LSU Tigers: Odell Beckham
What's new: Former Auburn and Virginia Tech assistant Jeff Grimes joined the staff in January, replacing Greg Studrawa as offensive line coach. An old face will also return to Les Miles' staff, as Bradley Dale Peveto -- a Miles assistant from 2005-08 and participant in a failed experiment as co-defensive coordinator in 2008 -- was recently hired as special teams coordinator. He replaces Thomas McGaughey, who accepted the same position with the New York Jets of the NFL.
On the move: If comments he made last month are any indication, Miles and the coaching staff intend to leave Jalen Mills at safety on at least a part-time basis. He started at the position in the Tigers' Outback Bowl win against Iowa. Don't be surprised if players who have played other positions -- tackle Evan Washington and center Ethan Pocic are reportedly among them -- figure into the competition to replace Turner at right guard. Also, keep an idea on how the Tigers deploy Kendell Beckwith this spring. He has the ability to contribute at defensive end or linebacker, and he might play both positions at points.
New faces: The Tigers have two early enrollees participating in spring practice in quarterback Brandon Harris and defensive back Edward Paris Jr. We'll discuss Harris, who was ESPN's No. 2 dual-threat quarterback and No. 37 overall prospect for the 2014 class, more below. ESPN ranked Paris as its No. 4 safety and No. 50 overall prospect, but LSU listed him as a cornerback when it added the freshmen to the roster.
Key battle: There will be several position battles worth watching -- right guard, defensive tackle and quarterback are among them -- but let's talk about the wide receivers. With Landry and Beckham jumping to the NFL, LSU lost nearly all of its production at wideout. Speedster Travin Dural (seven catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns in 2013) is the only receiver who has done much of anything, and even his production was limited last fall. With arguably the nation's top collection of receiver signees -- led by ESPN's No. 1 wideout Malachi Dupre and No. 3 Trey Quinn -- set to arrive in the summer, now is the time for the players on campus to show they deserve some snaps. Senior Quantavius Leslie (1-11) was disappointingly quiet last season as a junior college transfer. Freshmen John Diarse, Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears all redshirted. Conventional wisdom has Dural and Diarse as the most likely contributors in 2014. Will at least one or two of the others join that group?
Breaking out: Let's see whether cornerbacks Rashard Robinson and Tre'Davious White continue the ascent that started late last season. They started alongside one another in two of LSU's last three games -- wins against Texas A&M and Iowa -- and the secondary made strong showings in both games. Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel had one of the worst outings of his college career (16-for-41 for 224 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions), with Robinson intercepting the former Heisman Trophy winner once. LSU held Iowa to 13-for-30 passing and 157 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions -- one of which came when White picked off a Jake Rudock pass at the LSU 7-yard line in the second quarter. LSU has a longstanding tradition of excellence at cornerback, although the Tigers' entire defense needed to perform more consistently last fall. Perhaps they've found something in sophomores Robinson and White.
Don't forget about: Most of us have already penciled in No. 1 overall prospect Leonard Fournette as the Tigers' starter-in-waiting at tailback. And he very well may be. But he won't arrive on campus until the summer. For now, rising seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard will handle the carries, and both players have proved themselves capable of producing. Magee was Hill's primary backup last season, rushing for 626 yards (and 7.3 yards per carry!) and also flashing good receiving skills (six catches for 49 yards). Hilliard has never been the No. 1 tailback, but he has acquitted himself in a short-yardage role, rushing for at least six touchdowns in all three seasons. Fournette has stardom written all over him, but he won't push the veterans completely out of the way. Count on Magee and Hilliard to keep getting their touches.
All eyes on: Anthony Jennings started LSU's bowl game against Iowa after replacing an injured Zach Mettenberger -- and leading the game-winning comeback -- against Arkansas. He was shaky to say the least (7-for-19 for 82 yards and an interception) in that first career start, however. With Harris, an excellent passer and explosive runner, already on campus, Jennings needs to show he can handle the starting job. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron hand-picked Harris and is no doubt excited about what he can bring to the offense, but he needs to learn the offense first before he can truly threaten Jennings for a starting spot. Throughout the summer, LSU fans will dissect the two quarterbacks' performances in the spring game. Jennings seems like the safe bet to open the season as the Tigers' starter, but whether he holds onto that spot is up to him -- and perhaps up to his new freshman competitor, whose ability to execute the offense will be under heavy scrutiny over the next month.
In previous weeks, we've broken down several players and position groups to watch this spring. As we lead up to Saturday's first team workout, this week we'll make five predictions related to the Tigers' upcoming practices.
Prediction: The freshmen will contend
Obviously this subject matter begins with early enrollees at quarterback, Brandon Harris, and safety, Edward Paris Jr. (whose position battles we discussed here and here). But there are multiple players coming off a 2013 redshirt whose names could figure prominently into the Tigers' spring competition.
We see many of them playing supporting roles once the season opens, and even leading roles in some cases. That will start with solid spring performances by the youngsters.
At receiver, sophomore Travin Dural (seven catches, 145 yards, two TDs last season) and senior Quantavius Leslie (1-11) are the two most experienced veterans, and we use that expression loosely. Three redshirt freshmen -- John Diarse, Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears -- will enter the mix this spring and one or two of them will almost certainly become valuable targets by August. For now, thin positional depth leaves the Tigers with no alternative, but that will change in the summer when freshmen Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn arrive. Don't be surprised if the redshirt freshmen who are already on campus make the depth chart appear much more solid by the end of spring practice.
