LSU Tigers: Odell Beckham

BATON ROUGE, La. – The topic du jour at Les Miles’ three Q&A sessions on Wednesday concerned his quarterbacks. Specifically, what will be LSU’s next move in the battle for playing time between sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris?

Who will be the starter in Saturday’s game against New Mexico State? It most likely will be Jennings, Miles said on the SEC’s weekly coaches teleconference.

Has Harris – who starred in last Saturday’s fourth-quarter comeback against Mississippi State after Jennings’ dismal outing – made up ground in the race? “Some,” Miles told reporters in his post-practice interview.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsIt appears LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings will get another shot to start after a tough night against Mississippi State.
Will Harris get more than the garbage-time snaps he mostly received to this point? “Look forward to him getting a little bit more playing time. He certainly was deserving,” Miles said on his weekly call-in show.

The problems that revealed themselves in the Mississippi State loss are much greater than simply which player is behind center, but we’ll start there in this week’s storylines for Saturday.

Third-down inefficiency: LSU has been mediocre in nearly every offensive category, but its decline on third down has been striking. That had to be expected with quarterback Zach Mettenberger, running back Jeremy Hill and receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham all departing from a 2013 offense that led the nation by converting 57 percent of its third downs.

It has been a problem this season, particularly with Jennings at quarterback. ESPN Stats and Information reports that LSU ranks 70th nationally in third-down conversions (41 percent) and has only converted on 38 percent of its third downs with Jennings at quarterback, compared to 63 percent with Harris.

During the last two seasons, Jennings led LSU to a 30-percent conversion rate on third down, while Mettenberger converted 54 percent of the time. The differences are also huge when comparing Mettenberger and Jennings’ Total QBR (97.2 to 37.1), yards per attempt (10.9 to 6.2) and passing touchdowns (nine to two) on third down.

These comparisons are unfair, of course. Mettenberger was a fifth-year senior who ranked second nationally behind Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston on both third-down QBR and third-down conversions. Meanwhile, Jennings just made his fifth career start. Nonetheless, the dropoff has been substantial and is one of the contributing factors in LSU’s offensive slowdown.

QB comparison: Let’s shift from one comparison that doesn’t look pretty for Jennings to another. Again, different sample sizes paint an unfair picture for Jennings, but the Tigers’ offense has been more productive with Harris at quarterback.

LSU scored a touchdown on two of its three drives against Mississippi State with Harris at quarterback compared to one in 12 with Jennings. Of course, Jennings played against the starters and Harris did not face the Bulldogs’ full defensive arsenal when he entered the game with less than four minutes to play and Mississippi State ahead by double digits. But he was clearly the more productive quarterback last Saturday, leading LSU’s offense to 159 yards in just 12 snaps.

We could make similar statements about the other games in which they appeared. Jennings took the starters’ best shots in the first four games and Harris came on in relief, typically in the second half. But in his smaller sample size, Harris has led the Tigers to more yards per play, a greater percentage of touchdowns per drive and a significantly higher percentage of third-down conversions.

Stopping the run: We discussed this in a post earlier this week, but LSU must shore up its issues defending runs straight up the middle. On designed runs between the tackles, Mississippi State ran for 286 yards – the most allowed by an SEC defense in the last two seasons – averaged 8.2 yards per carry and broke nine runs of 10 yards or longer.

In the first three games, LSU allowed just 52.3 yards on designed runs between the tackles, 3.5 yards per carry and just one run of 10-plus yards, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

Opening it up? With the bulk of the SEC schedule still ahead, this seems like a good week for LSU to work on opening up its offense a bit if it will, in fact, spread the field in future games. But that doesn’t exactly jibe with what works best against New Mexico State’s defense.

The Aggies have been atrocious against the run, surrendering 299.3 rushing yards per game and ranking 123rd out of 125 FBS teams. So perhaps we’ll see plenty of Kenny Hilliard, Leonard Fournette and LSU’s power running game early and the Tigers can work on the passing game once they build a lead.

Dural, then who? If LSU puts the ball in the air more frequently, Travin Dural (18 catches, 494 yards, 4 TDs) is a given as the first option. But then who?

Maybe it will be Malachi Dupre, who delivered a breakout performance last Saturday night against Mississippi State. Fellow freshmen Trey Quinn and John Diarse are also possibilities. After Dural, the Tigers’ next three receivers have only connected with their quarterback for a completion on 19 of the 37 passes in which they were the intended targets.

Five questions about LSU-Wisconsin

August, 28, 2014
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One of college football’s most anticipated openers will kick off Saturday night in Houston, with No. 13 LSU taking on No. 14 Wisconsin -- two programs that might reside in different conferences, but share similar philosophies about playing mean-spirited, physical football.

Both teams have aspirations of competing in the inaugural College Football Playoff, and Saturday’s outcome might eventually rank among the top determining factors in whether they make it into the four-team field.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at five questions facing the two teams as their matchup approaches.

[+] EnlargeTerrence Magee
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsSenior Terrence Magee should be a key piece to LSU's running game this season.
1. Who gets the most carries?

Those around the LSU program say it looks like it’s only a matter of time before freshman running back Leonard Fournette shows why he was the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit. But will Fournette’s time come in this game? LSU coach Les Miles has praised veterans Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard throughout August. The seniors have earned their touches, too, so it will be intriguing to observe how LSU distributes the carries between the vets and the young phenom.

2. How will LSU fare in the passing game?

Wisconsin has plenty of holes to fill on defense, but the one area with a veteran presence is its secondary (and the Badgers were 17th nationally against the pass last season, allowing 202.5 yards per game). That would seem like an advantage against an LSU offense that must replace not only its quarterback, but the only receivers who did much of anything last fall, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry.

The Tigers have some super-talented youngsters like freshmen Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, but many of the team’s wideouts will be playing their first college games. Keep an eye on whether LSU uses its talented group of tight ends and running backs in the passing game. The tight ends will almost certainly get more looks as pass-catchers in 2014 while the young quarterbacks and receivers settle into their roles.

3. Can either team stop the opponent’s run?

Wisconsin obliterated South Carolina’s run defense for 293 yards in its last outing, a 34-24 loss in the Capital One Bowl. Heisman Trophy contender Melvin Gordon ran 25 times for 143 yards in that game. So it would probably be misguided to assume that LSU’s reconstructed front seven is going to completely shut down a Badgers running game that includes Gordon, Corey Clement and four returning starters on the offensive line.

Likewise, Wisconsin lost its entire starting front seven on defense, so the Badgers will probably have some difficulty against an LSU line that also returns four starters -- particularly since backs like Fournette, Magee and Hilliard will be running behind them.

4. How will Wisconsin look up front on D?

Let’s say this one more time: Wisconsin lost every single starter along the defensive line and at linebacker from one of the nation’s best defenses in 2013. We’re talking about standouts like Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Chris Borland and defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer who helped Wisconsin finish as the nation’s No. 7 defense overall (305.1 ypg) and No. 5 against the run (102.5).

