LSU Tigers: Josh Williford
Nonetheless, jet lag shouldn't play a role in the outcome of the game. The atmosphere should be electric for this primetime matchup between the SEC and the Big 12. After more than seven months of waiting, football is finally back for two schools with BCS aspirations.
As the countdown to kickoff marches toward the final hour, here are five things to keep an eye on:
1. Reloading on defense: It's no secret that LSU lost a ton on defense from last season. Returning just three starters would be precarious for most teams, but Tigers coach Les Miles and defensive coordinator John Chavis come into the season opener confident with emerging leaders such as linebacker Lamin Barrow and rising stars such as defensive linemen Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson. There's plenty of talent at every level of the defense, especially in the secondary, where safety Craig Loston and cornerback Jalen Collins give the Tigers two NFL-caliber pieces to build around. The Horned Frogs will be a challenge, though, especially in what will essentially be a road environment in Arlington. Nerves could be an issue given the Tigers' youth, in addition to whatever wrinkles TCU coach Gary Patterson is able to employ with the nucleus of his offense intact from a season ago.
2. Cameron's first test: Much has been made about the hiring of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron over the offseason, but the real question is how much effect he'll have on an LSU offense that's struggled to meet expectations. The former coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins has plenty to work with, as the Tigers return a senior quarterback, a swath of talented running backs, playmakers at receiver and an offensive line that brings back the likes of Vadal Alexander. The trouble with Cameron's offense, though, is that it might be too complex for the college game. After all, it's been roughly 13 years since he last coached student-athletes at Indiana. The good news is that LSU was already running a pro scheme before he arrived. The running game has always been a strength under Miles, but incorporating a vibrant passing attack has been elusive. As a supposed "quarterback guru", look for Cameron to try and expand Zach Mettenberger's game and incorporate more downfield passes into the Tigers' playbook.
3. Will stars play?: The game might well be decided by who doesn't see the field. LSU, still in limbo over Jeremy Hill's status, is keeping TCU guessing over whether the team's leading returning rusher will play. Miles was vague with reporters this week, saying that while he wouldn't comment on pending disciplinary action, "I wouldn't be surprised that he would be on our trip [to Dallas]." Though the Tigers certainly have enough in the backfield to do without, having a bruising runner like Hill available would do wonders. And just to keep things interesting, Patterson is playing coy about the status of his star defensive end. Devonte Fields, who was previously suspended for two games, was listed on TCU's depth chart and will be in uniform for the game, according to reports. Patterson won't say whether or not he'll play, but it's safe to say the Horned Frogs could use the reigning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.
4. Maturation of Mettenberger: There's never been a doubt about Mettenberger's arm strength or talent. What we saw when LSU played Alabama last season was enough evidence to show he's capable of being one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC. The former Georgia transfer made the Crimson Tide's secondary look porous for the first time all season, throwing for a season-high 298 yards in Baton Rouge. Though the Tigers ultimately came up short in that game, it proved to skeptics that Mettenberger isn't a lost cause. Cameron is the quarterback's fifth coordinator since coming out of high school, but he also represents his best hope of maturing into an NFL-caliber prospect. TCU and its complex 4-2-5 scheme signal the first step in that process. Patterson's squad might play in the defensively challenged Big 12, but their aggressive style and talent up front and in the secondary has always resembled that of the SEC.
5. Preparing for two quarterbacks: It remains to be seen whether it'll be Casey Pachall or Trevone Boykin under center for the Horned Frogs in Week 1. Patterson isn't saying and Miles and Chavis aren't about to predict how TCU's quarterback race will turn out. Instead, LSU is preparing for both. The two bring different styles to the table, Pachall fulfilling the more traditional role of a pocket passer while Boykin applies his quick feet and athleticism as a dual-threat quarterback. While Pachall was sidelined with off-the-field issues last season, Boykin performed admirably, passing for more than 2,000 yards and 15 touchdowns in nine starts as a redshirt freshman in addition to rushing for 417 yards. Fans will remember, though, that it was only a year ago that Pachall was viewed as one of the top quarterbacks in the country coming off a sophomore campaign where he threw for 2,921 yards and 25 touchdowns and finished in the top 15 nationally in passing efficiency.