The defensive tackles at least have Christian LaCouture (11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss) and Quentin Thomas (nine tackles, 0.5 TFLs) back along with junior Mickey Johnson (three tackles). As with the wideouts, the Tigers have several freshman signees who could contribute immediately at tackle. But this spring we'll be watching redshirt freshmen Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain inside and Frank Herron either inside or out. Plenty of observers thought that trio -- or at least a portion of that trio -- would see the field last fall, but none did. LSU doesn't have that convenience this year following Johnson and Ferguson's departures.
Paris should have a chance to compete at safety, too, although there are several players with starting experience returning at what was an often volatile position group in 2013. It will help his cause that he's already on campus, but don't be surprised if this position battle extends beyond the spring and into the season once the other freshman signees -- led by Jamal Adams -- arrive in the summer.
Harris has LSU fans excited about the dual-threat aspect of his game, but he would need to have a ridiculous spring to jump all the way to the top of the depth chart. Anthony Jennings was an early enrollee last season and performed well enough that he claimed the backup spot behind Zach Mettenberger, and eventually replaced him when Mettenberger suffered a season-ending knee injury against Arkansas. Harris has the game to make a similar ascent -- eventually -- but it's only fair to temper one's expectations considering he's a freshman with two months on campus getting his first taste of running Cam Cameron's offense.
There are others -- including offensive linemen Andy Dodd and K.J. Malone and quarterback Hayden Rettig -- who will also compete this spring to become the next Tigers who make a name for themselves as freshmen. That has quickly become a tradition among the Tigers, and we fully expect it to continue in 2014.
We begin today with the wide receivers, which lost two phenomenal players and a senior, essentially forcing the group to start from scratch this spring. Here are some players worth watching:
Departures: Juniors Jarvis Landry (77 catches, 1,193 yards, 10 TDs) and Odell Beckham (59-1,152, 8 TDs) both joined a small group of LSU receivers who recorded 1,000 receiving yards in a single season. Both players opted after the season to enter the NFL draft. Senior Kadron Boone (7-129, 2 TDs) played in every game and was the team's fifth-leading receiver last fall.
Returning reserves: Travin Dural (7-145, 2 TDs) and Quantavius Leslie (1-11) are the two returning players who caught at least one pass a season ago.
Newcomers: Among the names to watch this spring might be John Diarse, Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears, all of whom redshirted last fall after arriving as four-star prospects in the Class of 2013. Diarse looked like he might play as a freshman during preseason camp before suffering an injury that sent him to redshirt land. Same with Peterson and his broken ankle. But those are all players who could immediately jump into the mix alongside the slightly more experienced Dural and Leslie and become regulars in the receiving rotation.
What to watch: With the departures of Landry and Beckham, LSU loses 72 percent of its receiving yardage from the 2013 season. The Tigers lose almost all of their on-field experience at the position. Dural is best remembered for his game-winning touchdown catch against Arkansas and his only other scoring grab against Alabama. Otherwise this position completely lacks on-field production. With a star-studded crop of recruits set to arrive in the summer -- ESPN's No. 1 wideout Malachi Dupre, No. 3 Trey Quinn and ESPN 300 wideouts D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch -- competition at this position will extend well into August. But spring will be a key time for the redshirt freshmen, and the returning veterans for that matter, to prove that they won't simply be pushed aside when the newcomers arrive. With a new quarterback entering the starting lineup, LSU needs this group to make significant progress in the next few months to prevent the offense from becoming too one-dimensional.
Here's a look at the Tigers who are scheduled to be in attendance and when their position groups will take the field for workouts in Indianapolis.
Saturday: Tight ends, offensive line, special teams
Trai Turner will be the first Tiger to take the stage. The right guard surprised some by entering the draft after his redshirt sophomore season. This is his chance to prove that decision wasn't a mistake. If Turner shows up in good shape and excels in the workouts and positional drills, perhaps he can work his way up some teams' draft boards.
Sunday: Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers
This is the showcase day for LSU talent, with five former Tigers set to take the field for workouts. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger would have made it six, but he is still rehabilitating an ACL tear suffered in LSU's Nov. 29 win against Arkansas.
Hill is one of the more intriguing running backs in the draft because of his physical abilities, but his off-the-field issues will probably come up, as well. Hill will be fine in the workouts. The most important part of his trip to Indy won't air on television. He must satisfy at least one team that his disciplinary issues are behind him and that he can be a reliable professional. Performing well in these job interviews is essential for a player with a checkered past.
Meanwhile, it wouldn't be much of a surprise to see Blue perform well in the drills and positional workouts and elevate his draft stock. He was overshadowed by Hill at LSU, but Blue has the tools to be an NFL player and he might just emerge on some radars if he's healthy and has an impressive afternoon.
Landry can help himself with a solid time in the 40-yard dash, should he choose to run in Indy. Dependable hands are his best asset, but he will wear the possession receiver label unless he surprises scouts by flashing some top-end speed. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. wrote this week that a strong combine workout might help Landry work his way into the first round. Conversely, Beckham could help his cause by catching the ball consistently and displaying some polished route-running skills. He's electric with the ball in his hands – and ESPN's Todd McShay is hyping him as one of the draft's fastest prospects – so his biggest hurdle is proving that he's more than a raw athlete.
