LSU Tigers: Jeremy Hill

BATON ROUGE, La. – The topic du jour at Les Miles’ three Q&A sessions on Wednesday concerned his quarterbacks. Specifically, what will be LSU’s next move in the battle for playing time between sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris?

Who will be the starter in Saturday’s game against New Mexico State? It most likely will be Jennings, Miles said on the SEC’s weekly coaches teleconference.

Has Harris – who starred in last Saturday’s fourth-quarter comeback against Mississippi State after Jennings’ dismal outing – made up ground in the race? “Some,” Miles told reporters in his post-practice interview.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsIt appears LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings will get another shot to start after a tough night against Mississippi State.
Will Harris get more than the garbage-time snaps he mostly received to this point? “Look forward to him getting a little bit more playing time. He certainly was deserving,” Miles said on his weekly call-in show.

The problems that revealed themselves in the Mississippi State loss are much greater than simply which player is behind center, but we’ll start there in this week’s storylines for Saturday.

Third-down inefficiency: LSU has been mediocre in nearly every offensive category, but its decline on third down has been striking. That had to be expected with quarterback Zach Mettenberger, running back Jeremy Hill and receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham all departing from a 2013 offense that led the nation by converting 57 percent of its third downs.

It has been a problem this season, particularly with Jennings at quarterback. ESPN Stats and Information reports that LSU ranks 70th nationally in third-down conversions (41 percent) and has only converted on 38 percent of its third downs with Jennings at quarterback, compared to 63 percent with Harris.

During the last two seasons, Jennings led LSU to a 30-percent conversion rate on third down, while Mettenberger converted 54 percent of the time. The differences are also huge when comparing Mettenberger and Jennings’ Total QBR (97.2 to 37.1), yards per attempt (10.9 to 6.2) and passing touchdowns (nine to two) on third down.

These comparisons are unfair, of course. Mettenberger was a fifth-year senior who ranked second nationally behind Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston on both third-down QBR and third-down conversions. Meanwhile, Jennings just made his fifth career start. Nonetheless, the dropoff has been substantial and is one of the contributing factors in LSU’s offensive slowdown.

QB comparison: Let’s shift from one comparison that doesn’t look pretty for Jennings to another. Again, different sample sizes paint an unfair picture for Jennings, but the Tigers’ offense has been more productive with Harris at quarterback.

LSU scored a touchdown on two of its three drives against Mississippi State with Harris at quarterback compared to one in 12 with Jennings. Of course, Jennings played against the starters and Harris did not face the Bulldogs’ full defensive arsenal when he entered the game with less than four minutes to play and Mississippi State ahead by double digits. But he was clearly the more productive quarterback last Saturday, leading LSU’s offense to 159 yards in just 12 snaps.

We could make similar statements about the other games in which they appeared. Jennings took the starters’ best shots in the first four games and Harris came on in relief, typically in the second half. But in his smaller sample size, Harris has led the Tigers to more yards per play, a greater percentage of touchdowns per drive and a significantly higher percentage of third-down conversions.

Stopping the run: We discussed this in a post earlier this week, but LSU must shore up its issues defending runs straight up the middle. On designed runs between the tackles, Mississippi State ran for 286 yards – the most allowed by an SEC defense in the last two seasons – averaged 8.2 yards per carry and broke nine runs of 10 yards or longer.

In the first three games, LSU allowed just 52.3 yards on designed runs between the tackles, 3.5 yards per carry and just one run of 10-plus yards, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

Opening it up? With the bulk of the SEC schedule still ahead, this seems like a good week for LSU to work on opening up its offense a bit if it will, in fact, spread the field in future games. But that doesn’t exactly jibe with what works best against New Mexico State’s defense.

The Aggies have been atrocious against the run, surrendering 299.3 rushing yards per game and ranking 123rd out of 125 FBS teams. So perhaps we’ll see plenty of Kenny Hilliard, Leonard Fournette and LSU’s power running game early and the Tigers can work on the passing game once they build a lead.

Dural, then who? If LSU puts the ball in the air more frequently, Travin Dural (18 catches, 494 yards, 4 TDs) is a given as the first option. But then who?

