LSU Tigers: La'El Collins

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Jalen Collins was shocked to learn at the NFL scouting combine that he had a fractured right foot.

For his sake, thankfully the combine medical staff still allowed Collins to participate, and he delivered one of the most impressive performances of any cornerback at the event despite the injury.

The former LSU cornerback, whom some draft analysts project as a first-round pick, recently underwent surgery to repair an incomplete Jones fracture in his foot. It prevented him from participating in LSU’s pro day on Friday, but should only sideline him for about three more weeks.

[+] EnlargeJalen Collins
David J. PhillipJalen Collins didn't let a broken foot prevent him from impressing at the NFL scouting combine.

“When I first found out, I was kind of disappointed because I didn’t think I was going to be able to work out at the combine,” Collins said. “When my name wasn’t on the list of people that had to sit out, I was excited to hear that.

“Just after the combine workouts I just went into it [thinking] this is something that I have to get done -- a little speed bump, but it shouldn’t be too hard to come back from.”

The foot surgery is about the only disappointing aspect of the three months since Collins declared for the draft. He started seven games last season as a junior and just 10 in his entire college career, but Collins’ combination of ideal size (6-foot-2, 198 pounds) and raw tools helped him vault up the list of prospects at his position.

Not bad for a guy who was advised to stay in college when he submitted his name to the NFL underclassman advisory board to be evaluated as a possible draft entrant. Undaunted, Collins had faith in his own abilities. Those abilities have him sitting 24th on ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s Big Board and ranking as Kiper’s No. 3 cornerback.

“I was honestly just hoping for the best,” Collins said of his decision to enter the draft. “Everybody wants to be in the first round, obviously, but coming in, I really didn’t have any prior expectations. I was just going to do what I could do and hope for the best.”

Following his combine performance, where he ran a 4.48-second time in the 40-yard dash and finished among the top cornerbacks in several other drills while performing well during positional exercises, Collins has reason for optimism.

Collins said he already has interviews lined up with nine or 10 NFL clubs, starting with the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars next week. Once his foot heals, he will surely have several more individual workouts with interested suitors ahead of the April 30 draft.

“It really has [been a whirlwind],” Collins said. “Leading up to the combine and just kind of working out, not really having any idea what would happen, just, ‘I’m going to work hard, do what I can.’ And then after the combine, it’s like, ‘Wow, this is really happening.’ ”

While Collins was unable to participate on Friday, 22 former LSU players were able to compete in front of approximately 100 scouts and coaches representing every NFL club.

Offensive tackle La'el Collins -- another possible first-round pick -- was among them, although he stood on the numbers he posted at the combine and participated only in positional drills alongside former teammates Elliott Porter, Fehoko Fanaika and Evan Washington.

Linebacker Kwon Alexander, whose 4.55 time in the 40 was among the fastest for linebackers at the combine, participated only in the shuttle run and positional drills. Defensive end Danielle Hunter did all of the events and drills on Friday except the 40 -- he ran the fastest time of any defensive lineman at the combine at 4.57 -- and the bench press after completing 25 reps at the combine.

“I felt great [at the combine],” said Hunter, who injured himself at the combine while running his second 40. “I had a little hamstring injury and I didn’t want to do all the drills, so I just waited until pro day to do most of the drills.”

But Hunter was pleased with his showing on Friday, when he posted the best numbers out of all of the day’s participants in the 20-yard shuttle run (4.31 seconds), three-cone drill (6.95 seconds), broad jump (10 feet, 10.5 inches) and vertical jump (36.5 inches). ESPN Scouts Inc.’s No. 77 overall prospect and Kiper’s No. 9 defensive end, Hunter participated in positional drills at both end and linebacker.

“I got the times I needed,” Hunter said. “I showed what I can show in my drills. My hips, they could be a little better.”

The aforementioned foursome -- Jalen Collins, La'el Collins, Alexander and Hunter -- has already solidified positions as LSU’s top draft prospects, but several other Tigers needed strong performances on Friday in order to help themselves.

Two such players were running backs Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard. Magee did not run the 40 at the combine after injuring his hamstring at a postseason all-star game, and Hilliard probably wished he hadn’t run in Indianapolis after posting a 4.83. He fared much better on Friday, posting a 4.6, while Magee ran a 4.56.

