous week.

“I think that’s something that not only myself, but everybody has an advantage on the other guys in this draft is we know how to approach this game like a pro. We thought like pros and really all that credit goes to Coach Cam.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU has a chance to break its year-old program record of nine players selected in the NFL draft this week. If the Tigers fail to set a new milestone, thank La’el Collins.

No really, Tiger fans, thank him. Collins’ decision to return for his senior season might wind up benefiting both player and program.

[+] EnlargeLael Collins
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesLa'el Collins came back to LSU to improve as a player and earn his degree.
Had the All-SEC offensive tackle opted to enter the draft, he would have been a lock to become an NFL pick, raising the number of sure-fire LSU draft picks to 10. Instead, he chose to remain in order to elevate his draft stock, obtain his degree and help the Tigers compete for an SEC championship.

“Just being able to put that [decision] behind me any way it kind of went, just being able to start back focusing on whatever it was I needed to focus on -- and that was staying in school and coming back and getting better -- it feels great because I’m able to come here every day and just work hard and know that in a few months that my time is going to come,” Collins said toward the end of spring practice. “I’m just going to focus on helping my team win football games here.”

It’s obviously early, but Collins’ time will almost certainly come this time next year. He ranks among the top offensive tackle prospects for 2015, and another season playing left tackle -- he shifted there from guard last season -- will provide an opportunity to sharpen his skills and rise in the rankings.

He’ll also serve as the centerpiece of a veteran offensive line that should become the strongest point in a reloading offense.

“I feel like we’re better off because everybody is back, not just La’el,” said center Elliott Porter, one of three probable starting linemen who will be seniors. “We’re one as an offensive line. It’s not just one person, because you can’t do it with one person. La’el ain’t out there blocking everybody by himself, so La’el’s a great player, but like I said Vadal [Alexander] is back, I’m back, [Jerald] Hawkins is back. The only one we’re missing is Trai [Turner, who entered the draft], but he had to do what he had to do.

“But we have some guys coming in that can play, too, so I feel like it’s never one guy, it’s all of us. We’re coming in as one and we’re blocking people as one.”

OK, but ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. observed last season that Collins “has as much upside as any left tackle in the country,” and he’s the guy who will protect the LSU quarterback’s blind side. There is a premium on such players at any level of football, and if he continues to develop at tackle, Collins might have premium draft value in 2015, as Tigers coach Les Miles noted when he said: “I don't think there's any question that he has the potential to be a very early draft pick at left tackle.”

Now it’s up to Collins.

“Coming back is part of the equation, but the second part of that is coming back with the right approach so you don't second guess yourself every day,” said LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, formerly a veteran NFL coach. “You just move forward and try to be great and help this team win. His approach is the approach you want a young man to take.”

If his springtime comments were any indication, that certainly appears to be the case.

LSU’s roster has been shredded by the NFL draft over the last two years, with a total of 18 underclassmen deciding to turn pro. Collins is one of the few recent Tigers who opted to wait when a possible NFL paycheck beckoned.

Collins said it was a long-term decision, not just because he should complete his degree before leaving LSU, but because an additional season should help him become a better player -- potentially raising his draft stock and earning a more lucrative rookie contract next year.

He said the decision sends a message that might benefit other LSU underclassmen.

“I think it’s telling a lot of guys that maybe you might not get it in three years, maybe you might need that fourth year to really set yourself apart from a lot of guys and let people [see] what kind of player that you really want to be,” Collins said. “Be good to this program, at least, because they’ve been good to you.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Michigan. USC. Stanford. LSU?

[+] EnlargeGeorge Whitfield Jr.
AP Photo/Nick LuceroGeorge Whitfield Jr. has become known as a tutor to such quarterbacks as Johnny Manziel.
Three of those football powers are known for their abilities to attract the nation’s top quarterback prospects. The fourth could join their ranks, said quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr., largely because of his mentor, Cam Cameron.

“When your guy that you spend all day with -- meetings, practice, this and that -- has built and grown Drew Brees, [Philip] Rivers, [Joe] Flacco, who two of the three have won Super Bowls and the other one I think is one of the top six, seven, eight quarterbacks in the league, and now you get a chance to partake in this? That’s what I’m telling you. This is one of the top destination spots now,” Whitfield said during a visit to LSU.

