LSU Tigers: K.J. Malone
Indeed, the competition between junior Jennings (1,611 passing yards, 11 TDs, 7 INTs in 2014) and sophomore Harris (452 yards, 6 TDs, 2 INTs) might determine whether the Tigers re-emerge as legitimate contenders in the SEC West or remain in the middle of the pack like last season’s 8-5 club.
But there are plenty of spring stories to follow at LSU beyond Jennings-Harris. Here are five more that deserve some attention.
What will Kevin Steele’s defense look like? The public likely won’t gain a full understanding of Steele’s defensive modifications until the regular season starts in September, as LSU’s spring practices are open only for short periods of time and the Tigers will probably play it close to the vest in their spring game.
How will the secondary take shape? The Tigers have a ton of good options at defensive back, so this is hardly a nightmare for Corey Raymond’s crew. It’s a matter of figuring out which pieces fit best at which positions.
The biggest position of interest is the cornerback spot opposite two-year starter Tre'Davious White. With the departures of Jalen Collins and Rashard Robinson, the Tigers lack a proven second option -- assuming that senior Jalen Mills remains at safety. Mills started for two seasons at corner and could move back, but will that be necessary? LSU has numerous options to fill the spot -- including heavily recruited early enrollee Kevin Toliver, sophomore Ed Paris and junior Dwayne Thomas, who is coming off season-ending knee surgery. And other alternatives will arrive this summer in signees Donte Jackson and Xavier Lewis.
Safety is also an interesting position, particularly if Mills works at corner. Sophomore Jamal Adams seems likely to grab a starting spot, but who else claims the top spots in the rotation out of Rickey Jefferson, Corey Thompson, John Battle and Devin Voorhies? Raymond will have his work cut out in distributing the PT to so many capable players.
Will Cam Cameron open up the offense? This is a corollary to the decision on the starting quarterback. LSU’s passing game was woefully unproductive last season, mostly because of underwhelming play at quarterback. How much will offensive coordinator Cameron be able to open up his playbook in 2015 after playing it so conservatively a season ago?
With Leonard Fournette in the backfield, LSU still figures to be a run-heavy offense. But the Tigers might not be able to beat the high-scoring teams on the schedule without getting the ball downfield more effectively. Cameron understands this reality.
Either way, expect him to throw more wrinkles at opposing defenses than he did for most of the 2014 season. Perhaps the regular-season finale against Texas A&M was a template. Cameron mixed things up against the Aggies and a stagnant offense came to life with 491 yards of total offense. Between that game and the bowl loss against Notre Dame, Cameron handed the ball to speedy receiver Travin Dural -- mostly on jet sweeps -- a total of eight times for 110 yards.
Getting more out of the quarterbacks would greatly help Cameron make better use of his skill talent, but it seems likely that he will be more ambitious this season regardless, out of necessity.
What impact will the new assistant coaches have on their positions? We’ve already discussed Steele and how he might juggle different defensive looks. Any shuffling would likely impact how he uses the players at his new position group, linebacker, as well. When the Tigers open spring practice on Saturday, it will be interesting to see where Steele has the various linebackers lining up.
LSU’s other new assistants, defensive line coach Ed Orgeron and receivers coach Tony Ball, both have young groups to develop. They both have obvious candidates for playing time (tackles Davon Godchaux and Christian LaCouture for Orgeron and wideouts Dural, Malachi Dupre, John Diarse and Trey Quinn for Ball), but building depth will be an objective for both coaches.
The Tigers have a boatload of unproven youngsters at both position groups, and LSU would benefit greatly if the new assistants could get some production out of them starting this spring.
Who grabs the last two starting spots on the offensive line? The positions for LSU’s three returning starters on the offensive line -- Vadal Alexander, Jerald Hawkins and Ethan Pocic -- aren’t set in stone, but it’s almost a certainty that all three will start somewhere.
Jeff Grimes’ job this spring will be figuring out where they fit best and which players to slide into the other two openings along his offensive line. Grimes lost two senior starters (left tackle La’el Collins and center Elliott Porter) and two top reserves (seniors Evan Washington and Fehoko Fanaika) from last season, so the Tigers will be young in spots.
Most likely that will be on the interior line, although Alexander could play either guard or tackle and Pocic is capable of playing every position on the line. Guard/tackle Josh Boutte, center Andy Dodd, center/guard William Clapp, tackle K.J. Malone and guard Garrett Brumfield are all players who might get some consideration from Grimes this spring.