Monday: Defensive linemen, linebackers
All three of LSU's Monday participants – defensive linemen Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson and linebacker Lamin Barrow – have something to prove to NFL scouts.
At 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, Barrow is not the biggest guy in the world, so most teams likely view him as a situational linebacker and special-teams performer instead of an every-down player. He's athletic and has some intangibles that will probably help him interview well, but he needs to flash some physical tools during the workouts that might help him stand out a bit more.
On the other hand, Johnson and Ferguson should excel in the workouts. After all, Johnson's nickname is “Freak” and he possesses the raw athleticism to back up the hype. The problem for both players is that scouts question their motors. They look the part, but must convince teams that they can refine their games and become more consistent performers at the pro level than they were in college.
Tuesday: Defensive backs
Craig Loston closes out LSU's long list of combine participants when he competes with the defensive backs on the final day of workouts. Loston projects as an inside-the-box safety who is best as a hitter and run stopper. He was a bit brittle in college, which might affect his draft stock, but Loston can probably help his cause in Indy by flashing some fluidity and ball skills during the defensive back drills. If teams determine he can play coverage the way he can run and hit, Loston will rise as a prospect.
Yesterday's subject was safety freshman Edward Paris Jr., one of two early enrollees who arrived last month. Today we look at one of the few veterans in a rebuilding receiving corps.
2013 review: The junior-college transfer -- the No. 29 overall prospect on the ESPN JC 100 and No. 9 wideout -- arrived last summer hoping to become the big (6-foot-4) deep threat who would open the middle of the field for established receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham. Leslie failed to live up to that preseason hype, however, playing in just four games and catching one pass for 11 yards in the Tigers' blowout win against UAB. Landry and Beckham, meanwhile, combined for 2,345 receiving yards before entering the NFL draft after the season.
Why spring is important: Behind Landry and Beckham, the Tigers' leading wideout was Travin Dural, who recorded just seven catches for 145 yards. With four of LSU's top five receivers (in terms of receiving yardage) leaving the roster, this spring is an enormous opportunity for returning players such as Dural and Leslie. Dural made a couple of huge touchdown catches last season, so his role seems more secure. Leslie simply hasn't proven himself yet, and with perhaps the nation's top group of receiving signees -- led by ESPN's No. 1 and 3 wideout prospects in Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn -- set to arrive this summer, now is the time for Leslie to prove he can handle an expanded role.
Best case/worst case: It's not unusual for a junior-college transfer to struggle in his first season with a four-year program before blossoming in Year 2. Perhaps that is what will happen this season with Leslie, particularly now that the most established players at his position have left the roster. He possesses a combination of size and speed which could make him an enticing pass target for whoever wins the Tigers' quarterback job, so a consistent spring could be his springboard to a productive fall. Leslie is a major wild card, considering how he was largely a non-entity in the 2013 passing game after arriving on campus to generous hype. His worst-case scenario would essentially be a repeat of last season, struggling to crack the rotation and watching as other wideouts account for the bulk of the production. It was understandable last fall considering how dynamic the Landry-Beckham combination became, but Leslie failing to emerge this season would be disappointing.
Today we continue this week's series listing five position groups with room to improve in the fall. Yesterday we discussed the tight ends, who could develop a more active presence in the passing game in Year 2 under offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Now we move onto the defensive tackles, who were good but rarely dominant last season and now must replace both starters.
Battling for No. 1: High-profile departures on offense will draw the most attention between now and the season, but this position is every bit as important as who will replace the likes of Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Jeremy Hill. Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson bolted for the NFL after their junior seasons, leaving a great deal of inexperience at a key position. Rising sophomore Christian LaCouture (11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss and one sack last fall) and junior Quentin Thomas (nine tackles, 1.5 TFL, one fumble recovery) have the most experience, but that isn't saying much.
Strength in numbers: Rising junior Mickey Johnson (three tackles in four games) was a top 150 recruit when he signed with LSU in 2011 but has yet to make a major impact. Not only must LSU's coaches pick from a large group of signees and players coming off a redshirt season to fill out the depth chart, but they need some of them to push for starting positions. At this point, however, it's tough to predict which members of the group will earn a role in the rotation -- a traditional element of LSU defense that barely existed last year since Johnson and Ferguson played the majority of downs and LaCouture and Thomas handled most of the reserve snaps.
New on the scene: The good news here is that LSU defensive line coach Brick Haley has some talented players to add to the mix this fall. They're just young. Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain were both among LSU's highest-rated signees a year ago, and both are ESPN 300 prospects are coming off a redshirt season. So is Frank Herron, whom LSU lists as a defensive end, but who could develop into an interior lineman. Finally, the Tigers signed three players last week who they list as defensive tackles. Four-star, 300-pound tackles Travonte Valentine and Trey Lealaimatafao both announced on signing day that they were LSU-bound. Davon Godchaux -- whom ESPN graded as a four-star defensive end -- stuck with his LSU commitment and is also listed as a tackle.
We begin today with the first installment in a series where we examine five position groups with room to improve. Today's first group is the tight ends.