“If I’m a big-time high school quarterback with aspirations to play in the NFL and I want to win in college, this is one of those places on one hand now that you’re going to find. And they will be for some time. The recruiting’s going to shift now.”

Whitfield’s respect for Cameron -- now entering his second season as LSU’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach after a decade in the NFL as a coordinator and head coach -- traces back more than 20 years. He first worked with Cameron as a pupil, picked his brain as a graduate assistant at Iowa and later interned under Cameron with the San Diego Chargers, where he learned about the importance of attention to detail.

“I would watch how pre-practice he would film quarterback-center exchange for 45 minutes,” recalled Whitfield, who interned with the Chargers in 2007, Rivers’ rookie season. “I admit there were times I was like, ‘Come on, there’s nothing to see here folks,’ but … he put a guy on the ground with a camera shooting up through the center, from the center’s head, and he put a guy on the ground shooting through Philip’s legs so they could see the snap.

“That’s how meticulous he was. And that’s when I thought to myself, ‘Oh I get it. I get it. It ain’t about rah-rah and a good little soundbite. There’s some diligence here.’ That’s why they never lost a snap, the Chargers, in I think like four or five years.”

Today, Whitfield has implemented Cameron’s lessons in his own professional life. He is a noted quarterback guru who runs a youth training academy in San Diego and annually works with some of the NFL draft's top quarterback prospects.

Among Whitfield's pre-draft clients were top overall selections Cam Newton and Andrew Luck, plus Johnny Manziel, one of this year’s top quarterbacks.

[+] EnlargeCam Cameron
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesCam Cameron has a long history of working with quarterbacks, a skill he's brought to LSU.
“He’s passionate about quarterback play, cares about people and he’s become a pro,” Cameron said. “He’s not just some guy trying to make a buck teaching quarterback play, he’s a pro. Pros are passionate about what they do and experts at what they do, and I look at George that way.”

In a strange twist, Cameron was actually serving as a guest lecturer at Whitfield’s quarterback academy when an old coaching acquaintance, LSU coach Les Miles, called to gauge his interest in returning to college.

“I was out there and he called and obviously I was looking for a job at the time,” Cameron said. “That’s kind of where that thing kind of got going.”

Whitfield remembers well how intrigued his mentor seemed with the opportunity.

“He was so excited. And I was surprised by that,” Whitfield said. “This is a longtime NFL coach, now. He’d been a head coach, he hadn’t been in college since Indiana [in 2001] and the lowest position he’s held since he’s been in the NFL is coordinator.

“I said, ‘You’re about to go to college?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, but this isn’t any college. This is LSU.’ And he goes, ‘It’s really like a young NFL team. We can teach, coach.’ He said, ‘I can get back down here. It’s not about contracts, ‘Can we keep this guy? He’s got a bonus.’ It’s back to teaching.’ And I thought, ‘Holy cow.’ ”

In his first year on the job, Cameron helped Zach Mettenberger emerge as one of the most improved quarterbacks in the country. And now one of his star pupils, freshman Brandon Harris, is one of Whitfield’s protégées.

Not that it should come as much of a surprise. Whitfield’s reputation has grown to the point that he mentors elite quarterback prospects each year -- a point of pride for an old teacher who has enjoyed Whitfield’s rise.

“George and I would sit down at Denny’s and eat breakfast, and the biggest difference is I used to buy George breakfast and now he’s buying me breakfast,” Cameron chuckled. “So yeah, you do [enjoy his success]. I think any parent or any coach who sees a young man grow and flourish in what he’s passionate about, it’s something that you feel good about.”

Whitfield was 13 when he first convinced his parents to let him participate in a high school quarterback camp that Cameron led at Michigan, where he was then coaching receivers and quarterbacks. Their relationship recently came full circle, with Whitfield mentoring Cameron’s son Danny and taking him on a prospect tour to visit college campuses.

“It just meant the world that he’d say, ‘All right, I want you to work with my son,’ ” Whitfield said. “I started working with Danny a couple, three, four years ago and now I’m the same age I was when I was working with his dad. “I thought, ‘Man, I’m working with your son, but you taught me the majority of what I know, or the foundation, and I’m going to pass it on to your son.’ ”

Perhaps this mutual admiration society of coaches will someday span three generations.

