LSU Tigers: Michael Ford
The three key names in that endeavor were quarterback Zach Mettenberger, receiver Jarvis Landry and tailback Jeremy Hill -- all of whom ranked among the nation's most clutch third-down performers. All three are in the NFL now, however, so it will be important for LSU to identify new players capable of keeping drives alive on those all-important downs.
Let's take a look at what could become the key factors in LSU's attempt to remain successful on third down.
Quarterback efficiency, running ability
The fifth-year senior's 96.7 Total Quarterback Rating on third down trailed only that of Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston (96.9) among FBS quarterbacks. Mettenberger was 58-for-89 for 974 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Of those 58 completions, 21 went for 20 yards or more -- a total that was second only to Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater (22).
Talented though they may be, a green freshman and a sophomore with one shaky start under his belt are not going to match that kind of passing production. As LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron indicated after the Tigers' spring game, they'll have to play it smart early in possessions in order to keep the offense in manageable down-and-distance situations.
Give the young quarterbacks this, though: both of them have an ability that Mettenberger simply does not possess, and it will almost certainly come in handy this fall. Both are good runners, so don't be surprised to see designed runs -- and scrambles after plays break down -- that result in first downs.
Jennings was credited with six rushing attempts on third downs last season, with two of them achieving first downs and another achieving a touchdown. Harris showed off some impressive wheels in LSU's spring game, rushing three times on third down for 45 yards and a touchdown. We'll certainly see more of that in 2014 than when the slow-footed Mettenberger was under center.
Filling Landry's shoes
The question isn't which LSU player replaces Landry's absurd production on third down. It's highly unlikely that one player will do that -- not this fall anyhow -- seeing as how Landry ranked third in the FBS in third-down receptions (28), second in receiving yards (474) and tied for first with six touchdown catches according to ESPN Stats & Information.
2013 FBS Leaders
35 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
30 -- Justin Hardy, East Carolina
28 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
27 -- Allen Robinson, Penn State
26 -- Willie Snead, Ball State
Third-down receiving yards
478 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
474 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
432 -- Shaun Joplin, Bowling Green
407 -- Ty Montgomery, Stanford
402 -- Antwan Goodley, Baylor
But who will get those chances?
Dural is a given, followed by lots of uncertainty. Freshmen like John Diarse, Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch will be in the mix, but it's possible that the quarterbacks will look more often to players at other positions.
Using veterans at TE, RB in passing game
Since the receiving corps is loaded with inexperience, a good alternative might be the positions where the Tigers return some experience.
They're extremely deep at tight end, and one of the talking points of LSU's spring practice was about how the position should be more active this season.
Last season, the Tigers targeted the tight end 10 times on third down, but came away with only three completions for 35 yards and one first down. In other words, this will be a two-way street. The tight ends must hold onto the ball consistently if the quarterbacks are to look their way more often.
If LSU's spring game was any indication, the chances will be there. Jennings and Harris targeted tight ends on four of their 12 third-down passes, with DeSean Smith catching two of them for 36 yards and a touchdown.
Likewise, tailback Terrence Magee made it a point this spring that he'd like to catch more balls out of the backfield this fall. The former receiver could be dangerous as a third-down target judging by his three receptions for 46 yards in that role last season.
Fullback Connor Neighbors (one catch on two targets for 4 yards and a first down in 2013) could also become more of a factor in the passing games now that he's taking over for J.C. Copeland in the backfield.
Who handles the backfield workload?
Hill was arguably the nation's most explosive third-down back in 2013, leading the FBS with an average of 13.28 yards per carry on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Although dozens of players carried the ball more times on third down than Hill's 18 attempts, he ranked 10th nationally with 239 yards thanks in large part to his touchdown runs of 37, 49 and 69 yards.
2013 FBS Leaders
Third-down yards per carry
13.28 -- Jeremy Hill, LSU (18-239)
11.92 -- Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech (13-155)
10.76 -- Duke Johnson, Miami (17-183)
10.50 -- Larry Dixon, Army (12-126)
10.20 -- Tevin Coleman, Indiana (10-102)
Seniors Magee (eight carries, 44 yards, three first downs, one touchdown in 2013) and Kenny Hilliard (eight carries, 36 yards, two first downs, two touchdowns) have handled short-yardage duty well in limited work, but the X-factors might be freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams.
