LSU Tigers: Danielle Hunter

Editor’s note: With LSU’s spring practice now in the rearview mirror, this week we’ll empty our notebook from the spring and cover a few topics that we weren’t able to hit prior to the Tigers’ spring game. On Tuesday, we focus on a junior pass rusher with star potential.

BATON ROUGE, La. – Danielle Hunter had a fine first season as a starter, but he had a problem. Mentally, the then-sophomore couldn’t get out of his own way.

“I was thinking too much,” Hunter said. “I know you could watch games and you could see me just, like, I’d stutter myself out of sacks and all that. I was thinking too much last year. I need to just let go and just play.”

[+] EnlargeTyler Murphy, Danielle Hunter
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsDanielle Hunter is a good bet to build on his sack total of three from last season.
There were bright spots along the road. He was the SEC’s Defensive Lineman of the Week after recording seven tackles and batting down two passes in the Tigers’ 17-6 win over Florida. And he recorded a career-high eight tackles against Auburn -- the first of 10 consecutive starts he would make to close the season.

But Hunter finished the season with just three sacks (tied for second on the team), eight tackles for a loss (second) and five quarterback hurries (second). The Tigers’ total of 27 sacks was the program’s fewest since 2009.

That’s why he identified improving as a pass rusher as one of his top goals during spring practice.

“All of us, we’ve got to do better than last year because last year we didn’t do as well as we thought we were going to do,” Hunter said.

If Hunter’s spring was any indication, expect rapid improvement this fall. For one thing, Hunter is no longer out-thinking himself.

“Coach Brick [Haley] has been telling me I’m starting to do that,” he said. “The young guys are starting to do that.”

Hunter recorded sacks on back-to-back plays in a standout effort during the Tigers’ spring game and was credited with two more quarterback hurries.

He made sure to share the credit with defensive tackle Quentin Thomas afterward for occupying blockers, but it was Hunter who blew past the offensive tackle to record the two sacks.

And as his confidence continues to build -- and as he learns to “just let go and play,” as he put it -- the 6-foot-6 junior might emerge as one of the SEC’s better pass rushers in 2014.

“I think he’s a very talented guy,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “I think he has range and speed and I think the more snaps he gets, the more significant he’ll be and the more impact that he’ll give us in the fall. I think he’ll start fast and I think he’ll finish fast.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU held its final spring practice this week, officially sending the Tigers into a crucial offseason.

An obvious point this spring was that Les Miles’ coaching staff was working with an incomplete roster. Seven underclassmen jumped ship to enter the NFL draft and only two of the Tigers’ 23 signees -- quarterback Brandon Harris and defensive back Edward Paris -- enrolled early to participate in spring practice.

That leaves plenty of questions as the team moves into the offseason -- five of which we’ll address now:

5. Do the Tigers have adequate depth in the backfield?

[+] EnlargeKenny Hilliard
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsOutside of Kenny Hilliard, there is not a lot of returning depth in the backfield and the Tigers will need to rely on incoming freshman.
The answer to this question during the spring was a resounding no -- Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard were the only scholarship tailbacks on the roster, and Magee missed a portion of the month after spraining an ankle in a scrimmage -- but that’s irrelevant. You don’t win or lose a game in March or April.

But even when freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams arrive this summer, will that be enough? An injury here or there could cause major problems. For example, look what happened at Georgia last season. When the season opened, it appeared as though the Bulldogs had one of the nation’s top backfields with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall leading the way and freshmen J.J. Green, Brendan Douglas and A.J. Turman serving as backups. But then Gurley suffered a minor injury in the opener against Clemson followed by a serious ankle injury in Game 4 against LSU. The next week, Marshall suffered a season-ending knee injury.

All of a sudden, Georgia was down to a bunch of freshmen -- all of whom were mid-level prospects -- by the first week of October. It’s no mystery why the Bulldogs went 1-2, and very nearly 0-3, in that October stretch before Gurley returned to the lineup. A lack of backfield depth in the SEC can be a season killer when you make a living on the ground like Georgia and LSU typically do.

4. How many players will figure into the Tigers’ plans on the defensive line? And how good can they be this season?

Aside from quarterback play, this might be the most important factor for the 2014 Tigers. Brick Haley’s bunch was a bit erratic last season, and now it must function with youngsters replacing departed juniors Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson in the middle.