If Danny -- a 2015 quarterback prospect -- one day enters the profession and similarly reflects on the influence that Whitfield had on his development, it would only be fitting. So many of those lessons came from a familiar source.

LSU spring wrap

April, 30, 2014
Apr 30
8:00
AM ET
Three things we learned in the spring about the LSU Tigers:

1. QB race is on: If the spring game made anything clear, it’s that the quarterback race between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris was much closer than we might have anticipated prior to spring practice. Jennings followed a subpar performance in his first start -- LSU’s Outback Bowl win over Iowa -- with a disappointing effort in the spring game, where he threw two interceptions that linebackers returned for touchdowns. Meanwhile, Harris didn’t have a perfect performance, but he flashed a ton of potential and playmaking ability. Their competition will remain as the leading storyline of preseason camp.

2. Defense is on the upswing: LSU’s defense started slowly last fall -- a disappointing shift after ranking among the nation’s best over the previous few seasons -- but was back in fine form by the end of the season. It looks like John Chavis’ athletic bunch was heading back toward that style of physical, fast defense that LSU is known for. The starting defense surrendered just 179 yards, one touchdown and 3.9 yards per play in the spring game -- and that was without key players Jermauria Rasco, Ronald Martin and signees Jamal Adams and Clifton Garrett participating.

3. Not working with a full deck: Speaking of non-participants, it was a fairly ho-hum spring in Baton Rouge because of the number of absent players who will almost certainly play key roles in the fall. Only two of the 23 signees -- Harris and cornerback Ed Paris -- participated in spring drills, leaving LSU with barely more than 50 scholarship players taking part in the practices. Without players such as Adams, Garrett, tailback Leonard Fournette, receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn practicing, we simply haven’t seen what the 2014 Tigers will truly look like yet.

Three questions for the fall:

1. Who fills spots at safety? Apparently converted cornerback Jalen Mills has found a home at safety. But if he holds onto one of the starting spots, who gets the nod at the second safety position? Martin seemed like the favorite during the spring, but he was not healthy for the entirety and Rickey Jefferson took over in his absence. Corey Thompson also sat out while recovering from injury. And then you have Adams and fellow signees Devin Voorhies and John Battle, who will join the team this summer. It’s clear LSU’s coaches plan to fully weigh their options in the secondary once preseason camp opens and all of the candidates are on hand.

2. Can young players handle business early? This will probably be the determining factor in whether LSU contends alongside division heavyweights Alabama and Auburn in 2014 or whether this will be a transitional season ahead of potential title-contending teams in 2015 and 2016. It’s a lot to ask of freshmen to step into the SEC and perform competently right away, but LSU will almost certainly do that with several members of its star-studded signing class. There aren’t a ton of holes in LSU’s roster, but it needs the youngsters to fill a couple of them -- namely at receiver, tailback, defensive tackle and quarterback -- by playing with composure right out of the gate.

3. Who supplies the pass rush? One of the disappointing issues on defense last fall was LSU’s lack of a consistent pass rush. The Tigers finished the season with just 27 sacks in 13 games, which might have seemed like an even bigger drop-off since players like Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo had been such dominant pass rushers in the recent past. LSU operated without one of its top edge rushers (Rasco, who led the team with four sacks last season) during the spring, although Danielle Hunter notched a couple of sacks in the spring game. Hunter seems like the odds-on favorite to become LSU’s next great pass rusher, but he’ll need some help from a largely unproven group of linemen.

One way-too-early prediction:

Honestly it’s difficult to tell whether this is actually going out on a limb, but we believe Harris will become the Tigers’ starting quarterback by midseason if not sooner. Coaches Les Miles and Cam Cameron both said the quarterback competition will carry over into preseason practice, but Harris certainly made his case in the spring game. Although everyone insisted that Jennings performed better during other spring practices than he had in the lone scrimmage that was open for public viewing, he simply didn’t spark the offense the way that Harris did that day. Harris certainly struggled at points and made plenty of bad decisions himself, but he was far and away the more explosive playmaker that afternoon. That has to factor into the coaches’ decision-making process.
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.
Editor’s note: Today and tomorrow, we’ll take a look at LSU’s success on third down last season -- the Tigers led the nation by converting 57.1 percent of the time -- and the obstacles Cam Cameron’s offense will face in its attempt to remain similarly efficient this fall.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Cam Cameron used a golf analogy to describe his quarterbacks’ nonchalance when LSU’s offense faced third-down situations during spring practice. Clearly the Tigers' offensive coordinator has yet to see the young quarterbacks execute at a Tiger Woods level, unlike their predecessor Zach Mettenberger.