It’s not like the cupboard is bare, though. ESPN Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett listed sophomore linebacker Vince Biegel as a potential playmaker, and the Badgers have others back like linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch and defensive linemen Warren Herring and redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih who should keep defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 defense clicking.

Asking that many new players to function adequately against a veteran LSU front will be asking a lot, though. Wisconsin’s production along the defensive front might be the determining factor in this game.

5. Who FINISHES at quarterback?

Never mind who starts, who’s going to finish this game at quarterback for either team? That might have a much greater impact on this season than who takes the first snaps for either Wisconsin or LSU.

Miles and Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen have tiptoed around questions asking whether the starting quarterback will be Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris at LSU or Joel Stave or Tanner McEvoy at Wisconsin. But if this is a close game, their choices on who leads their offenses in the fourth quarter -- and how those players perform in such a situation -- might tell us much more about where these competitions are headed.

LSU WRs an odd mix of young and old

August, 25, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- John Diarse chuckled when he described himself as a veteran. He realizes how silly that sounds since he has yet to play in a college game, but it’s the truth.

The funny thing is, having participated in two sets of spring and preseason practices, Diarse is actually one of the longest-tenured wide receivers on No. 13 LSU’s roster.

“Seeing that I am a redshirt freshman, in some ways it does [feel absurd],” admitted Diarse, whose team opens the season against No. 14 Wisconsin on Saturday. “But I think I’m a vet in my mind, mentally, because I’ve been through the program and I know what it takes and the hard work that has to be done on and off the field. So in my mind I’m a vet, but as far as stats-wise and playing time, not really.”

[+] EnlargeDural
AP Photo/Bill HaberLSU's most experienced receiver is Travin Dural, who has all of seven career catches.
Take a gander at LSU's wideout depth chart. Travin Dural is the most experienced player, by far. He’s a redshirt sophomore with all of seven catches for 145 yards to his credit. There is only one scholarship senior -- junior college transfer Quantavius Leslie -- on the roster. There are no scholarship juniors.

Once 2013 star juniors Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry decided to enter the NFL draft, the Tigers’ wideout depth chart now features that couple of inexperienced veterans and a host of guys like Diarse, who either redshirted last season or who will be enrolled in college for the first time this fall.

“We always joke about that in the receiving room about me being the oldest, but I take pride in being an older guy,” said Leslie, who finished with one catch for 11 yards last season. “I just tell them what’s right. I’ve been through this, so this is not my first year going through it.”

But Leslie is unique in that regard at LSU. Many Tigers, like arguably the nation’s top group of 2014 wideout signees, have only been on campus for a few months and still have plenty to learn.

Leslie and some of the older players like Diarse have learned all three wideout positions by now, but they only played one in their first seasons at LSU. That’s a common trajectory for a newcomer, so a true freshman like Trey Quinn, Malachi Dupre or D.J. Chark -- all of whom are in the Tigers’ plans for 2014 according to coach Les Miles -- would be well ahead of the curve if he becomes functional at more than one spot this fall.

“We’ve got a lot of smart guys,” Diarse said. “Once these younger guys kind of catch the feel for it, they’ll be able to do both inside and out.”

Although he missed a portion of preseason practice, one skill that Dupre -- RecruitingNation's No. 1 wideout prospect for 2014 -- believes will help him contribute this season is his blocking ability. He played in a run-first offense at John Curtis in New Orleans, so clearing a path for running backs will be nothing new, even if the Tigers figure to put the ball in the air more frequently than what he’s accustomed to seeing.

“I think that made me better coming into a situation like I am now where the ball will be in the air more,” Dupre said. “But still remembering where I came from and thinking I had to make the best out of any opportunity I got in high school because I might not get another opportunity will definitely help now because I’ll get more opportunities.”

The greatest factor in the newcomers’ development, though, will be time. They’ve had the summer and preseason practices to get a taste against all-conference-caliber defenders like Tre'Davious White, Rashard Robinson and Jalen Collins. Producing in games will be a different achievement.

That said, the freshmen have their veteran teammates excited about what they can accomplish in the future.

“All of them make plays. I was surprised at all of them,” Leslie said. “They’re not playing or practicing like no freshmen. They’re practicing like they’ve been here.”

And don’t forget about Diarse’s fellow redshirt freshmen Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears. Between those three and the Tigers’ four true freshman wideouts, LSU has a huge group of pass-catchers preparing for their first college games on Saturday.

With that in mind -- plus the still-unannounced starting quarterback adding further uncertainty to the Tigers’ passing game -- it would not be a surprise if offensive coordinator Cam Cameron plays it close to the vest on Saturday. But LSU’s wideouts believe their summer practice time against a solid group of defensive backs has prepared them for this first test, even against a Wisconsin secondary that largely remains intact from a season ago.

“Everyone says that we’re a young group and we have a young quarterback, whoever it’s going to be, so it’s like everyone says we’re not going to be able to pass the ball,” Dural said. “Being able to pass it in camp against our defense is exciting to us. We’re moving the ball.”

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Brandon Harris and Leonard Fournette have been waiting for this opportunity since well before they became roommates at LSU this summer.

With barely a week to go before they make their college debuts against Wisconsin, Fournette and Harris -- ESPN’s No. 1 and 37 overall prospects in the ESPN 300 -- have done nothing to slow the hype about what their futures hold.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLeonard Fournette is one of several standout freshmen expected to get extensive playing time for LSU.
“We’ve talked about this since before we got here, just dreaming it up, texting all the time during the season and hearing about him breaking every record and doing this and that,” Harris said of Fournette, the only player ever to win Louisiana’s Gatorade Player of the Year award twice. “So nothing surprises me, what he does.”

LSU fans’ expectations are sky high over what Fournette might accomplish once the running back takes the field in purple and gold. But they aren’t much lower for the other offensive skill-position standouts who helped him make the Tigers’ 2014 recruiting class one of the best in school history.

You have early enrollee Harris, who is still competing with Anthony Jennings to become the starting quarterback. Harris clearly outplayed Jennings in LSU’s spring game and has flashed impressive running ability as well as a powerful throwing arm.

“At practice, man, his arm is so live,” Fournette marveled. “Everything with him is [hard]. Sometimes it’ll be hard to catch.”

And then there are receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, who are among the candidates to step into departed stars Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham’s roles as the Tigers’ go-to pass-catchers.

Dupre was ESPN’s top receiver prospect, No. 17 overall, and Quinn was the No. 3 receiver and ranked No. 29 overall on the ESPN 300. But asking them to immediately fill in for Landry and Beckham, who combined for 2,345 of LSU’s 3,263 receiving yards last season, is an awfully tall order.