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- With Kiehl Frazier stepping aside to play safety, newcomers Jeremy Johnson and Nick Marshall are now the frontrunners to win Auburn’s starting quarterback job.
- Meanwhile, Alabama senior AJ McCarron is helping train the young quarterbacks who will succeed him once his career is complete.
- LSU offensive lineman Vadal Alexander is making an unusual position flip after a career-threatening injury suffered by starting left guard Josh Williford.
- Catch video of South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier discussing injuries to defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and receivers Bruce Ellington and Damiere Byrd -- ailments that he claimed might keep them out of the opener against North Carolina.
- Georgia’s Jordan Jenkins and Alabama’s Chris Black are among the 25 SEC breakout candidates listed today by Athlon Sports.
- Florida’s Will Muschamp fills in a group of reporters about the status of the team as the Gators push toward their opener against Toledo.
- Speaking of the Gators, Muschamp’s program picked up three big commitments on Monday.
- Two of Missouri’s top players, running back Henry Josey and cornerback E.J. Gaines, sat out Tuesday morning’s practice with injuries.
- Deciphering Saban speak: How good is Alabama really going to be this year?
- Georgia’s Kolton Houston was only recently reinstated by the NCAA. Now he’s competing for a starting job along the Bulldogs’ offensive line.
What's comforting for Alexander is, as he slides into his new spot, he can lean on the knowledge of left tackle La'el Collins, who spent 2012 as the starter at left guard.
"La'el knows the position well," Alexander said.
It is sharing Alexander can reciprocate because of the quirk to this season's LSU offensive line that Williford's injury precipitates.
Collins was last fall's starter at left guard, and Alexander was at right tackle. Now Collins is at tackle and Alexander at guard.
"We try to help each," Alexander said. "So, I'll be like, La'el, 'remember to do this' and La'el will be like, 'Hey, watch for this.'"
Together, Collins and Alexander combine to form a potentially outstanding left side of the line. Moving Alexander gives the Tigers "some real power at that left side with he and La'el Collins," head coach Les Miles said.
"I think we can dominate," Alexander said. "In my opinion, we have the potential to be one of the best sides [of an offensive line] in the country."
Even if the side didn't come together in a conventional way.
Ever since Chris Faulk, then a returning starter at left tackle, was lost for the season to a knee injury after 2012's season opener, folks have been waiting for Collins, the No. 8 player in the 2011 ESPN 300, to make the move. Left tackle is made for elite talents like him.
But Miles balked at making the move at that time, choosing to keep Collins at left guard, where he was still learning the ropes, rather than force him to learn a second position. It was better, Miles decided, to move jack-of-all-trades senior Josh Dworaczyk to the edge.
Once the season ended and with both Dworaczyk and Faulk departed, the Collins move happened, and he feels like a better player for it.
"I feel like a complete offensive lineman," Collins said. "I can still move inside and play guard. It's still in me and it's easy to me. Being able to play tackle, that's become easy to me, so it's a great transition."
Williford, who started a year and a half at right guard before being lost for the season to a concussion suffered in the 2012 Florida game, seemed like a natural to slide over to the left side to Collins former spot. Trai Turner, who started at right guard after Williford's injury, returns to that spot.
But there was always an eye on Alexander for the guard position. Like Turner, Alexander became a starter last season because of attrition (first, the injury to Faulk, then the departure of tackle Alex Hurst). But after a bad outing against Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, many wondered if he wasn't better suited for guard.