“I heard a couple different things. I heard 4.6 and I heard 4.5, but I’m glad with either one,” Hilliard said. “I just wanted to improve here from the combine and that’s what I came out here and did.”

Receiver Quantavius Leslie posted the fastest 40 time of the day (4.45), while Porter completed the most bench press reps (34). For a full list of results, see the pro day page on LSU’s official athletics site here.

Top spring storylines at LSU

March, 5, 2015
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- For most LSU fans, there is only one spring storyline that matters: the quarterback battle between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.

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.

[+] EnlargeKevin Steele
AP Photo/Hilary ScheinukHow new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, left, changes up LSU's schemes will be one of the top storylines to follow in Baton Rouge.
But Steele seems likely to change things around a bit, perhaps incorporating some 3-4 looks into the scheme over time. The Tigers have personnel that is best suited for the 4-3 base scheme and multiple-DB packages that John Chavis coached over the previous six seasons, but the roster is more than versatile enough to try some new things. Steele’s impact will be one of the most intriguing storylines not just this spring, but throughout the 2015 season at LSU.

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.
Editor's note: We broke down LSU's need to improve at quarterback as part of our SEC blog's positional series two weeks ago. This week on the LSU blog, we continue our position-by-position look at the 2015 Tigers.

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.'

[+] EnlargeK.J. Malone
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsThe Tigers are looking to young players like K.J. Malone to keep their offensive line strong.
"That makes me feel good to know that I'm able to impact a player. That's all I'm trying to do."

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."

BREAKDOWN

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.

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.”

Versatility an asset for Tigers' OL

August, 22, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Because of their smaller rosters, NFL clubs love versatility among their offensive linemen. That being the case, pro scouts will probably take long looks at LSU’s line, as several linemen have the position versatility they like to see.

But that could come in handy now, not just when they try to find homes on NFL rosters. Just as in the pros, should anyone go down with an injury, it will be extremely helpful that Tigers such as La'el Collins, Vadal Alexander, Ethan Pocic and Evan Washington are all capable of working at multiple positions.

“It’s not easy to know how to snap, play guard and play tackle and play left side, play right side,” senior center Elliott Porter said. “It’s confusing to know the right side of the play and the left side. It gets confusing, so it gets hard. But we do hard things, and in the NFL that’s what they do, so you have to prepare for it. I have to prepare to play guard. If I don’t, you don’t know how long you’re going to make it.”

[+] Enlarge Jeremy Hill
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsRunning behind Vadal Alexander and his linemates can be an uplifting experience.
Porter said he, too, has worked in multiple spots, but he apparently has a fight on his hands for the center job. LSU coach Les Miles has hinted several times lately that sophomore Pocic will play a lot in the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin, if not start.

At 6-foot-7, Pocic seems awfully tall for a center -- the average SEC starting center last season was 3 1/2 inches shorter -- and he might eventually land at guard or tackle, but Pocic’s impressive athleticism allows him to fit well at any position along the line.

“When you bend like Ethan Pocic bends, it’s easier for him,” Porter said. “He has great hips. He’s a phenomenal athlete. You ain’t hearing me, he’s phenomenal. He does everything right, and I expect him to be a great player and nothing less.”

Pocic said he started working at multiple positions this spring after Jeff Grimes came on as the Tigers’ new offensive line coach. He said his time at center made shifting to other spots an easier proposition.

“At first [it was tough]. And then as you mature and get older, you learn to do it,” Pocic said. “I think just playing center, you’ve got to know what everyone’s doing and that’s what’s helped me the most.”

Collins and Alexander are entrenched at left tackle and left guard, respectively, but they provide excellent insurance policies in that they have started at other positions in their careers. Collins started at left guard as a sophomore before moving over one spot to tackle last season. And Alexander started nine games at right tackle as a freshman before moving to left guard in 2013, clearing the way for Jerald Hawkins to enter the starting lineup at right tackle.

It helps to be able to do both, but tackle is the most lucrative professional position. That was one factor in Collins’ decision to return for his senior season -- to prove that he can play tackle in the NFL -- and it’s part of the reason why Alexander wouldn’t mind moving back out to the edge someday.

“I’d love to play tackle again,” Alexander said. “If the opportunity presents itself, I think I can still play it. I played my freshman year, so I know every position. I’ve actually been taking some snaps, so I can play center, too. I can snap the ball. But I’m more of a guard-tackle guy. So I think I can play. If the opportunity presents itself, I can definitely do it.”