“I don’t feel any pressure,” Dupre said. “I’ll leave it up to the coaches to make the proper game calls and just do what I do and make plays and try to be the best that I can be and not worry about what they did in the past. But also definitely try and pick up where they left off at because they were definitely two great receivers. Hopefully I can become as good as they were, but we’ll see what happens.”

In truth, it’s Quinn who appears more ready to take over a big role at wideout. Dupre dealt with an undisclosed injury for a portion of preseason camp -- he participated in his first scrimmage on Tuesday and LSU coach Les Miles said he should be fine now -- but Quinn has already turned heads among coaches and teammates.

He might not look like a prototypical NFL prospect -- LSU’s roster lists him at 6-foot and 194 pounds -- but don’t bother labeling Quinn as a possession receiver. Not to offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, anyway.

“He’s not a possession receiver at all. He can run, he’s tough, he can catch,” Cameron said. “I had [Denver Broncos receiver] Wes Welker as a rookie and … he got labeled that possession guy and I watched him run by corners on the outside every day in practice. So he’s a football player, he’s an outside receiver, he’s a blocker, he’s smart. All he needs is time and college experience and I think he’ll be an outstanding player.”

In fact, many an LSU veteran has complimented Quinn in particular for acting like he belonged as soon as he arrived on campus. Then again, football has typically come easily for Quinn, who set a national career record with 6,566 receiving yards at Barbe High School in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He knows his pinch-me moments are still ahead next week when LSU’s fall semester begins and then he caps the week by facing a ranked opponent in his first college game.

“I think I’m going to go through that first week of college with everybody being on campus, just seeing numbers and numbers of students, and by that first Saturday in Houston, that’s going to be that athletic part where I’m just like, ‘Wow. I’m an LSU Tiger, I play football,’” Quinn predicted. “And it’s go time from there. There’s no looking back.”

That’s the way most LSU freshmen think, and it’s particularly the case among the four freshman stars who are still trying to carve out a niche for their first SEC season. All four players would admit that they have a lot to learn, but they were recruited to contribute immediately and it seems highly likely that all four will do so.

Fournette will absolutely get his share of the carries alongside seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard and fellow signee Darrel Williams. LSU lacks proven receivers other than Travin Dural, so Miles said Dupre, Quinn and freshman D.J. Chark will all play roles in the passing game. And even if Harris doesn’t start against Wisconsin, it would be a major surprise if he fails to see the field.

Not only will the members of that group contribute, Miles said, they will hold their own. That’s the LSU way.

“Young players are going to play,” Miles said. “I say that with the idea that they’re talented and they were recruited to fill that void and we’re going to coach them hard. We’re going to make sure that we try to anticipate mistakes and avoid them. But yeah, I’m not anticipating just terrible growing pains there.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Les Miles didn’t offer many specifics about LSU’s first preseason scrimmage on Wednesday -- particularly about which quarterbacks completed the two touchdown passes -- but the Tigers’ coach described the 26-play scrimmage as “pretty productive.”

Miles confirmed that freshmen Leonard Fournette and Malachi Dupre are both dealing with injuries, adding that tailback Fournette ran a handful of times in “thud” drills (not full contact) and that he should participate in a greater role in Saturday’s full scrimmage.

“He really could have been involved today, but [with] a little bruise, we decided not to,” Miles said.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsCoach Les Miles said that QBs Anthony Jennings, left, and Brandon Harris are both grasping LSU's offense.
He made similar comments about wide receiver Dupre, who already missed a couple of practice days with an undisclosed injury.

“He’s really nicked and on the heal and they don’t think it’s anything major in any way, but we’ve just got to continue to treat and get him going,” Miles said.

He didn’t say which quarterbacks threw the passes, but Miles did reveal that Avery Peterson and Travin Dural caught touchdowns in the scrimmage.

Speaking generally, he said that quarterback contenders Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris are in command of the offense most of the time. The rest remains a work in progress.

“They’re young, they’re both engaged in leadership and want to have command of the offense -- and they do for the most part,” Miles said. “They don’t know what command is. They don’t necessarily understand exactly what has to be communicated to make this thing go easy. They’re learning.

“I’d say 70 percent of today was just very, very well done and 30 percent’s probably not enough for anybody that sits in the stands to even notice. And yet that 30 percent we expect from our quarterbacks.”

Miles said defensive tackle Quentin Thomas -- initially thought to be lost for the season with a torn bicep -- worked in individual drills on Wednesday and might still play this season.

“Today he went through individual and moved and used his hands. It’s one of those things when you have a big old arm and you get it nicked, you can’t quite tell what it is and what it isn’t initially. Frankly he’s as fortunate as he could be.”

Miles added that the Tigers’ occupational therapist, “looked at it and he says there’s absolutely no reason to do anything else than rehabilitate and let him play.”

Thomas’ versatility: One of the primary benefits of LSU’s “Mustang” defense is that it’s difficult to tell which rushers will attack the line of scrimmage on any given play. So perhaps it fits that one of the Tigers’ key players in that package is Dwayne Thomas, since you never know where he might play.

Thomas said he has learned the duties of every position in the secondary, joining Jalen Mills as the only Tiger defensive backs who can do that.

“Corner, safety, nickel and dime -- I pretty much know the entire defense,” Thomas said. “Wherever Coach [Corey] Raymond needs me, I just go fill in. It’s a great opportunity to do that. Being able to be in the mix of any position is good for the next level.”

Thomas said he added safety to his repertoire since the end of last season, having worked at the position throughout spring practice.

“Once I got safety down pat, that was like the last position I had to learn for the entire defense,” Thomas said. “I had already been doing nickel and dime and corner. After the spring passed, getting all the safety reps down pat was just fantastic.”

But it’s that Mustang role where Thomas might make the biggest impact. Because of his speed off the edge -- aided by his ability to jump the snap count, work with assistant coach Brick Haley on the finer points of pass rushing and film study of former Mustang standouts Tyrann Mathieu and Ron Brooks -- Thomas could be even more valuable in that role this season.

“Dwayne really gives us what we’re looking for at that position. He does a great job there,” defensive coordinator John Chavis said when asked about who will play the rushing positions in the Mustang. “Jalen Mills has played a lot at that position. I’m not ready to say anything other than we expect Thomas to be one of those guys.”

Kick returners: Dural said one factor will probably determine who eventually wins LSU’s kickoff and punt return jobs.

“We’re battling every day to see who’s going to drop the ball first,” Dural chuckled.

Dural listed a half-dozen candidates who are contending for the return jobs when they catch balls before and after practice each day.

“It’s just me, Tre White, Leonard, Jamal [Adams], Malachi, Trey Quinn. We’re all back there battling for a spot,” Dural said. “Everybody wants to be that dynamic player. Everybody wants to be the kickoff guy or [punt].”

LSU had one of the nation’s best return men last year in Odell Beckham, who entered the NFL draft after winning the Paul Hornung Award as college football’s most versatile player. Dural said it won’t be easy to replace the explosive Beckham, but he believes the Tigers have plenty of promising candidates.