As is the case each spring, there are a number of positions that are up for the grabs for the Tigers. The competition between quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris will generate the most attention, but there are several other positions where multiple players are vying for playing time.
Let’s take a look at five LSU position battles of interest this spring.
Offensive line: When last we saw Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins, the two draft-eligible mainstays along the LSU offensive line both announced that they would return for the 2015 season. They also said they expect to man the tackle positions after Alexander played left guard last season and Hawkins played right tackle. If that comes to pass, that leaves three interior line spots up for grabs. Ethan Pocic would fill one of them -- he has started at both center and guard -- and inexperienced youngsters will likely fill the others. A few names to watch this spring: Junior Josh Boutte, sophomores Andy Dodd and K.J. Malone and redshirt freshmen William Clapp and Garrett Brumfield.
Linebacker: It will hurt losing All-SEC weakside linebacker Kwon Alexander, who led the Tigers with 90 tackles, but LSU still has a solid core at the position starting with junior middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith (second on the team with 77 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss). New defensive coordinator Kevin Steele might shift things around a bit, incorporating some of the 3-4 looks that his defenses employed in his previous stop at Alabama. That might create some new roles for Steele’s linebackers. Lamar Louis could conceivably play a larger role, as could 2014 reserves like Duke Riley, Deion Jones and Clifton Garrett. The Tigers have everyone back at the position except for Alexander and D.J. Welter, so this veteran bunch should be a strength once everyone settles into the roles that Steele assigns them.
Cornerback: Jalen Collins and Rashard Robinson -- who combined to start 13 games last season -- are out of the picture, so LSU essentially has one starting position to fill opposite junior Tre'Davious White. It will be interesting to see how Steele and secondary coach Corey Raymond opt to fill that hole. Jalen Mills, who started at cornerback for two seasons before starting at safety in 2014, would be a capable option. But they have plenty of alternatives, including Dwayne Thomas (returning from ACL surgery), Ed Paris and highly touted early enrollee Kevin Toliver. LSU’s secondary is loaded with talent, so this will not be a situation where Steele and Raymond are forced to settle on a lineup. They’ll be able to work through a number of options this spring and decide which personnel combinations they like best.
Defensive end: This will be only the first chapter of this battle. It will truly get interesting in the summer once signees Arden Key and Isaiah Washington arrive on campus, but somebody has to take the first step in replacing starters Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco for now. Hunter (13 TFLs and 1.5 sacks) and Rasco (7.5 TFLs and 4 sacks) were LSU’s top pass-rushers a season ago, although the Tigers left a lot to be desired in that department. Only South Carolina (1.08 sacks per game) averaged fewer sacks per game than LSU (1.46) among SEC defenses. Junior Tashawn Bower seems like an odds-on favorite to take over a starting job, but Sione Teuhema and Deondre Clark also played a bit as freshmen last season. New defensive line coach Ed Orgeron will certainly make it an objective to build a line that generates more sacks this season, and it will start with more consistent pressure off the edge. But who will Orgeron identify as the players who can handle that duty?
Quarterback: We can’t do a list like this and not touch on the quarterbacks. No position got more attention last season -- largely because Jennings and Harris were so inconsistent -- and it will continue to draw the most speculation until somebody nails down the job. Early enrollee Justin McMillan joined the team in January, but this remains a two-man race. Jennings has started 13 of the last 14 games, but he was underwhelming in his first season as a starter, completing 48.9 percent of his passes for 1,611 yards, 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions last fall. Harris had a few impressive moments as a freshman, but bombed in his starting audition against Auburn and failed to earn the trust of the coaching staff. LSU’s coaches insist, however, that he has every opportunity to win the job between now and September.
La'el Collins sat down to review LSU practice film late last season and eventually noticed something familiar. When his backup K.J. Malone got reps at left tackle, he was using many of Collins' blocking techniques.
"He's going to be a great player. He's learned a lot," said Collins, who won the SEC's Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the conference's top blocker in 2014. "I watch film on him in practice and I see some of the stuff on his tape, I can tell that he's been watching my film. I asked him, 'Karl, have you been watching my film? Where'd you get that from?' [And he said], 'Yeah, I watched it.'