The good news is that there is plenty of talent on hand along the interior line. Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas worked as first-teamers, with redshirt freshmen Maquedius Bain, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron chipping in as reserves. There is an extremely high ceiling with that group, but they’re about as green as it gets. It will also bear watching during preseason camp to see whether a signee like Travonte Valentine can crack Haley’s rotation, too.

The end spots are also a bit of a mystery. Jermauria Rasco -- who missed the spring while returning from offseason surgery -- and Danielle Hunter seem locked in as starters, but will they improve upon middling results in 2013? And who fills in the depth chart behind them? Tashawn Bower seems like a safe bet, but who else? We’ll see.

3. Who will start at safety?

Jalen Mills and Ronald Martin seemed to have these jobs locked down during the spring, but Rickey Jefferson and Corey Thompson -- another player who missed spring practice due to injury -- will be in the mix in August.

Keep in mind that nearly every time this position came up in one of his post-practice press gatherings, Miles mentioned how the Tigers’ safety signees -- Jamal Adams, Devin Voorhies and John Battle -- will be part of the preseason competition, too.

2. Will this offense be productive enough to win a championship?

It probably was last season, but for once it was LSU’s defense that was in the middle of a retooling effort. John Chavis’ defense appears to be on the rise now, but Cam Cameron must replace nearly every significant skill player from last season’s offense.

Freshmen like Fournette, Harris and receiver Malachi Dupre don’t just look like serviceable college players, they look like superstars in the making. But it’s a lot to ask of true freshmen to be superstars immediately.

Cameron’s dilemma is that he will almost certainly rely on at least a half-dozen newcomers to make an impact this fall. It’s a tricky proposition, but his getting reliable production out of that group might mean the difference between LSU contending for the SEC West title this fall or having to wait another year or two until they mature and bring the Tigers back to national championship contention.

1. Will Harris overtake Anthony Jennings at quarterback?

We can’t post this list and fail to address the biggest question surrounding the Tigers this spring. After a month of practice, there doesn’t seem to be an answer, although Harris clearly outperformed his sophomore counterpart in the spring game.

LSU’s coaches understandably see no need to declare a starter five months before the season starts. They’ll battle it out this summer in passing sessions and then again in August. Harris looks to be the contender with higher upside, but he must prove he can avoid the decision-making problems that most freshman quarterbacks encounter when the pressure of the season arrives.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU’s spring practice is officially in the books. Now that it’s over, we thought it might be fun to review two sets of our predictions from before the spring and see how close we came.

Prediction No. 1: Freshmen will contend for playing time

[+] EnlargeEdward Paris Jr.
Max Olson/ESPN.comLSU early enrollee Edward Paris is making an impact at defensive back.
Outcome: Although it’s clear that freshmen such as tailback Leonard Fournette, receiver Malachi Dupre and safety Jamal Adams -- none of whom will arrive until this summer -- are likely contributors in 2014, this prediction mostly referred to the redshirt freshmen who will see their first action this fall. It also referred to early enrollees defensive back Edward Paris and quarterback Brandon Harris, who participated in spring practice and stand a good chance of playing this season.

We were hardly going out on a limb here, but it appears as though plenty of redshirt freshmen secured 2014 playing time over the last month. Players worth mentioning from that group include receiver John Diarse and defensive linemen Frank Herron, Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore.

Prediction No. 2: Anthony Jennings keeps the QB job

Outcome: To be determined. Harris clearly outplayed Jennings in last Saturday’s spring game, but LSU’s coaches and players insist the competition is far from over. Jennings etched his name into LSU lore by leading the game-winning touchdown drive against Arkansas last year in relief of an injured Zach Mettenberger, but his mediocre performance in the Outback Bowl and highly average spring game -- he threw two interceptions, both to linebackers who returned them for touchdowns -- leave this race wide open.

Jennings might very well start the opener against Wisconsin, but we can’t claim victory (or accept defeat) on our quarterback prediction at this point.

Prediction No. 3: Right guard isn’t the only offensive line job that’s up for grabs

Outcome: Right guard is the only spot that didn’t return a starter, so it was clearly up for grabs. We were curious as to whether new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes might shake things up along the line, but it doesn’t appear that he did.