“It’s hard to replace someone like that, but we have a lot of guys who have the ability to make those plays,” Dural said. “Tre White, he’s a guy that can return punts and return kickoffs as well as Leonard. Leonard’s back there returning both of them. So as the season goes on, whoever that guy may be, you’ll start to see him make those types of plays that Odell did.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- With LSU opening preseason practice today, the Tigers will have no shortage of position battles to watch over the next 26 days until the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin.

Let’s take a glance at five positions that should feature considerable competition this month.

Quarterback: This one will attract the most attention, just as it did during spring practice. Sophomore Anthony Jennings or freshman Brandon Harris will be the starter. That was all but certain during the spring and is guaranteed now that backups Stephen Rivers, Hayden Rettig and Rob Bolden have all transferred from the program since the end of last season. But which of the youngsters will it be?

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsFreshman Brandon Harris made a heck of a first impression during LSU's spring game.
The Tigers got an outstanding season out of Zach Mettenberger in 2013, but he played almost every important down before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the regular-season finale against Arkansas. The opportunity to lead the offense to a win against the Razorbacks surely benefited Jennings, but he didn’t show as much composure in the Outback Bowl win against Iowa. And that was before his performance in the Tigers’ spring game was a complete flop.

Harris, meanwhile, overcame a sloppy start that day to show off a strong arm and impressive wheels. The day belonged to him, but the competition isn’t over. Jennings will still have a chance this month to convince offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to let him start against Wisconsin, but Harris is going to be tough to hold off.

Wide receiver: This is going to be a fun position to watch over the next couple of seasons since LSU signed arguably the top class of receivers in the country in February. It started with the No. 1 and 3 prospects at the position, Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, and continued with two more ESPN 300 honorees in D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch.

Since the Tigers lost two extremely productive wideouts from last season -- Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry -- the receiver spots are wide open entering camp. Sophomore Travin Dural and senior Quantavius Leslie are the only LSU receivers with any game experience, and they occupy the starting spots on the preseason depth chart. But the Tigers probably need several of the true and redshirt freshmen -- John Diarse appears to be the most likely contributor out of that group -- to prove themselves in August and beyond for this to be a productive season for the receiving corps.

Safety: This was one of the team’s bigger question marks in the spring and it’s still a question now in part because of Jalen Mills’ uncertain status following an offseason arrest.

Injuries hit the Tigers hard at safety last season, forcing starters Corey Thompson and Ronald Martin out of the lineup and eventually clearing the way for Mills to shift from cornerback to safety for the Iowa game. The good news now is that all those injuries helped plenty of LSU safeties get on-field tryouts, and now Thompson, Martin, Mills, Rickey Jefferson and Dwayne Thomas are all back in the mix.

Freshmen Jamal Adams and Devin Voorhies are in the picture, too, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a freshman -- particularly the heavily recruited Adams -- participating in some capacity early in the season.

Defensive tackle: Like running back, where freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams will join seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, this is a spot where a group of players should have an opportunity to contribute.

Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas are the closest things the Tigers have to seasoned veterans, having played behind Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson last season. They’ll be joined this season by redshirt freshmen Maquedius Bain, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron -- all of whom earned a mention from position coach Brick Haley last week on local radio for having strong summers in LSU’s conditioning program.

Signee Travonte Valentine was once thought to have a chance to contribute immediately as well, but the NCAA has yet to clear him to enroll at LSU, meaning he also missed out on the Tigers’ valuable summer workouts. If he makes it to Baton Rouge sometime this month, he might still make it onto the field in 2014, but it appears Valentine is behind the 8-ball for now.

Right guard: The offensive line should be an area of strength in 2014 since it must replace only one starter, right guard Trai Turner. Unlike some of the other open jobs, this one won’t go to a freshman since both of the leading candidates to take over the job are seniors: Fehoko Fanaika and Evan Washington. This is another battle that started in the spring, but if new line coach Jeff Grimes has made a decision, he hasn’t made it publicly. Fanaika and Washington are listed as co-No. 1s on LSU’s preseason depth chart.
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 last are the special teams units.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Returning starters: Colby Delahoussaye (13-for-14 on field goals, 56-for-57 on extra points) had an outstanding freshman season, ranking as the SEC’s most accurate kicker on field goals at 92.9 percent. Punter Jamie Keehn dealt with consistency issues, ranking 11th in the SEC with an average of 41.0 yards per punt.

Starters lost: Odell Beckham Jr. (26.4 yards per kickoff return, 8.9 on punts) will be nearly impossible to replace after winning the Paul Hornung Award and earning All-America honors last season as one of the nation’s most exciting return men. The Tigers also lost kickoff man James Hairston.

Key newcomers: Cameron Gamble (ESPN’s No. 6 kicking prospect) is the lone special teams-only signee, and Coach Les Miles has said several times that he is a candidate to claim the kickoff duties. Of course, several members of the signing class will also likely contribute on the Tigers’ various coverage and return teams, but it’s far too early to speculate on those possible roles.

Players to watch: Terrence Magee and Travin Dural. Listed as the starters at kickoff return and punt return, respectively, Magee and Dural are nearly the only players not named Beckham to handle those roles at all in 2013. Magee returned two kickoffs for 45 yards and Dural returned four punts for 12. Will they hold onto those roles this August? And will their attempts to claim starting jobs at running back and receiver affect their bids to serve as the top return men? We shall see.

Overall: Delahoussaye was pleased with his physical development this spring and said he was kicking the ball with more power than ever before. He seems locked in as the first-team kicker, although it will be interesting to see whether LSU follows through with Miles’ stated goal of finding someone to handle kickoffs in order to keep from overworking Delahoussaye. Utility man Trent Domingue and Gamble might battle for that job, but Delahoussaye is listed first on the preseason depth chart. Keehn also holds the top spot over Domingue at punter after the two players competed during the spring. Snapper Reid Ferguson and holder Brad Kragthorpe are also back. That leaves the return jobs (and to a lesser degree, the freshman personnel that will be included on the coverage and return teams) as LSU’s most intriguing question marks in the kicking game.

LSU position breakdown: WR

July, 30, 2014
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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 are the wide receivers.

WIDE RECEIVER

Returning starters: None.

Starters lost: Jarvis Landry (77 catches, 1,193 yards, 10 TDs) and Odell Beckham (59-1,152, 8 TDs). For all intents and purposes, Landry and Beckham WERE the Tigers' receiving game last season, combining for 136 of their 205 receptions, 2,345 of their 3,263 yards and 18 of their 23 touchdowns. Nos. 3 and 5 on the 2013 receiving chart, running back Jeremy Hill (18-181) and wideout Kadron Boone (7-129, 2 TDs) are also gone.

