LSU Tigers: Lewis Neal
Perhaps no position group at LSU progressed more over the course of the 2014 season than the defensive line.
That group was a problem early in the season when opponents like Mississippi State and Auburn rolled up two of the biggest yardage totals ever accumulated against the Tigers in the Les Miles era. But by the time the season ended, the line was a strength.
The biggest question facing the group in 2015 will be whether the Tigers' front can do a better job pressuring the quarterback, particularly without Hunter and Jermauria Rasco. The Tigers did not record many sacks -- they had just 19, second-to-last in the SEC -- even with those two ends, but now it might fall on younger players like Tashawn Bower, Sione Teuhema and Deondre Clark to make quarterbacks sweat.
"It would be great to get all the sacks, but we definitely got a lot of QB pressures and a lot of quarterback hits and things of that nature," Bower said. "So we're definitely happy with where we're at, but we're not content."
New position coach Ed Orgeron also has work to do in developing depth. Predecessor Brick Haley got a lot out of interior linemen Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux, but the Tigers have a number of heavily recruited tackles who struggled to make much of a difference.
Entering their redshirt sophomore seasons, tackles Maquedius Bain, Frank Herron and Greg Gilmore could help Orgeron build better depth, as could redshirt freshmen Travonte Valentine and Trey Lealaimatafao.
The two redshirt freshmen might be able to make an immediate impact, in fact.
"Trey Valentine, he's a true run-stopper," Rasco said. "He's got some juice in him in the pass rush. You'll see him in a game and you won't be expecting him to be able to move as good as he moves. And also with Trey Lay, for a guy to be so little, he's real powerful and he brings a lot to the table. Those are going to be the secret weapons for next year as long as they do what they have to do on and off the field."
It will be a huge benefit that LaCouture and Godchaux both return after locking down starting jobs last fall. That should help LSU's front seven remain strong against the run while Orgeron nails down the ends he can rely on to generate a better pass rush.
Some of those players might not even be on the roster yet. LSU continues to pursue several top-tier end prospects, some of whom would be capable of providing an immediate lift should they sign with the Tigers on Feb. 4.
"Those guys, I don't see no letdown," Rasco said during bowl practice. "The only thing that'll happen, I don't know who they're bringing in, but they'd better get with the program early if they want to play. That's the only thing I can say."
Returning players: DT Davon Godchaux (42 tackles, 1.5 TFL), DT Christian LaCouture (40 tackles, 4 TFL, 2.5 sacks), DE Tashawn Bower (16 tackles, 2.5 TFL), DT Quentin Thomas (9 tackles, 0.5 TFL), DE Deondre Clark (9 tackles, 0.5 TFL), DE Sione Teuhema (7 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 sacks), DT Maquedius Bain (6 tackles), DT Greg Gilmore (4 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks), DE Lewis Neal (3 tackles, 1.5 TFL), DT Mickey Johnson (3 tackles), DT Frank Herron (3 tackles), DE M.J. Patterson (1 tackle), DT Trey Lealaimatafao (redshirted), DT Travonte Valentine (redshirted).
Departed players: DE Danielle Hunter (73 tackles, 13 TFL, 1.5 sacks), DE Jermauria Rasco (71 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 4 sacks), DE Justin Maclin (3 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks).
Committed prospects: Isaiah Washington (No. 72 DE, three stars)
Outlook: Orgeron will need to fill holes at defensive end after Rasco and Hunter left -- a position battle that should rank among the most intriguing for LSU in the spring and preseason. The good news is that tackles LaCouture and Godchaux developed into solid starters, which should help the line be more stout against the run than it was early last season. If Orgeron can help the Tigers' front produce more sacks and negative-yardage plays, 2015 should be a solid season for the line.
It wasn’t until the final moments before his team took the field that Tigers coach Les Miles informed the junior safety of his decision.
“Actually right before we came out the tunnel. Coach Miles told me, ‘I hope you’re ready to play,’ ” said Mills, whose offseason arrest led to his banishment from all team activities throughout the summer before Miles reinstated him at the start of preseason practice. “So once he told me that, just a big weight lifted off my shoulders and I was ready.”
Mills made the most of his opportunity, starting at safety and intercepting a pass during the Tigers’ second-half comeback en route to a 28-24 victory. Several of his teammates weren’t as fortunate, with multiple Tigers missing the game because of suspension, injury or simply because they were not quite ready to face a big-time opponent.