Collins leaves an enormous void at left tackle, but he is confident that LSU's offensive line will remain strong thanks to youngsters like Malone and Andy Dodd. And it doesn't hurt that right tackle Jerald Hawkins and left guard Vadal Alexander decided against entering the NFL draft, giving LSU three returning starters along with center/guard Ethan Pocic.
'Y'all haven't gotten a chance to see the young guys, really, at all, and y'all will be pretty shocked at how athletic and strong and talented the guys are coming up on the offensive line, from Garrett Brumfield to Josh Boutte, K.J. Malone," Alexander said.
Alexander started at right tackle as a freshman before shifting to left guard for 2013 and 2014. After announcing he would return for his senior season, he said he expected to move back to tackle this fall -- although he didn't know which side he or Hawkins might play. He predicted that rising junior Pocic and other young players would fill in the interior spots.
As for Hawkins, he definitely has earning the starting job at left tackle on his mind.
"I definitely see it as my objective," Hawkins said. "Any lineman, when we play as tackles, always wants to play left tackle."
A possibility at one of the interior spots is Dodd at center. Dodd said he spent 95 percent of his time at the position during practice last season and the other 5 percent at guard, although he played only center during games.
Dodd said knowledge of the playbook is one of the most important factors at center – a lesson that his time behind departed starter Elliott Porter reinforced.
"You have to be confident. You've got to know your stuff," Dodd said. "You just have to be able to think during the game. Like whenever something's not exactly how it is in practice, you have to be able to adjust to it. It's not really hard. You just have to focus."
Pocic is capable of playing any position on the line, which will give second-year position coach Jeff Grimes plenty of flexibility. With Boutte, Malone, Brumfield -- ESPN's No. 1 guard prospect in 2014, who redshirted last season -- Jevonte Domond, Will Clapp and Jonah Austin all back, Grimes will also have multiple lineup options.
"It's going to be a lot of room for learning," Malone said. "We're going to be really young because we're losing a lot of veterans, maybe. La'el, he's going to be a great loss to the O-line. But I think learning from all the veterans right now, I think we'll be ready for it."
Entering his third season as a starter, Hawkins agrees with Malone's assessment. He said he has been impressed by the potential he sees from the group of players who will begin fighting to grab starting spots this spring.
"All our young guys -- from Garrett Brumfield to K.J. Malone, William Clapp, especially Andy Dodd -- they're just coming up like they want it," Hawkins said during bowl practice. "I can see it in their eyes like they really want it. They want to play, and you can tell in practice. They're going after it each and every day."
Returning players: Starters: LG Vadal Alexander, RT Jerald Hawkins, C/RG Ethan Pocic. Reserves: OG Jonah Austin, OG Garrett Brumfield, OL Josh Boutte, C/OG Andy Dodd, OT K.J. Malone, OL Will Clapp, OT Jevonte Domond.
Departed players: Starters: LT La'el Collins, C Elliott Porter. Reserves: RG Fehoko Fanaika, OL Evan Washington.
Committed prospects: Maea Teuhema (No. 2 OG, No. 71 overall on ESPN 300, four stars), Adrian Magee (No. 41 OT, four stars), George Brown Jr. (No. 67 OT, three stars).
Outlook: LSU got welcome news in mid-January when Alexander and Hawkins announced they would return next fall, giving the Tigers three returning starters. No doubt, it hurts losing star left tackle Collins, but the Tigers have some promising youngsters waiting for their shot. It will be interesting to see where Pocic lands during spring practice -- either guard or center, most likely -- and which players get the first shot at the other two starting jobs on the interior line, assuming Alexander and Hawkins occupy the tackle spots. The ground should remain a strength for LSU in 2015.
Returning starters: LT La'el Collins (12 starts in 2013), LG Vadal Alexander (13 starts), C Elliott Porter (12 starts), RT Jerald Hawkins (13 starts). With all but one starter back from last season’s line, this figures to be an area of strength for the Tigers. Collins is an All-SEC tackle and one of the nation’s better players at his position. He and Alexander should give LSU a dominant pairing to run behind on the left side.
Starters lost: RG Trai Turner (13 starts) prevented the line from returning intact when he decided to enter the draft after his redshirt sophomore season. The decision seemed a bit strange at the time, but the Carolina Panthers validated Turner’s choice when they picked him in the NFL draft's third round.
