LSU Tigers: Evan Washington
Returning starters: LT La'el Collins (12 starts in 2013), LG Vadal Alexander (13 starts), C Elliott Porter (12 starts), RT Jerald Hawkins (13 starts). With all but one starter back from last season’s line, this figures to be an area of strength for the Tigers. Collins is an All-SEC tackle and one of the nation’s better players at his position. He and Alexander should give LSU a dominant pairing to run behind on the left side.
Starters lost: RG Trai Turner (13 starts) prevented the line from returning intact when he decided to enter the draft after his redshirt sophomore season. The decision seemed a bit strange at the time, but the Carolina Panthers validated Turner’s choice when they picked him in the NFL draft's third round.
Key newcomers: Garrett Brumfield (ESPN’s No. 54 overall prospect) is the headliner, ranking as ESPN’s top guard prospect of 2014. He and William Clapp (four stars, No. 22 guard) were initially LSU’s only offensive line signees. But junior college transfer Jevonte Domond became a late addition to the class when he learned he would not have to attend Glendale (Ariz.) Community College if he completed coursework for an associate degree in order to enroll at LSU in time for preseason camp. He can play either guard or tackle, but LSU lists him as a tackle.
Players to watch: Fehoko Fanaika (No starts) and Evan Washington (one start). With only one starting job seemingly open, naturally the players to watch are the contenders at right guard. Seniors Fanaika and Washington battled for the job in the spring and the fight will continue in August. They are listed as co-starters on the Tigers’ preseason depth chart. Keep an eye, also, on sophomore Ethan Pocic (one start). He’s listed as Porter’s backup at center, but it’s apparent LSU’s coaches like his chances to eventually become a starter.
Overall: The goal under first-year offensive line coach Jeff Grimes is to go from good to great. The pieces are there for that to happen. Collins could become one of the best offensive linemen LSU has had under Les Miles, and the Tigers have no shortage of depth or experience. In fact, since all of the projected starters will be eligible for the draft after this season, it's entirely possible that should players like junior Alexander (who started 22 games in his first two seasons) and redshirt sophomore Hawkins excel, the Tigers might have to replace all five starters next season. That will make it important for Grimes to develop the aforementioned newcomers and other youngsters such as K.J. Malone, Andy Dodd and Josh Boutte in order to soften the possible blow in 2015.
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.
• 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.
• 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.”
The position battles that started in the spring will continue through summer workouts before resuming in front of coaches in August. Let’s take a look at what happened in a few of those spring battles and what we’ll be watching between now and Aug. 30, when the Tigers open the season against Wisconsin.
Defensive tackle: The spring was as much a feeling-out process as anything for defensive line coach Brick Haley. He mostly rode two departed veterans last fall while using youngsters Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas in spot duty. LaCouture and Thomas jumped into leading roles during the spring, and Haley also tested Maquedius Bain, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron (at times) in the middle. Haley has probably established a mental pecking order with the group, but August and the early-season games will certainly play important roles in cementing the coach’s opinions. It will also be worth watching how signees such as Travonte Valentine perform once they arrive on campus, as they might allow Haley to utilize a true rotation in the middle.
Quarterback: Surely you’ve heard by now that the battle between Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris appears to be wide open entering the summer months. Jennings has a slight experience advantage, but Harris was the more effective performer in the spring game. Both players made plenty of mistakes, however. Their offseason preparation in the next few months will be enormously important once August arrives.
Right guard: This is another battle that the coaches said was wide open once the spring concluded. Evan Washington shifted from tackle to guard and seemed to take the leading role in the competition. Fellow senior Fehoko Fanaika and sophomore Ethan Pocic are lurking, however. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see all of them play some scrimmage downs against Wisconsin -- or in Weeks 2 and 3 against Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Monroe -- as new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes weighs his options. Coach Les Miles complimented all three players after the spring game, so it seems that the coaches would be comfortable playing any of the candidates.
Safety: Injuries caused this position to remain as a bit of a mystery during the spring. Jalen Mills remained in a starting role, and Ronald Martin seemed to be faring well in a return from a fractured right foot. He was injured again by the end of the spring, however, joining Corey Thompson (knee surgery) on the sideline by the time the spring game rolled around. Mills and Rickey Jefferson were the top options in the spring game, but the Tigers could use any number of combinations when the season arrives -- especially once highly-rated safety prospect Jamal Adams and the other signees make it to Baton Rouge this summer. Once the Tigers are back to full strength in August, this should make for one of the most intriguing position battles.