ESPN's No. 1 overall prospect for 2014, Fournette has LSU fans drooling over his combination of size, power and breakaway speed. He'll almost certainly play a leading role on third down -- and in every other type of running situation -- early in his college career. And Williams was no slouch himself as a prep star, rushing for 2,201 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior at John Ehret High School in Marrero, Louisiana.
It's possible that LSU could use all four tailbacks in some capacity, similar to a 2011 backfield that utilized Hilliard, Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Alfred Blue. Ware led the Tigers with 92 yards on 25 third-down rushing attempts that year, while Blue (16 carries for 85 yards) and Ford (13 carries for 77 yards) led the way with two touchdown runs apiece.
With inexperience at quarterback and receiver and a next-level talent like Fournette joining the backfield, conventional wisdom indicates that LSU will lean heavily on its veteran offensive line and the ground game, especially on third downs. The previously mentioned factors will certainly play an enormous role in LSU's attempt to remain effective on third down, but this might be a season where the rushing attack is the most important element in keeping the chains moving.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Frank Wilson hasn’t been taking it easy on his players lately.
LSU’s running backs coach has been giving Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard a heavy workload in spring practice, which was partially out of necessity since the two seniors are the only scholarship tailbacks on the Tigers’ spring roster.
“It's getting pretty rough out there,” Magee said with a smile. “We're taking a lot of reps. We were rotating every play, but this week Coach Frank wants us to go a little bit longer so we've been going about every three now. So it's getting pretty taxing, but it's going to pay off in the long run.”
But with Hill and Blue both entering the NFL draft, the Tigers are now forced to work converted linebacker (now fullback) Melvin Jones at tailback a bit just to break up the practice reps.
“This is his first time carrying the ball, but he's getting better,” Hilliard said of Jones. “His pad level is a little high, but that's part of it. He's never really carried the ball before, so it's just a lot of teaching that he's got to learn, watch film and make sure that he stays in the film room and just look at us and let us lead by example. He can just pay attention to us and he'll be all right.”
Any LSU fan who hasn’t been living under a rock knows that this situation is only temporary. Leonard Fournette -- one of the most heavily hyped prospects ever to emerge from Louisiana, whom two recruiting services, including ESPN, picked as the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit -- isn’t on campus yet. Neither is Darrel Williams, who rushed for 2,201 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior at Marrero (La.) John Ehret.
Both players seem likely to contribute as true freshmen. And in Fournette’s case, anything short of stardom would probably disappoint most Tigers fans -- a reality that is not lost on LSU’s returning tailbacks.
“I don't feel like we get overlooked and it doesn't bother us,” Magee said of the buzz surrounding Fournette. “All the credit that he gets, he fully deserves. He was the No. 1 player in the country and he's a great running back. I've watched film of him. So everything that he's getting, I feel that he's well deserving of it.”
Fournette will still need help adjusting to life on a college campus and within a big-time SEC program, which is where the two seniors can help.
“Those guys have just got to be mentally prepared when they come in, because the transition from high school to college, it's tough,” Hilliard said. “As they get here, I'm going to mentor them -- me and Terrence -- like Spencer Ware and Alfred Blue and those guys mentored us.”
Even if Fournette immediately emerges as LSU’s next superstar back, the Tigers have traditionally spread around the carries under Les Miles. Magee, who averaged 7.3 yards per carry last season, and Hilliard, who has a touchdown for every 10 touches in his career, will almost certainly play key roles in the offense.
“One thing about [offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s] offense: the best player's going to play and the hardest worker's going to play,” offensive lineman Vadal Alexander said. “I'll tell you one thing, Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee are two of the hardest-working players on our team. So they are going to get their carries. You can see that they're talented guys. Terrence has one of the best agility moves, side-to-side quickness, all that. Kenny is one of the most powerful backs in the nation in my opinion.”
Once Hill returned from an early suspension last season, Magee found a niche as a third-down back. The former receiver would like to expand upon that role by adding some pass-catching responsibilities out of the backfield -- plus Miles said last week that Magee will rank among the Tigers’ top candidates as a kick return man.
