LSU Tigers: Vadal Alexander

BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU’s spring practice is officially in the books. Now that it’s over, we thought it might be fun to review two sets of our predictions from before the spring and see how close we came.

Prediction No. 1: Freshmen will contend for playing time

[+] EnlargeEdward Paris Jr.
Max Olson/ESPN.comLSU early enrollee Edward Paris is making an impact at defensive back.
Outcome: Although it’s clear that freshmen such as tailback Leonard Fournette, receiver Malachi Dupre and safety Jamal Adams -- none of whom will arrive until this summer -- are likely contributors in 2014, this prediction mostly referred to the redshirt freshmen who will see their first action this fall. It also referred to early enrollees defensive back Edward Paris and quarterback Brandon Harris, who participated in spring practice and stand a good chance of playing this season.

We were hardly going out on a limb here, but it appears as though plenty of redshirt freshmen secured 2014 playing time over the last month. Players worth mentioning from that group include receiver John Diarse and defensive linemen Frank Herron, Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore.

Prediction No. 2: Anthony Jennings keeps the QB job

Outcome: To be determined. Harris clearly outplayed Jennings in last Saturday’s spring game, but LSU’s coaches and players insist the competition is far from over. Jennings etched his name into LSU lore by leading the game-winning touchdown drive against Arkansas last year in relief of an injured Zach Mettenberger, but his mediocre performance in the Outback Bowl and highly average spring game -- he threw two interceptions, both to linebackers who returned them for touchdowns -- leave this race wide open.

Jennings might very well start the opener against Wisconsin, but we can’t claim victory (or accept defeat) on our quarterback prediction at this point.

Prediction No. 3: Right guard isn’t the only offensive line job that’s up for grabs

Outcome: Right guard is the only spot that didn’t return a starter, so it was clearly up for grabs. We were curious as to whether new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes might shake things up along the line, but it doesn’t appear that he did.

Returning starters La'el Collins, Vadal Alexander, Elliott Porter and Jerald Hawkins apparently held onto their starting roles, although it wouldn’t be completely untrue to say that some of their jobs were up for grabs had one of the reserves put together a dominant spring. Nonetheless, the right guard battle -- Evan Washington, Fehoko Fanaika and Ethan Pocic all remain in the running for the job -- was the only one that seemed highly competitive this spring.

Prediction No. 4: Rashard Robinson keeps rising at cornerback

Outcome: Another fairly safe prediction here. As long as Robinson remains on the active roster, it seems highly likely that he will build upon his late charge in 2013 and become a star in the secondary.

Harris and Rob Bolden teamed up to beat him on a pretty throw down the sideline in the spring game, but Robinson otherwise held up well last Saturday. After shutting down Texas A&M superstar Mike Evans last season, Robinson has LSU fans excited about his potential -- and he didn’t seem to hurt his cause on the practice field this spring.

Prediction No. 5: Danielle Hunter improves as a pass rusher

Outcome: Anyone who saw Hunter manhandle the second-string offensive line in the spring game -- including back-to-back sacks on one possession -- would say this prediction seems to be sound.

LSU posted just 27 sacks last season, which was a big drop-off after the last few Tigers teams boasted at least one or two scary pass rushers. Jermauria Rasco led the team with just four sacks, and Hunter tied for second with three.

It would be a major upset -- and a big disappointment -- if Hunter fails to exceed that total this fall.

Now let’s take a look at our predictions for five players to watch during the spring: Paris, Jennings, Fanaika, wide receiver Quantavius Leslie and defensive lineman Mickey Johnson.

There were some hits and misses here. Jennings was an obvious choice since he and Harris were clearly going to battle for the quarterback job. Picking either one made sense, but we went with Jennings since he was the more experienced player. Harris was the contender who generated all of the positive buzz in the spring game, however.

Fanaika, Leslie and Johnson are all veterans at positions with major playing time available, so they seemed like good picks. Fanaika is still a leading contender to start at right guard and Leslie had a productive second scrimmage (four catches, 135 yards and three touchdowns), although he was quiet in the spring game. But Johnson dealt with injuries during the spring and was not a factor in the Tigers’ competition at defensive tackle.