Likewise, Washington played both guard and tackle in games last season and, while he’s competing with Fehoko Fanaika for the starting spot at right guard, Miles hinted this week that LSU’s coaches are willing to play him at any position except center.

“The one thing about it is Washington is going to play in four spots, so it’s still … both guys will play,” Miles said of the right guard battle after Tuesday’s team scrimmage.

That’s the name of the game with this group. Not only does LSU return four starters and a couple of reserves from a solid 2013 offensive line, but the group’s improving versatility will be a great insurance policy for Grimes if injuries occur -- as they inevitably do on the line.

Combine that with the group’s collective experience and it’s clear why LSU’s coaches seem to feel comfortable with the line as the opener approaches.

“It’s critical,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said of the line’s experience. “Now if we didn’t have it, I’d be sitting here saying we’ll find a way. And we would. We really would. I think the best friend of any young quarterback, freshman or sophomore, any young running back, any young receiver, the best friend is a running game. And there’s nobody running the ball out there week in and week out against good teams, much less in the SEC, without a dominant offensive line. So we’re excited about our offensive line.”

High five: Five items from Week 3

August, 22, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. – Each week during LSU’s preseason practice, we will review five things we learned that week.

Here are five items from the Tigers’ third week of preseason camp:

1. Both QBs will play: Les Miles has been incredibly tight-lipped about LSU’s quarterback battle between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. But this week he offered a few nuggets about the Tigers’ plans for the quarterbacks.

For one thing, Miles said on his weekly radio show that he expects both of them to play in the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin. A day earlier, Miles said after a team scrimmage that he expects to inform the contenders who will start against the Badgers when the coaching staff nails down the specifics of the game plan next Thursday.

2. Pocic makes a move: Miles hasn’t out and out said Ethan Pocic will start at center against Wisconsin, but it’s evident that Miles believes that he could. Each time the versatile sophomore’s name has come up in news conferences in the last two weeks, Miles has said something along the lines of, “I think Pocic is looking forward to playing a lot of football in the first game.”

Even if he he splits time with senior Elliott Porter, the more Pocic plays this season, the better. The Tigers will lose a ton of experience from this line after the season. Porter, La’el Collins, Fehoko Fanaika and Evan Washington are all seniors and underclassmen Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins will be eligible for the NFL draft after the season.

It would be highly beneficial for what could be an explosive 2015 team if offensive line coach Jeff Grimes can get players such as Pocic and some of the other linemen who will play next season on the field this fall.

[+] EnlargeKenny Hilliard
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsKenny Hilliard will get his share of touches, even with Terrence Magee and Leonard Fournette around at LSU.
3. Good camp for Hilliard: Leonard Fournette mania is in full effect – and for good reason, as the freshman tailback is going to be a star – but Kenny Hilliard’s name has consistently been the first one Miles mentioned when discussing the running backs lately. The senior has been something of an afterthought for much of his LSU career, rushing for a total of 1,100 yards and 21 touchdowns in his first three seasons, but he has trimmed down and reportedly has run the ball well in scrimmages.

We probably won’t see a perfectly even time-share in the Tigers’ backfield, but it seems clear that both Hilliard and freshman Darrel Williams will get their touches, too, alongside Fournette and senior Terrence Magee.

4. Highlight of the week: Have you ever wondered whether teams practice the crazy lateral plays that sometimes occur at the end of games when one team is aiming for a last-second, desperation score? They do. In fact, LSU worked on that very scenario in practice this week. I off-handedly talked to a handful of players after Thursday’s practice about memorable events from the week, and one that came up was how quickly an offensive lineman motored with the ball after catching one of those laterals. The lineman whose speed caught teammates’ attention? Mr. Pocic. All 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds of him.

5. Valentine on his way?: Defensive tackle signee Travonte Valentine’s eligibility case might finally wrap up in the next several days. He told The (Baton Rouge) Advocate that he tentatively plans to arrive at LSU on Saturday, pending clearance from the SEC office. He hinted that another SEC program might have presented a case to the league office that delayed his enrollment, even after the NCAA recently cleared him academically. Miles said after Tuesday’s scrimmage that he expected the big defensive lineman – the No. 164 prospect in the ESPN 300 and the No. 11 defensive tackle – to be on campus within the next several days, so perhaps the case will be resolved shortly.
BATON ROUGE, La. – La'el Collins took a risk in returning for one more season at LSU. That much is certain. But the senior offensive tackle believes that the potential payoff outweighs the chance he took by remaining in college.