There's no doubting Alexander's enormous size (he's listed at 6-foot-6, 342 pounds) and strength, but some questioned his footwork to compete pass rushers off the edge. While that criticism might not be fair -- Alexander was coming off minor knee surgery in the bowl game -- the possibility of moving inside was always on the table.
"I can play both," Alexander said. "I listen to my coach. They think it's best for the offensive line as a whole, but I can play both."
What made the move possible was a great offseason for redshirt freshman tackle Jerald Hawkins, which has continued at camp.
"We really think that Hawkins has had as quality a camp to this point as anybody," Miles said.
So when Williford suffered his second concussion in a year last week, the move was easy. Hawkins slid in at right tackle and Alexander bumped over to right guard. It left the Tigers with a remarkable new look. While Collins, Alexander and Turner give the Tigers three returning starters, only Turner is back at the position he started last year.
But there is no questioning the talent. Hawkins was just waiting to find a place.
"Having Jerald at right tackle is kind of putting your best five out there," Alexander said.
But will they be five that play with chemistry and savvy? To Collins, being able to draw off each others experience will lead to just that.
"That's what the O-line is about," he said. "Guys who know what's going on at every position of the line and just be able to help the guy onside you.
Limiting contact theoretically should limit injuries. But for the Tigers that hasn't been the case.
LSU suffered what appears to be its second major injury of camp Wednesday when, according to several reports, offensive guard Josh Williford was knocked out with his second concussion in 10 months. This one might be career-threatening.
But it happened anyway and given his history with concussions, his career is now in jeopardy.
Williford moved to left guard in the spring after his 2012 replacement, Trai Turner solidified the right guard spot. Williford was the first team left guard when he went down and will likely be replaced by Vadal Alexander, last year's starter at right tackle for much of the season.
Alexander has missed the last three days of practice while redshirt freshman Jerald Hawkins lined up with the first team at right tackle. But head coach Les Miles said that Alexander's injury, which he proclaimed to be "less" than a sprained ankle, would not keep him out of Friday's practice.
LSU also lost freshman wide receiver Avery Peterson, possibly for the season.
Peterson mentioned that he was done with August camp on social media. Miles would not confirm the nature of the injury Thursday, but did say Peterson might miss the season, or at the very least not be available to come back until late in the season.
Not all the injury news was bad. The Alexander injury turned out to be less than severe and Miles said an injury to tight end DeSean Smith was not severe either.
Hill will miss time
If you think Jeremy Hill was going to get by without missing any game action after he was allowed back on the team following an indefinite suspension, Miles refuted that notion in a very Miles-esque way.
Asked if Hill would miss games as a punishment for pleading guilty to misdemeanor simple battery charge -- thus extending the probation from an older misdemeanor charge he plead guilty to -- for the second time in four days, Miles declined to say.
But he did say that "there will be withholding," of games. Does that mean an entire game? Maybe a quarter of a game? Miles declined to specify.
Not only will Friday's morning practice mark the first full pads practice of camp, it will also mark the first time the team will come together for one practice.
For the first four days, the team has been split into a morning and an afternoon session, with the morning session reserved for a mostly veteran group with some young players getting to join the morning sessions and some veterans being asked to provide leadership in the afternoon session.
That trend continued Thursday with the most notable young participant in the veteran session being offensive lineman Ethan Pocic, who ran with the first team at center.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- No state produces more NFL players per capita than the Bayou State. And LSU gets the lion's share of those players. It's a winning formula.
But it wouldn't be true to say LSU wins with Louisiana talent and Louisiana talent alone. LSU has been a draw for players outside of the state for years and recent success -- two national titles and three BCS title game appearances since 2003 -- has only increased it. This year's team has plenty of key players from outside the state lines.