Battling for No. 1: Based on offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's history, many expected LSU to make better use of the tight end as a receiving option in Cameron's first season with the Tigers. That was not to be, as the Tigers used the tight ends almost exclusively as blockers -- same as they had for the last few seasons -- while wideouts Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham contributed the vast majority of the catches and receiving yards. Rising senior tight end Travis Dickson ranked sixth on the team with 109 receiving yards, while rising junior Dillon Gordon (six catches, 88 yards) started 12 of 13 games. With Beckham, Landry and quarterback Zach Mettenberger departed for the NFL, it wouldn't be a big surprise to see the tight ends -- either Dickson, Gordon or one of the younger players on the roster -- play bigger roles as receivers in Year 2 under Cameron.
Strength in numbers: Then-freshman DeSean Smith (one catch, 14 yards) arrived at LSU with plenty of acclaim last year -- he was ESPN's No. 5 tight end and No. 141 overall prospect -- but was not ready to be a starter. He and junior college transfer Logan Stokes appeared in all 13 games, but Smith seems like the candidate to watch for extended playing time as he matures.
New on the scene: New signee Jacory Washington -- who is ranked No. 169 in the ESPN 300 and No. 5 tight end -- seems to have comparable upside to Smith. He could emerge as a receiving weapon in time but needs to add size and become a consistent blocker in order to earn playing time. With all of the key players back from last season, Washington will have to put together a great August to become an immediate contributor. But the athleticism that he and Smith bring to the position group might help the tight end become a more visible element in the passing game over the next couple of seasons.
Between the half-dozen spots still available, the uncommitted heavyweights who are reportedly still considering the Tigers and the players who have already committed to LSU and recently considered other options, Les Miles and his staff have plenty of work to do before the end of the day Wednesday.
We'll start our look at how LSU is addressing its positions of need with the group that is the source of the most intrigue -- the defensive line -- before discussing how premium talent such as tailback Leonard Fournette, receiver Trey Quinn, linebacker Clifton Garrett and offensive lineman Garrett Brumfield should make this one of the nation's top signing classes regardless of what happens with the Tigers' uncommitted targets.
Defensive line: Position coach Brick Haley might not sleep too well tonight, as even he is probably unsure of who will become a Tiger on Wednesday.
Not only have committed ESPN 300 defensive ends Deondre Clark (Oklahoma, Arizona State) and Davon Godchaux (UCLA, Auburn) looked around a bit lately, but several prospects are still flirting with LSU late in the process.
The biggest fish was ESPN's No. 14 overall prospect Lorenzo Carter -- most recruiting analysts predict he will sign with home-state Georgia -- but LSU also seems to be in the mix for No. 164 overall prospect and No. 11 defensive tackle Travonte Valentine (Hialeah, Fla./Champagnat Catholic) and four-star tackle Trey Lealaimatafao (San Antonio/Warren). The Tigers also received a weekend visit from three-star end Sione Teuhema (Keller, Texas/Keller), a Texas commit whose brother Maea -- the No. 38 prospect and No. 2 offensive guard in the ESPN Junior 300 -- seems likely to sign next season with the school Sione chooses Wednesday.
As of now, Godchaux (Plaquemine, La./Plaquemine) and Clark (Oklahoma City/Douglass) are LSU's only publicly committed defensive linemen, so the quality and size of this group is far from set. Stay tuned.
Receiver: The good news is that LSU is on the verge of signing one of the nation's top groups of wide receivers regardless of what happens with ESPN's top player at the position, Malachi Dupre (River Ridge, La./John Curtis). Dupre is set to announce on Wednesday -- he visited UCLA over the weekend after a whirlwind of trips to LSU, Alabama, Florida State and Ole Miss -- and LSU seems to be the favorite.
With Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham entering the NFL draft after exceptional junior seasons, LSU has an immediate need at receiver because the Tigers have no proven options at the position. Some members of this signing class will almost certainly become immediate contributors in the fall.
Secondary: As with Carter, five-star cornerback Adoree' Jackson (Gardena, Calif./Junipero Serra) -- ESPN's No. 9 overall prospect and No. 3 cornerback -- makes LSU recruitniks' hearts go pitter-pat. There has been heavy competition from USC, Florida and UCLA, but LSU gave Jackson its best sales pitch. And he could make an immediate impact if he picks the Tigers. LSU returns almost everyone from a young secondary, save senior Craig Loston, but will almost certainly feature one or two 2014 signees in some role this fall.
Early enrollee Edward Paris Jr. (Arlington, Texas/Timberview), ESPN's No. 50 overall prospect and No. 4 safety, is the first name that comes to mind, as he will participate in spring practice. But No. 18 overall prospect and No. 2 safety Jamal Adams (Lewisville, Texas/Hebron) -- a huge get when the Tigers missed out on in-state prospect Hootie Jones – could also figure into the mix.
LSU also has a commitment from ESPN 300 athlete Devin Voorhies (Woodville, Miss./Wilkinson County), who should play safety, and three-star defensive backs John Battle IV (Hallandale Beach, Fla/Hallandale) and Russell Gage (Baton Rouge, La./Redemptorist).
Running back: Every recruiting analyst has thoroughly covered by now that LSU's commitment from No. 1 overall prospect Fournette (New Orleans/St. Augustine) was massive. With Jeremy Hill leaving for the draft, the Tigers needed to sign a top-tier back and Fournette should more than fit the bill. The Tigers are also adding three-star back Darrel Williams (Marrero, La./John Ehret), whose north-south running style should fit well in the Tigers' running game.