Key newcomers: True freshman receivers are often difficult to project, as it can be a difficult transition from high school to the more discipline-oriented game they must play in college. Over the long term, though, this year's freshmen should be an extremely valuable crop of talent. In fact, it's arguably the best group of receivers that any school signed in 2014. It includes ESPN's No. 1 and 3 wideout prospects Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, plus another pair of ESPN 300 honorees in D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch.

Don't forget about the group of receivers who redshirted last season, either. John Diarse seemed to be a frontrunner for playing time after spring practice, particularly since both Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears missed portions of those practices with injuries.

Player to watch: Dupre and Quinn are the obvious choices here. It's evident that Travin Dural (7-145, 2 TDs) completed the spring as the Tigers' go-to wideout. In fact, he's the only returning wide receiver who made more than one catch a season ago. But it's the potential of those blue-chip youngsters -- and the curiosity about how quickly they can catch onto the college game -- that will generate the most intrigue.

Overall: With a new starting quarterback and nearly a complete turnover at wideout, LSU's passing offense is a bit of a mystery as preseason practice approaches. Dural punctuated his spring with a 130-yard, two-touchdown effort in the spring game, so he looks like a reliable contributor. After that, who knows? Quantavius Leslie (1-11) had one big spring scrimmage and is the only scholarship senior, so he might be in line for a bigger role. More than likely, though, the receivers will need several freshmen to contribute -- and that can be a risky proposition.
Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.

The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.

Special teams position rankings

1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.

2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).

3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.

4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.

5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.

7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.

8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.

9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.

10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.

11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.

13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).

Second-year stars: LSU

June, 10, 2014
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One of the most beneficial aspects of the LSU coaching staff’s philosophy of liberally using true freshmen is that those youngsters are often ready to blossom in their second seasons. Think Tyrann Mathieu, who became one of the SEC’s most explosive players as a sophomore in 2011. Think Patrick Peterson, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Eric Reid -- all of whom emerged as stars when they were sophomores. The list could go on and on and on.

With that history in mind, it should come as no surprise that LSU has plenty of candidates who are poised to repeat what Mathieu and company accomplished in recent seasons by achieving stardom in their second year in the SEC.

The Tigers are next up in our series projecting who might become a second-year star at each SEC program.

[+] EnlargeRashard Robinson
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesLocking down Texas A&M's Mike Evans gave a sign of what rising LSU sophomore Rashard Robinson can do.
Class recap: Thanks in part to LSU’s 11 early entries into the 2013 NFL draft, the Tigers had lots of holes for freshmen to fill last fall. Most notably, cornerbacks Rashard Robinson and Tre’Davious White had jumped into the starting lineup by the end of the season. But a number of other freshmen played last season, including Anthony Jennings -- who filled in at quarterback when senior Zach Mettenberger suffered a season-ending knee injury in November -- defensive tackle Christian LaCouture, defensive end/linebacker Kendell Beckwith, tight end DeSean Smith and offensive lineman Ethan Pocic. Still, some of the most talented players in the class redshirted in 2013, and there should be several breakout candidates from that bunch, including receiver John Diarse and defensive linemen Maquedius Bain, Frank Herron and Greg Gilmore. Overall, the 2013 signing class has left a small impression already, but this should be the year where its impact is truly felt.

Second-year star: CB Rashard Robinson (6-foot-1/163)

Recruiting stock: A three-star athlete from Ely High School in Pompano Beach, Fla. -- the same school that sent Peterson to LSU -- Robinson wasn’t cleared to enroll at LSU until three days before the first game. But his dynamic athleticism helped him begin contributing by Week 2 and start by the end of the season.

2013 in review: Robinson put himself on the map when he shut down Biletnikoff Award finalist Mike Evans for most of the game in LSU’s dismantling of Texas A&M. Evans averaged 107.2 receiving yards per game, but he had only three catches for 13 yards against Robinson before adding a 38-yard reception against a different Tigers defender late in the game. Robinson also notched his first career interception in the game. He finished the season with 16 tackles, 0.5 tackles for a loss, three pass breakups and four passes defended.

2014 potential: Now that he has found his footing, Robinson is poised to team with White to become LSU’s next set of shutdown cornerbacks. As long as he keeps his academic ship in order, the sky is the limit. He probably needs to add some weight to his thin frame, but Robinson has the athleticism and coverage skills to dominate in the SEC and become a pro cornerback in the not-so-distant future.

Also watch for: Aside from Robinson and White, Smith is another top candidate for the “second-year star” honor from LSU. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron typically utilizes the tight end, and Smith’s receiving skills could make him a major weapon this fall. In addition, Beckwith generated headlines by switching to middle linebacker during spring practice, and he seems ready to challenge D.J. Welter for playing time there. Keep an eye, also, on LaCouture, Tashawn Bower and the previously mentioned redshirt freshman defensive linemen, who will almost certainly all play key roles this fall. Any of these players would make sense as the LSU pick for this series, but Robinson’s potential pushed him to the top of the list.
BATON ROUGE, La. – As we detailed Tuesday, LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s NFL background played a role in the emergence of several Tigers as top draft prospects. Cameron knows how to coach talented players to perform at the pro level, and he knows what it looks like when said players possess legitimate NFL potential.

Cameron predicted recently that many of LSU’s offensive draft prospects possess the potential to hang around the league for a long time after being selected in this week’s NFL draft. Here are some thoughts about those ex-Tigers straight from the horse’s mouth – the horse in this case being a coach who spent more than a decade in the NFL as an offensive coordinator and head coach before joining Les Miles’ LSU staff last year.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanCam Cameron has effusive praise for the passing ability of Zach Mettenberger.
QB Zach Mettenberger
Perhaps the greatest testimony to Cameron’s impact on the LSU offense was Mettenberger’s improvement in his final fall as the Tigers’ starting quarterback. He had long possessed the raw tools to become a success – most notably prototypical size (he’s 6-foot-5) and a strong throwing arm – but he didn't put it all together until working with Cameron.

Cameron coached NFL quarterbacks Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Joe Flacco, and he indicated that Mettenberger has the skills to become a pro starter himself.

“You’re looking for innate accuracy, a guy who can just throw the ball accurately and make it look easy. A guy who’s not mechanical, a guy who just is a natural thrower and the ball goes where it’s supposed to go,” Cameron said. “Once you’ve been around great quarterbacks, you know what it feels like and you know kind of what it looks like, but it has a certain feel to it. What you [saw at LSU’s pro day was] a guy throw a football like the great quarterbacks in the National Football League.”

RB Jeremy Hill
Hill is another Tiger who, like Mettenberger, dealt with off-the-field issues before working with Cameron. But Cameron vouched for Hill’s character, saying, “I think we all, every one of us, make mistakes. May make a mistake or two. I have no issues with Jeremy Hill. He’s been a great kid since I’ve been here. In my dealings with him, he’s where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be there.”

As far as on-the-field possibilities, there isn’t much to question when it comes to Hill. He rushed for 1,401 yards and 16 touchdowns last season and set an SEC record for a back with at least 200 rushing attempts by averaging 6.9 yards per carry.