The problem with our Paris prediction was that we projected him as a contender at safety, which is where ESPN listed him as a prospect. The early enrollee practiced at cornerback during the spring, so we can’t feel too good about that prediction. But he was working with the second-team defense by the end of the spring, so at least he flashed some potential.

If we could redo the list, we’d place Harris, Washington, Diarse, Bain and sophomore Kendell Beckwith -- who shifted to middle linebacker this spring -- on there.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- There are distinct differences between the coaching style of LSU’s new offensive line coach, Jeff Grimes, and the methods of his predecessor, Greg Studrawa. Perhaps the most obvious for an outside observer is that the decibel level on the practice field has dropped several notches.

Hard-nosed and extremely vocal, Studrawa -- whom Les Miles did not retain after the 2013 season, and who has since accepted the same job at Maryland -- could have come straight from Central Casting to play the role of an offensive line coach. Grimes, on the other hand, does his teaching without all the yelling.

[+] EnlargeJeff Grimes
Jeff Lack/Icon SMIFormer Hokies O-line coach Jeff Grimes has brought an "attention to detail and technique" to LSU, according to coach Les Miles.
“If [Grimes is] on the practice field, you probably wouldn't even notice him. You notice Stud because he was out there yelling and doing all those things and being passionate like that,” left guard Vadal Alexander said. “Grimes is just a guy that just wants everything to be perfect. He's kind of like Coach Miles. They're both kind of the same in that facet. So I can tell you right now, we're better this week than we were last week just because of Coach Grimes.”

That’s not to say that Grimes lacks an edge. It’s there when necessary -- just not as loud.

“He’s upfront. He won’t sugarcoat anything. He’ll just tell you how it is,” said senior Fehoko Fanaika, who is battling for the Tigers’ starting right guard spot.

LSU’s offense relied heavily on a foursome of NFL-caliber skill players in quarterback Zach Mettenberger, tailback Jeremy Hill and receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry -- a group that helped the Tigers become the first SEC team to boast a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers.

However, the Tigers’ offense was fairly average overall, ranking in the middle of the SEC pack in both total offense (seventh, 453.3 ypg) and scoring offense (sixth, 35.8 ppg). The offensive line’s play certainly factored into those middling results, ranking 57th nationally with an average of 1.92 sacks allowed per game.

Miles, however, believes Grimes’ focus on “attention to detail and technique” will help a line that returns four starters become a more effective group this fall.

“I think we’ll be better. I really do,” Miles said. “But it has to do with the duality of veteran offensive linemen getting to a point in their career where they’re making the final adjustments and Jeff coming in with a real nice focus for them there. I think it should be pretty quick.”

Just because Alexander, left tackle La'el Collins, center Elliott Porter and right tackle Jerald Hawkins are all back doesn’t mean Grimes has guaranteed starting roles to the returning starters. The Tigers have at least seven linemen whom the coaches like -- throw Fanaika (guard), Evan Washington (guard or tackle) and Ethan Pocic (center, guard or tackle) into the mix -- and want to evaluate as potential starting combinations.

“Everyone’s been moving around a lot. Coach Grimes has been moving us around. He’s trying to see where he likes people at,” Pocic said.

That type of experimentation is fairly common during the spring even among coaches who didn’t just arrive on campus. But in this case, Grimes is simply getting a feel for his personnel -- and they’re getting a feel for him, which they quickly noticed does not include the in-your-face tactics one might expect from an offensive line coach.

“Coach Grimes is one of the most specific, technical guys you'll meet in your life. Automatically, right off the bat, he got us better,” Alexander said. “Coach Stud was a great coach and I love him. He got us better, as well, but just Coach Grimes has a different way of approaching things. He's more mellow.”

In Grimes’ profession, results are what matter, not coaching methods. He has been successful in that regard, most notably during Auburn’s 2010 BCS championship run, but also in stops at Virginia Tech, Colorado, BYU, Arizona State and Boise State.