Offensive line: The Tigers return four starters along the offensive line, so it's not an immediate need. Rarely does a school sign high school offensive linemen looking to fill immediate needs, however. Down the road, ESPN's No. 1 guard and No. 54 overall prospect Brumfield (Baton Rouge, La./University Laboratory) should become a fixture in the lineup. The Tigers also have a commitment from four-star guard William Clapp (New Orleans/Brother Martin) and continued to pursue three-star tackle Derrick Kelly Jr. (Quincy, Fla./East Gadsden) late in the process.
Linebacker: This much we know: No. 31 overall prospect and No. 2 inside linebacker Garrett (Plainfield, Ill./Plainfield South) looks like LSU's next great run-stopping linebacker. He and ESPN 300 outside linebacker Donnie Alexander (New Orleans/Edna Karr) are the Tigers' two committed linebackers. LSU is also among the leading suitors for Dupre's teammate Kenny Young (River Ridge, La./John Curtis), who will also announce on Wednesday.
The Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale also reported Monday that LSU reiterated its interest in Miami commit Terry McCray (Pompano Beach, Fla./Blanch Ely), a three-star outside linebacker.
If the offense was a bit better than expected, the defense might have been a bit worse. Everyone knew it was a rebuilding year after John Chavis' group lost a whopping seven players to early entry into the draft. Losing Eric Reid, Barkevious Mingo and Kevin Minter hurt badly, as some of the totals opponents posted early showed. LSU's defense did improve as the season progressed -- an impressive late-November performance against Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M was the highlight -- but it was still not as consistent as Chavis certainly would have preferred. Nonetheless, LSU finished the season ranked third in the SEC in total defense (340.7 ypg) and fourth in scoring (22 ppg). Those aren't bad numbers, but they aren't up to the standard Chavis' recent defenses have set.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
Having Beckham on its side helps LSU quite a bit here. The Paul Hornung Award winner and all-purpose All-American helped the Tigers lead the SEC in kickoff return average (25.5) and rank fifth in punt return average (7.5). His 109-yard touchdown return of a missed UAB field goal was one of the season's most electrifying plays. Kicker Colby Delahoussaye (13-for-14 on field goals and 56-for-57 on PATs) had a solid freshman season, but the Tigers were fairly average on special teams aside from his kicking and Beckham's work as a return man.
With division rivals Alabama and Auburn having either won or played for the BCS title in each of the past five seasons, LSU might be getting a bit tired of its bridesmaid status of late. It's not as if the Tigers have been pushovers, however. This marked the first time in school history that LSU won at least 10 games for a fourth straight season, and included in those 10 wins was the only victory against eventual SEC champ Auburn in the regular season. Considering the roster turnover that took place on defense, a 10-win season and a New Year's Day bowl in Florida were perfectly acceptable results.
But signing a talented player is only the first step. A coaching staff must also excel at developing talent, which LSU frequently accomplishes since every All-American was not a coveted recruit.
Let's look at how LSU's recent Associated Press All-Americans graded out as high school prospects:
2013 third-team All-American (all-purpose)
ESPN rankings: 78 grade (three stars), No. 62 athlete in 2011
Evaluation highlights: “Beckham is an exciting athlete that displays some versatility and range as an offensive weapon. He is undersized, but very explosive and shifty with good change of direction and excellent overall instincts with the ball in his hands. ... We feel he would need to be a utility player and certainly has a chance to be an excellent return man.”
In hindsight: Not a bad call. ESPN's analyst pegged Beckham's athleticism correctly, as he developed into one of the nation's most electric receivers and return men. He turned out better than a three-star grade, however.
2012 second-team All-American (linebacker)
ESPN rankings: 81 grade (four stars), No. 133 overall prospect in 2009, No. 11 outside linebacker
Evaluation highlights: “Minter has a great blend of size, speed and toughness. He isn't tall, but has a thick build and carries his weight very well. He's physically ready to make the jump to the next level. ... He should give his future defensive coordinator the flexibility to play him in the middle or on the strong side.”
In hindsight: Good call. Minter had an outstanding junior season, ranking third in the SEC with 130 tackles and fourth with 15 tackles for a loss before jumping to the NFL.
2012 second-team All-American (safety)
ESPN rankings: 81 grade (four stars), No. 71 overall prospect in 2010, No. 7 safety
Evaluation highlights: “Reid is a very gifted player that can really excel at the free safety position. He is an excellent field general that plays with confidence and possesses the necessary skills to run the secondary both physically and mentally.”
In hindsight: Good call. Not only was Reid good enough to rank among the SEC's tackles leaders in 2012, he became a 2013 first-round NFL draft pick and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie for the San Francisco 49ers.
2011 first-team All-American (punter)
ESPN rankings: 74 grade (two stars), No. 24 kicker in 2010
Evaluation highlights: “His long frame and good leg speed allow him to drive the ball 50-60 yards down field. His ability to hang the football is also impressive, with game punts in the 4.8 sec. range. ... Brad has some very good tools to build on. He should become an excellent college punter.”
In hindsight: Not quite. Wing was second in the SEC and 11th nationally in punting for the 2011 conference champs. He encountered problems later in his career, but they were not related to his football talent, which proved better than his prospect ranking.