Key newcomers: Garrett Brumfield (ESPN’s No. 54 overall prospect) is the headliner, ranking as ESPN’s top guard prospect of 2014. He and William Clapp (four stars, No. 22 guard) were initially LSU’s only offensive line signees. But junior college transfer Jevonte Domond became a late addition to the class when he learned he would not have to attend Glendale (Ariz.) Community College if he completed coursework for an associate degree in order to enroll at LSU in time for preseason camp. He can play either guard or tackle, but LSU lists him as a tackle.
Players to watch: Fehoko Fanaika (No starts) and Evan Washington (one start). With only one starting job seemingly open, naturally the players to watch are the contenders at right guard. Seniors Fanaika and Washington battled for the job in the spring and the fight will continue in August. They are listed as co-starters on the Tigers’ preseason depth chart. Keep an eye, also, on sophomore Ethan Pocic (one start). He’s listed as Porter’s backup at center, but it’s apparent LSU’s coaches like his chances to eventually become a starter.
Overall: The goal under first-year offensive line coach Jeff Grimes is to go from good to great. The pieces are there for that to happen. Collins could become one of the best offensive linemen LSU has had under Les Miles, and the Tigers have no shortage of depth or experience. In fact, since all of the projected starters will be eligible for the draft after this season, it's entirely possible that should players like junior Alexander (who started 22 games in his first two seasons) and redshirt sophomore Hawkins excel, the Tigers might have to replace all five starters next season. That will make it important for Grimes to develop the aforementioned newcomers and other youngsters such as K.J. Malone, Andy Dodd and Josh Boutte in order to soften the possible blow in 2015.
In previous weeks, we've broken down several players and position groups to watch this spring. As we lead up to Saturday's first team workout, this week we'll make five predictions related to the Tigers' upcoming practices.
Prediction: The freshmen will contend
Obviously this subject matter begins with early enrollees at quarterback, Brandon Harris, and safety, Edward Paris Jr. (whose position battles we discussed here and here). But there are multiple players coming off a 2013 redshirt whose names could figure prominently into the Tigers' spring competition.
We see many of them playing supporting roles once the season opens, and even leading roles in some cases. That will start with solid spring performances by the youngsters.
At receiver, sophomore Travin Dural (seven catches, 145 yards, two TDs last season) and senior Quantavius Leslie (1-11) are the two most experienced veterans, and we use that expression loosely. Three redshirt freshmen -- John Diarse, Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears -- will enter the mix this spring and one or two of them will almost certainly become valuable targets by August. For now, thin positional depth leaves the Tigers with no alternative, but that will change in the summer when freshmen Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn arrive. Don't be surprised if the redshirt freshmen who are already on campus make the depth chart appear much more solid by the end of spring practice.
The defensive tackles at least have Christian LaCouture (11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss) and Quentin Thomas (nine tackles, 0.5 TFLs) back along with junior Mickey Johnson (three tackles). As with the wideouts, the Tigers have several freshman signees who could contribute immediately at tackle. But this spring we'll be watching redshirt freshmen Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain inside and Frank Herron either inside or out. Plenty of observers thought that trio -- or at least a portion of that trio -- would see the field last fall, but none did. LSU doesn't have that convenience this year following Johnson and Ferguson's departures.
Paris should have a chance to compete at safety, too, although there are several players with starting experience returning at what was an often volatile position group in 2013. It will help his cause that he's already on campus, but don't be surprised if this position battle extends beyond the spring and into the season once the other freshman signees -- led by Jamal Adams -- arrive in the summer.
Harris has LSU fans excited about the dual-threat aspect of his game, but he would need to have a ridiculous spring to jump all the way to the top of the depth chart. Anthony Jennings was an early enrollee last season and performed well enough that he claimed the backup spot behind Zach Mettenberger, and eventually replaced him when Mettenberger suffered a season-ending knee injury against Arkansas. Harris has the game to make a similar ascent -- eventually -- but it's only fair to temper one's expectations considering he's a freshman with two months on campus getting his first taste of running Cam Cameron's offense.
There are others -- including offensive linemen Andy Dodd and K.J. Malone and quarterback Hayden Rettig -- who will also compete this spring to become the next Tigers who make a name for themselves as freshmen. That has quickly become a tradition among the Tigers, and we fully expect it to continue in 2014.
We covered the wide receivers, defensive tackles, quarterbacks and safeties in the first four installments. We conclude this week's series with the offensive line, which will break in a new position coach, Jeff Grimes, and at least one new starter this fall.