He has never carried the ball more than 82 times in a season, but Hilliard has proven to be an especially effective goal-line runner, and that role seems likely to remain in place in the fall.
Obviously no roles for 2014 are established yet, and they won’t be until the freshmen arrive and responsibilities begin falling into place during August practices. The only duties Magee and Hilliard are certain to claim are those of mentors -- and they seem happy to help Fournette and Williams, just as their predecessors did when they were underclassmen.
“We've just got to keep the standards and just be able to come out and execute and play hard,” Hilliard said. “That's our motto: just come out and play hard and take care of the ball and everything will be all right. We know we have two young guys coming in and we're going to mentor them and make sure they get right and keep the legacy in the room.”
Jeremy Hill rushed for 216 yards in LSU's season-ending victory over Iowa in the Outback Bowl -- a performance that, even before he made it official, seemed as if it would be the sophomore's final college game. Then the nation's No. 1 prospect, New Orleans running back Leonard Fournette, committed to LSU the very next day.
Les Miles' staff had put all of its eggs in the Fournette basket, opting not to sign a single running back in 2013 in an effort to land the biggest recruit available in 2014. And Fournette is certainly that, earning the highest prospect rating of any running back since ESPN began grading recruits in 2006. LSU's efforts paid off when he verbally committed to the Tigers during the Jan. 2 Under Armour All-America Game, creating a sigh of relief throughout an LSU fan base that desperately wanted to see Fournette play next season in purple and gold.
“They have a player who is meeting needs if you think about Jeremy Hill declaring for the NFL draft and Alfred Blue being a senior,” Haubert said in an ESPN Recruiting Nation video discussing Fournette's commitment. “That leaves only two running backs [rising seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard] on the roster, so obviously Leonard Fournette fills a big need and he's also a great fit if you think about LSU's power running game -- that two-back, downhill scheme. That is ideally the best fit for Leonard Fournette.”
LSU's sports information department might have built a Heisman Trophy campaign around Hill had he returned for his junior season. After his 1,401-yard, 16-touchdown campaign in 2013, Hill might have ranked among the nation's most dominant college backs in 2014. His final college season certainly was one of the best in school history, with the yardage total ranking second all-time at LSU and the touchdown total ranking fourth.
But with Fournette coming aboard after rushing for 1,802 yards and 17 touchdowns and totaling 745 receiving yards and six more scores as a senior at St. Augustine High School, and Magee (86 carries for 626 yards and 8 TDs in 2013) and Hilliard (68-310, 7 TDs) returning, the Tigers should be able to absorb Hill's departure without much difficulty.
Fournette and fellow running back commit Darrel Williams (Marrero, La./John Ehret) won't arrive at LSU until summer, but they seem like good fits for what LSU wants to do in the running game, frequently with young players in its backfield.
“We don't look at them as young kids -- like my freshman year, when I was able to play my freshman year, a couple of guys went down and that's what led me to play,” said Hilliard, who rushed for 336 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman while splitting time with Blue, Michael Ford and Spencer Ware. “So everybody's just got to be ready to play when their number's called.”
Magee became a productive counterpuncher behind Hill in 2013, and he will most likely continue to play a big role in LSU's backfield as a senior. And while Hilliard has never been the lead back, he has three 100-yard games on his résumé and has rushed for 21 touchdowns in just 212 career carries.
“At any point in time you can turn to a guy that's as veteran as Kenny Hilliard and know you're going to get quality play,” Miles said last week.
They're all capable of providing quality play, but everyone expects Fournette to claim the lead role at some point. He's just that good -- and he'll have to live up to those astronomical expectations if he is to make Tigers fans forget about what Hill could have brought to the offense in 2014.
From: Tone (Denver): Gary, do you think Zach Mettenberger will be better prepared to perform at a higher level than last year?
The blue-chip, dual-threat high school quarterback turned underachieving college receiver was worked out by NFL scouts Wednesday during LSU's Pro Day at, of all places, defensive back.
"Never played there in my life," Shepard said. "About six teams asked me to work out there. I thought I did pretty good. Like they told me, it's added value."