Tight end: This will be a fun position to track in the fall. They had plenty of playing time last season, but barely made a blip as receivers. They seem to be confident that they will make a more well-rounded contribution in 2014. Sophomore DeSean Smith and signee Jacory Washington possess intriguing receiver skills, and Dillon Gordon, Travis Dickson and Logan Stokes worked this spring to prove that they are well-rounded players at the position. It’s a big group, but all of them should have roles to fill during the season.
Wide receiver: They were the walking wounded for much of the spring, with Avery Peterson, Kevin Spears, John Diarse and Quantavius Leslie all spending time in non-contact jerseys. That was a tough blow for a group that has a lot to prove after Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Kadron Boone and James Wright all left the roster after last season. Travin Dural -- who had an outstanding spring game with five catches for 130 yards and two touchdowns -- seemed to solidify his spot as the No. 1 receiving option for now. But this will become one of the Tigers’ most interesting position battles in August once a star-studded signing class, led by Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, arrives to challenge the returning wideouts.
Prediction No. 1: Freshmen will contend for playing time
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.
“Not really to be honest with you. We’re going to watch competition [and] it’s a key scrimmage, but it’s also one of those things where there’s a lot of time left before we get to [deciding] playing time,” Miles said after Thursday’s practice. “It’s one piece, but obviously it’s important and any time we walk into that stadium, we expect our guys to play at a certain level.”
So while Miles indicated it would be a mistake to draw any major conclusions from Saturday’s competition, there are still plenty of areas of intrigue worth observing since this is the last time we’ll see the Tigers do anything competitive until they take the field at Houston’s Reliant Stadium on Aug. 30. Here's what we’ll be keeping an eye on from the press box:
Quarterback play: Duh. It was no surprise at Thursday’s practice, which was open for students to attend, that the vast majority of them gathered around the field where LSU’s quarterbacks were throwing to their wide receivers. The competition between sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris is by far the biggest source of intrigue among Tigers fans, and their performances on Saturday will generate speculation all summer about who is best prepared to lead the offense in the opener against Wisconsin.
Both players have worked with the first- and second-team offenses, although Miles hasn’t been specific about who has done what in practices or scrimmages. Jennings certainly looks to have a better handle on things in the portions of practice that are open to the media. Harris, meanwhile, is all raw potential thanks to a powerful throwing arm. The early enrollee seems more likely to sail a ball over or behind a receiver, but when he does it correctly, it’s a thing of beauty.
Defenders could tackle Harris and Jennings when they ran from the pocket in last Saturday’s scrimmage, but Miles predicted they will likely wear non-contact jerseys in the spring game.
Offensive line development: Obviously one of LSU’s main position battles this spring has been at right guard, where Evan Washington, Fehoko Fanaika and Ethan Pocic have all gotten a look from new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see all three players factor into the Tigers’ plans in the fall, although somebody has to be the starter. Washington seems to be the leader, but we’ll gain some understanding of the pecking order on Saturday.
Overall, a line that returns four starters was effective last season, particularly as run blockers. They want to become a dominant group this season, however, and their experience and apparent depth make that seem like a possibility. Let’s see how they fare against an emerging LSU defensive line on Saturday.
Beckwith vs. Welter: We could expand this to the performance of the entire reshuffled linebacker corps, with Kwon Alexander at weakside linebacker and Lamar Louis at strong. But let’s narrow our focus on the play of senior D.J. Welter and sophomore Kendell Beckwith in the middle. Both players have reportedly enjoyed productive springs and both will likely factor into coordinator John Chavis’ plans in the fall. But who will be the starter? Saturday won’t decide that outcome, but it will be interesting to observe how the two players function in a game-like situation.
Interior defensive line: Miles has said a time or two this spring that the competition between the offensive and defensive lines has been encouraging. It will be fun to watch them duke it out on Saturday. One group has a decided experience advantage, particularly after starting defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson both bolted for the NFL draft. But there are some up-and-comers along the defensive line who could shine on Saturday.
By all accounts, sophomore Christian LaCouture has had a strong spring. Sophomore end Tashawn Bower, redshirt freshman tackles Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore and end/tackle Frank Herron are among the youngsters we’ll be watching, as well.