Departures: Right guard Trai Turner (13 starts) entered the NFL draft after a redshirt sophomore season where he became a second-team all-SEC pick. ESPN Scouts Inc. ranks him as the No. 5 guard and No. 113 overall prospect in the upcoming draft.
Returning reserves: Although Grimes could always elect to shake up the lineup, the most intriguing position at this point is the one that lost a starter: right guard. We recently wrote about how this will be a big spring for Fehoko Fanaika to prove that he deserves to inherit Turner's starting spot. Fanaika was an early enrollee after transferring from the College of San Mateo junior college last January and played in 12 games as a backup. The 6-foot-6, 348-pound mauler must now prove he deserves a starting spot. Other reserves of note are Ethan Pocic, Porter's backup at center who could play other positions if necessary, and rising sophomore tackle Josh Boutte. Tackle Evan Washington and guard Jonah Austin also played last season, with Washington earning a start against Furman.
Newcomers: Guards K.J. Malone and Andy Dodd both redshirted last season after arriving at LSU as four-star prospects. The Tigers signed just two offensive linemen in this class, both of whom will arrive in the summer. One of them, Garrett Brumfield, was ESPN's No. 1 guard prospect for 2014, so he might make the guard competition interesting in August if Fanaika doesn't nail down the job this spring. The other signee is four-star guard William Clapp.
What to watch: Beyond the candidates for the right guard spot, it's worth watching how Grimes decides to use his returning players. He said in a local radio interview last week that LSU's line was good, but rarely great in 2013, adding that he hadn't evaluated individual players too closely yet, so that he could give them all a fair shake when they start practicing together. The four returning starters have a decided experience advantage, but Grimes hasn't developed any preferences yet. This will be a valuable evaluation time for the Tigers' new assistant coach.
"Hopefully, I'll see a win [for LSU]," said the Dallas/Kimball four-star defensive tackle who will make LSU his fourth official visit. "For some reason, all the schools I visit lose while I'm there."
Indeed, he visited Texas A&M when LSU won there, 24-19. He was at TCU when the Horned Frogs were upset by Iowa State, and he visited Oklahoma when the Sooners lost to Kansas State. So next weekend he'll be looking for a win -- just as LSU is looking for a win in its efforts to land a quality defensive tackle like Manning.
That doesn't necessarily make for compelling blue chip vs. blue chip matchups, but what you have are a lot of top prospects playing big games for their teams this weekend. With LSU off, here are games LSU fans might want to check out around the state this weekend:
New Orleans/St. Augustine (6-2) at Metairie/East Jefferson (6-1): When you think of high school football, you think of "Friday Night Lights." There haven't been many Friday nights this year for St. Augustine and RB Leonard Fournette in urban New Orleans, where a scarcity of stadiums has had the Purple Knights playing many Thursday and Saturday game. This week, the Friday lights will shine on Fournette, one of the top players in the 2014 class, when St. Augustine heads to suburban Metairie for a huge District 10-4A game.
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ESPN 150 member and LSU commit Jeryl Brazil (Loranger, La./Loranger) celebrated his inclusion in the 2013 Under Armour All-America Game in style this past Friday.
After he received his jersey for those proceedings, he got back to work in his Loranger jersey. Brazil continued his big season as the Wolves' quarterback in a 42-18 win against Bogalusa, but he showed off the skills that make him dangerous in several spots: he rushed for touchdowns of 1 and 7 yards, and he added a pick-six from the cornerback spot. Loranger is 6-0 with Brazil at the helm and is set for a serious push at the Class 3A state title.
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The Tigers return roughly four starters from last year's impressive unit. Left tackle Chris Faulk and center P.J. Lonergan are the most obvious among the group, considering they both made double digit starts in 2011 and enter 2012 as contenders for national honors. Right tackle Alex Hurst -- who played a whopping 767 snaps last year -- and right guard Josh Williford return as well. That doesn't even include the return of sixth-year senior Josh Dworaczyk, although the extent of his role after major surgery is yet to be determined.
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LSU had a good offensive line last season and may have a better one in 2012. Here are five things to know about the Tigers' offensive line this off-season.
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That's not to say it was void of talent.
All it took was for the talented players from LSU's on-campus high school, University Lab, to show up. ESPN 150 senior defensive end Tim Williams led the contingent, bur he was far from the only Cub at the camp who might have a major college future.
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Rabalais looks ahead at LSU's FB schedule
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