Starting with his first practice on campus, Grimes’ reputation as a technician caught his head coach’s attention. Miles said last week that it was paying off, with linemen picking up the finer points of their positions that can lead to an overall more productive performance from his group.

“I think our guys are responding to it,” Miles said. “I think the guys are really in position to do so in other words. It’s pretty much a veteran group and there’s always the final footwork, if you will, or the final course, the head placement. I think Jeff’s coming in at the right time for these guys and making that point.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU will commemorate the midway point of spring practice Saturday with its first full team scrimmage at Tiger Stadium.

The Tigers are nowhere near installing the more complex schemes that fans will see during the fall, but Saturday's competition should provide a good measuring stick for what the team has accomplished in the first two weeks of spring workouts.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesLes Miles says the defense is ahead of the offense so far this spring.
“They scheme it up a little bit, but not a lot,” senior linebacker D.J. Welter said. “It's really just basic stuff, like the basic blitzes that we'll run every game. It won't be like a special thing or a special formation. It's basic.”

LSU held a partial scrimmage last Saturday and will return to Tiger Stadium again next Saturday for its final scrimmage before the April 5 spring game. For the most part, each of those outings emphasizes competition and fundamental techniques.

Coach Les Miles said the offense worked on first-and-10 situations last week and will practice third-and-short and third-and-medium scenarios -- to “put us in position where we have to be pass rushed and be able to execute the passing game under pressure” -- plus special teams Saturday.

But as Welter said, it will be mostly basic situational work where both sides run vanilla schemes and the coaches can evaluate how younger players, in particular, hold up against more seasoned competitors.

“I can say one of the main things is it's for the young guys -- for guys who haven't established themselves to establish themself as a playmaker and just show that they want to play, whether it's on special teams or whether it's on offense or defense, just standing out and leaving your mark,” linebacker Lamar Louis said.

“So I can say that first spring [scrimmage] has a lot to do with that because it's not much scheme, not much put in from the playbook or whatever. You're just showing the coaches you can execute small things that they've given you already.”

Many eyes, then, will be on players like quarterback Brandon Harris and cornerback Edward Paris Jr. -- early enrollees who are getting their first taste of college competition -- and a host of redshirt freshmen expected to play larger roles this season.

Harris’ development is one of the most intriguing storylines of LSU’s spring, although he and fellow quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Hayden Rettig might face a competitive disadvantage Saturday. The receiving corps -- another group that has plenty to prove -- has been short-handed for a portion of the spring.

During the open media periods at Thursday’s practice, the only scholarship receivers catching passes from the quarterbacks were Travin Dural and Quantavius Leslie. Kevin Spears, John Diarse and Rob Bolden were absent and Avery Peterson was wearing pads but watching from the sideline. Spears and Peterson have dealt with hamstring injuries this spring and Miles said Diarse “was limited because of a small procedure that he had done,” adding that he could return to practice next week.

The limited numbers make the passing game look like even more of a work in progress.

“With John back, it’s really a pretty good group,” Miles said. “With John out, it takes some work -- plus you have new quarterbacks that are having to run the drill for the first time, so there’s a little inexperience that’s being served by practicing.”

On the other side of the ball, 2013 redshirts like Greg Gilmore, Maquedius Bain and Frank Herron could all figure heavily into the defensive line plans this fall, and they’ve yet to play a college down. But there are multiple positions throughout the roster where the Tigers have holes to fill, and scrimmages will provide the coaches with some game-like insight.

“From a defensive perspective, you just want to see how people react to the calls, that they do their assignments, how they do their techniques,” Welter said. “Specifically at linebacker, getting your pads dropped or fitting in your gap and reading the flow of the ball, fitting right. So it's all about just fitting right in the defense that's called and going out there and playing and being loose and executing.”

Miles said last week that the defense was ahead of the offense this spring, and he repeated that opinion on Thursday. That’s understandable given the turnover that has taken place at LSU’s offensive skill positions, and it’s part of the developmental process as new players fill departed veterans’ roles.