That could change soon -- possibly as soon as this Saturday against Sam Houston State in some cases -- as expected contributors like cornerback Rashard Robinson, receiver Malachi Dupre and defensive linemen Frank Herron, Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore start to filter into the lineup.
Like Mills last week, some members of that group -- along with many others who did not play last weekend -- will walk into Tiger Stadium Saturday night not knowing whether this will be their chance to make their season debuts.
Miles said Wednesday evening that “everybody’s ready to roll. We didn’t lose anybody from the [Wisconsin] game” when asked about the health of the team, although he added that senior center Elliott Porter might sit out for a second consecutive game.
Miles would have to improve significantly before anyone would describe his disciplinary practices as transparent, but he responded “Yeah, absolutely” when a reporter on Tuesday asked whether the suspended players would be available this Saturday.
If they are available, and if players like Dupre are able to return from injuries, LSU could have far more firepower at its disposal in the near future -- even if Miles predicted that the starting lineup should mostly remain intact.
“I think it will be very similar,” Miles said after Wednesday’s practice. “There’s some young defensive linemen we’d like to put on the field, but it’s one of those things, you have to develop a level of competency in the call. That’s the issue. We have very talented guys there. We’re just getting them ready to play, hopefully this week. Hopefully they’ll play some time. But I think for the most part, you’ll recognize the same starting lineups.”
Regardless, the youthful Tigers are not the team they will become over the course of this season. Although nine true freshmen and two redshirt freshmen played their first college games, many more -- a group that includes Herron, Bain, Gilmore, receivers D.J. Chark and Avery Peterson, running back Darrel Williams and linebacker Clifton Garrett -- still hope to prove to their coaches that they deserve playing time.
“It’s definitely your coach trusting you and coming out here in practice every day and working hard,” senior middle linebacker D.J. Welter said. “Everybody’s been doing that, but you’ve just got to keep grinding every day to close that space and you’ll get to see the field.”
As Miles mentioned, that is apparently the issue with Herron and the other redshirt freshman defensive tackles. Players complimented Herron throughout the preseason, but Miles said he wasn’t ready to go against Wisconsin. Instead it was true freshman Davon Godchaux who played alongside veterans Christian LaCouture, Quentin Thomas and Lewis Neal against the Badgers.
“To be honest with you, we’d have loved to have gotten Frank in, and some other guys,” Miles said. “But the issue becomes one where when the game’s tight and you want to be able to count on the call, you go with that veteran that kind of understands it a little bit more. We’re hopeful that we can get Frank coached up a little bit better and get him on the field because he is, in my opinion, a very, very talented guy.”
Same with Chark and Williams -- and for that matter the freshmen who did play and didn’t exactly dominate. It’s part of the learning process, Miles cautioned, and that process sometimes requires some patience.
Regarding freshmen like quarterback Brandon Harris and tailback Leonard Fournette, Miles said LSU’s coaches are “thrilled with their performances” even if they didn’t exactly fill up the stat sheet against Wisconsin.
It will come in time, as redshirt freshman John Diarse learned a season ago.
“I had the same expectations coming in last year and Coach Cam [Cameron] just told me, ‘It’s a process. It takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and just relax, stay in it, stay focused, keep working hard,’ ” said Diarse, who caught two passes and scored a 36-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter against Wisconsin.
"Going into camp, that's what I was thinking about," senior defensive end Jermauria Rasco said. "Our linebackers are the strongest. They're the core of the defense. The secondary, they're real tight. And me personally, I feel like the D-line is the question mark right now."
Rasco's comments came a few days after the Tigers opened preseason camp earlier this month. The ensuing two weeks have reportedly been productive for the group -- as they needed to be.
Teams that win SEC titles usually dominate up front on defense, and even when they don't (see Auburn, 2010), they typically have at least one lineman who creates havoc in opponent backfields. Since 2000, only two SEC championship clubs (Florida in 2008 and Alabama in 2012) failed to have at least one defensive lineman make the coaches' All-SEC team at the end of the season.
Once junior tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson both jumped for the NFL draft after last season, LSU lost its only obvious picks for postseason honors. Now it's up to Rasco and fellow end Danielle Hunter -- a combination that totaled just seven sacks a season ago -- and a host of inexperienced players in the middle to pick up the slack.
"We might not be the key, but we're a piece of the puzzle," redshirt freshman defensive tackle Greg Gilmore said. "We're all a piece of the puzzle and if we can fit in right, we can make it good for us."