Returning starters La'el Collins, Vadal Alexander, Elliott Porter and Jerald Hawkins apparently held onto their starting roles, although it wouldn’t be completely untrue to say that some of their jobs were up for grabs had one of the reserves put together a dominant spring. Nonetheless, the right guard battle -- Evan Washington, Fehoko Fanaika and Ethan Pocic all remain in the running for the job -- was the only one that seemed highly competitive this spring.

Prediction No. 4: Rashard Robinson keeps rising at cornerback

Outcome: Another fairly safe prediction here. As long as Robinson remains on the active roster, it seems highly likely that he will build upon his late charge in 2013 and become a star in the secondary.

Harris and Rob Bolden teamed up to beat him on a pretty throw down the sideline in the spring game, but Robinson otherwise held up well last Saturday. After shutting down Texas A&M superstar Mike Evans last season, Robinson has LSU fans excited about his potential -- and he didn’t seem to hurt his cause on the practice field this spring.

Prediction No. 5: Danielle Hunter improves as a pass rusher

Outcome: Anyone who saw Hunter manhandle the second-string offensive line in the spring game -- including back-to-back sacks on one possession -- would say this prediction seems to be sound.

LSU posted just 27 sacks last season, which was a big drop-off after the last few Tigers teams boasted at least one or two scary pass rushers. Jermauria Rasco led the team with just four sacks, and Hunter tied for second with three.

It would be a major upset -- and a big disappointment -- if Hunter fails to exceed that total this fall.

Now let’s take a look at our predictions for five players to watch during the spring: Paris, Jennings, Fanaika, wide receiver Quantavius Leslie and defensive lineman Mickey Johnson.

There were some hits and misses here. Jennings was an obvious choice since he and Harris were clearly going to battle for the quarterback job. Picking either one made sense, but we went with Jennings since he was the more experienced player. Harris was the contender who generated all of the positive buzz in the spring game, however.

Fanaika, Leslie and Johnson are all veterans at positions with major playing time available, so they seemed like good picks. Fanaika is still a leading contender to start at right guard and Leslie had a productive second scrimmage (four catches, 135 yards and three touchdowns), although he was quiet in the spring game. But Johnson dealt with injuries during the spring and was not a factor in the Tigers’ competition at defensive tackle.

The problem with our Paris prediction was that we projected him as a contender at safety, which is where ESPN listed him as a prospect. The early enrollee practiced at cornerback during the spring, so we can’t feel too good about that prediction. But he was working with the second-team defense by the end of the spring, so at least he flashed some potential.

If we could redo the list, we’d place Harris, Washington, Diarse, Bain and sophomore Kendell Beckwith -- who shifted to middle linebacker this spring -- on there.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU is scheduled to hold its final spring walk-through on Tuesday, which will officially send the Tigers into the offseason.

As Les Miles’ club wraps up its 15 spring workouts, here are five things we took away from the last month on the practice field:

[+] EnlargeJennings
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesAnthony Jennings' ability as a running quarterback will be a weapon LSU can utilize this fall.
1. Those QBs can move: Having seen Anthony Jennings play a bit as a freshman, we already knew he had some wiggle. But freshman Brandon Harris looks to be at least his equal in the running-quarterback department after he had 76 rushing yards and a touchdown in last Saturday’s spring game.

Whichever quarterback wins the starting job, it’s a certainty that his playing style will differ wildly from predecessor Zach Mettenberger, who stood like a stone in the pocket. With either Jennings or Harris under center, defenses will have to respect that he can take off and make big plays with his legs.

“Oh boy, isn’t that fun to see?” Miles asked, referring to a 41-yard run that Harris made in the second quarter. “You go back in there and the defense makes a mistake and let me tell you what happened: One of those linebackers went over there to the other side with one of those backs and did not stay home. 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.”

Jennings still seems to have a tendency to hold on to the ball too long while looking to pass. Iowa sacked him four times in the Outback Bowl, and his defensive teammates got to him four times in the spring game. Harris seemed to have a better idea when to tuck it and run, which doesn’t seem to be a terrible idea for either of them, as they can both be dynamic runners when they leave the pocket.