Maybe it will be Malachi Dupre, who delivered a breakout performance last Saturday night against Mississippi State. Fellow freshmen Trey Quinn and John Diarse are also possibilities. After Dural, the Tigers’ next three receivers have only connected with their quarterback for a completion on 19 of the 37 passes in which they were the intended targets.

Front seven key for LSU, Wisconsin D

August, 26, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- For all the headlines generated by quarterback battles and freshman superstars, one thing seems abundantly clear about Saturday’s showdown between No. 13 LSU and No. 14 Wisconsin. The team whose defensive front seven has the more effective outing will probably be the victor.

Since both teams have defensive fronts with questions to answer, that only makes this point more clear.

[+] EnlargeLamar Louis
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsLamar Louis and LSU's defense will have their hands full with Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon.
 “We have a young front, they have a young front, so both defenses in general, they’re definitely going to be targeted in this game,” LSU tight end Logan Stokes said. “We’re going to do our best to get after that D-line, and they’re going to do it to us, too. So yeah, both defenses are going to be pressured. Defensive line-wise, it’s going to be a measuring stick for both of them.”

Both offenses return key pieces that will allow them to hammer most opponents into submission. It starts with four returning starters from two offensive lines that frequently had their way in 2013.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, opposing defenders didn’t make first contact with a Wisconsin ball carrier last season until he had already gained an average of 3.95 yards per carry -- an average that ranked fourth in the nation behind only Oregon (4.28), Ohio State (4.28) and Auburn (4.23). LSU finished 23 in that category, with Tiger runners averaging 3.03 yards before contact on each rush.

And with the star power either returning or added to the Badger and Tiger backfields, there is no reason to believe this season will be much different for either team. Freshman phenom Leonard Fournette joins the senior duo of Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard to give LSU what should become a phenomenal running game. And it will have to be exceptional to match what Melvin Gordon brings to Wisconsin’s backfield. The Heisman Trophy candidate ran for 1,609 yards, 12 touchdowns and averaged 7.8 yards per carry last fall.

The key, said LSU strongside linebacker Lamar Louis, is to respect Gordon’s explosive game, but not to be in awe of his abilities. After all, the Tigers have faced plenty of top-tier backs in SEC play and even in their own practices.

“He’s a good back, speedy back, makes good cuts, good decisions. I think he’s up for the Heisman Trophy, so he’s a good back,” Louis said. “I’ll say what [defensive coordinator John Chavis] tells us all the time, it’s not someone who we haven’t faced in these past years. It’s not someone who we don’t practice against in Terrence Magee, Leonard Fournette, Jeremy Hill. So we’ll be ready. But yeah, we’re not taking him lightly.”

The Tigers and Badgers have plenty to prove up front on defense, so they can’t afford to take any opponent lightly.

LSU must replace both starting defensive tackles and will break in new starters at two different linebacker positions after an offseason retooling. And Wisconsin’s roster turnover was even more severe, as it loses every starting defensive lineman and linebacker from a 2013 defense that ranked fifth nationally against the run, surrendering 102.5 yards per game.

That means focusing more on Wisconsin’s general defensive tendencies instead of on specific personnel during game preparation.

 “It’s kind of weird not being able to have any film to really watch on guys that’s new to [starting], but the thing that we have to do is make sure that we prepare ourselves for the scheme that those guys run,” LSU offensive tackle La’el Collins said. “I think we’ve done a great job of that, and I think we’re still doing a great job with it. Just pretty much prepare, when you look at the program and the tradition of the team, nothing really changes.”

Wisconsin must also do the same thing when preparing for Chavis’ defense. The philosophy remains the same, but it’s more difficult for the Badgers to know much about Louis in his new spot at strongside linebacker or how Kwon Alexander fits at weakside linebacker after playing strongside in 2013. And it’s even tougher to know what to expect from the host of redshirt defensive tackles -- most notably Frank Herron -- who will make their college debuts on Saturday.

The possibilities probably excite Gordon if he hopes to build Heisman buzz, Louis admitted.

“I think it’s going to be more big for him than us,” Louis said. “If I’m a Heisman Trophy running back, and I play LSU for the opener, it doesn’t get any bigger than that. So we know what’s at stake for us and for him and what he can benefit from, so we’re going to have our head on a swivel, and we’re going to be ready.”