So while 14 of LSU's starting 22 positions were held by Louisianians at the end of spring, there are plenty of out-of-staters who will make an impact:
2012 record: 10-3
2012 conference record: 6-2
Returning starters: Offense: 9; defense: 3; special teams: 1
Top returners: QB Zach Mettenberger, RB Jeremy Hill, RB Alfred Blue, OL La'el Collins, WR Jarvis Landry, WR Odell Beckham, LB Lamin Barrow, SS Craig Loston, CB Jalen Mills
Key losses: DE Barkevious Mingo, DE Sam Montgomery, DT Bennie Logan, LB Kevin Minter, FS Eric Reid, CB Tharold Simon, OT Josh Dworaczyk, C P.J. Lonergan, K Drew Alleman, P Brad Wing
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Jeremy Hill* (755 yards, 12 touchdowns)
Passing: Zach Mettenberger* (2,609 yards, 12 touchdowns)
Receiving: Odell Beckham* (43 receptions, 713 yards), Jarvis Landry* (56 receptions, 573 yards)
Tackles: Kevin Minter (130)
Sacks: Sam Montgomery (8)
Interceptions: Tharold Simon (4)
1. A new offense: The arrival of new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron saw the Tigers throwing the football around all spring. It's clear LSU's sometimes anemic passing offense will be asked to carry a larger load this fall, with Mettenberger returning along with his favorite deep threat (Beckham) and his go-to possession receiver (Landry).
2. Barrow's a leader: After losing Minter to the NFL draft, LSU will look to its other 100-tackle linebacker for leadership. Barrow was productive all spring while staying at the weak-side linebacker spot where he excelled in a 104-tackle junior season. He could possibly move to middle linebacker in the fall.
3. More power: Even in a more open offense, LSU should be able to run the ball. With La'el Collins moving from left guard to left tackle and Josh Williford replacing him at left guard (sliding over from right guard), the Tigers will be able to start four offensive linemen who have started at least the majority of a season somewhere on the line. With fullback J.C. Copeland and four proven running backs returning, don't look for Cam Cameron's offense to abandon the run.
1. The Hill situation: LSU's leading rusher was suspended from the team indefinitely after he was arrested for his part in a bar fight that happened while he was on probation for a previous charge. If Hill serves a long suspension or is not on the team, the Tigers will be down to three scholarship running backs. Would that force the Tigers to change their offensive identity?
2. A new front four: The Tigers lost all four starters on the defensive line, including three (plus a backup) who were picked in the NFL draft. LSU has recruited well, but a lot of unproven talent will have to perform up to expectations for the defense to be as good as it was in 2012. Defensive tackle Anthony Johnson, who played starter-like snaps as the third tackle last season, will take on a leadership role.
3. Special teams dominance?: Under Les Miles, LSU has usually outplayed opponents on special teams. But with Wing giving pro football a try and kicker Alleman finished, there are serious questions about whether LSU can be as consistently good as years past. Walk-ons will be asked to replace Alleman's consistency.
2. QB Zach Mettenberger: The senior had a good spring, throwing for big yards in touchdowns in all of the scrimmages while looking mostly comfortable in Cam Cameron's offense. LSU might lean on its passing game more this season.
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU finished its spring drills Saturday, capping 15 practices spread out over six weeks, and while a lot of the big names performed as expected, other names emerged.
Zach Mettenberger is solidly entrenched at quarterback, as is Jeremy Hill at running back. Linebacker Lamin Barrow has stepped into a leadership role on defense, as has defensive tackle Anthony Johnson.
But who took the biggest steps in the spring? Let's look at five.
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On the other hand, it looks like the six freshmen who entered college early might already be reaping some rewards from their early entry.
Here is a look at how LSU's eight new players have done after three weeks of spring.
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Practice dates: March 14, 15, 16, 19, 21, 23 (scrimmage), 25, 26 and 28. After spring break, resumes April 9, 11, 13 (scrimmage), 16, 18 and 20 (spring game).
What's new: Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will install his new offense, and four new starters will man the defensive line.