2. Linebackers will be strong: Saturday was a great day for LSU’s linebackers. Not only did Kwon Alexander and Deion Jones both intercept Jennings' passes and take them to the house for touchdowns, but Ronnie Feist (14 tackles) and Lamar Louis (seven tackles, 0.5 tackle for a loss) were their respective teams’ leading tacklers.

Feist seemed to be everywhere, continuing what Miles said was an impressive spring from a physicality standpoint.

“When he hits you, you’re hit,” Miles said of Feist. “There’s no pretend to it.”

Senior middle linebacker D.J. Welter apparently left a major impression on his coaches this spring as well. Not only was he among the defense’s honorees in awards for leadership and for outstanding performance, but he was the lone winner of the Jimmy Taylor Award, the team’s comprehensive spring award for outstanding leadership, effort and performance.

3. Offensive playmakers still must emerge: It seemed like a foregone conclusion even before spring practice started that some of the team’s top offensive players for 2014 weren’t on campus yet. Spring didn’t do much to change that perception.

Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee -- who dealt with a sprained ankle for much of the spring -- were adequate at tailback, but freshman Leonard Fournette will inject some star power to the position once he arrives on campus. Likewise, Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn and the new receivers will add explosiveness at a position that was riddled with injuries throughout the spring. The receivers were nearly nonexistent in the spring game.

LSU wide receivers totaled seven catches for 200 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday. Sounds pretty good, right? But five of the catches, 130 yards and both touchdowns came from one player: Travin Dural.

Otherwise, the group frequently dropped passes and misplayed catchable balls, proving that they need every bit of the available practice time this summer to develop chemistry with their quarterbacks. Dural looks like a star in the making, but the others have a lot to prove from a consistency standpoint.

4. Tight end talk seems legit: DeSean Smith and the Tigers’ other tight ends expressed hope this spring that they would get more opportunities to catch passes in 2014 than they did last season, when wideouts Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham got most of the looks from Mettenberger.

They said that’s how things had been going in practice, and Saturday looked to continue that trend. Smith led the way with three catches for 45 yards and a touchdown, but Dillon Gordon (2-32), Logan Stokes (1-26), John David Moore (1-20) and Travis Dickson (1-8) also made receptions. In all, the tight ends accounted for eight of the Tigers’ 21 catches in the final spring scrimmage, and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron seems pleased with the weapons he has at his disposal at the position.

“Every year, with different personnel, creates a whole new set of opportunities, and I think the opportunities for our tight ends are going to be critical,” Cameron said. “I was thrilled -- for the most part -- I thought they made the most of it.”

5. Defense is on the comeback: Judging by the way the White team (which featured the starters) throttled the Purple team’s offense on Saturday, it looks like LSU’s first-team defense has the potential to rank among the SEC’s best this fall.

The Purple team accounted for 179 yards of offense on 46 plays -- 53 rushing on 27 carries and 126 passing on 6-for-19 attempts. The Purple converted for a first down just once out of 11 third downs.

After saying earlier in the week that he overthought things in his first season as a starter, defensive end Danielle Hunter seems to have cut loose now. He recorded two sacks on Saturday and was a regular presence in the Purple team’s backfield.

He was only one member of a sizable group of defensive players on both teams who flashed major potential in the scrimmage. Things seem to be looking up for defensive coordinator John Chavis’ bunch.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- A brand new version of LSU's football team will take the field on Saturday for its first spring practice.

In previous weeks, we've broken down several players and position groups to watch this spring. As we lead up to the first team workout, this week we've made five predictions related to the Tigers' upcoming practices.

Today's final prediction: Danielle Hunter becomes a top pass rusher

[+] EnlargeTyler Murphy, Danielle Hunter
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsDanielle Hunter showed flashes of what he's capable of against Florida last season.
Since he arrived on campus, the talk around Hunter always centered around his potential.

He certainly looks the part of an all-conference-caliber defensive end, with a combination of size (LSU's official roster lists him at 6-foot-6 and 241 pounds) and athleticism that would appeal to any defensive coordinator. But to this point, LSU fans still think of what Hunter could eventually become and not what he has already proven that he is.

Perhaps this spring is when he takes a big step forward toward stardom.

To be fair, the rising junior is still a young player. After playing largely on special teams as a freshman, Hunter got his first heavy dose of experience on scrimmage downs last season. Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery had bolted for the NFL, leaving plenty of playing time available for Hunter at end -- and he eventually claimed a starting spot for the final 10 games of the 2013 season.