Yes, returning will help him graduate from college. And yes, he’ll have one more chance to help the Tigers compete for championships. But perhaps the biggest payoff would be if he manages to improve his NFL draft stock from possible first-round pick to surefire first-round pick.

“It was a lot of things in my game that I feel like I could get better at,” Collins said. “I had so much more room to grow as a left tackle in this league, so why would I want to enter the draft and know I didn’t reach my full potential in this league first?

[+] EnlargeLa'el Collins
Patrick Green/Icon SMILa'el Collins is returning to LSU to show the NFL he's the total package.
“So I wanted to come back and work on those things -- just being more consistent, just working on technique things and just coming out here and really just giving my all in practice. Practicing like it’s a game and putting myself through that so when it’s game time, I’m ready.”

That’s a unique attitude anywhere in college football, and especially at LSU, which has seen 18 players with eligibility remaining opt to enter the draft in the last two years.

It’s a sport-wide problem, however, as a staggering number of underclassmen enter the draft only to discover too late that they weren’t ready for the pros. Many of them, such as LSU defensive lineman and early draft entrant Anthony Johnson, aren’t even among the 256 picks in the seven-round draft.

That would not have been Collins’ fate, but when it was time to make a decision, he heeded LSU coach Les Miles’ call not to give an NFL team a bargain. Collins said he received a mix of first- and second-round draft grades from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, which helps underclassmen understand how NFL teams view their readiness to play in the league, but he felt he could do better.

He believes a second season starting at left tackle, unquestionably a premium salary position in the NFL, is well worth the injury risk that accompanies another college season -- and Collins has impressed his coaches in many ways since making that decision.

“I think leadership is evident in La’el Collins, a guy that’s really not eligible to wear 18 [a jersey number handed to a team leader each season, but offensive linemen can't wear such a low number], a guy that really turned down what was certain wealth at some level to get his degree, play championship ball here and put himself in position to move his draft status up,” Miles said. “So that kind of guy is a leader in every huddle that we break.”

Collins’ leadership came up again and again as one of his strengths, as he steadies an offense that could be heavy on freshmen at the skill positions.

“La’el Collins is a man and a great leader,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “I’ve been so impressed with him. He chose to come back and he did it for all the right reasons and he’s never looked back and he’s becoming a great, great leader. He’s impressive and I think that’s rubbing off on the other guys and he’s setting high expectations for this offense.”

Now about that draft stock.

Collins worked relentlessly since the end of his All-SEC junior season, improving his physique and working on the technical aspects of his position in order to become a more consistent blocker. New offensive line coach Jeff Grimes has noticed a difference in Collins even since they first worked together in spring practice.

[+] EnlargeLa'El Collins
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesLa'el Collins is putting in the work to be even better than he was in an All-SEC junior season.
“The first thing I would say about La’el is he has improved as much if not more than anybody on the line since I’ve been here, which I think is quite a statement given his experience and success that he’s had,” Grimes said. “So he is really working to get better. The other thing I can say is he’s really stepped up his leadership, which is important for a guy in his position, important for our team because he definitely has a strong voice in the locker room. Guys will follow him.”

From a technical perspective, Grimes said the keys for Collins are to play with sound technique and stay under control.

“I think the things that he’s had to do is just really refine his footwork and his hat placement and realize he’s an aggressive kid, and sometimes the most aggressive kids are the ones that may get a little out of control just wanting to whack somebody on the line of scrimmage,” Grimes said. “He’s had to realize that sometimes you have to start the block right in order to finish the play with the defender on his back."

It’s a cliché, but Collins knows improving at those little things can add up -- perhaps literally if a strong senior season results in a lucrative NFL contract. He feels he has something to prove, and that’s a big reason why he’s still a Tiger.

“You have to have the technique and that’s something that I feel like I have to be more consistent on,” Collins said. “That’s things that I really feel like I need to really put myself in it and work and come out and practice each and every day and make sure I take the correct steps, make sure I get my hat on the right side, make sure I get my hands in the right place.