Such a transition forces the offensive Tigers to take a longer view of what’s taking place on the practice field and in competitive scrimmages like Saturday’s rather than dwell on present-day shortcomings.

“The main thing that we want to do [in scrimmages] is we want to show that we got better. Because by the end of the spring, we want to be 15 practices better than when we started,” left guard Vadal Alexander said. “So I just want to improve on something. That's my main thing.”
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Frank Wilson hasn’t been taking it easy on his players lately.

LSU’s running backs coach has been giving Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard a heavy workload in spring practice, which was partially out of necessity since the two seniors are the only scholarship tailbacks on the Tigers’ spring roster.

“It's getting pretty rough out there,” Magee said with a smile. “We're taking a lot of reps. We were rotating every play, but this week Coach Frank wants us to go a little bit longer so we've been going about every three now. So it's getting pretty taxing, but it's going to pay off in the long run.”

[+] EnlargeKenny Hilliard
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsSenior Kenny Hilliard is one of two tailbacks that LSU returns from last season, joining Terrence Magee.
This is an unusual time for LSU’s tailbacks -- a position group known in the recent past for its impressive depth. In 2011, LSU had four players (Michael Ford, Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue and Hilliard) rush for 300 or more yards and score at least seven touchdowns. It was more of the same last season, with Jeremy Hill (1,401 yards, 16 TDs), Magee (626-8), Blue (343-1) and Hilliard (310-7) all going for 300-plus and Hill, Magee and Hilliard all scoring at least seven times.

But with Hill and Blue both entering the NFL draft, the Tigers are now forced to work converted linebacker (now fullback) Melvin Jones at tailback a bit just to break up the practice reps.

“This is his first time carrying the ball, but he's getting better,” Hilliard said of Jones. “His pad level is a little high, but that's part of it. He's never really carried the ball before, so it's just a lot of teaching that he's got to learn, watch film and make sure that he stays in the film room and just look at us and let us lead by example. He can just pay attention to us and he'll be all right.”

Any LSU fan who hasn’t been living under a rock knows that this situation is only temporary. Leonard Fournette -- one of the most heavily hyped prospects ever to emerge from Louisiana, whom two recruiting services, including ESPN, picked as the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit -- isn’t on campus yet. Neither is Darrel Williams, who rushed for 2,201 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior at Marrero (La.) John Ehret.

Both players seem likely to contribute as true freshmen. And in Fournette’s case, anything short of stardom would probably disappoint most Tigers fans -- a reality that is not lost on LSU’s returning tailbacks.

“I don't feel like we get overlooked and it doesn't bother us,” Magee said of the buzz surrounding Fournette. “All the credit that he gets, he fully deserves. He was the No. 1 player in the country and he's a great running back. I've watched film of him. So everything that he's getting, I feel that he's well deserving of it.”

Fournette will still need help adjusting to life on a college campus and within a big-time SEC program, which is where the two seniors can help.

“Those guys have just got to be mentally prepared when they come in, because the transition from high school to college, it's tough,” Hilliard said. “As they get here, I'm going to mentor them -- me and Terrence -- like Spencer Ware and Alfred Blue and those guys mentored us.”

Even if Fournette immediately emerges as LSU’s next superstar back, the Tigers have traditionally spread around the carries under Les Miles. Magee, who averaged 7.3 yards per carry last season, and Hilliard, who has a touchdown for every 10 touches in his career, will almost certainly play key roles in the offense.

“One thing about [offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s] offense: the best player's going to play and the hardest worker's going to play,” offensive lineman Vadal Alexander said. “I'll tell you one thing, Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee are two of the hardest-working players on our team. So they are going to get their carries. You can see that they're talented guys. Terrence has one of the best agility moves, side-to-side quickness, all that. Kenny is one of the most powerful backs in the nation in my opinion.”

Once Hill returned from an early suspension last season, Magee found a niche as a third-down back. The former receiver would like to expand upon that role by adding some pass-catching responsibilities out of the backfield -- plus Miles said last week that Magee will rank among the Tigers’ top candidates as a kick return man.