His line for the entire season? He tied for sixth on the team with 57 tackles, was second with eight tackles for loss and tied for second with three sacks.

Those numbers are OK, but LSU simply must generate a more consistent pass rush if its defense is to return to the dominance level of previous seasons. Ends Hunter and Jermauria Rasco will likely be among the key players in making that happen.

Hunter gave us a taste of what he can be against Florida last season, recording seven tackles and batting down two Tyler Murphy passes in the Tigers' 17-6 victory -- a performance that earned him SEC defensive-lineman-of-the-week honors. He also notched eight tackles against Auburn and six each against Ole Miss and Furman.

Our bet is that he becomes much more of a fixture in opponent backfields this fall -- and that progress will start with a solid spring.

LSU position groups to improve: No. 1

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BATON ROUGE, La. -- With three weeks to go until LSU opens spring practice on March 7, we'll use some of the down time to preview the upcoming series of team workouts.

We've discussed the tight ends, defensive tackles, safeties and linebackers in the first four installments of this week's series on positions that can stand to improve this fall. Today's final position group is the defensive ends, who last fall struggled to replace the 2012 stars who left early to enter the NFL draft.

1. Defensive end

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsJermauria Rasco (No. 59) was the Tigers' most productive defensive end in 2013.
Battling for No. 1: LSU went from having defensive ends who intimidated 2012 opponents in Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo to a 2013 group who struggled to generate the same pass-rushing production after Montgomery and Mingo left early for the NFL. Rising senior Jermauria Rasco (56 tackles, 6.5 tackles for a loss and a team-high four sacks) and junior Danielle Hunter (57 tackles, eight TFLs, three sacks) combined to make 23 of 26 possible starts at end last season, with rising senior Jordan Allen (16 tackles, two TFLs, two sacks) accounting for the other three. That veteran trio seems likely to remain in leading roles, although it would help if some younger players help beef up the Tigers' pass rush. LSU's 27 sacks last season were their fewest since notching just 21 in 2009.

Strength in numbers: The versatile Kendell Beckwith can contribute at end in certain situations, and perhaps he will be able to bolster LSU's edge rush after playing in a limited capacity as a freshman. Lewis Neal played a supporting role last season as a freshman, and perhaps he might earn additional playing time this fall. He appeared in 10 games and recorded seven tackles and 0.5 tackles for a loss. Same for Tashawn Bower, an ESPN 300 prospect last year who made three tackles in six games. Otherwise, Justin Maclin is the only returning end who played last season, although the oft-injured rising senior finished with just two tackles in five games.

New on the scene: ESPN 300 honoree Deondre Clark completed LSU's 23-man signing class this week when he officially joined the Tigers at a signing ceremony at his high school. He and fellow signee Sione Teuhema look capable of bringing some playmaking ability to the end position in time. The Tigers also have M.J. Patterson -- a three-star end signee in 2013 -- and ESPN 300 recruit Frank Herron coming off redshirt seasons. Herron was listed as an end last year, but he also has the frame and skillset to become an interior lineman.

Video: SEC preseason impact players

August, 22, 2013
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Chris Low looks around the SEC at those players who've made big splashes this preseason.

LSU camp: Biggest position battles

August, 14, 2013
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D.J. WelterDerick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsD.J. Welter appears to be leading the battle for the middle linebacker spot.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- As August camp has continued at LSU, position battles have emerged, some expected, some not so much. Here are five worth keeping an eye on as the Aug. 30 season opener against TCU looms.

Middle linebacker
The prime competitors: D.J. Welter, Lamar Louis
Darkhorses: Lamin Barrow, Kendell Beckwith
Outlook: There was a huge assumption out there that Barrow would move to middle linebacker during August camp, creating a spot at outside linebacker for talented young Kwon Alexander while getting the best of the Tigers' linebackers to the most important position. As of this week, that hasn't happened. Instead, Welter, the starter at the end of spring, remains in a battle with sophomore Louis for the spot, with talented freshman Beckwith looming in the background, biding his time. And there's still time for LSU to move Barrow to the middle if defensive coordiantor John Chavis sees fit.
Opening day starter? Our guess is Welter.