2011 first-team All-American (cornerback)
ESPN rankings: 77 grade (three stars), No. 36 cornerback in 2010
Evaluation highlights: “Mathieu is an underrated defensive back with a good blend of range, athleticism and closing burst. ... Looks and plays taller on film than his listed measurables. ... Just when you think he is a bit-straight lined he will impress you with his lateral fluidity as a return specialist; overall just a very good, instinctive athlete who should only get better as he receives full-time positional coaching.”
In hindsight: Not quite. Mathieu was probably difficult to grade because of the freewheeling style that turned him into a college star. But he made possibly the biggest impact of any individual player on LSU's outstanding 2011 club, generating key takeaways and highlight-reel kick returns all season.
2011 first-team All-American (cornerback)
ESPN rankings: 80 grade (four stars), No. 26 athlete in 2009
Evaluation highlights: “Claiborne is a bit of a secret in recruiting circles, but his talent level won't be kept at bay for long once he enters the college ranks. ... He works out of the QB position in high school and sees some duty on defense, as well. We feel he'll be a wide receiver, but in time cornerback could be where he finds the most success. ... Overall, we would be very surprised if this kid didn't have a very productive college career.”
In hindsight: Good call. ESPN's analyst was on the right track in projecting Claiborne's eventual college path, which is difficult when a prospect plays multiple roles in high school. He was possibly the nation's top cover corner by his junior season before becoming the No. 6 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft.
2011 second-team All-American (offensive guard)
ESPN rankings: 79 grade (three/four stars), No. 15 defensive tackle in 2007
Evaluation highlights: “Blackwell is an athletic big man who displays good football intelligence. He has a good get off and does a good job of shooting his hands. He can create separation and read blocks. He is physical at the point of attack and displays the ability to hold his ground. ... As he physically grows, he has the tools to be a big, quick, disruptive presence in the trenches.”
In hindsight: Wrong position. The evaluation graded him as a defensive player, but some of the tools that made Blackwell a valuable offensive lineman emerge in the analyst's comments.
2011-12 third-team All-American (defensive end)
ESPN rankings: 84 grade (four stars), No. 26 overall prospect in 2009, No. 2 defensive end
Evaluation highlights: “Montgomery got a late start in the game, but is an exciting prospect. He is green (only one year of football under his belt), but he appears to be a natural. Has excellent athletic ability and also shows a grasp of some of the game's nuances. ... Montgomery is an excellent prospect who has both immediate value and considerable upside.”
In hindsight: Good call. Natural athleticism helped Montgomery become a two-time All-American. He has yet to maximize those talents, but became a third-round NFL draft pick when he left after his junior season.
Auburn's Chris Davis made the return that will live in infamy against Alabama, but Odell Beckham Jr. completed missed field goal returns for 109-yard touchdowns before it was cool. He beat Davis to the punch by a couple of months, accomplishing the feat in a Week 2 win against UAB -- the most memorable highlight in an electric season by Beckham.
No. 16: Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
2013 summary: Not only did Beckham finish fourth in the SEC with 88.6 receiving yards per game (on a total of 59 catches for 1,152 yards and eight TDs), he was also the SEC's No. 3 kickoff return man (26.4 YPG) and finished fourth in punt return average (8.9). Beckham finished second nationally in all-purpose yards (178.1) and earned third-team All-America honors as an all-purpose performer.
Most recent ranking: Not ranked in the 2013 preseason countdown
Making the case for Beckham: The 2013 Paul Hornung Award winner -- which goes to the nation's most versatile player -- capped a standout junior season with a ridiculous one-handed catch against Iowa in the Outback Bowl. Many of the other 58 catches he made during the season were also impressive, with Beckham becoming one of the league's most memorable offensive playmakers in recent memory. He posted five 100-yard games as a receiver -- including a 179-yard, two-touchdown performance against Mississippi State and a 204-yard, two-score outing against Furman -- and also had four games where he totaled more than 100 yards in kickoff returns. Some NFL team is going to be extremely happy to get the early draft entrant onto its roster in a couple of months.
No. 17: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri, Jr.
No. 18: T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama, So.
No. 19: Jarvis Landry, WR, LSU, Jr.
No. 20: Cody Prewitt, S, Ole Miss, Jr.
No. 21: Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn, Jr.
No. 22: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama, Jr.
No. 23: Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State, Sr.
No. 24: Kenny Ladler, S, Vanderbilt, Sr.
No. 25: E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri, Jr.
No. 19: Jarvis Landry, WR, LSU
2013 summary: When Zach Mettenberger desperately needed to complete a pass, he looked Landry's way more than anywhere else. And more often than not, Landry rewarded Mettenberger for his confidence. The junior finished with 77 catches for 1,193 yards and 10 touchdowns -- all totals that rank among the top five single-season showings in LSU history -- and entered the NFL draft after the season.
Most recent ranking: Not ranked in the 2013 preseason countdown
Making the case for Landry: Although he also had talented tailback Jeremy Hill eating up chunks of yards and one of the league's most dynamic playmakers, Beckham, lining up alongside him, Landry still ranked third in the SEC with an average of 91.8 receiving yards per game. He posted five 100-yard games -- including a 10-catch, 156-yard outing against Georgia -- and totaled at least 87 yards in each of the last five games of the regular season as the Tigers pushed toward their program-record fourth straight season of at least 10 wins. His and Beckham's departures will leave an enormous void in the Tigers' passing game, as they combined for 2,345 of the team's 3,263 receiving yards.