“The biggest thing that young quarterbacks have to learn is that if you don’t convert on third down, you’re going to go sit down,” Cameron said. “In practice, it’s almost like they’re at the driving range hitting a bucket of balls: ‘Ah, I missed that one. I’ll put another one down.’ Well, playing quarterback is not like hitting a bucket of balls. You go three-and-out, you’re sitting down watching.”

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY Sports Anthony Jennings excelled on third down in his limited playing time last season but struggled mightily on third down in LSU's spring game.
LSU’s veteran-heavy offense was the best in the nation on third down last fall, converting for a first down or touchdown 57.1 percent of the time (92 of 161). LSU was one of nine teams to convert at least half the time and one of just two in the SEC -- trailing the Tigers were Texas A&M (50.3 percent) and Alabama (47.6).

But the Tigers posted those numbers with a fifth-year senior, Mettenberger, under center, with veterans Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. at receiver and NFL-bound Jeremy Hill at tailback. That group of recently departed stars posted eye-popping numbers in general, particularly on third down (more on that tomorrow).

Mettenberger threw 94 passes on third downs, completing 59 of them for a total of 978 yards. Of those passes, 44 resulted in a first down, and nine more went for touchdowns. Mettenberger tossed only one interception and was sacked six times in such situations.

Then-freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings also posted solid third-down statistics in a significantly smaller sample size, although his 49-yard touchdown pass to Travin Dural in the waning moments against Arkansas accounted for nearly half of his yardage total. Jennings was 5-for-11 on third downs for 120 yards, with four of the completions going for a first down and the one to Dural accounting for a game-winning score. He also tossed a third-down interception in his lone start, the Outback Bowl win against Iowa.

One threat that both Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris present that Mettenberger didn’t is their ability to move the chains by running for first downs. On the three third downs that Jennings attempted to run last season, he achieved two first downs and a touchdown. And Harris proved in the spring game that he might be even more dangerous as a scrambler.

“One of those linebackers went over there to the other side with one of those backs and did not stay home,” LSU coach Les Miles said of a 41-yard Harris run in the second quarter of the Tigers’ spring game. “And so that quarterback came out the back side and suddenly 41 yards later, he’s run out of bounds. That’s something you can’t do, either, so when you line up against a quarterback with that kind of ability -- and both of our guys have it -- you’d better keep that linebacker home.”

If the trends from LSU’s spring game carry over into the fall, Jennings would almost certainly be the quarterback who is sitting down and watching in Cameron’s analogy. The rising sophomore struggled mightily on third down, while early enrollee Harris made some of the day’s most exciting plays in those situations.

Jennings was under center for seven third downs, and only one of them resulted in a first down: a 3-yard run by fullback Connor Neighbors. Jennings was 0-for-3 passing on third down and tossed an interception that linebacker Deion Jones returned 67 yards for a touchdown.

On the other hand, Harris overcame a sluggish start -- the offense failed to convert on third down on any of Harris’ first five attempts -- to finish with a flourish. The Harris-led offense converted six of the final eight third downs, including three touchdowns: a 19-yard pass to tight end DeSean Smith, a 21-yard rainbow to Dural on the final play of the opening half, and a 4-yard touchdown run of his own.

In all, LSU’s offense gained 115 yards in 13 plays when Harris was on the field for third down and lost three yards in the seven times that Jennings was under center -- and that doesn’t include the 67 going the wrong direction for a score on Jones’ interception.

Harris had a hot streak in the second quarter where five of six plays on third down went for either a first down or a touchdown. It’s no coincidence, Cameron said, that only once in those instances did he face third-and-10 or longer -- a down-and-distance scenario that his starting quarterback must avoid if LSU’s youthful 2014 offense is to remain effective on third down.

Mettenberger’s veteran savvy and strong throwing arm frequently dug LSU out of third-and-long situations last year, and it didn’t hurt that he had two future NFL wideouts in Landry and Beckham and a future NFL tailback in Hill at his disposal.