Defensive end
The prime competitors: Jordan Allen, Danielle Hunter.
Darhorses: Lewis Neal, Tashawn Bower.
Outlook: Hunter is a huge talent who many feel has the potential to be a double-digit sack guy and could form an imposing pass-rushing duo opposite Jermauria Rasco. But Les Miles often rewards older, hard-working players (see Josh Downs last year starting over Anthony Johnson at defensive tackle), and Allen seems to fit that bill. And make no mistake, he's talented in his own right. Also, look out for Neal and Bower, two bright young true freshmen who have impressed during summer workouts and have continued to do so in camp.
Opening day starter? The guess is Allen, though Hunter will see plenty of snaps.

Running back
The prime competitors: Alfred Blue, Jeremy Hill, Kenny Hilliard
Darkhorse: Terrence Magee
Outlook: With returning starter Hill reinstated following an offseason suspension the question is, will he resume his role, or will he suffer more repercussions for his off-field issues? History tells us players who find trouble at LSU don't necessarily get booted but often find themselves somewhat marginalized. That could be the case here. Blue was the opening day starter last year before suffering a knee injury, and he looks better than he did a year ago.
Opening day starter? We like Blue, and we also think Hill might not see the field in the opener as part of his punishment.

Kicker
The prime competitors: Colby Delahoussaye, James Hairston
Darkhorse: Trent Domingue
Outlook: Delahoussaye handled most of the field goals in the spring game and seems to have the edge to replace the departed Drew Alleman as the primary kicker. But Hairston, the only scholarship kicker on the team, remains in the competition, and with his stronger leg he might be the man for longer field goals. He will retain his role as the kickoff specialist.
Opening Day Starter? Delahoussaye.

No. 2 Quarterback
Prime candidates: Anthony Jennings, Stephen Rivers
Darkhorses: Rob Bolden, Hayden Rettig
Outlook: We know Zach Mettenberger is the starter, but the burning question at LSU camp is who will back him up and thus become the heir apparent to replace him in 2014? Coaches have indicated Jennings, the talented true freshman, has a slight edge over Rivers, the sophomore younger brother of Philip Rivers. But don't discount Bolden, a former starter at Penn State who is coming off injury.
Opening Day No. 2? We still like the more seasoned Rivers to come in if Mettenberger gets banged up agianst TCU, but look for Jennings to make his presence felt as the season progresses.

LSU season preview

August, 11, 2013
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Our SEC preview series shifts today to the Bayou and the LSU Tigers.

Coach: Les Miles (113-42 overall, 85-21 at LSU)

2012 record: 10-3, 6-2 SEC

Key losses: DE Barkevious Mingo, DE Sam Montgomery, DT Bennie Logan, LB Kevin Minter, CB Tharold Simon, S Eric Reid

[+] EnlargeJarvis Landry
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsThe Tigers hope to use more of their passing attack this season, including leaning on Jarvis Landry's skills at wideout.
Key returnees: QB Zach Mettenberger, WR Jarvis Landry, WR Odell Beckham Jr., OT La’el Collins, DT Anthony Johnson, LB Lamin Barrow, S Craig Loston

Newcomers to watch: LB Kendell Beckwith, TE Logan Stokes, WR Travin Dural, WR Quantavius Leslie, DE Lewis Neal

Biggest games in 2013: TCU (in Arlington, Texas), Aug. 31; at Georgia, Sept. 28; Florida, Oct. 12; at Alabama, Nov. 9; Texas A&M, Nov. 23

Biggest question mark: The amount of talent LSU lost on defense last season to the NFL was staggering, but few teams in the SEC have reloaded on that side of the ball the way the Tigers have under fifth-year coordinator John Chavis. That’s the challenge this season, particularly when it comes to finding guys who can rush the passer and make big plays off the edge. LSU should be fine on the interior with the tandem of Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson, but there’s not a proven finisher at end. Junior Jermauria Rasco and sophomore Danielle Hunter are both primed to move into that role and have breakout seasons, while freshmen Lewis Neal and Tashawn Bower will also be worth watching.

Forecast: Amid all the talk about Alabama going for its third straight national championship and the circus surrounding Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, LSU has sort of been the forgotten team in the West race. Deep down, LSU coach Les Miles doesn’t mind being in the shadows entering the 2013 season because it’s been an excellent source of motivation for his team. Try mentioning to any of the players that this could be the year the Tigers fall off a bit. At LSU? The Tigers may have lost several great players, but they also breed great players, and that’s been their mantra on the Bayou.