Hill’s versatility and intelligence inflate his value even further.

“Really look at backs in the league. Go count how many can play on first down, second down and third down, third-down-and-short and inside the 3-yard line. You’re not going to find many,” Cameron said.

“He’s an every-down back and he’s an ascending player and he’s off-the-charts smart. He is LaDainian Tomlinson-smart and LaDainian is a lot like Darren Sproles, Ray Rice – it’s a who’s who of guys that were great players in our system and the one thing that they all had that most people didn’t know is how smart they were, football smart they were. He’s just a young smart, but I think he’ll be a brilliant player in the National Football League.”

WR Odell Beckham
Beckham will probably be the first Tiger selected in the draft – ESPN’s Todd McShay has him going 13th overall to St. Louis in his newest mock draft – thanks to his explosive skills as a receiver and return man.

That ability existed before Cameron’s arrival, but Beckham made big strides at receiver in 2013, improving from 713 receiving yards in 2012 to 1,152 last season. Cameron credited LSU receivers coach Adam Henry, another former NFL assistant, for teaching Beckham and Jarvis Landry how to attack the ball as pass catchers.

“Adam Henry does a tremendous job teaching our guys how to run into the football,” Cameron said. “Of course, guys who have great hands aren’t cushioning the ball into their body. They just come attack the ball. And those two are the best college receivers I’ve been around at attacking the football, which you have to do in the NFL.”

WR Jarvis Landry
Landry received plenty of love from draft analysts for his strong all-around game – as a blocker, reliable receiver and route-runner – that should translate well to the pros.

After a disappointing result running the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, Landry helped his cause a bit by running a 4.58-second 40 at LSU's pro day. But straight-line speed is not the only kind of quickness required to play in the NFL, particularly at receiver.

“If you can’t win in the first 5 yards, if you don’t have short-area quickness, you’re not going to last in that league because corners aren’t going to play off of you,” Cameron said. “And the one thing he’s got … He’s got NFL explosion, NFL quickness. You’ve got to win those first 5 yards because now they’re going to get their hands off of you.”

OL Trai Turner
Turner surprised some when he announced that he would turn pro after an All-SEC redshirt sophomore season. But the Tigers’ former right guard has generated positive buzz since the season ended and could come off the board in the draft’s early rounds, a possible outcome again strengthened by versatility.

“He has guard-center value,” Cameron said. “Most people don’t know that about him: If he has to play center, he could play center, because you have to. You only dress seven linemen in the National Football League on Sundays, so you’ve got to have a guy who can play guard and center. At least one, if not all your guards have to play center. So I think his versatility’s critical.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- It’s no mystery why NFL scouts like the offensive skill players that LSU is sending into the draft this year.

Watch Zach Mettenberger launch a pass downfield or Jarvis Landry haul in another clutch reception or Odell Beckham Jr. run circles around would-be tacklers or Jeremy Hill rumble for a long touchdown and the ex-Tigers’ physical tools are apparent. But they also credit a common source for expediting their development in their final college season: offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

[+] EnlargeCam Cameron
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesCam Cameron brought more than a decade of NFL experience to LSU's offense.
“He just knows what teams are looking for and that’s an advantage that all of us offensive guys have going into the draft,” Mettenberger said last month at LSU’s pro day. “So many guys have worked in great college systems or worked with gurus for different positions and stuff, but we have a very successful NFL offensive coordinator that’s been with us for the last year and three months, so that’s definitely an advantage that we have going into the draft.”

As the Tigers’ former quarterback mentioned, Cameron isn’t your run-of-the-mill college assistant. He returned to the college game a year ago after more than a decade as an offensive coordinator and head coach in the NFL. He was able to instill a professional mentality into his star players that helped them make enormous progress in 2013, to the point that all of them rank among ESPN Scouts Inc.’s top 125 prospects Insider in this week’s draft.

His influence, plus that of receivers coach Adam Henry -- who came to LSU in 2012 following a five-year stint with the Oakland Raiders -- played a huge part in Landry and Beckham developing into perhaps the nation’s top receiver tandem last season.

“I can’t say enough about the attitude that he brought to the script that we had, to coaching me this final year,” said Landry, who led the Tigers with 77 catches for 1,193 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. “And not only that, but being able to let Coach Henry do his job, also -- being able to let Coach Henry coach us the way that an NFL receiver is supposed to be coached.

“I think that his mentorship and the things that he did for us off the field allowed us to be a stronger band of brothers. I think that his contribution to LSU not only this year, but for years to come, is going to be great.”

At pro day, the coaches provided clear evidence that their relationship with the ex-Tigers didn’t end when the underclassmen announced in early January that they would enter the draft. With hundreds of his former NFL colleagues observing, Cameron was the ringleader when the quarterbacks, running backs and receivers worked out in position drills, just like it was any other LSU practice where he would instruct the offense.

It made perfect sense to all involved, seeing as how he knows better than most what those in attendance wanted to see.

“I told our guys, ‘They’re going to have an opinion of you coming in here. We’re not going to reinvent the wheel. We’re just going to go out there and show them how we practice. This is not some drill that we’ve conjured up for pro day. We’re going to go out there and you’re going to see us do exactly what we do every day in practice, ” Cameron said. “When I was a pro coach, I wanted to get a feel for if a guy has great practice habits and he’s got talent, he’s going to be successful in our system. But if a guy’s lazy or he skips out of this drill or you just get that feel -- he’s not a worker or whatever those things would be -- I’m going to have concerns because if a guy’s not going to work, if a guy doesn’t know how to practice, then he’s not going to be a great pro.

“Our guys know how to work, they know how to practice. I think all our guys offensively will have extensive NFL careers.”

If they do, their final developmental season at LSU will have been instrumental in that success.

Mettenberger was arguably the country’s most improved quarterback as a senior, ranking sixth among FBS quarterbacks with an 85.1 Total QBR last season after he was 80th with a 47.1 Total QBR as a junior.

Likely first-round pick Beckham (59 catches, 1,152 yards, eight touchdowns, plus 178.1 all-purpose yards per game) and Landry both became focal points in LSU’s revived passing game, and both players were able to flash skills that jumped out at scouts.

Despite serving a suspension that kept him off the field at the start of the season, Hill still rushed for 1,401 yards and set a new SEC record for a back with at least 200 carries by averaging 6.9 yards per rushing attempt.

Perhaps they might have made such progress last season even if Cameron hadn’t joined Les Miles’ coaching staff. LSU didn’t have any problems sending players to the pros before he arrived, after all. But the players acknowledge that he made an impression, helping them advance to their current positions as probable early-round draft picks.

“He just made us think like pros,” Mettenberger said. “For Jarvis and Odell being three years removed from high school playing their final season and thinking like Steve Smith, who’s been in the NFL for 13 years, they approach the game that way. The same for me. I had one online class. I was basically an NFL quarterback as a senior in college and every day was just dedicated to getting better and game planning and trying to fix some of the problems that we had in the previous week.