"Those little things right there can carry me from now to however long I play football in my life. I just felt like I needed to work on those things.”

High five: Five items from Week 1

August, 8, 2014
8/08/14
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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:

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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.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- By now it's no secret that LSU's offense will be loaded with freshmen and inexperienced underclassmen. Perhaps that's why offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has emphasized since spring practice that his veterans have to do more than lead by example.

"There's no room for quiet leaders anymore. It's time for people to step up and start talking," said running back Terrence Magee, an understated senior who admitted that vocal leadership does not come naturally. "And if that's what I've got to do, then I'm willing to do it."

That's a theme that has resonated throughout the offensive roster. A crew of future stars like Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupre and Brandon Harris joined the team this year, and the older players understand that the rookies need to see -- and hear -- things being done the right way.

Many older players already wanted to mentor the youngsters through their actions, but the verbal portion of leadership is new to some. Magee and senior left tackle La'el Collins both identified right tackle Jerald Hawkins as a naturally quiet starter who has become more verbal since Cameron sent that message in the spring. Collins added running back Kenny Hilliard and quarterbacks Harris and Anthony Jennings to the list of burgeoning vocal leaders.

"It's definitely more natural to me because that's just the way it was when I got here," Collins said. "That's something that I picked up on and it kind of died down a little bit, but it's just something that Coach Cam is kind of reinstating."

If Cameron's efforts are successful, they can have an impact far beyond the 2014 season as the young players continue to mature, Collins said.

"Guys around here and our younger guys especially, they need to see that. They need to see that is what sets the trend," Collins said. "That's what gets the young guys on one accord with us, makes sure we're moving in the same direction and when they become veterans, they'll be able to pass that along."

Moving around: As Coach Les Miles indicated before camp, quarterbacks Harris and Jennings switched practice groups in Monday and Tuesday's split-squad workouts. And they weren't alone.

Jennings practiced with the varsity on Monday -- a group largely composed of starters with a handful of freshmen mixed in -- and shifted to the reserves/freshmen group on Tuesday afternoon, and vice versa for Harris. That gives both players a chance to work with a full range of personnel.

"This is designed so that everybody's getting maximum reps, and it may be as deceptive as we want this linebacker to be with that linebacker so he can see it being done extremely well," Miles said. "So don't spend a lot of time saying, ‘Why's he here, why's he there?' It is fully for a teaching purpose and for everybody to get really great reps."

In addition to the quarterbacks, several other players switched from the afternoon to the morning group on Tuesday. Among Tuesday's morning newcomers were tight ends DeSean Smith and Logan Stokes, after Dillon Gordon and Travis Dickson worked with the first-teamers on Monday, and safety Jalen Mills. Backup quarterback Jared Foster also practiced with the morning group after working in the afternoon Monday.

Right guard competition: LSU has four starters back along the offensive line, but the competition for the vacant starting position could last well into the season.

Hoko Fanaika was the first to line up at right guard with the starting offensive line Tuesday, but he and fellow senior Evan Washington know their battle will truly renew once the team begins practicing in pads on Friday.

"We've been getting pretty much equal reps," Fanaika said after Tuesday morning's practice.

Miles and offensive line coach Jeff Grimes -- both former right guards in college -- have individually worked with the guards in practice this week, and Fanaika said their instruction has been helpful.

"[Miles] just pretty much sharpens up my technique," Fanaika said. "Whatever Grimes teaches me, he just adds on, so he's just helping me better my craft."

Plenty of reps for RBs: LSU has only four scholarship tailbacks on the roster -- Magee and fellow senior Hilliard, plus Fournette and fellow freshman Darrel Williams -- so there have been plenty of carries to go around for the backs in the split-squad workouts.

That's a major change for the veterans, who encountered a significantly different depth-chart situation when they first became Tigers. Hilliard was a reserve who rushed for 336 yards and eight touchdowns for the 2011 SEC championship club, while Magee played much less, totaling 27 carries for 133 yards that season as Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue and Hilliard played bigger roles.

"When I got here, it was about six or eight of us and we were fighting for reps. You might get one or two a day," Magee chuckled on Monday. "But me and Kenny, we're getting our share of them right now, and Darrel and Leonard, they're going to get their share of them this afternoon. We'll be glad when we all come together and it's all four of us so we don't have to take the whole load."