One of the big questions of the offseason was recently resolved when star running back Jeremy Hill was reinstated to the team following his legal troubles. Miles has said only that Hill would be punished internally and hasn’t specified if he will miss any games. Getting Hill back was big for the Tigers, who were already deep at running back. But the 233-pound Hill has the size, power and speed that should fit perfectly into Cam Cameron’s offense. Having Hill in the backfield will make LSU’s play-action passing game that much more effective, and the plan is for senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger to throw the ball down the field more this season. The Tigers need to throw it better, period, after finishing 11th in the SEC last season in passing offense and tossing just 12 touchdown passes in 13 games.

As Miles has alluded to more than a few times, LSU is the only team in the West this season that has to face both Florida and Georgia from the East. The Tigers also have to play at Alabama, so the schedule may be LSU’s biggest hurdle in terms of making a run at the SEC championship.

LSU camp: Early lessons 

August, 9, 2013
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU is done with a mere three days of August camp and already we've learned some things about this team.

1. The offensive line might shuffle: Right tackle Vadal Alexander was hobbled in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and rumors were, he was being seriously challenged for his starting spot by redshirt freshman Jerald Hawkins.

Little has happened at camp that would suggest otherwise after Alexander missed Tuesday and Wednesday’s practices and Hawkins was running with the starters at right tackle. The Hawkins-as-a-starter scenario is looking more and more plausible.

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LSU camp: Five big questions

August, 2, 2013
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU begins fall camp on Monday morning, the day after players report to campus to begin preparations for the Tigers' Aug. 31 opener against TCU.

Here are the five big questions LSU must answer.

1. Will it be a new offense? LSU has a new offensive coordinator in former Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Does that mean the Tigers will break their recent trend of sub-par offense?

Mettenberger-MIles
Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRELSU coach Les Miles is looking for quarterback Zach Mettenberger to break out in his senior season.
LSU finished 10th in the SEC in offense last season and struggled to move the ball consistently in two of its three losses. That's become a recurring theme with the Tigers since their last national championship in 2007.

Forced to go with freshmen quarterbacks in 2008, the Tigers have seemed to be conservative and reluctant to open up the offense since. Cameron, on the other hand, was fired in Baltimore in no small part because it was perceived that he abandoned the running back too often. Perhaps the new offensive coordinator and the traditionally conservative Les Miles offense can find a happy medium, and quarterback Zach Mettenberger can have a breakthrough senior year.

2. Is it a Hill, or a mountain to climb? Most expect running back Jeremy Hill to face some disciplinary ramifications after a second violation of his probation from punching a man outside of a bar near LSU. The question is, will Hill face a short suspension or something longer? That won't likely be known until mid-August.

If Hill, LSU's leading rusher last season, does not come back to the Tigers, the question becomes, who fills the void? The Tigers only have four scholarship running backs even with the immensely talented Hill.

3. Will the defense struggle down the line? LSU lost all four defensive-line starters from last season, including three who are now toiling in the NFL.

Those around the program are ecstatic about the talent the Tigers have coming up to replace departures of Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery and Bennie Logan. But many of those talented players -- think defensive ends Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter in particular -- are woefully unproven.

Defensive tackle Anthony Johnson, a former top defensive tackle in the nation coming out of high school, is projected by many to be a first-round NFL draft pick after this season despite the fact that he mostly played a backup role last season. Johnson will need to be NFL caliber, and so will a couple of others, if the Tigers are to live up to their lofty expectations on the line.

[+] EnlargeLamin Barrow
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesSenior linebacker Lamin Barrow performed well on the outside last year but could be in the mix to replace Kevin Minter at inside linebacker this season.
4. Who's the man in the middle? When you look at the players who have started at middle linebacker for LSU under defensive coordinator John Chavis -- think Kelvin Sheppard and Kevin Minter with a little Jacob Cutrera sprinkled in -- you see names currently on NFL rosters.

The question is, does LSU have an NFL-quality middle linebacker for this year's defense?

Lamin Barrow was a triple-digit tackler last season as a weakside linebacker playing alongside Minter. Chavis tried to keep him outside in the spring and worked junior D.J. Welter, who missed most of last season for academic reasons, in the starting lineup.