He has never carried the ball more than 82 times in a season, but Hilliard has proven to be an especially effective goal-line runner, and that role seems likely to remain in place in the fall.

Obviously no roles for 2014 are established yet, and they won’t be until the freshmen arrive and responsibilities begin falling into place during August practices. The only duties Magee and Hilliard are certain to claim are those of mentors -- and they seem happy to help Fournette and Williams, just as their predecessors did when they were underclassmen.

“We've just got to keep the standards and just be able to come out and execute and play hard,” Hilliard said. “That's our motto: just come out and play hard and take care of the ball and everything will be all right. We know we have two young guys coming in and we're going to mentor them and make sure they get right and keep the legacy in the room.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- A brand-new version of LSU's football team will take the field this week for its first spring practice.

In previous weeks, we've broken down several players and position groups to watch this spring. This week, leading up to Saturday's first team workout, we'll make five predictions related to the Tigers' upcoming practices.

Today's prediction: Right guard isn't the only offensive line job up for grabs

[+] EnlargeLa'el Collins
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsLa'el Collins is one of four starters back on the LSU O-line, but that doesn't mean their jobs are safe.
Take a look at LSU's depth chart and it's clear that experience isn't an issue among the starters. Left guard Vadal Alexander and right tackle Jerald Hawkins started all 13 games last season while rising seniors at left tackle, La'el Collins, and center, Elliott Porter, both started 12.

So that means the Tigers only have one offensive line spot that is open for true competition, right? Maybe, but I'm not sure that will be the case.

Les Miles hired a new offensive line coach, Jeff Grimes, during the offseason and the message he will undoubtedly send this spring is that everyone has a clean slate. He made that very point two weeks ago in a local radio interview, noting that he watched only enough film of the group to get a general idea of what the individual players can do. He wants to see them earn their jobs, starting now.

Now you can comfortably assume Collins will remain as the starting left tackle. He's widely considered one of the nation's better senior offensive tackles and could conceivably become a first-round NFL pick in 2015. Hulking junior Alexander (LSU lists him at 6-foot-6 and 342 pounds) has a similar pedigree among 2016 guard prospects.

So where will the most competition occur? Right guard is obvious since the Tigers must replace Trai Turner, who seems to have impressed NFL scouts since deciding to leave after his redshirt sophomore season.

Massive senior Fehoko Fanaika (6-6, 348) might be the answer there, but there are other candidates. One of them might be Ethan Pocic, who could also push Porter -- whom he backed up at center last season as a true freshman -- for playing time. Another might be Evan Washington, who is officially listed as a tackle.

As a sophomore Hawkins naturally had his ups and downs in his first season as a starter, so Grimes will certainly look for more consistency out of him this season before handing him the starting spot once again. But the Tigers shifted Alexander from right tackle to left guard last season to make way for Hawkins, so clearly they liked the athletic Hawkins' potential.

The safe money is on experienced players holding onto their starting spots. And it wouldn't be much of a surprise if Collins, Alexander, Porter and Hawkins man four of the five line spots when the Tigers open the season against Wisconsin.

Grimes has been around the block a time or two, though. This is his eighth different coaching stop since grabbing his first college job coaching the offensive line at Hardin-Simmons in 1998. He knows that the best way for a new coach to motivate players is to give everyone a fair shot and then let them earn their jobs.

That's what he'll do with his new players and, even if the starters remain the same, it's safe to predict that a fresh competition might help the line improve this fall.

Key spring position battles: OL

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BATON ROUGE, La. -- We're closing in on the start of spring practice at LSU, so this week let's take a look at five position battles worth watching this spring.

We covered the wide receivers, defensive tackles, quarterbacks and safeties in the first four installments. We conclude this week's series with the offensive line, which will break in a new position coach, Jeff Grimes, and at least one new starter this fall.