Gilmore and his position mates are probably the most important piece of the puzzle. Hunter seems poised for a breakout season and Rasco is now healthy after struggling with shoulder injuries earlier in his career. But the tackles are largely unknown to those who don't watch the Tigers practice each day.
Those who do continue to project confidence about the group's capabilities despite a lack of on-field experience.
"I think some of those young defensive linemen, Frank Herron and some of those guys whose names you don't know, are going to be very, very good players," LSU coach Les Miles said.
Sophomore Christian LaCouture played sparingly as a reserve last season, as did Quentin Thomas -- still working to return from a biceps injury suffered during camp -- and converted defensive end Lewis Neal. Then you have redshirt freshmen Gilmore, Herron and Maquedius Bain waiting for the chance to prove that the tackles aren't nearly the cause for concern that their lack of experience would indicate.
"They don't get enough credit, and they will. Their time comes," senior center Elliott Porter said. "Just like Ego, his time came [and he became a] second-round draft pick. The time comes. It's going to happen. You've got to open your eyes and see. You've got to open your eyes. We breed D-tackles around here, as you can see the last three or four years."
That is true -- LSU has placed eight defensive linemen in the NFL draft over the past four years -- but that has no impact on the present. When the Tigers open the season against Wisconsin on Aug. 30, they'll rely on multiple interior linemen who have yet to play a college game.
Of course, that's another LSU tradition of late.
"Coach Miles always says we play young guys, we play freshmen," Herron said. "So I'm ready to play and show the world what I've got. Playing next to Christian and Greg and Bain, it's been a blessing. Those guys show me new things each day and they're just telling me to keep pushing myself, keep going."
Herron and LaCouture have reportedly had good camps, but Hunter might be the top breakout candidate on the line. Good luck getting him to admit it, though. The junior defensive end -- who generated lots of attention when practice photos of his ripped physique made the rounds on social media early in preseason camp -- seems completely oblivious to outside attention, even after Miles credited him with nine tackles and four tackles for a loss after last Saturday's scrimmage.
"I didn't really hear all this about what Coach Miles said about me until this morning, when one of my teachers texted me saying I did well in the scrimmage. I didn't realize I did that well," Hunter said, adding, "I actually felt like during the scrimmage, I really didn't feel like I did so good."
If that's the case, LSU fans can't wait until Hunter's offseason focus on pass-rushing results in a sack or three and he actually feels good about a performance.
Nonetheless, the Tigers' defense has emphasized competition since the end of last season, when a strong finish generated some offseason momentum after what had been a sometimes-rocky fall. Things are looking good at linebacker and in the secondary, so if the line can prove Miles correct for being confident, the Tigers will once again become a defensive force within the SEC.
"The ceiling's so high," LaCouture said. "Looking at it, you don't know if you have a ceiling on it. We're full of potential and stuff like that, but potential's just a name. ... You have to know what you're doing."
- Missouri opened spring practice on Tuesday looking to build on the momentum of a 12-2 record last season.
- Spring practice got started at Vanderbilt, and with it the quarterback derby began as well. Presumed starter sophomore Patton Robinette looks to fend off redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary.
- Pro Football Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton has been compared to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and is among Johnny Football's many advocates, calling him "a quarterback savant."
- LSU's first day in pads revolved around the "Big Cat drill," and there was a minor scuffle between DE Lewis Neal and OL Josh Boutte. The Tigers expect to have stiff competition at guard this spring.
- The first of Alabama's two pro days is today. Injured players Anthony Steen and Vinnie Sunseri are aiming for the second pro day on April 8.
- One year after signing a three-year contract, Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo gets a one-year extension.
- Auburn's message on Twitter about the now-tabled 10-second rule? "We're only going to get faster."
- Florida players are excited about the new offense that will be installed this spring.
- Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson chose not to go early into the NFL draft, and as a result he'll be facing greater expectations with the Vols.
- Former Texas A&M offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, now head coach at his alma mater Texas Tech, said he felt conflicted about his time in College Station, Texas.
- If you remember watching Auburn running back Stephen Davis star in the mid-90s, this might make you feel a bit older. His son, Stephen Davis Jr. is a 6-foot-3 safety who is -- surprise, surprise -- favoring the Tigers in recruiting.
- Many coaches favor some form of an early signing period in football recruiting. Georgia's Mark Richt, however, says, "Be careful what we ask for."
- Athlon ranked all 128 NCAA coaching jobs. Florida, Alabama, Georgia and LSU made the top 10.