Barrow may be an NFL-bound outside linebacker, but can he play inside? And is Welter better than a career reserve at the position? Which one will start, or will a wildcard -- perhaps true freshman stud Kendell Beckwith -- step in?

5. Will a freshman start? Under Miles, LSU has never been afraid to run a true freshman to the field. Redshirting is rarely ever the goal for new players.

On this team, there will be plenty of opportunities for a young player to emerge. In the secondary, Tre'Davious White is expected to push for starting time at a position where Jalen Mills emerged as a true freshman starter last season following the dismissal of Tyrann Mathieu.

Look for linemen to push for early playing time. Offensive lineman Ethan Pocic impressed during the spring as an early enrollee and may be an injury away from jumping into the lineup. Christian LaCouture had a similar spring on the defensive side. Look for impressive, young defensive linemen Lewis Neal, Tashawn Bower and Greg Gilmore to quickly challenge for playing time.

LSU 10: Imported stars 

June, 24, 2013
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Zach MettenbergerAP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherGeorgia native Zach Mettenberger will look to have a big senior season under new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- No state produces more NFL players per capita than the Bayou State. And LSU gets the lion's share of those players. It's a winning formula.

But it wouldn't be true to say LSU wins with Louisiana talent and Louisiana talent alone. LSU has been a draw for players outside of the state for years and recent success -- two national titles and three BCS title game appearances since 2003 -- has only increased it. This year's team has plenty of key players from outside the state lines.

So while 14 of LSU's starting 22 positions were held by Louisianians at the end of spring, there are plenty of out-of-staters who will make an impact:


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LSU spring game: What we learned

April, 20, 2013
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Five things we learned in LSU's spring game Saturday, a 37-0 win for White (first-team players) over Purple (various reserves):

1. Mettenberger adjusts: Quarterback Zach Mettenberger completed 12 of 19 passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns, all in the first half, after he evidently adjusted his own game plan.

Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron came up with the idea of allowing the quarterbacks to call their own plays in the spring game, so Mettenberger had some adjustments to make to his own calls.

"It was tough out there," the quarterback said. "Coach Cameron allowed us to call our own plays and it was the first time I've ever done that. It was kind of a slow start to get going, but we turned it around and had a pretty good day."

LSU coach Les Miles said the idea was to allow coaches to get a better feel for each quarterback's preference in certain situations and to allow the quarterbacks to gain a respect, and some insight, in the play-calling process.

"It allows you to see how the quarterback thinks," Miles said. "It allows you to see how he views the game plan, what he would call. I think it was a tremendous exercise."

It didn't get off to a rip-roaring start. Playing against a depleted second-team defense, the White offense managed a single field goal in its first three possessions before threw touchdown passes of 15 and 79 yards from Mettenberger to tight end Dillon Gordon and receiver Odell Beckham on consecutive possessions.

"We turned it around and had a pretty good day," Mettenberger said.

That goes especially for Beckham, who had two touchdown and 202 receiving yards on six catches, and Jarvis Landry, who added 132 yards on six catches.

2. Left out: LSU was without six injured first team players, as the secondary was depleted by injuries that kept out Jalen Collins, Jalen Mills and Ronald Martin. Offensive linemen Elliott Porter and Vadal Alexander also missed the game, as did defensive end Jermauria Rasco.

(Read full post)

Cam CameronAP Photo/Gail BurtonExpect to see snippets of Cam Cameron's offense at LSU's spring game on Saturday, but nothing that will give anything away.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- For the first time since the disappointing loss to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, LSU will be in action for public consumption Saturday when the Tigers play their annual spring game at Tiger Stadium.

Like many teams in college football, most of the Tigers' preparations are done behind closed doors. For the public, there is no access to practices. For the media, there are a mere 10-15 minutes of open practices most days. For students, there's Thursday's open practice (4 p.m. with student ID).

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Anthony JohnsonCrystal Logiudice/US PresswireLSU junior Anthony Johnson (90) will lead an inexperienced D-line into 2013, but the new faces dotting the lineup show plenty of promise.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- For LSU fans who worry about how the defensive line will look in 2013 after the Tigers lost all four starters, seeing Danielle Hunter walk into a room would ease their minds.


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