[+] EnlargeFehoko Fanaika
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesThis will be a big spring for Fehoko Fanaika, who hopes to earn LSU's starting right guard spot.
Returning starters: Left tackle La'El Collins (second-team All-SEC and 12 starts in 2013), left guard Vadal Alexander (13 starts), center Elliott Porter (12 starts) and right tackle Jerald Hawkins (13 starts) are all back, helping the line rank among the most experienced position groups on the Tigers' roster.

Departures: Right guard Trai Turner (13 starts) entered the NFL draft after a redshirt sophomore season where he became a second-team all-SEC pick. ESPN Scouts Inc. ranks him as the No. 5 guard and No. 113 overall prospect in the upcoming draft.

Returning reserves: Although Grimes could always elect to shake up the lineup, the most intriguing position at this point is the one that lost a starter: right guard. We recently wrote about how this will be a big spring for Fehoko Fanaika to prove that he deserves to inherit Turner's starting spot. Fanaika was an early enrollee after transferring from the College of San Mateo junior college last January and played in 12 games as a backup. The 6-foot-6, 348-pound mauler must now prove he deserves a starting spot. Other reserves of note are Ethan Pocic, Porter's backup at center who could play other positions if necessary, and rising sophomore tackle Josh Boutte. Tackle Evan Washington and guard Jonah Austin also played last season, with Washington earning a start against Furman.

Newcomers: Guards K.J. Malone and Andy Dodd both redshirted last season after arriving at LSU as four-star prospects. The Tigers signed just two offensive linemen in this class, both of whom will arrive in the summer. One of them, Garrett Brumfield, was ESPN's No. 1 guard prospect for 2014, so he might make the guard competition interesting in August if Fanaika doesn't nail down the job this spring. The other signee is four-star guard William Clapp.

What to watch: Beyond the candidates for the right guard spot, it's worth watching how Grimes decides to use his returning players. He said in a local radio interview last week that LSU's line was good, but rarely great in 2013, adding that he hadn't evaluated individual players too closely yet, so that he could give them all a fair shake when they start practicing together. The four returning starters have a decided experience advantage, but Grimes hasn't developed any preferences yet. This will be a valuable evaluation time for the Tigers' new assistant coach.

Players to watch: Fehoko Fanaika

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BATON ROUGE, La. -- The start of spring practice is about two weeks away, so this week we're looking at five players who could use a productive March in order to claim playing time this fall.

After discussing freshman safety Edward Paris Jr. and receiver Quantavius Leslie earlier this week, today we move to a candidate to fill the only open starting spot along what should be a solid offensive line.

Fehoko Fanaika (OG, Sr.)

2013 review: Fanaika's sheer size (he's listed at 6-foot-6 and 348 pounds) generated some buzz when he arrived as ESPN's No. 2 junior college guard prospect last year, but he joined an LSU offensive line that had two solid performers at guard. Vadal Alexander and Trai Turner started all 13 games at the two guard spots, leaving Fanaika and the other reserves to play only intermittently. Fanaika played in 12 games in that capacity.

Why spring is important: The talented Turner made a debatable decision to enter the draft after his redshirt sophomore season, creating the only opening along LSU's offensive line. Fanaika is not the only candidate to slide into Turner's spot at right guard, but he should rank among the leading prospects. His road-grader style certainly fits LSU's downhill running game, but he must prove he can handle the job.

Best case/worst case: Fanaika got an early vote of confidence from senior left tackle La'el Collins, who promoted him as the top candidate to replace Turner. Ideally, the massive lineman would step into a starting role this spring and be entrenched by the time the Tigers open preseason camp in August. If he struggles to claim the job, LSU should have other promising options available. For instance, the Tigers signed ESPN's No. 1 high school guard prospect, Garrett Brumfield, earlier this month. If Fanaika is not consistent enough this spring, perhaps Brumfield and some other guards will get a longer look in August.

Grimes to become LSU OL coach

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BATON ROUGE, La. – Virginia Tech assistant coach Shane Beamer confirmed Wednesday what several media outlets had already reported: Fellow Hokies assistant Jeff Grimes will replace Greg Studrawa as LSU's offensive line coach.