What's old: The Tigers have eight returning starters on offense, led by quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
Starters returning (8): QB Mettenberger, RB Jeremy Hill, FB J.C. Copeland, WR Jarvis Landry, WR Odell Beckham, LT La'el Collins (moved from left guard), LG Josh Williford (moved from right guard), RG Trai Turner, RT Vadal Alexander.
New starters: TE Dillon Gordon or Logan Stokes, C Elliott Porter. Key reserves -- QB Stephen Rivers, RBs Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard and Terrance Magee, FB Connor Neighbors, LT Jerald Hawkins, RG Fehoko Fanaika, RT Ethan Pocic, WR James Wright, Kadron Boone, John Diarse and Travin Dural, TE Travis Dickson.
What’s new: Cam Cameron steps in as LSU’s offensive coordinator after spending part of last season in that role with the Baltimore Ravens. Cameron replaces Greg Studrawa as LSU’s play-caller on offense and will also coach the quarterbacks. Studrawa remains on staff and will coach the offensive line. Steve Kragthorpe will move into an administrative role after coaching the LSU quarterbacks the previous two seasons.
On the mend: Reserve quarterback Rob Bolden (knee) and defensive end Justin Maclin will both miss the spring while recovering from injuries.
On the move: Junior La’el Collins will get first shot at left tackle this spring after starting all last season at left guard. Senior Josh Williford will shift from right guard to left guard. Junior Terrence Magee is moving back to running back after playing receiver last season and catching just one pass.
Question marks: The Tigers are replacing five of their top seven defensive linemen. Junior tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson and junior end Jermauria Rasco need to take that next step and become every-down forces up front. Head coach Les Miles said sophomore tackle Mickey Johnson has lost weight and had a promising offseason. Playing with more consistency at receiver will also be important. The Tigers had too many dropped passes last season and didn't make a lot happen down the field. Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry will be counted on to make big moves as juniors. LSU also has to find a new place-kicker and punter. Sophomore Jamie Keehn heads into the spring as the punter, while junior James Hairston will have to hold off redshirt freshman walk-on Colby Delahoussaye for the starting place-kicking job.
New faces: Junior-college newcomer Logan Stokes will battle for a starting job at tight end, while junior-college newcomer Fehoko Fanaika could factor in at offensive guard. At receiver, redshirt freshman Travin Dural will be one to watch after injuring his knee last season along with a pair of early enrollees -- Avery Peterson (Patrick Peterson’s younger brother) and John Diarse. Two more true freshmen, Anthony Jennings and Hayden Rettig, will be among a handful of players vying for the backup quarterback job. The Tigers have a total of six true freshmen on campus who will be going through spring practice as early enrollees. Redshirt freshman Dwayne Thomas is a prime candidate to be the Tigers’ third cornerback on passing downs.
Breaking out: In reality, senior linebacker Lamin Barrow has already broken out. He had 104 total tackles last season, but was overshadowed by Kevin Minter. With Minter leaving early for the NFL draft, Barrow will move this spring from weakside linebacker to Minter’s middle-linebacker spot. The 6-foot-2, 232-pound Barrow has everything it takes to become an All-SEC performer. If he sticks in the middle, it just makes the Tigers that much deeper at linebacker. Talented sophomores Kwon Alexander, Deion Jones and Lamar Louis can all play on the outside along with senior Tahj Jones, who returns after missing all but one game last season for academic reasons.
Don’t forget about: Senior running back Alfred Blue returns to give the Tigers one of the deepest backfields in the league. He injured his knee in the third game last season and was No. 2 in the SEC in rushing at the time. The 6-2, 220-pound Blue has excellent speed and also catches the ball well out of the backfield. He’ll team with sophomore Jeremy Hill to give LSU a dynamite one-two punch. The 6-2, 235-pound Hill had four 100-yard games as a true freshman and led the Tigers in rushing. Following a splendid freshman season, Kenny Hilliard was the forgotten man last season. He’ll be looking to regain his form this spring, while Magee will add some speed to the Tigers’ backfield.