And it works the other way, as well. Wisconsin boasts what should be a great offensive line and one of the nation’s best backs. Shutting down a bunch like that would legitimize all of the preseason happy talk surrounding an LSU defense that is reportedly on the rise.

“We have great players on our defensive line, maybe guys that didn’t play last year, but I think we’re going to get a chance to see them on Saturday,” Stokes said. “Frank Herron and guys like that didn’t play last year and were redshirted and have been doing nothing but making plays since fall camp started. So we’re going to get a chance to see those guys. I’m looking forward to it.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Frank Wilson's job could have been awfully difficult this season if the wrong personalities existed within his running backs room at LSU.

Wilson -- the Tigers' recruiting coordinator and running backs coach -- just bolstered his depth chart by adding the nation's top overall prospect, Leonard Fournette, plus Darrel Williams, who rushed for 2,200 yards as a high school senior. If the other scholarship tailbacks on the roster, seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, were jealous types, the dynamic in Wilson's meeting room could easily have turned poisonous.

Instead, it seems to be the exact opposite.

"They're so humble," Wilson said of Magee and Hilliard. "They've been so patient in their careers and they understand what it is to be a young pro and put themselves in position to embark on this senior year and have great success. So to have both of those guys here who are unselfish and lead our group is certainly positive for us."

[+] EnlargeLSU's Terrence Magee and Leonard Fournette
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertTerrence Magee is wearing the No. 18 jersey this season -- given to LSU's top leaders each fall -- in part because of his mentorship of young running backs like Leonard Fournette (7).
Even during spring practice, a few months before Fournette and Williams arrived on campus, Magee and Hilliard answered frequent questions about the new signees without balking. Despite the possibility that the Tigers' top back might become a freshman, the veterans immediately embraced the newcomers in an effort to get them ready for the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin.

"I've been happy with that," Fournette said. "They're still teaching us, all the young running backs. Without them, we'd kind of be lost. Every day they teach us and we get better."

And they're happy to teach, Hilliard said, just as Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue, James Stampley and J.C. Copeland did for him as a freshman in 2011.

"They were all brothers to us," Hilliard said. "They all took us underneath their wing and carried us."

The freshmen seem to be taking the right approach, as well.

"One thing I love about Darrel -- just like I love about Leonard -- I love his attitude," Magee said. "He might call me 20 times a day to ask me, ‘What do I do on this?' or 'What do I do on that?' He was blowing me up [the night before preseason camp opened]. But you like guys like that because they want to learn. For me, I want to teach him because I want to look back and say I was able to help that guy get to where he is today."

That's exactly the kind of selflessness those at LSU expected from Magee. The coaches handed him the No. 18 jersey for the season -- an honor that goes to one of the Tigers' top leaders each fall. And leadership is what he has shown toward Fournette, who might be the most heavily-hyped recruit in LSU history.

"You know when you meet someone and you know you're kind of alike? That's how it is with me and Terrence," Fournette said. "I enjoy being around him. He's another jokester. He likes to have fun and I think the brotherhood that we're creating, it's fun.

Fournette continued, "Without him I'd be lost. Every day he's taking his time after practice, he's coming by my house teaching me and telling me this is what this call means, this is what that call means. So that means a lot. I'm catching on faster outside of football practice with him helping me."

Magee and Hilliard aren't na´ve about what the 2014 season holds. They know that despite rushing for a combined 936 yards and 15 touchdowns last season as Jeremy Hill's backups, they will probably touch the ball fewer times as the freshmen adapt to SEC football.

All of them envision some sort of backfield timeshare, as that has become a common feature of LSU's running game in recent seasons.

"I think all of us are going to get a lot of carries, a lot of play and contribute to the team," Williams predicted.

And that's just fine with Magee and Hilliard.

Some players view their senior seasons as a final chance to shine -- and show NFL scouts that they're worthy of becoming draft picks. LSU's senior backs certainly hold that mindset, but realize they can think that way without being selfish toward their young teammates.