Secondary play: This is a group that simply has to play better in 2014. All of the contenders at safety haven’t been practicing lately, so it’s unclear whether we’ll get a clear idea of where that competition stands on Saturday. But how smooth will Jalen Mills look at safety? What does early enrollee Ed Paris look like after a month of practices at cornerback? Who fills the various defensive back roles if the Tigers line up in their nickel and dime packages? Will Rashard Robinson and Tre’Davious White continue to develop into the lockdown cornerbacks LSU fans hope they will become? Those are all questions to keep in mind as you watch the scrimmage.
Who are the playmakers?: Freshmen who could become some of the Tigers’ most dangerous 2014 offensive skill players -- such as tailback Leonard Fournette and receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn -- won’t arrive until the summer. But there are several players already on campus who could use a confidence-building performance at Tiger Stadium to catapult themselves into the offseason.
Senior receiver Quantavius Leslie had such an outing at last Saturday’s scrimmage, catching four passes for 135 yards and three touchdowns. Who else might pull off that kind of feat? Receivers Travin Dural or John Diarse? Tight end DeSean Smith? Tailbacks Terrence Magee or Kenny Hilliard? Somebody else? Stay tuned.
Hard-nosed and extremely vocal, Studrawa -- whom Les Miles did not retain after the 2013 season, and who has since accepted the same job at Maryland -- could have come straight from Central Casting to play the role of an offensive line coach. Grimes, on the other hand, does his teaching without all the yelling.
That’s not to say that Grimes lacks an edge. It’s there when necessary -- just not as loud.
“He’s upfront. He won’t sugarcoat anything. He’ll just tell you how it is,” said senior Fehoko Fanaika, who is battling for the Tigers’ starting right guard spot.
LSU’s offense relied heavily on a foursome of NFL-caliber skill players in quarterback Zach Mettenberger, tailback Jeremy Hill and receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry -- a group that helped the Tigers become the first SEC team to boast a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers.
However, the Tigers’ offense was fairly average overall, ranking in the middle of the SEC pack in both total offense (seventh, 453.3 ypg) and scoring offense (sixth, 35.8 ppg). The offensive line’s play certainly factored into those middling results, ranking 57th nationally with an average of 1.92 sacks allowed per game.
Miles, however, believes Grimes’ focus on “attention to detail and technique” will help a line that returns four starters become a more effective group this fall.
“I think we’ll be better. I really do,” Miles said. “But it has to do with the duality of veteran offensive linemen getting to a point in their career where they’re making the final adjustments and Jeff coming in with a real nice focus for them there. I think it should be pretty quick.”
Just because Alexander, left tackle La'el Collins, center Elliott Porter and right tackle Jerald Hawkins are all back doesn’t mean Grimes has guaranteed starting roles to the returning starters. The Tigers have at least seven linemen whom the coaches like -- throw Fanaika (guard), Evan Washington (guard or tackle) and Ethan Pocic (center, guard or tackle) into the mix -- and want to evaluate as potential starting combinations.
“Everyone’s been moving around a lot. Coach Grimes has been moving us around. He’s trying to see where he likes people at,” Pocic said.
That type of experimentation is fairly common during the spring even among coaches who didn’t just arrive on campus. But in this case, Grimes is simply getting a feel for his personnel -- and they’re getting a feel for him, which they quickly noticed does not include the in-your-face tactics one might expect from an offensive line coach.
“Coach Grimes is one of the most specific, technical guys you'll meet in your life. Automatically, right off the bat, he got us better,” Alexander said. “Coach Stud was a great coach and I love him. He got us better, as well, but just Coach Grimes has a different way of approaching things. He's more mellow.”
In Grimes’ profession, results are what matter, not coaching methods. He has been successful in that regard, most notably during Auburn’s 2010 BCS championship run, but also in stops at Virginia Tech, Colorado, BYU, Arizona State and Boise State.
Starting with his first practice on campus, Grimes’ reputation as a technician caught his head coach’s attention. Miles said last week that it was paying off, with linemen picking up the finer points of their positions that can lead to an overall more productive performance from his group.
“I think our guys are responding to it,” Miles said. “I think the guys are really in position to do so in other words. It’s pretty much a veteran group and there’s always the final footwork, if you will, or the final course, the head placement. I think Jeff’s coming in at the right time for these guys and making that point.”