This season’s offense will be extremely young at the skill positions, so Cameron emphasized that whoever wins the quarterback job must keep the offense in manageable situations in order to move the chains.

“I thought we converted pretty well on third down [in the spring game] and now they’ve got to understand how you set yourself up for a manageable third down by the decisions you make on first and second down,” Cameron said. “And right now, we’re not where we need to be.

“We’ve got to know on first down and second down, let’s put ourselves in the best third-down position possible. Last year we converted on third-and-22, third-and-15, third-and-18, third-and-10 consistently. You don’t do that every year, and I think they’re starting to figure that out.”
Editor’s note: With LSU’s spring practice now in the rearview mirror, this week we’ll empty our notebook and cover a few topics that we weren’t able to hit prior to the Tigers’ spring game. On Friday we focus on a pair of tight ends who could be used in a hybrid receiver role this fall.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- If LSU’s tight ends do in fact play an increased role as receivers this season, DeSean Smith is sure to play a vital role in the added workload.

He’ll have plenty of company from a deep group of veterans at his position, but a newcomer with a similar skillset, freshman Jacory Washington, might become Smith’s closest competition.

To learn why, take a look at snippets from their ESPN prospect evaluations:

On Smith, whom ESPN rated as the No. 141 overall prospect and No. 5 “H” tight end in the 2013 recruiting class: “Smith is a physically good-looking prospect. He is essentially a big wide receiver at the high school level and is at his best when he can play flexed out. ... What Smith does well, he can do really well, but he needs to keep developing to become a more well-rounded and versatile player at the position. At this stage, he has the tools to make some plays in the passing game and looks best suited for more of a spread attack.”

[+] EnlargeJacory Washington
Courtesy of IntersportESPN 300 tight end Jacory Washington will compete with redshirt freshman DeSean Smith to be LSU's receiving tight end.
On Washington, whom ESPN rated as the No. 169 overall prospect and No. 5 “H” tight end of 2014: “Basically a big wide receiver at the high school level, but will likely transition more into the role of a tight end at the next level. Does need to continue to add size and further fill out his frame. ... Washington needs to keep filling out and improving in areas, but is a big target with good hands and is a tight end prospect who can offer some versatility and be a productive weapon for a passing attack.”

Sounds fairly similar, right?

Smith anticipates that being the case once the freshman arrives with most of his fellow signees this summer.

“Me and Jacory, I think we’re pretty much the same type of tight end,” Smith said. “He did the same kinds of things that I did in high school and when he gets here, he’s probably going to have to pack on a couple more pounds -- which I had to do the same thing -- and stay lean because he still needs to be able to run and keep his speed. I can’t wait until he gets here so I can teach him everything that the veterans taught me.”

Smith actually packed on too much weight before he arrived on campus last summer. Listed at 225 pounds as a prospect, Smith said he weighed 255 when he reached Baton Rouge -- and he said the added weight affected his mobility.

“I was able to move, but not as good as usual,” Smith said. “But working with Coach [Tommy] Moffitt and my strength coach, I’m definitely much more lean than I’ve ever been in my life. I feel great, I’m eating right and just need to stay around 240. That’s where they want me, so I’m staying there.”

While Smith’s story is a cautionary tale on how he can’t overdo it, Washington definitely needs to add to the 215 pounds that LSU listed as his weight on signing day. LSU regularly has one or two tight ends on the field, but they must be able to function as blockers as well as receivers, so some extra bulk would come in handy.

Both players seem to have the receiving part down pat, however.

“I think I can be a big-time threat,” Smith said after catching three passes for 45 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown pass from Brandon Harris, in LSU’s spring game. “Being 6-5 over certain linebackers and going up for everything, I can make those big-time plays. And I just have to run crisp routes, have to give them a little something off the ball sometimes, and I think I’m able to do that.”

LSU’s coaches have certainly identified that potential from the two prospects, as Smith’s working at a slot receiver position at points during the spring seems to indicate. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s scheme has historically utilized tight ends in such a capacity, so perhaps Smith and Washington will continue that tradition.

“We’ve used them in the past and I think that any time that you have a position that is used to block and he can also receive the ball, it makes a tremendous difference in your attack,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “And it’s another quality receiver. I think both DeSean Smith and Jacory Washington will be guys that we’ll use in the fall.”

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