“I think that’s something that not only myself, but everybody has an advantage on the other guys in this draft is we know how to approach this game like a pro. We thought like pros and really all that credit goes to Coach Cam.”
Editor’s note: On Thursday, we examined LSU’s success on third down last season (the Tigers led the nation by converting 57.1 percent of the time) and the importance the quarterbacks will play in remaining successful. Today we explore how much production the Tigers must replace at the skill positions in order to remain effective on third down.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Among ESPN’s top-10 quarterback prospects for the upcoming NFL draft, LSU’s Zach Mettenberger posted the best third-down conversion percentage (53.7) of the bunch.

Certainly it helped that Mettenberger possesses a cannon for a right arm and the experience that comes with being a fifth-year senior. But even Mettenberger would agree that he greatly benefited from the freakish playmaking abilities of receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham and tailback Jeremy Hill.

That foursome helped LSU lead all FBS teams with a 57.1-percent conversion rate on third down last season, but now all four are waiting to hear their names called in next month’s NFL draft.

That leaves offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and the other offensive assistants with the burden of replacing some incredibly productive players who were often at their best on third down.

On Thursday, we looked at the role young quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris will play in LSU’s third-down fortunes in the fall. We’ll do a bit more of that in a second, plus we’ll examine LSU’s third-down production at receiver and running back in an effort to identify which returning players have the most experience at keeping drives alive by achieving all-important first downs.

Mettenberger was outstanding on third down last season, averaging 16.6 yards per completion and throwing only one interception against nine touchdowns. That’s going to be nearly impossible for either Jennings or Harris to duplicate this season, but it should help that the two youngsters have the ability to run as well as throw.

Mettenberger hung out in the pocket as if his sneakers were made of lead, but Jennings and Harris are both quick enough to move the chains on the run. Harris, in particular, showed his speed in the Tigers’ spring game with a 41-yard run, and he also converted for a first down or touchdown on six of the last eight times he was under center on a third down.

Jennings struggled in that department in the spring game, with the offense converting for a first down just once in his seven attempts on third down. He also threw an interception that linebacker Deion Jones returned for a 67-yard touchdown on a third down.

Mettenberger should send a thank you note to Landry for all the times he made a clutch grab to extend a drive or end one with a touchdown. The junior wideout made a catch on 28 of the 35 times he was targeted, with 20 of the receptions earning a first down and six more going for a touchdown. He finished the season with 474 receiving yards and an average of 16.9 yards per catch on third down alone.

Beckham’s solid numbers are unfairly overshadowed by Landry’s, as Beckham caught a pass on 15 of the 25 times he was targeted on third down, gaining 272 yards in the process. Thanks to a pair of penalties against defenders, LSU actually picked up more first downs (16) on passes in which Beckham was targeted than there were instances when he actually caught the ball (15). He averaged 18.1 yards per catch on third down.

LSU’s problem is that only two of its top six third-down targets will be back this fall. Travin Dural (five catches, 97 yards, two touchdowns on third down) returns, but wideout Kadron Boone (four catches, 93 yards and two touchdowns) and tailback Alfred Blue (three catches, 46 yards) are both gone.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see tailback Terrence Magee (three catches, 46 yards), tight ends such as DeSean Smith, Travis Dickson and Dillon Gordon and fullback Connor Neighbors play more active roles on third down in Landry's and Beckham’s absence. The Tigers might also lean heavily on a new crop of receivers (including redshirt freshman John Diarse and signees Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn) on key downs once the season begins.

Hill was superb when Cameron called his number on third down last season, averaging 13.2 yards per carry and achieving either a first down or a touchdown 13 times in 18 tries. Included in that fairly small collection of carries was a 49-yard touchdown on a third-down run against Auburn, a 69-yard burst for a score against Mississippi State and a 37-yard score that put away the Tigers’ Outback Bowl victory over Iowa.

Magee and Kenny Hilliard, meanwhile, posted fairly pedestrian numbers in limited work on third down. Both players receieved eight carries on third down, with Magee achieving three first downs and two touchdowns (he also lost a fumble) and Hilliard getting two first downs and two touchdowns.

The fullback typically earns some short-yardage carries in LSU’s offense – senior J.C. Copeland picked up two first downs and scored twice in four carries on third down – so it will be interesting to see whether Neighbors or Melvin Jones continue that trend.

Freshman tailback Leonard Fournette will be another player to watch here, as the nation’s top overall prospect will certainly earn some carries when the Tigers need to move the chains or hammer the ball into the end zone. Fournette and fellow signee Darrel Williams aren’t on campus yet, but the Tigers’ lack of backfield depth means they must be ready to perform once the season arrives.
Editor’s note: Today and tomorrow, we’ll take a look at LSU’s success on third down last season -- the Tigers led the nation by converting 57.1 percent of the time -- and the obstacles Cam Cameron’s offense will face in its attempt to remain similarly efficient this fall.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Cam Cameron used a golf analogy to describe his quarterbacks’ nonchalance when LSU’s offense faced third-down situations during spring practice. Clearly the Tigers' offensive coordinator has yet to see the young quarterbacks execute at a Tiger Woods level, unlike their predecessor Zach Mettenberger.

“The biggest thing that young quarterbacks have to learn is that if you don’t convert on third down, you’re going to go sit down,” Cameron said. “In practice, it’s almost like they’re at the driving range hitting a bucket of balls: ‘Ah, I missed that one. I’ll put another one down.’ Well, playing quarterback is not like hitting a bucket of balls. You go three-and-out, you’re sitting down watching.”

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY Sports Anthony Jennings excelled on third down in his limited playing time last season but struggled mightily on third down in LSU's spring game.
LSU’s veteran-heavy offense was the best in the nation on third down last fall, converting for a first down or touchdown 57.1 percent of the time (92 of 161). LSU was one of nine teams to convert at least half the time and one of just two in the SEC -- trailing the Tigers were Texas A&M (50.3 percent) and Alabama (47.6).

But the Tigers posted those numbers with a fifth-year senior, Mettenberger, under center, with veterans Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. at receiver and NFL-bound Jeremy Hill at tailback. That group of recently departed stars posted eye-popping numbers in general, particularly on third down (more on that tomorrow).

Mettenberger threw 94 passes on third downs, completing 59 of them for a total of 978 yards. Of those passes, 44 resulted in a first down, and nine more went for touchdowns. Mettenberger tossed only one interception and was sacked six times in such situations.

Then-freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings also posted solid third-down statistics in a significantly smaller sample size, although his 49-yard touchdown pass to Travin Dural in the waning moments against Arkansas accounted for nearly half of his yardage total. Jennings was 5-for-11 on third downs for 120 yards, with four of the completions going for a first down and the one to Dural accounting for a game-winning score. He also tossed a third-down interception in his lone start, the Outback Bowl win against Iowa.