Before the Tigers return to the practice field on Tuesday, let’s recap some of the developments thus far this spring.
Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris appear to lead Hayden Rettig in one of the nation’s most-watched spring quarterback battles. With 2013 playing time under his belt -- including a start in the Outback Bowl win over Iowa -- Jennings appears to be the more composed, polished contender on the practice field. But Harris possesses special passing talent. It should continue to be an interesting race throughout the summer and into the season.
The young quarterbacks endured many sloppy moments early in camp, to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Cam Cameron’s displeasure, but Tigers coach Les Miles said both players threw the ball well in Saturday’s scrimmage. Perhaps they are starting to turn a corner toward being ready to face SEC competition.
Receivers are a mess: Between frequent dropped passes and a spate of injuries, it has not been a banner spring for LSU’s receivers. Early in the spring, they seemed to struggle to get on the same page with the quarterbacks. And by the end of last week, they only had a couple of healthy scholarship players available.
Redshirt freshmen Kevin Spears, Avery Peterson and John Diarse have all dealt with injuries, with those setbacks coming at a particularly inopportune time since the youngsters need to establish themselves before a talented group of signees arrives this summer. At last Thursday’s practice periods that were open to the media, the only scholarship wideouts catching passes from the quarterbacks were Travin Dural and Quantavius Leslie.
Miles said last week that he likes what Dural and Diarse have accomplished thus far this spring, and Dural caught a long touchdown pass in Saturday’s scrimmage. But the others still have a lot to prove, which might be why Miles predicted that all four receiver signees will have the opportunity to win playing time in the fall.
Defensive line coming together: Miles seems pleased with the progress that several young defensive linemen have made this spring. In the last week, he has singled out redshirt freshmen Frank Herron, Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore for getting stronger and improving their games since they arrived at LSU last year.
He also complimented sophomores Christian LaCouture and Tashawn Bower after Saturday’s scrimmage. LaCouture and Bain both had sacks in the scrimmage, and Bower had two quarterback pressures.
The defensive line competition won’t generate a fraction of the national interest that the quarterback battle will, but that group’s development might be just as important in gauging LSU’s chances to contend in the SEC West this fall. With Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson both bolting for the NFL, the Tigers desperately needed some players to fill their void -- and Miles makes it sound as if they are developing some good options.
OL battle rages: It’s no surprise that LSU’s coaching staff continues to weigh its options on the offensive line -- particularly at the right guard position.
Seniors Evan Washington and Fehoko Fanaika have worked there, as has sophomore Ethan Pocic. It’s clear that the staff likes what Pocic can do, because he has practiced at guard, center and tackle this spring. Fanaika has been strictly at guard and Washington has worked at both guard and tackle.
With a new offensive line coach, Jeff Grimes, coming on board this spring, it’s obvious that he’s experimenting with different player combinations to see what he likes best. That experimentation will probably continue beyond the spring game.
Linebacker shuffle: As with the offensive line, LSU’s linebackers are also trying some new combinations this spring. Kwon Alexander shifted from strongside linebacker to weakside linebacker, Lamar Louis went from middle linebacker to the strong side and Kendell Beckwith is now backing up D.J. Welter in the middle after playing mostly at defensive end last fall.
LSU’s linebackers were somewhat mediocre for portions of 2013, so defensive coordinator John Chavis shook things up a bit this spring. Miles said Saturday that Beckwith’s move to the middle appears to be a good one and that Welter has improved his play this spring with the talented sophomore now battling him for playing time.
The linebackers themselves seem excited about the speed and athleticism that their group possesses. It will be interesting to see whether the lineup shuffling affects the Tigers’ overall defensive performance.
Fanaika made no such comment, but make no mistake: he has no intention of handing over the job to Washington -- a senior who is shifting from offensive tackle in an effort to win the position -- or Ethan Pocic without a fight.
“We want the best out there,” Fanaika said. “If someone’s beating me out, that’s probably going to be hard to do, but I’d want him on the field more than me. I want the best.”
So does new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes, who has a long way to go before he settles on anything, however. Pocic said Grimes has been moving his linemen around throughout LSU’s early practices in order to identify the combinations he likes.