All eyes on: Now that senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger has a season as a starter in the SEC under his belt, can he capitalize on the improvement he showed toward the end of last season? In particular, Miles wants to see Mettenberger get better at throwing the deep ball and understand all of the throws better. Mettenberger struggled early last season, but he didn’t get a lot of help from his receivers. The best news for Mettenberger was the hiring of a veteran offensive coordinator like Cameron, who’s tutored a ton of quality quarterbacks. There’s no question that LSU has to be more consistent on offense if it’s going to return to the SEC championship picture. How much Mettenberger improves from his junior to senior season will go a long way toward determining whether the Tigers will be a part of that equation.
It looked, however, like it might have been something else, like a symbolic black eye that came from a jab thrown by Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, or from a hook fired by a couple of surprisingly early departures from his team to the NFL, part of a whopping 13 NFL departures after a 10-3 season.
At any rate, Miles looked ready to put the pink eye, and any symbolic black eye, behind him as LSU begins drills on Thursday.
Here is what we learned from Miles on Wednesday:
Miles confirmed that Collins, now a junior, will get his chance to slide over to tackle, but added that redshirt freshman Jerald Hawkins will get a look at the position as well. If Hawkins proves to be the better tackle candidate, Collins would move back inside.
Miles said if Collins indeed wins the left tackle spot, senior Josh Williford would be the likely choice to start at left guard. Junior college transfer Fehoko Fanaika came to LSU at 370 pounds, Miles said, and is more likely to play on the right side, where Trai Turner returns as the starting guard, Miles said.
2. Lamin Barrow gets first shot at MLB: Miles also indicated that Barrow would get the first shot at the vacant starting middle linebacker role, a spot vacated by Kevin Minter's early NFL departure.
Miles said Barrow " can do the job outside," where he excelled with 107 tackles at weak-side linebacker last season. If one of LSU's six Class of 2012 linebacker recruits or another veteran -- Miles mentioned junior D.J. Welter -- steps up at middle linebacker, Barrow can easily move back to his weak side spot.
3. Bolden, Maclin out: Miles said quarterback Rob Bolden, who made news when he transferred from Penn State to LSU last summer following the NCAA fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, will not participate in spring practice after undergoing knee surgery in the off-season.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU begins springs football practice Thursday with plenty of question marks, from adjusting to a new offensive coordinator to replacing the entire defensive line.
Here are the big story lines as practice gets set to start Thursday and continue until the spring game April 20:
1. What's the Cam Cameron effect? It's really going to be hard to pinpoint the Cameron influence on the offense until the Tigers start taking snaps in games next fall.
But if we start seeing Jeremy Hill taking swing passes from Zach Mettenberger and tight ends getting targeted repeatedly in passing drills, we'll know where that came from.
LSU took no running backs in its 2013 signing class and enters 2014 with only four scholarship running backs on its roster. Given a good season by sophomore Jeremy Hill -- who will be three years out of high school by season's end and, thus, draft eligible -- LSU might lose two more at season's end (Alfred Blue is a senior).
It would have made sense to prop up the numbers this year by taking a running back. The goal is to leave a void and use it to entice 2014 star Leonard Fournette (New Orleans/St. Augustine), the top running back to come out of the state in years. If LSU lands Fournette, the gamble pays off. If not, well, the Tigers better find somebody to fill the void.
Running back headlines the list of needs LSU will be looking to address in the 2014 recruiting cycle. Here are LSU's biggest areas of need:
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Saturday's top plays in the SEC
Final Eastern Kentucky 3 Florida 52 Final Charleston Southern 9 10 Georgia 55 Final South Alabama 12 South Carolina 37 Final 8 Ole Miss 0 Arkansas 30 Final Western Carolina 14 1 Alabama 48 Final Samford 7 14 Auburn 31 Final 20 Missouri 29 Tennessee 21 Final Vanderbilt 0 4 Mississippi State 51