One threat that both Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris present that Mettenberger didn’t is their ability to move the chains by running for first downs. On the three third downs that Jennings attempted to run last season, he achieved two first downs and a touchdown. And Harris proved in the spring game that he might be even more dangerous as a scrambler.

“One of those linebackers went over there to the other side with one of those backs and did not stay home,” LSU coach Les Miles said of a 41-yard Harris run in the second quarter of the Tigers’ spring game. “And so that quarterback came out the back side and suddenly 41 yards later, he’s run out of bounds. That’s something you can’t do, either, so when you line up against a quarterback with that kind of ability -- and both of our guys have it -- you’d better keep that linebacker home.”

If the trends from LSU’s spring game carry over into the fall, Jennings would almost certainly be the quarterback who is sitting down and watching in Cameron’s analogy. The rising sophomore struggled mightily on third down, while early enrollee Harris made some of the day’s most exciting plays in those situations.

Jennings was under center for seven third downs, and only one of them resulted in a first down: a 3-yard run by fullback Connor Neighbors. Jennings was 0-for-3 passing on third down and tossed an interception that linebacker Deion Jones returned 67 yards for a touchdown.

On the other hand, Harris overcame a sluggish start -- the offense failed to convert on third down on any of Harris’ first five attempts -- to finish with a flourish. The Harris-led offense converted six of the final eight third downs, including three touchdowns: a 19-yard pass to tight end DeSean Smith, a 21-yard rainbow to Dural on the final play of the opening half, and a 4-yard touchdown run of his own.

In all, LSU’s offense gained 115 yards in 13 plays when Harris was on the field for third down and lost three yards in the seven times that Jennings was under center -- and that doesn’t include the 67 going the wrong direction for a score on Jones’ interception.

Harris had a hot streak in the second quarter where five of six plays on third down went for either a first down or a touchdown. It’s no coincidence, Cameron said, that only once in those instances did he face third-and-10 or longer -- a down-and-distance scenario that his starting quarterback must avoid if LSU’s youthful 2014 offense is to remain effective on third down.

Mettenberger’s veteran savvy and strong throwing arm frequently dug LSU out of third-and-long situations last year, and it didn’t hurt that he had two future NFL wideouts in Landry and Beckham and a future NFL tailback in Hill at his disposal.

This season’s offense will be extremely young at the skill positions, so Cameron emphasized that whoever wins the quarterback job must keep the offense in manageable situations in order to move the chains.

“I thought we converted pretty well on third down [in the spring game] and now they’ve got to understand how you set yourself up for a manageable third down by the decisions you make on first and second down,” Cameron said. “And right now, we’re not where we need to be.

“We’ve got to know on first down and second down, let’s put ourselves in the best third-down position possible. Last year we converted on third-and-22, third-and-15, third-and-18, third-and-10 consistently. You don’t do that every year, and I think they’re starting to figure that out.”
LSU’s spring practice ended two weeks ago, leaving a full 15 weeks before the Tigers return to the practice field.

The position battles that started in the spring will continue through summer workouts before resuming in front of coaches in August. Let’s take a look at what happened in a few of those spring battles and what we’ll be watching between now and Aug. 30, when the Tigers open the season against Wisconsin.

Defensive tackle: The spring was as much a feeling-out process as anything for defensive line coach Brick Haley. He mostly rode two departed veterans last fall while using youngsters Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas in spot duty. LaCouture and Thomas jumped into leading roles during the spring, and Haley also tested Maquedius Bain, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron (at times) in the middle. Haley has probably established a mental pecking order with the group, but August and the early-season games will certainly play important roles in cementing the coach’s opinions. It will also be worth watching how signees such as Travonte Valentine perform once they arrive on campus, as they might allow Haley to utilize a true rotation in the middle.

[+] EnlargeKendell Beckwith
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsSophomore linebacker Kendell Beckwith moved inside and was impressive this spring.
Linebacker: This should be a fun bunch to watch in the fall. While Kwon Alexander, Lamar Louis and D.J. Welter seemed to rank among John Chavis’ first options during the spring, it’s apparent that the Tigers’ defensive coordinator has no shortage of talented options. One of the intriguing spring storylines was Kendell Beckwith’s transition to middle linebacker behind Welter. The linebackers as a group had an excellent spring game, with Ronnie Feist leading all tacklers with 14 stops and both Alexander and Deion Jones picking off Anthony Jennings passes and returning the interceptions for touchdowns. Clifton Garrett is one of the Tigers’ highest-rated 2014 signees, and he could add even more intrigue to the competition for playing time once practice resumes.

Quarterback: Surely you’ve heard by now that the battle between Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris appears to be wide open entering the summer months. Jennings has a slight experience advantage, but Harris was the more effective performer in the spring game. Both players made plenty of mistakes, however. Their offseason preparation in the next few months will be enormously important once August arrives.

Right guard: This is another battle that the coaches said was wide open once the spring concluded. Evan Washington shifted from tackle to guard and seemed to take the leading role in the competition. Fellow senior Fehoko Fanaika and sophomore Ethan Pocic are lurking, however. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see all of them play some scrimmage downs against Wisconsin -- or in Weeks 2 and 3 against Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Monroe -- as new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes weighs his options. Coach Les Miles complimented all three players after the spring game, so it seems that the coaches would be comfortable playing any of the candidates.

Safety: Injuries caused this position to remain as a bit of a mystery during the spring. Jalen Mills remained in a starting role, and Ronald Martin seemed to be faring well in a return from a fractured right foot. He was injured again by the end of the spring, however, joining Corey Thompson (knee surgery) on the sideline by the time the spring game rolled around. Mills and Rickey Jefferson were the top options in the spring game, but the Tigers could use any number of combinations when the season arrives -- especially once highly-rated safety prospect Jamal Adams and the other signees make it to Baton Rouge this summer. Once the Tigers are back to full strength in August, this should make for one of the most intriguing position battles.

Tight end: This will be a fun position to track in the fall. They had plenty of playing time last season, but barely made a blip as receivers. They seem to be confident that they will make a more well-rounded contribution in 2014. Sophomore DeSean Smith and signee Jacory Washington possess intriguing receiver skills, and Dillon Gordon, Travis Dickson and Logan Stokes worked this spring to prove that they are well-rounded players at the position. It’s a big group, but all of them should have roles to fill during the season.

Wide receiver: They were the walking wounded for much of the spring, with Avery Peterson, Kevin Spears, John Diarse and Quantavius Leslie all spending time in non-contact jerseys. That was a tough blow for a group that has a lot to prove after Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Kadron Boone and James Wright all left the roster after last season. Travin Dural -- who had an outstanding spring game with five catches for 130 yards and two touchdowns -- seemed to solidify his spot as the No. 1 receiving option for now. But this will become one of the Tigers’ most interesting position battles in August once a star-studded signing class, led by Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, arrives to challenge the returning wideouts.

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