It’s unclear whether one of those combinations will include Pocic at center. An early enrollee last year, Pocic backed up Elliott Porter at center during the fall. Pocic said Tuesday that he had practiced only at guard and tackle so far this spring, but Coach Les Miles said Pocic spent about half of Thursday’s practice at center.
“When I came in, I went to center and just the whole basic stuff was pretty hard -- like snapping and stepping -- but once you really get the hang of it, you get more into a groove,” said Pocic, who played left tackle in high school. “The good part about playing center is you’ve basically got to know what everyone’s doing, so when it’s time to play a different position, I pretty much already know it because you’ve got a good overall base of what the O-line’s doing.”
If the rotation in the periods of practice that were open to the media are any indication, the seniors are Grimes’ top two options at right guard. For the most part, Washington was the first to work alongside starting right tackle Jerald Hawkins in drills, but he and Fanaika are both getting their chances to impress the new position coach.
“It’s pretty much a great battle right now,” Hawkins said. “They both know what they’re doing -- especially Evan Washington and Hoko [Fanaika]. They know the playbook from last year, so it’s just who really wants it more.”
Fanaika said he now weighs 340 pounds after tipping the scales at approximately 370 when he transferred from College of San Mateo junior college last January. He said he wants to get down to 330 pounds before the season.
In addition to dropping more weight, Fanaika said he also needs to prove to Grimes that he’s mentally and physically tough enough to claim the job.
“I’m not there, but I’m just trying to get better every day -- as well as everyone who’s trying to fight for it,” Fanaika said.
That fight will continue for the next couple of weeks, although Washington predicted there will be a clear leader by the time the spring game arrives on April 5.
“I feel like everyone has a chance right now,” Fanaika said. “[Grimes] came in actually telling us that no one has a guaranteed spot. We’re all going to come out here and work and the best five will start.”
- Many of the NFL's elite attended Alabama's pro day yesterday, including coaches Chip Kelly, Marvin Lewis and Sean Payton. There, they saw former offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio state his case for a clean bill of health and former quarterback AJ McCarron shrug off the notion of pressure, saying "this is easy."
- Jake Holland and his 46 tackles are gone from Auburn's linebacker corps this spring. Here's a breakdown of the rest of the position group.
- Why doesn't college football have an early signing period? The AJC asked a few notable coaches for their opinions, including Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin and Tennessee's Butch Jones.
- The offensive guard position is a point of contention in Baton Rouge these days. Evan Washington is running with the first-team now, but he hasn't been the only one. The race to replace Trai Turner is an open competition.
- Tennessee defensive tackle Danny O'Brien says he's learned from his offseason arrest. In fact, he said he's glad it happened, and it's a lesson he'll take with him forever.
- Maty Mauk is Missouri's No. 1 quarterback, but that's not written in stone. "It's all about competition," said coach Gary Pinkel.
- Andre Dubose, who sustained a season-ending knee injury last season, was granted a sixth year of eligibility at Florida.
Nothing is settled yet, but at least we now have an idea of what the coaches are thinking.
Coach Les Miles addressed some of the Tigers’ biggest position battles and lineup alterations after Saturday’s initial team workout -- starting with the quarterback battle that will likely be the talk of this camp. Here is where things stand at the positions that are in flux as the Tigers enter today’s second practice:
This competition is only beginning, however. Miles said the coaching staff is in no rush to settle on a starter now, preferring to allow the competition to progress over the next few months before making any decisions.
“The idea that you make the decision early is foolish,” Miles said. “I think there’s always going to be that point in time where a young guy gains speed late or an injury makes the decision or the old guy, the more veteran [player], just shows that he’s worthwhile.”
Wide receiver: We learned Saturday that there is one less contender in the quarterback battle since Rob Bolden has shifted to wideout. Bolden actually “made a couple nice catches today” after making what “appears to be a pretty good move,” Miles said.
Bolden’s position change made for an interesting side note, but he isn't the headliner at receiver. Who among the returning players is the headliner? That’s still to be determined.
It apparently starts with Travin Dural and redshirt freshman John Diarse. Candidates such as Quantavius Leslie, Kevin Spears and Avery Peterson need to use this spring to solidify their spots in the rotation before a star-studded freshman class led by Malachi Dupre -- who attended Saturday’s practice -- and Trey Quinn arrives this summer.