"When things get hard and people question our team, when it's tough out there when we're practicing, [his predecessors wearing No. 18 were] the first guys to step up and just lead this team, show everybody how it's done. ‘Follow me. Watch me,' " Magee said. "I really admire that about those guys. Sometimes you have young guys and they're looking around and looking for somebody to follow. Each guy that I've seen wear that since I've been here, they got it."

He and Hilliard seem to have willing followers in the two freshman backs.

"I really don't think about [starting] because we're still learning and the veterans are teaching us," Fournette said. "I don't expect to come in and right away in the game and start. So I'm just following Kenny and Terrence."

Fortunately for LSU, and for the future of its running game, Magee and Hilliard seem to be two good players for a freshman to follow.

High five: Five items from Week 1

August, 8, 2014
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Each Friday during LSU’s preseason practice, we will review five things we learned that week.

Here are five things we learned about the Tigers since LSU opened preseason camp on Monday.

1. Jalen Mills will play: When he’ll play remains a mystery -- it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him receive a similar punishment to that of Jeremy Hill, who sat out last season’s opener against TCU -- but LSU coach Les Miles reinstated safety Jalen Mills this week, so we at least know he will return to the field at some point.

Mills had been indefinitely suspended since June, when he was arrested for allegedly punching a woman and knocking her unconscious. Mills’ attorney maintains that his client is innocent of the accusation -- which potentially could have led to a felony charge -- and the East Baton Rouge district attorney instead charged the junior safety with a misdemeanor this week, leading Miles to reinstate him to the team.

2. Leonard Fournette looks the part: Veteran teammates aren’t always quick to heap praise on new freshmen immediately, but running back Leonard Fournette earned compliments before the Tigers even put on the pads.

All-SEC left tackle La'el Collins' tweet after Wednesday’s practice, when Fournette worked with the starters for the first time:

.

The nation’s No. 1 overall prospect in 2014, Fournette practiced alongside senior Terrence Magee both Wednesday and Thursday, first working with the starters on Wednesday afternoon and then with mostly reserves and freshmen on Thursday afternoon. As Magee said of the freshman class this week, practicing in pads will start to "tell the tale," but it’s clear optimism about Fournette’s capabilities is as high within the locker room as it is in the LSU fan base.

3. Suitable depth at defensive tackle: Perhaps the key to this season for LSU’s defense will be the performance of its line. The Tigers need to generate a better pass rush off the edge -- the burden likely falls on Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco to get that done -- and at least a few young tackles must perform consistently.

Miles said Thursday that he is satisfied so far with the Tigers’ depth in the middle and singled out sophomore Christian LaCouture and Frank Herron, whom he described as "a beast."

Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore are also in the picture, but LaCouture is the only member of the group who have appeared in an actual game. With the Tigers practicing today for the first time in full pads, it’s time for the youngsters to pressure the veterans and prove to line coach Brick Haley that, if nothing else, he has strong options to utilize in a rotation if he wants to spell or replace LaCouture.

4. Freshman wideouts are legit: Multiple older receivers said this week that the Tigers’ four freshman wideouts -- led by Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn -- showed up brimming with confidence and ready to compete.

"If you didn’t know those guys and you walked out there to practice, you wouldn’t know if they were a freshman or a senior," senior Quantavius Leslie said Wednesday.

They look impressive to reporters, too. Dupre, ESPN’s No. 1 receiver signee for 2014, practiced with the starting offense all week and didn’t seem out of place.

5. Expect QB option: Sure, we expected it prior to this week, but it’s clear from its work in position drills that LSU will incorporate quarterback options and runs into the offensive scheme.

Only small portions of the practices were open to the media, but essentially every media period thus far has featured position drills where quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris worked on zone-read handoffs with the running backs and other option plays that utilized their mobility.

Several Tigers said this week that the basics of the offense will remain the same, but that they will add wrinkles to take advantage of the quarterbacks’ running ability. That assessment looks to be on the money.

LSU position breakdown: WR

July, 30, 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 wide receivers.

WIDE RECEIVER

Returning starters: None.

Starters lost: Jarvis Landry (77 catches, 1,193 yards, 10 TDs) and Odell Beckham (59-1,152, 8 TDs). For all intents and purposes, Landry and Beckham WERE the Tigers' receiving game last season, combining for 136 of their 205 receptions, 2,345 of their 3,263 yards and 18 of their 23 touchdowns. Nos. 3 and 5 on the 2013 receiving chart, running back Jeremy Hill (18-181) and wideout Kadron Boone (7-129, 2 TDs) are also gone.