- Recently engaged Gamecocks QB Connor Shaw is a busy man preparing for the NFL draft.
We've discussed the tight ends, defensive tackles, safeties and linebackers in the first four installments of this week's series on positions that can stand to improve this fall. Today's final position group is the defensive ends, who last fall struggled to replace the 2012 stars who left early to enter the NFL draft.
1. Defensive end
Strength in numbers: The versatile Kendell Beckwith can contribute at end in certain situations, and perhaps he will be able to bolster LSU's edge rush after playing in a limited capacity as a freshman. Lewis Neal played a supporting role last season as a freshman, and perhaps he might earn additional playing time this fall. He appeared in 10 games and recorded seven tackles and 0.5 tackles for a loss. Same for Tashawn Bower, an ESPN 300 prospect last year who made three tackles in six games. Otherwise, Justin Maclin is the only returning end who played last season, although the oft-injured rising senior finished with just two tackles in five games.
New on the scene: ESPN 300 honoree Deondre Clark completed LSU's 23-man signing class this week when he officially joined the Tigers at a signing ceremony at his high school. He and fellow signee Sione Teuhema look capable of bringing some playmaking ability to the end position in time. The Tigers also have M.J. Patterson -- a three-star end signee in 2013 -- and ESPN 300 recruit Frank Herron coming off redshirt seasons. Herron was listed as an end last year, but he also has the frame and skillset to become an interior lineman.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- As August camp has continued at LSU, position battles have emerged, some expected, some not so much. Here are five worth keeping an eye on as the Aug. 30 season opener against TCU looms.
The prime competitors: D.J. Welter, Lamar Louis
Darkhorses: Lamin Barrow, Kendell Beckwith
Outlook: There was a huge assumption out there that Barrow would move to middle linebacker during August camp, creating a spot at outside linebacker for talented young Kwon Alexander while getting the best of the Tigers' linebackers to the most important position. As of this week, that hasn't happened. Instead, Welter, the starter at the end of spring, remains in a battle with sophomore Louis for the spot, with talented freshman Beckwith looming in the background, biding his time. And there's still time for LSU to move Barrow to the middle if defensive coordiantor John Chavis sees fit.
Opening day starter? Our guess is Welter.
The prime competitors: Jordan Allen, Danielle Hunter.
Darhorses: Lewis Neal, Tashawn Bower.
Outlook: Hunter is a huge talent who many feel has the potential to be a double-digit sack guy and could form an imposing pass-rushing duo opposite Jermauria Rasco. But Les Miles often rewards older, hard-working players (see Josh Downs last year starting over Anthony Johnson at defensive tackle), and Allen seems to fit that bill. And make no mistake, he's talented in his own right. Also, look out for Neal and Bower, two bright young true freshmen who have impressed during summer workouts and have continued to do so in camp.
Opening day starter? The guess is Allen, though Hunter will see plenty of snaps.
The prime competitors: Alfred Blue, Jeremy Hill, Kenny Hilliard
Darkhorse: Terrence Magee
Outlook: With returning starter Hill reinstated following an offseason suspension the question is, will he resume his role, or will he suffer more repercussions for his off-field issues? History tells us players who find trouble at LSU don't necessarily get booted but often find themselves somewhat marginalized. That could be the case here. Blue was the opening day starter last year before suffering a knee injury, and he looks better than he did a year ago.
Opening day starter? We like Blue, and we also think Hill might not see the field in the opener as part of his punishment.
The prime competitors: Colby Delahoussaye, James Hairston
Darkhorse: Trent Domingue
Outlook: Delahoussaye handled most of the field goals in the spring game and seems to have the edge to replace the departed Drew Alleman as the primary kicker. But Hairston, the only scholarship kicker on the team, remains in the competition, and with his stronger leg he might be the man for longer field goals. He will retain his role as the kickoff specialist.
Opening Day Starter? Delahoussaye.
No. 2 Quarterback
Prime candidates: Anthony Jennings, Stephen Rivers
Darkhorses: Rob Bolden, Hayden Rettig
Outlook: We know Zach Mettenberger is the starter, but the burning question at LSU camp is who will back him up and thus become the heir apparent to replace him in 2014? Coaches have indicated Jennings, the talented true freshman, has a slight edge over Rivers, the sophomore younger brother of Philip Rivers. But don't discount Bolden, a former starter at Penn State who is coming off injury.
Opening Day No. 2? We still like the more seasoned Rivers to come in if Mettenberger gets banged up agianst TCU, but look for Jennings to make his presence felt as the season progresses.