“Travin Dural and John Diarse are both guys that really look good. We’re going to have the ability to put those guys on the field and go,” Miles said. “Q. Leslie and Kevin Spears and those guys that are really behind that group need to come on. This is the time for that. This is an opportunity for those guys. But those first two guys, we would look forward to them playing a lot.”
Right guard: Miles emphasized that for new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes, “playing the best player is obviously the key.”
Four offensive line jobs have clear leaders, with returning players who started nearly every game a season ago. But the right guard position is wide open, and Evan Washington is shifting from tackle to try to grab the job.
Fehoko Fanaika and Ethan Pocic -- who can also play center -- are among the other candidates at right guard, Miles said, but “we’re going to have to see how that all goes.”
Linebacker: It looks like the Tigers will do some juggling at these spots. Kendell Beckwith, a utility player last season, worked at middle linebacker on Saturday. Kwon Alexander shifted from strongside linebacker to the weak side. Lamar Louis practiced on the strong side after playing in the middle in 2013.
“We’re really taking the time to multi-train these linebackers so we can put the best three guys on the field,” Miles said. “Kwon has moved from his starting spot to the other side, so we think this spring will allow them to be put in either side.”
The quarterback battle will attract most of the headlines, but this might wind up becoming the Tigers’ most interesting competition this spring. Lots of moving pieces here.
Safety: We know this much: Jalen Mills is a safety and early enrollee Edward Paris Jr. -- who is working at cornerback -- is not. Beyond that, we’ll see where this battle goes.
Mills and Ronald Martin might be the top options here for now, but this is a competition that will begin in earnest when signees Jamal Adams, Devin Voorhies and John Battle IV arrive on campus this summer.
“We’ll have guys back, but I think we’ll be looking at some of these young guys that are coming in,” Miles said. “Ed Paris is lined up at corner right now and getting some corner work and then some of these young guys coming in will get opportunities to fit in there.”
Junior safety Corey Thompson (knee) might participate at some point this spring, but Miles said did not sound particularly optimistic on that front. Incidentally, he shared a similar spring-time prognosis for defensive end Jermauria Rasco (shoulder).
What's new: Former Auburn and Virginia Tech assistant Jeff Grimes joined the staff in January, replacing Greg Studrawa as offensive line coach. An old face will also return to Les Miles' staff, as Bradley Dale Peveto -- a Miles assistant from 2005-08 and participant in a failed experiment as co-defensive coordinator in 2008 -- was recently hired as special teams coordinator. He replaces Thomas McGaughey, who accepted the same position with the New York Jets of the NFL.
On the move: If comments he made last month are any indication, Miles and the coaching staff intend to leave Jalen Mills at safety on at least a part-time basis. He started at the position in the Tigers' Outback Bowl win against Iowa. Don't be surprised if players who have played other positions -- tackle Evan Washington and center Ethan Pocic are reportedly among them -- figure into the competition to replace Turner at right guard. Also, keep an idea on how the Tigers deploy Kendell Beckwith this spring. He has the ability to contribute at defensive end or linebacker, and he might play both positions at points.
New faces: The Tigers have two early enrollees participating in spring practice in quarterback Brandon Harris and defensive back Edward Paris Jr. We'll discuss Harris, who was ESPN's No. 2 dual-threat quarterback and No. 37 overall prospect for the 2014 class, more below. ESPN ranked Paris as its No. 4 safety and No. 50 overall prospect, but LSU listed him as a cornerback when it added the freshmen to the roster.
Key battle: There will be several position battles worth watching -- right guard, defensive tackle and quarterback are among them -- but let's talk about the wide receivers. With Landry and Beckham jumping to the NFL, LSU lost nearly all of its production at wideout. Speedster Travin Dural (seven catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns in 2013) is the only receiver who has done much of anything, and even his production was limited last fall. With arguably the nation's top collection of receiver signees -- led by ESPN's No. 1 wideout Malachi Dupre and No. 3 Trey Quinn -- set to arrive in the summer, now is the time for the players on campus to show they deserve some snaps. Senior Quantavius Leslie (1-11) was disappointingly quiet last season as a junior college transfer. Freshmen John Diarse, Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears all redshirted. Conventional wisdom has Dural and Diarse as the most likely contributors in 2014. Will at least one or two of the others join that group?