Quote of the day: Miles on watching freshman tailback Fournette practicing Monday for the first time at LSU in helmet and shorts, since the team doesn't practice in full pads until Friday: "That's kind of like having Tiger Woods on a golf course with a putter. You just want to see him tee off, don't you? Well, we have to put pads on before we can see him tee off."
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Anthony Jennings got the first chance to work with LSU's starting offense when the Tigers opened preseason practice on Monday.

Now he must somehow retain that honor once the full team begins practicing together later this week -- and that won't be easy with freshman quarterback Brandon Harris breathing down his neck.

"Anthony threw the ball real well. He knew the offense like the back of his hand," wide receiver Travin Dural said after working with Jennings and the first-team offense in Monday morning's practice. "I'm not sure how Brandon's going to do, but I have a lot of confidence that he's going to do real well in the afternoon. And then when we come together, it's going to be pretty good. They're going to show that ability and one of them's going to emerge as the starter."

LSU's team split into two groups on Monday, as it will for each of the first four days of practice, with one group composed largely of starters and a handful of freshmen working out in the morning, while a collection of mostly reserves and the remaining freshmen practices in the afternoon.

LSU coach Les Miles said on Sunday that LSU's two quarterback contenders, sophomore Jennings and early enrollee Harris, will practice with both groups in the first four days before the Friday's first full-squad practice.

Neither quarterback was available to speak to media members on Monday.

Harris practiced with the afternoon group on Monday -- as did several other blue-chip signees in the nation's No. 2 recruiting class like tailback Leonard Fournette and receiver Trey Quinn. Among the freshmen who practiced with the varsity group in the morning were safety Jamal Adams, linebacker Clifton Garrett and receiver Malachi Dupre.

"Once they come in and they do 7-on-7 [in summer workouts], they kind of get a feel for things, but this is really what's going to tell the tale," running back Terrence Magee said. "We're just as intrigued at seeing them play as the coaches are, and to get out there and teach them and help them because we had guys before us that were the same way, ready to see us play and bring [us] along. For me, when I leave, I want to be able to look back at some of those young guys and say, ‘I helped him get to where he's at.' "

New No. 18: With that attitude in mind, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Magee was wearing a new jersey number, 18, when he practiced with the varsity on Monday morning.

LSU made it official on Sunday night that the senior running back would be the next recipient of the coveted number, following a vote to determine the most deserving player. The Tigers have a tradition each year in which they select a leader who best represents the team on and off the field to wear No. 18, and this year, it will be Magee.

"The No. 18 really isn't significant of all the leaders that we have on this team, from every senior that we have on the team, from La'el Collins to Jermauria Rasco to even some of the younger guys like Kwon Alexander," Magee said. "They wear their number and they're still leaders on this team. It's not going to change my mindset or how I do."

Magee breaks a streak of three straight seasons where a defensive player had worn No. 18. Linebacker Lamin Barrow wore it last season, following defensive tackle Bennie Logan and safety Brandon Taylor in previous years.

"They really showed me what it means to wear the No. 18," Magee said. "They represented it well and laid the foundation for me to continue the tradition. It's a tremendous honor and I'm very excited that the coaches thought enough of me to pick me."

Fournette's debut: Believe it or not, Fournette didn't take his first handoff at LSU 99 yards for a touchdown -- although maybe it's just because that first handoff came in a simple position drill.

Seriously, though, the heavily-hyped tailback -- as well as the other members of the touted recruiting class -- had even the veterans curious about how they'd look in practice.

"I might go out there and peek when they practice this afternoon ... just see what I'm going to be going up against in a couple days," linebacker D.J. Welter said with a grin.

Thompson, Rasco back; Mills practices: Safety Corey Thompson and defensive end Jermauria Rasco both practiced Monday with the starting defense after missing spring practice while recovering from offseason surgeries.

Thompson wore a brace on his surgically-repaired left knee, but seems to have recovered most of his mobility.

"He looks good. He's doing better," safety Ronald Martin said. "Hopefully he gets back up to 100 percent sometime during camp, but today he looked great out there."

A surprise from the afternoon workout was safety Jalen Mills' presence on the practice field. Mills has been indefinitely suspended since June following an incident where he allegedly punched a woman. East Baton Rouge district attorney Hillar Moore informed the Baton Rouge Advocate early Monday that he plans to charge Mills with misdemeanor simple battery, which is punishable with up to six months in prison or up to a $1,000 fine.