Here are the five big questions LSU must answer.
1. Will it be a new offense? LSU has a new offensive coordinator in former Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Does that mean the Tigers will break their recent trend of sub-par offense?
Forced to go with freshmen quarterbacks in 2008, the Tigers have seemed to be conservative and reluctant to open up the offense since. Cameron, on the other hand, was fired in Baltimore in no small part because it was perceived that he abandoned the running back too often. Perhaps the new offensive coordinator and the traditionally conservative Les Miles offense can find a happy medium, and quarterback Zach Mettenberger can have a breakthrough senior year.
2. Is it a Hill, or a mountain to climb? Most expect running back Jeremy Hill to face some disciplinary ramifications after a second violation of his probation from punching a man outside of a bar near LSU. The question is, will Hill face a short suspension or something longer? That won't likely be known until mid-August.
If Hill, LSU's leading rusher last season, does not come back to the Tigers, the question becomes, who fills the void? The Tigers only have four scholarship running backs even with the immensely talented Hill.
3. Will the defense struggle down the line? LSU lost all four defensive-line starters from last season, including three who are now toiling in the NFL.
Those around the program are ecstatic about the talent the Tigers have coming up to replace departures of Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery and Bennie Logan. But many of those talented players -- think defensive ends Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter in particular -- are woefully unproven.
Defensive tackle Anthony Johnson, a former top defensive tackle in the nation coming out of high school, is projected by many to be a first-round NFL draft pick after this season despite the fact that he mostly played a backup role last season. Johnson will need to be NFL caliber, and so will a couple of others, if the Tigers are to live up to their lofty expectations on the line.
The question is, does LSU have an NFL-quality middle linebacker for this year's defense?
Lamin Barrow was a triple-digit tackler last season as a weakside linebacker playing alongside Minter. Chavis tried to keep him outside in the spring and worked junior D.J. Welter, who missed most of last season for academic reasons, in the starting lineup.
Barrow may be an NFL-bound outside linebacker, but can he play inside? And is Welter better than a career reserve at the position? Which one will start, or will a wildcard -- perhaps true freshman stud Kendell Beckwith -- step in?
5. Will a freshman start? Under Miles, LSU has never been afraid to run a true freshman to the field. Redshirting is rarely ever the goal for new players.
On this team, there will be plenty of opportunities for a young player to emerge. In the secondary, Tre'Davious White is expected to push for starting time at a position where Jalen Mills emerged as a true freshman starter last season following the dismissal of Tyrann Mathieu.
Look for linemen to push for early playing time. Offensive lineman Ethan Pocic impressed during the spring as an early enrollee and may be an injury away from jumping into the lineup. Christian LaCouture had a similar spring on the defensive side. Look for impressive, young defensive linemen Lewis Neal, Tashawn Bower and Greg Gilmore to quickly challenge for playing time.
Here's how we see them fitting in.
That’s true literally -- after Bower’s letter of intent arrived, LSU coach Les Miles said the Tigers are done signing players for the 2013 class -- but also in a geographical sense.
Bower, from just outside of New York in Somerville, N.J., gave the Tigers’ class a northeast presence, filling the one region of the country that was previously missing from what Miles described as the “most geographically diverse class in school history.”
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Bain, the No. 6 defensive tackle in the ESPN 150 and the highest-rated of the Tigers' 24 commitments, figures to play at LSU early. And he'll play a position where the Tigers have a tremendous recent track record for getting players to the NFL. Part of the reason there is a need for defensive tackles in this LSU class (Bain is one of four DT commitments in the class) is the presumed early departure of junior Bennie Logan to the NFL.
If Bain does play immediately, it will continue an LSU trend: Tiger freshmen should come ready to play because many of them will play. LSU used 15 true freshmen in the 2012 season, including four who started and a fifth who was a special-teams starter.
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Defensive coordinator John Chavis' name got hot when the Tennessee job came open. While reports surfaced early Thursday that Tennessee hired Cincinnati's Butch Jones, the possibility remains that a school and Chavis could see enough potential in one another to prompt a move.
If that were to happen, what would happen to LSU?
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What was once a trouble spot in LSU's recruiting efforts suddenly starts to look like a strength.
Greg Gilmore's commitment to LSU on Thursday evening is the latest in a groundswell of good news for the future of the Tigers' defensive line. It's no secret that LSU is likely going to lack experience in its defensive trenches when next season rolls around.
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SEC standouts at the NFL Combine
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