Breaking out: Let's see whether cornerbacks Rashard Robinson and Tre'Davious White continue the ascent that started late last season. They started alongside one another in two of LSU's last three games -- wins against Texas A&M and Iowa -- and the secondary made strong showings in both games. Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel had one of the worst outings of his college career (16-for-41 for 224 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions), with Robinson intercepting the former Heisman Trophy winner once. LSU held Iowa to 13-for-30 passing and 157 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions -- one of which came when White picked off a Jake Rudock pass at the LSU 7-yard line in the second quarter. LSU has a longstanding tradition of excellence at cornerback, although the Tigers' entire defense needed to perform more consistently last fall. Perhaps they've found something in sophomores Robinson and White.
Don't forget about: Most of us have already penciled in No. 1 overall prospect Leonard Fournette as the Tigers' starter-in-waiting at tailback. And he very well may be. But he won't arrive on campus until the summer. For now, rising seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard will handle the carries, and both players have proved themselves capable of producing. Magee was Hill's primary backup last season, rushing for 626 yards (and 7.3 yards per carry!) and also flashing good receiving skills (six catches for 49 yards). Hilliard has never been the No. 1 tailback, but he has acquitted himself in a short-yardage role, rushing for at least six touchdowns in all three seasons. Fournette has stardom written all over him, but he won't push the veterans completely out of the way. Count on Magee and Hilliard to keep getting their touches.
All eyes on: Anthony Jennings started LSU's bowl game against Iowa after replacing an injured Zach Mettenberger -- and leading the game-winning comeback -- against Arkansas. He was shaky to say the least (7-for-19 for 82 yards and an interception) in that first career start, however. With Harris, an excellent passer and explosive runner, already on campus, Jennings needs to show he can handle the starting job. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron hand-picked Harris and is no doubt excited about what he can bring to the offense, but he needs to learn the offense first before he can truly threaten Jennings for a starting spot. Throughout the summer, LSU fans will dissect the two quarterbacks' performances in the spring game. Jennings seems like the safe bet to open the season as the Tigers' starter, but whether he holds onto that spot is up to him -- and perhaps up to his new freshman competitor, whose ability to execute the offense will be under heavy scrutiny over the next month.
In previous weeks, we've broken down several players and position groups to watch this spring. This week, leading up to Saturday's first team workout, we'll make five predictions related to the Tigers' upcoming practices.
Today's prediction: Right guard isn't the only offensive line job up for grabs
So that means the Tigers only have one offensive line spot that is open for true competition, right? Maybe, but I'm not sure that will be the case.
Les Miles hired a new offensive line coach, Jeff Grimes, during the offseason and the message he will undoubtedly send this spring is that everyone has a clean slate. He made that very point two weeks ago in a local radio interview, noting that he watched only enough film of the group to get a general idea of what the individual players can do. He wants to see them earn their jobs, starting now.
Now you can comfortably assume Collins will remain as the starting left tackle. He's widely considered one of the nation's better senior offensive tackles and could conceivably become a first-round NFL pick in 2015. Hulking junior Alexander (LSU lists him at 6-foot-6 and 342 pounds) has a similar pedigree among 2016 guard prospects.
So where will the most competition occur? Right guard is obvious since the Tigers must replace Trai Turner, who seems to have impressed NFL scouts since deciding to leave after his redshirt sophomore season.
Massive senior Fehoko Fanaika (6-6, 348) might be the answer there, but there are other candidates. One of them might be Ethan Pocic, who could also push Porter -- whom he backed up at center last season as a true freshman -- for playing time. Another might be Evan Washington, who is officially listed as a tackle.
As a sophomore Hawkins naturally had his ups and downs in his first season as a starter, so Grimes will certainly look for more consistency out of him this season before handing him the starting spot once again. But the Tigers shifted Alexander from right tackle to left guard last season to make way for Hawkins, so clearly they liked the athletic Hawkins' potential.
The safe money is on experienced players holding onto their starting spots. And it wouldn't be much of a surprise if Collins, Alexander, Porter and Hawkins man four of the five line spots when the Tigers open the season against Wisconsin.
Grimes has been around the block a time or two, though. This is his eighth different coaching stop since grabbing his first college job coaching the offensive line at Hardin-Simmons in 1998. He knows that the best way for a new coach to motivate players is to give everyone a fair shot and then let them earn their jobs.
That's what he'll do with his new players and, even if the starters remain the same, it's safe to predict that a fresh competition might help the line improve this fall.