Shepard ran a 4.5 electronic 40-yard dash and also had a 38.5-inch vertical leap, results that do not suggest a player who struggled to get involved in LSU's offense in his four years and was so marginalized, he was not invited to the NFL combine.
He wasn't the only Tiger to test well. Running back Michael Ford ran a 4.44 40-yard dash and had a 39.5-inch vertical leap, both results slightly better than his combine results. Linebacker Kevin Minter ran a 4.67 40 and had a 34.5-inch vertical leap, both significant improvements over the combine.
"We were at home," Minter said. "Makes all the difference."
Here are some other notables:
- Defensive end Barkevious Mingo did not participate in testing, but like former teammate Tyrann Mathieu got involved in position-specific drills.
- Defensive end Lavar Edwards ran a 4.78 and hit 21 repetitions in the bench press, looking like the next LSU player who might be drafted after not starting for the Tigers.
LSU's Pro Day on Wednesday will feature a whopping 28 participants, the result of a year where the Tigers sent 13 players to the NFL combine. Among the players will will participate is former LSU player Tyrann Mathieu.
Of the 28, 21 were members of LSU's 2012 team, while seven more participants were members of past LSU teams and are trying to catch the interest of teams as free agents.
Fans can watch the event live on ESPN3 at 1 p.m. ET.
Here are the players who are participating, according to LSU:
2012 team members: DE Chauncey Aghayere, K Drew Alleman, TE Chase Clement, DT Josh Downs, OT Josh Dworaczyk, DE Lavar Edwards, OT Chris Faulk, RB Michael Ford, DT Bennie Logan, C P.J. Lonergan, DB-KR Tyrann Mathieu, DE Barkevious Mingo, LB Kevin Minter, DE Sam Montgomery, S Eric Reid, WR Russell Shepard, CB Tharold Simon, RB Spencer Ware, P Brad Wing, DT Cleveland Davis, TE Tyler Edwards
Past Players (last year at LSU): OG Will Blackwell (2011), LB-DB Karnell Hatcher (2011), OL T-Bob Hebert (2011), QB Jordan Jefferson (2011), QB Jarrett Lee (2011), DS Alex Russian (2011), RB Charles Scott (2009).
While neither Ford nor Ware was the Tigers' main back last season, both had niche roles based on specific skill sets that Magee also possesses.
"But Michael didn't really catch passes," Magee noted.
That duty was largely the responsibility of Ware, who led LSU running backs -- and was tied for fourth on the team -- with 18 catches for 230 yards and a touchdown.
It just so happens that Magee moved to wide receiver for much of last season, his sophomore year. So now, back at running back, he has to feel good about his chances at getting to play one, if not both, roles this season, thus earning the first significant playing time in his college career.
"I feel like I do a good job of getting out of the backfield and catching passes and being the check-down for the quarterback," he said. "I also feel that I can run it as well as [the other] guys too."
LSU's first scrimmage Saturday seemed to affirm his belief. He led the team with 60 rushing yards on 10 carries and also caught two passes out of the backfield, one for a touchdown.
Perhaps it says something about LSU's offense in 2012 that among a record 13 players invited to the NFL combine from the Tigers, only two are offensive skill players who are generally considered, at this point, marginal talents. Running backs Spencer Ware and Michael Ford are the only skill players invited to Indianapolis, which is understandable when one considers LSU was 10th in the SEC in total offense. It's also a sign of youth. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger, fullback J.C. Copeland, running back Jeremy Hill and all of LSU's primary threats at wide receiver will return in 2013.
LSU had 13 players invited to the NFL draft combine Feb. 20-26 in Indianapolis, Ind., the most of any school in the nation. Among the 13, which includes ex-Tiger Tyrann Mathieu, only two were seniors. The other 11 left college with eligibility remaining.
It's one more than the total mustered by Florida State.
LSU set a record when 11 players opted to leave school a year early to enter the draft. That all 11 were invited to the combine affirms that the departures were legitimate. The combine only takes the players it deems most likely to have a chance to get drafted or make a team.
The 11 underclassmen invited were: defensive ends Barkevious Mingo, safety Eric Reid, linebacker Kevin Minter, defensive end Sam Montgomery, defensive tackle Bennie Logan, cornerbacks Mathieu and Tharold Simon, offensive tackle Chris Faulk, running backs Michael Ford and Spencer Ware and punter Brad Wing.