No. 20: Cody Prewitt, S, Ole Miss, Jr.
No. 21: Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn, Jr.
No. 22: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama, Jr.
No. 23: Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State, Sr.
No. 24: Kenny Ladler, S, Vanderbilt, Sr.
No. 25: E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri, Jr.
“Or [they] have lesser players,” Miles said last week. “One of the two.”
The truth, of course, is that it's a bit of both for most of the teams that Miles' LSU faces annually.
“If a great player can be in your two-deep, he plays,” Miles said of the hypothetical incoming freshman. “If a great player can't be in your two-deep, he's probably not a great player.”
The concept is simple. Players who aren't great tend to stick around longer than those whose physical abilities make them promising targets for NFL scouts. The tricky part for a college coach is convincing players who possess NFL potential to stick around long enough to maximize their talents and land a lucrative professional contract. That takes longer for some than it does for others.
LSU has fallen short in that department, which is why Miles hammers the point that players shouldn't give the NFL “a deal” by leaving school before they have proven themselves as sure-fire, early-round picks.
Some who left Baton Rouge early last year -- and a couple more this year might follow in their footsteps -- could have improved their stock by returning for another season in college. Instead, they made a risky decision to turn pro that blew up in their faces. While improving their draft stock, they also could have been helping LSU win football games had they stayed. Poor choices caused both parties to suffer.
Miles refuses to say that early draft entry has created a problem for LSU -- “It appears to me that we're winning a lot of games year after year after year. I think that will continue,” he insisted -- but the Tigers will provide a case study that bears watching.
After leading the nation with 11 early departures a season ago, LSU again leads the pack with seven this year. LSU's 18 early entries are 10 more than any school has ever had in a two-year period according to ESPN's Brad Edwards. Further, Edwards tweeted on Tuesday that LSU's 18 early entries are seven more than the entire Big 12 in that span and eight more than the entire Big Ten.
Honestly, how could that not create problems? Nobody, not even Alabama, is dealing with that kind of draft-created roster turnover.
Miles is a confident coach who believes that his coaching staff is capable of attracting enough high-level talent that they can plug in youngsters without missing much of a beat. LSU handled the attrition well for the most part in 2013, although last year's seven early departures off fearsome defenses from 2011 and 2012 clearly affected John Chavis' inconsistent unit in the fall.
It's only natural to wonder whether another veteran's defensive presence here or there might have made a difference in 2013 going down as a championship-caliber season instead of simply another solid fall under Miles' leadership.
Now it will be Cam Cameron's turn to rebuild, with five of the seven early departures -- including receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham and tailback Jeremy Hill, who combined for 3,985 of LSU's 5,893 offensive yards in 2013 -- coming on offense. And Cameron will be breaking in a new starting quarterback, as well.
This is where players like Leonard Fournette, Trey Quinn and Brandon Harris fit into the conversation.
Among the motivational signs in LSU's team meeting room is one that spells out the Tigers' team process. One line reads “Young guys must prepare to play big roles,” which is exactly what tailback Fournette -- ESPN's No. 1 overall prospect -- receiver Quinn and early enrollee quarterback Harris might have to do.
Fournette has two veterans in Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard to help him make the transition into college, but it will be an enormous disappointment if he does not play a leading role in the 2014 offense.
Quinn -- ESPN's No. 29 overall prospect and No. 3 receiver -- and other players who will have either signed with the Tigers last February or in a couple of weeks must also play big roles this fall. The Tigers have next to no experienced alternatives at the position.
And while rising sophomore Anthony Jennings got a head start on the competition by starting the Tigers' Outback Bowl win against Iowa, he can’t be crowned the 2014 starter just yet. Harris -- ESPN's No. 37 overall prospect and No. 2 dual-threat quarterback -- is among those who will challenge for the job.
Those players and more, who will officially become Tigers on signing day, are immensely talented prospects. That is why several will be included in the coaching staff's plans almost immediately.
“For years we've said that young guys that come into this program are expected not to be young guys,” Miles said. “They're expected to take their roles and play big roles in this program. That being said, we recruit to that. We recruit to those guys that see themselves stepping in and making big plays and playing a part.”
John Calipari's basketball program at Kentucky employs a similar recruiting philosophy and has also kept winning despite considerable attrition through the NBA draft. In both situations, however, it's reasonable to wonder whether the model is sustainable.
Calipari has won a national title but also fielded disappointing teams following considerable draft attrition at Kentucky. Year 2 of the closest comparison in college football -- Miles' LSU -- will tell us plenty about whether it can work on the gridiron.
The Tigers lost seven players who had eligibility remaining -- five of whom came from the offense, a year after seven of LSU's 11 early entries were defensive players. That puts the onus on offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to quickly determine his top options after losing the only foursome in SEC history that featured a 3,000-yard passer (senior Zach Mettenberger), two 1,000-yard receivers (juniors Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry) and a 1,000-yard rusher (sophomore Jeremy Hill).