Key newcomers: True freshman receivers are often difficult to project, as it can be a difficult transition from high school to the more discipline-oriented game they must play in college. Over the long term, though, this year's freshmen should be an extremely valuable crop of talent. In fact, it's arguably the best group of receivers that any school signed in 2014. It includes ESPN's No. 1 and 3 wideout prospects Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, plus another pair of ESPN 300 honorees in D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch.

Don't forget about the group of receivers who redshirted last season, either. John Diarse seemed to be a frontrunner for playing time after spring practice, particularly since both Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears missed portions of those practices with injuries.

Player to watch: Dupre and Quinn are the obvious choices here. It's evident that Travin Dural (7-145, 2 TDs) completed the spring as the Tigers' go-to wideout. In fact, he's the only returning wide receiver who made more than one catch a season ago. But it's the potential of those blue-chip youngsters -- and the curiosity about how quickly they can catch onto the college game -- that will generate the most intrigue.

Overall: With a new starting quarterback and nearly a complete turnover at wideout, LSU's passing offense is a bit of a mystery as preseason practice approaches. Dural punctuated his spring with a 130-yard, two-touchdown effort in the spring game, so he looks like a reliable contributor. After that, who knows? Quantavius Leslie (1-11) had one big spring scrimmage and is the only scholarship senior, so he might be in line for a bigger role. More than likely, though, the receivers will need several freshmen to contribute -- and that can be a risky proposition.

LSU position breakdown: RB

July, 29, 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 running backs.

RUNNING BACK

Returning starters: Fullback Connor Neighbors (7 catches, 92 yards in 2013). Neighbors started seven of the last eight games after overtaking J.C. Copeland at fullback. He figures to share time with converted linebacker Melvin Jones (1 catch, 7 yards, TD) this fall.

Starters lost: Running back Jeremy Hill. After rushing for 1,401 yards and setting an SEC record for a back with at least 200 carries with 6.9 yards per carry, Hill turned pro and went to the Cincinnati Bengals in the second round of the draft. He ended the season by rushing for a career-high 216 yards in the Outback Bowl win against Iowa.

Key newcomers: No. 1 overall prospect Leonard Fournette and running back Darrel Williams (three stars, No. 77 running back) both joined the team this summer. Fournette should make an instant impact, while Williams could also contribute in the Tigers’ depth-deprived backfield alongside seniors Terrence Magee (626 rushing yards, 8 TDs) and Kenny Hilliard (310-7).

Player to watch: Fournette. The New Orleans native is arguably the most heavily hyped prospect ever to enroll at LSU, with comparisons to no less than Minnesota Vikings superstar Adrian Peterson following him to college. He brings an impression of size, power and speed to the position, so all the tools are there. LSU’s coaches and veteran backs will unquestionably need to help manage the freshman and the expectations he faces, since few players must deal with this level of fan excitement so early in their careers.

Overall: Magee averaged a whopping 7.3 yards per carry last season and Hilliard has always been an effective power back, so the Tigers have a pair of solid seniors who can help ease the youngsters’ path into college. The big question is how much the freshmen will add to the backfield. LSU fans will probably be disappointed with anything less than immediate stardom for Fournette, while Williams -- a 2,000-yard rusher last season as a high school senior -- has the ability to join the backfield timeshare as a rookie. LSU’s backfield depth is not ideal, which is part of the reason that Jones played some tailback during spring practice, but as long as they avoid any major injuries, the Tigers should be OK on that front.
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.”
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.”
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.”

SEC lunchtime links

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
12:00
PM ET
Plenty going on as spring practices continue in the SEC. We have pro days, coaching talk, players adapting to new positions and even reality TV news in today's lunch links:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Honestly I wouldn’t say that I didn’t expect it, but it’s a little surprising now to finally see that they’re saying that if not the best, you’re one of the best,” Beckham said. “So it’s a great feeling to me and it’s something that I worked for.”

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Auburn coach Gus Malzahn discusses the Tigers' tough schedule, which includes LSU on Saturday.
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