An LSU spokesman said Miles will address the junior safety's status with the team when he meets with reporters Monday evening. Running back Jeremy Hill sat out the first five quarters of the 2013 season after pleading guilty to a simple battery charge prior to the season.

"We've just got to keep getting better, keep helping each other get better as a whole, keep trying to [be] cohesive and get better as a unit like we are," Martin said. "And once [Mills] comes back, if he comes back, I hope he does come back, he just steps back into what we were doing this spring and just continue to grind."

LSU position breakdown: OL

August, 1, 2014
8/01/14
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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 is the offensive line.

OFFENSIVE LINE

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.

Most important game: LSU

July, 2, 2014
7/02/14
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We continue our series looking at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. Today we take a look at LSU.

Most important game: Nov. 8 vs. Alabama

Key players: Let's start with the offensive line, where the Tigers return four starters and expect to have a solid group, led by tackle La'el Collins and guard Vadal Alexander. They'll have to do better against Alabama's front line than they did last year in giving up four sacks. LSU's ground game also must be better than last season, when the Tide outgained the Tigers 193-43 in rushing yards. Running back Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard have the experience, but touted true freshman Leonard Fournette, the nation's No. 1 recruit in the 2014 class, could very well take over as the starter by November.

No matter who is toting the rock, the biggest key for LSU will be the play of its new quarterback, regardless of whether it's sophomore Anthony Jennings or true freshman Brandon Harris. Neither has played in a game of this magnitude, but there won't be time for jitters. Alabama's reloaded defense will be more than capable of stuffing the run and putting all the pressure on LSU's young signal-caller, whoever it is, to make a difference through the air. The Tigers lost a lot of talent to the NFL from their wide receiving corps, but Travin Dural and John Diarse have the skills to rise to the occasion. LSU also signed two of the top three wideouts in the 2014 class -- Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn.

On defense, the Tigers have few question marks at linebacker and in the secondary but must regroup on the line, where they had an uncharacteristic 9.5 sacks last season. End Jermauria Rasco had one of them against Alabama, but it was the only sack of the game for LSU. With only two other tackles for loss in that game, the Tigers simply didn't generate enough pressure. Rasco and fellow starter Danielle Hunter will have the usual challenge against Alabama's O-line, which returns three starters and loads of talent. LSU could certainly use more of a push from its defensive tackles, where youngsters like Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain have the talent to emerge this fall.

Why it matters: We could have easily chosen Auburn to be LSU's most important game of 2014, since LSU was the only SEC team to beat Auburn last season. But the most important game -- and rivalry -- remains with Alabama. Maintaining an edge over Auburn is important, but LSU-Alabama continues to be one of the nation's biggest annual games. The Tide are the standard against which LSU measures itself, and vice versa. These schools also love recruiting in each other's territory, so the Tigers can't afford to slip. Last season saw LSU lose to Bama for the second straight season. The Tigers lost two fumbles, two turnovers on downs and basically let the game get out of hand in the second half, losing 38-17. It was the the most points LSU had given up in the rivalry since 1947. This year, LSU will face Alabama in Baton Rouge, presumably under the lights of Tiger Stadium. With both teams breaking in new QBs and several new players on defense, there's a chance this game won't have the national title implications it usually does. But it's a safe bet the SEC West race will loom large. All that aside, this is a down-and-dirty Southern grudge match. It's the Hatfields and McCoys of the SEC. The Tigers simply can't afford to lose a third straight game to their most-heated rival.

Video: X factor for LSU

July, 2, 2014
7/02/14
11:05
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SEC reporter Edward Aschoff discusses why left tackle La'el Collins is the X factor for LSU's football team in 2014.

SEC lunchtime links

June, 27, 2014
6/27/14
12:00
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Strange seeing legions of soccer fans cheering about losses and ties, but that's World Cup group play for you. Next up in the knockout rounds, they'll settle any ties with a penalty-kick shootout. Seems only slightly more fair. At least college football has the Kansas tiebreaker and not some kind of punt, pass and catch exhibition.

SEC lunchtime links

June, 20, 2014
6/20/14
12:00
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We have recruiting, transfers, injury updates, playbook kerfluffles and much more in Friday's edition of the lunch links. Hope you all have a great day and a great weekend.

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