Let's take a position-by-position look at some of the possible replacements for the Tigers who opted to enter the draft:
Departing: Juniors Landry (77 catches, 1,193 yards, 10 TDs in 2013) and Beckham (59-1,152, 8 TDs). LSU passed for 3,263 yards in 2013. Landry and Beckham combined to accumulate 2,345 of those yards (plus departing tailback Hill and senior Kadron Boone were third and fifth on the team with 181 and 129 yards, respectively). In other words, LSU has a ton of receiving production to replace and no proven options.
Contenders: As the only returning receiver with more than 100 yards in 2013, Travin Dural (7-145, 2 TDs) is the most obvious choice here. He made a game-winning, 49-yard touchdown catch in the closing minutes against Arkansas, so perhaps he will be one of the Tigers' next receiving playmakers.
Otherwise, who knows? LSU would love to get more out of former junior college transfer Quantavius Leslie (1-11), but he didn't do much in 2013. And then you have Avery Peterson (brother of former LSU cornerback Patrick) and John Diarse, both of whom were big-time prospects before redshirting last season.
Additionally, the Tigers already have verbal commitments from Trey Quinn -- ESPN's No. 3 receiver and No. 29 overall prospect -- fellow ESPN 300 picks D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch, and are still pursuing No. 1 wideout Malachi Dupre. If Les Miles' staff lands some of these top-tier prospects, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them crack the depth chart as freshmen.
Departing: Sophomore Hill (203 carries, 1,401 yards, 16 TDs) and senior Alfred Blue (71-343, 1 TD). Hill posted the second-best rushing totals in school history in 2013 and was an absolute force when he stayed out of trouble. Blue missed his chance to be the No. 1 tailback when he suffered a season-ending injury early in the 2012 campaign. Hill had two years of eligibility remaining, while Blue was granted a fifth season by the NCAA but elected not to use it.
Contenders: Perhaps it's unfair to 2014 seniors Terrence Magee (86-626, 8 TDs) and Kenny Hilliard (68-310, 7 TDs) to discount their roles -- and they will certainly play roles next season -- but Leonard Fournette is the guy who will attract the most attention between signing day and the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin. ESPN rates Fournette as the nation's No. 1 prospect and he is often compared to Adrian Peterson thanks to a rare combination of size (he's listed at 6-foot-1 and 226 pounds), slippery moves and breakaway speed. Magee and Hilliard will both contribute, but LSU's running game can be great if Fournette quickly establishes himself alongside the veterans.
Departing: Juniors Anthony Johnson (35 tackles, 9 tackles for a loss, 3 sacks) and Ego Ferguson (58 tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss, 1 sack). Johnson and Ferguson anchored the middle of the Tigers' line, but their early departures create a big hole for position coach Brick Haley to fill.
Contenders: Christian LaCouture (11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss, 1 sack) is the first name to mention. An early enrollee last year, LaCouture jumped into the rotation as a freshman and served as a decent third option behind the veterans. Meanwhile, Quentin Thomas (9 tackles, 0.5 tackles for a loss) entered the starting lineup against Iowa in the Outback Bowl when Ferguson didn't travel to the bowl site. Beyond those two, it's a bit of a mystery. Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain -- both of whom redshirted in 2013 -- were big gets for LSU on the recruiting trail at this time a year ago, so they could enter the mix as well.
Departing: Sophomore Trai Turner (Started all 13 games in 2013). Turner was a second-team All-SEC pick as a draft-eligible sophomore, prompting him to jump to the pros earlier than many would have expected. His departure creates an opening at right guard -- the lone spot to fill on what could be an outstanding offensive line.
Contenders: On the day left tackle La'El Collins announced he would return for his senior season, he lobbied for Fehoko Fanaika to fill Turner's spot. At 6-foot-6 and 348 pounds, the junior college transfer -- who appeared in 12 games in 2013 -- certainly has the girth to handle the job. Other options include a pair of ESPN 300 selections from 2013, Ethan Pocic (also Elliott Porter's backup at center) and Andy Dodd, along with ESPN's No. 1 guard for 2014, Garrett Brumfield, who has already committed to the hometown Tigers.
The Tigers (10-3) fell out of the national championship hunt with a midseason loss to Ole Miss and suffered a lopsided defeat at Alabama but rallied to win their final three games -- including impressive defensive outings against Texas A&M and in the Outback Bowl against Iowa -- and finish with a No. 14 national ranking.
Offensive MVP: Mettenberger combined with wideouts Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham and running back Jeremy Hill to make LSU the first SEC team ever to have a 3,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard rusher. They would all make good choices, but Mettenberger's emergence helped turn LSU into a much more effective offensive club.
Defensive MVP: Senior linebacker Lamin Barrow was one of the few veterans on a defense that lost seven underclassmen to the draft a year ago. He served as a steadying force for coordinator John Chavis, leading the team with 91 tackles -- tied for ninth in the SEC -- and finishing as a second-team All-SEC selection.
Best moment: Freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings came off the bench when Mettenberger suffered a torn ACL against Arkansas and led the Tigers on a 99-yard, go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. Jennings hit Travin Dural with a 49-yard touchdown pass with 1:15 to play to help LSU win 31-27.
Worst moment: The sloppy outing at Ole Miss was LSU's worst loss of the season, but the most painful was the 38-17 loss against heated rival Alabama, where the top-ranked Crimson Tide scored the game's final 21 points. The Tigers blew early chances to take control of the game and got dominated late.
Mettenberger's Rehab Ahead Of Schedule
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35