We covered the wide receivers, defensive tackles, quarterbacks and safeties in the first four installments. We conclude this week's series with the offensive line, which will break in a new position coach, Jeff Grimes, and at least one new starter this fall.
Departures: Right guard Trai Turner (13 starts) entered the NFL draft after a redshirt sophomore season where he became a second-team all-SEC pick. ESPN Scouts Inc. ranks him as the No. 5 guard and No. 113 overall prospect in the upcoming draft.
Returning reserves: Although Grimes could always elect to shake up the lineup, the most intriguing position at this point is the one that lost a starter: right guard. We recently wrote about how this will be a big spring for Fehoko Fanaika to prove that he deserves to inherit Turner's starting spot. Fanaika was an early enrollee after transferring from the College of San Mateo junior college last January and played in 12 games as a backup. The 6-foot-6, 348-pound mauler must now prove he deserves a starting spot. Other reserves of note are Ethan Pocic, Porter's backup at center who could play other positions if necessary, and rising sophomore tackle Josh Boutte. Tackle Evan Washington and guard Jonah Austin also played last season, with Washington earning a start against Furman.
Newcomers: Guards K.J. Malone and Andy Dodd both redshirted last season after arriving at LSU as four-star prospects. The Tigers signed just two offensive linemen in this class, both of whom will arrive in the summer. One of them, Garrett Brumfield, was ESPN's No. 1 guard prospect for 2014, so he might make the guard competition interesting in August if Fanaika doesn't nail down the job this spring. The other signee is four-star guard William Clapp.
What to watch: Beyond the candidates for the right guard spot, it's worth watching how Grimes decides to use his returning players. He said in a local radio interview last week that LSU's line was good, but rarely great in 2013, adding that he hadn't evaluated individual players too closely yet, so that he could give them all a fair shake when they start practicing together. The four returning starters have a decided experience advantage, but Grimes hasn't developed any preferences yet. This will be a valuable evaluation time for the Tigers' new assistant coach.
As LSU prepares to begin spring practice March 14, GeauxTigerNation will take daily looks at aspects of the spring camp. This is the third in the series:
BATON ROUGE, La. -- If you watched the NFL combine, you saw former LSU defensive linemen and defensive backs lining up to take their turns in drills.
So you want to know the areas of need as we head to the spring?
The combine gave you most of the answers.
Experience returning: Jermauria Rasco
Outlook: LSU won't have all of its candidates until August, when a trio of true freshmen arrive. But it'll be interesting to see who emerges out of the four veterans. Rasco worked his way into the top four last season and Hunter was a nice special teams player. Allen is coming off a knee injury. Any strong play from these four would be great news in the spring.
Outlook: LSU is a little more solid here than at end because Johnson and Ferguson have seen plenty of snaps. Ferguson needs to step his game up though. There's a lot of talk that Thomas is a guy who might step up and earn significant playing time, possibly even challenging Ferguson for a starting spot. True freshman Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore will arrive in August. Another freshman, LaCouture, is already on campus.
Player lost: Kevin Minter
Experience returning: Lots of players, but are there any natural MLBs?
Outlook: This position is more a matter of finding the right guy than finding a guy. Does LSU move weak linebacker Lamin Barrow there? Does D.J. Welter, who was second team in the Chick-fil-A bowl after missing the season for academic reasons, get a shot? How about young Ronnie Feist? There are no shortage of candidates. It's just a matter of finding the right fit.
Outlook: Like middle linebacker, there are candidates here, but which one is the best fit? Collins was a highly-regarded prospect coming out of high school, but he got comfortable at left guard as a sophomore and there could be a reluctance to move him. Hawkins is a talented redshirt freshman, but do you really want a redshirt freshman blocking quarterback Zach Mettenberger's blind side? Alexander, last year's starter at right tackle, could be an option as well, but that would leave the Tigers having to find a new starter for two positions.
The only departing starters from LSU's line would be center P.J. Lonergan -- who has an heir apparent in Elliott Porter -- and left tackle Josh Dworaczyk, who became the starter only after Faulk got hurt.
Move Porter into the lineup, bring a healthy Faulk back at left tackle, and just like that you have an experienced and talented offensive line set to go.
But now that Faulk will depart despite suffering a season-ending knee injury that cost him the season's final 12 games, the outlook is less clear.
Blue Chip Battles: ESPN 300 Update
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