The two seniors were defensive end Lavar Edwards and center P.J. Lonergan.
There were 333 players on the list, 79 from the SEC. LSU was one of four SEC schools to have double-digits invited to the combine. Georgia had 11 players invited and Alabama and Georgia each had 10 invited.
From Scott: It's common knowledge that LSU uses the RB by committee approach, and it has worked well. But what I've noticed is it becomes somewhat of a flavor of the month. In late 2010 and 2011 (Spencer) Ware and (Michael) Ford were the tandem; then in 2011 Kenny Hilliard emerged and fell back in line; this year it was Alfred Blue until he got injured, and Jeremy Hill emerged and took the spotlight. All those guys have unique qualities, but it seems they burn bright and then fade into the depth chart. Ware wasn't the same after his suspension, but how would you explain Ford and Hilliard's lack of use at times? Could the same happen to Hill with the new recruits coming in?
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Well, Nick Saban and his gang of future NFL ballers proved to us once again that it is indeed Alabama's world, after claiming their second consecutive national title and third in four years Monday night. That ringing in your ears is just the sound of "Roll Tide" being repeated over and over in your head. I've learned there's nothing we can do about it.
But will 2013 bring college football a team that can really stop the Tide? I mean, REALLY stop Alabama from winning a third straight national championship? Well, ESPN's Mark Schlabach seems to believe that the road to Pasadena is paved in crimson and white, as he has Alabama No. 1 in his Way-Too-Early-Top 25 for 2013.
It's hard to blame him at this point. Sure, Alabama's offensive line won't be nearly as good with Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack leaving. And it will take even more of a hit if/when D.J. Fluker decides to turn pro. But with quarterback AJ McCarron, running back T.J. Yeldon (we're assuming Eddie Lacy and his sweet spin move are headed to the NFL), wide receiver Amari Cooper and a host of studs on the defense returning, Alabama will again be the team to beat.
But there are some quality teams in the SEC that will fight to dethrone Alabama, and Schlabach has four in his top 10. Texas A&M, which returns the Heisman-winning Johnny Football, ranks fifth, Georgia is sixth, South Carolina is seventh and Florida is 10th. The thing about all those teams is that they all return their starting quarterbacks, with Georgia's Aaron Murray being one of the best in the country alongside Johnny Manziel.
South Carolina will be one of the more balanced teams in the SEC next fall, and if Florida can actually find a passing game in 2013, watch out because that defense will still be fierce, even with a few junior defections.
LSU, checking in at No. 13, is the only other SEC team in Schlabach's top 25. The Tigers are expected to have a better offense, especially with Zach Mettenberger finally finding his comfort zone under center, but a poor offensive showing in the Chick-fil-A Bowl defeat to Clemson and the loss of junior running backs Michael Ford and Spencer Ware create an uneasy feeling around the offense. Plus, the defense just took a beating as a result of juniors departing for the NFL, especially up front. All-American punter Brad Wing also left.
The good news for LSU is that running back Jeremy Hill is returning, and he'll only be a sophomore.
It's a good list to start off with, but where in the world is Vanderbilt? The Commodores are coming off of a historic season in Nashville. There were nine wins that included a bowl victory, five conference wins and a seven-game winning streak. The quarterback and running back spots might be up for grabs, but Jordan Matthews is coming back, along with fellow receiver Chris Boyd. And most of the rest of the offense remains intact.
There was room for Vandy in there somewhere ...
It was called a mass exodus. Best we can tell, it set the record for the number of underclassmen leaving one school early for the NFL. Before they left, LSU figured to have 10 defensive starters back. After the early exits, it was down to four.
But understand this: It didn't shock those close to the program.
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Assuming Faulk comes back to Baton Rouge, LSU won't lose underclassmen again until next year. Who are they likely to lose? Here are the leading candidates:
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- The future of the running back position seemed to be figured out for LSU.
All five backs in the Tigers' 2012 stable were underclassmen. Freshman Jeremy Hill led the group with 755 rushing yards, meaning none of the three juniors had done enough to warrant leaving early for the NFL.
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LSU's Talented Youth
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