Grimes spent the last season as offensive line coach and running game coordinator on Frank Beamer's Virginia Tech staff, following a four-year tenure as the line coach at Auburn – a stretch that includes the Tigers' 2010 BCS title run.

LSU coach Les Miles told reporters Tuesday that he didn't expect to announce a hire for approximately a week, but listed some of the attributes he values in a new assistant.

“He's got to be a guy that can show us that he can improve what is already really a pretty good line,” Miles said. “And he's going to have to have run-pass technical expertise, he's got to have guys he's put in the league. Coaching in the league is a thought – not necessarily a prerequisite, but certainly a consideration.”

Grimes, a 20-year coaching veteran and native of Garland, Texas, does not have NFL experience on his resume. His players have earned their share of postseason accolades, however, with several reaching the pros. Out of the five starters on Auburn's 2010 offensive line, four earned All-SEC or All-America honors in their careers and two became NFL draft picks.

Grimes' 2001 offensive line at Arizona State had four seniors drafted the following spring, including first-round pick Levi Jones.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesLes Miles is confident that LSU's 2014 offensive line will be a dominant one.
The 45-year-old Grimes also has made stops at Colorado, BYU, Boise State and Hardin-Simmons as an assistant.

He inherits an offensive line that returns four starters – including second-team All-SEC left tackle La'El Collins, who announced Tuesday that he will return for his senior season – and loses only guard Trai Turner, who decided to forgo his remaining eligibility in order to enter the draft.

The returning starters – Collins, center Elliott Porter, right tackle Jerald Hawkins and left guard Vadal Alexander – collectively started all but two games in 2013.

“I think we'll be a dominant offensive line, without question,” Miles said. “There's a number of guys that really are back out there that will step forward and have an opportunity to be really significant. I think obviously La'El returning will just bolster that group.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- La'El Collins would have been an NFL draft pick this year. He might have even been an early-round pick this year. But unlike seven teammates, Collins announced on Tuesday that he will return for the 2014 season at LSU in order to complete his degree and improve his pro stock.

[+] EnlargeLa'el Collins
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsWith La'El Collins returning for his senior season, LSU will have four of five returning starters back on its offensive line.
“Going to the draft early and maybe going late first, early second -- who knows? -- I know for a fact that if I came back to school, I could earn my degree and have a better chance and a better opportunity to go higher in the draft next year,” Collins said. “It all kind of came together and it all made sense.”

Collins announced his decision at an on-campus press conference alongside coach Les Miles and fellow rising seniors Jordan Allen, Kenny Hilliard, Elliott Porter and Jermauria Rasco -- all of whom also plan to return in 2014.

Miles credited the returning players for making decisions that will allow them to further develop before making the leap for the pros -- often a risky proposition, as several of the 11 Tigers who left school early after last season can attest. Only nine of those 11 got drafted and six were taken in the third round or later.

“I'm absolutely sure,” Miles said when asked if the departed Tigers' fates this season might have impacted the decisions of the players who chose to stay. “There were some unusual decisions made last year in my mind.”

Collins, Miles said, was a safe bet to become an NFL draft pick, but he emphasized that players need to strongly consider the possibilities should their pro stock sits on shakier ground.

“What we try to tell them is this: let's not give the NFL a deal. There's no reason for it,” Miles said. “The guaranteed money, the best position to go into the draft is the first round. What we want to encourage is to really view your decision in relationship to where you can be and where you are. These guys, they made great decisions.”

Collins was a second-team All-SEC selection this season after taking over as the Tigers' left tackle. He started all 13 games in 2012 at left guard, leading to some question about where he might eventually land in the pros.

He said NFL teams have offered mixed feedback as to which position he will play, but Miles said another college season at tackle will provide an opportunity to convince scouts that he can be a tackle.

“If I was sitting in an NFL room right now, I'd be sitting there questioning that. That would be a real question,” Miles said. “I think this year his piece is to improve and to make his last year his best year. And then I see tackle (in the NFL).”

The Tigers' offense lost five productive underclassmen with eligibility remaining -- receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., running backs Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue and offensive guard Trai Turner -- as well as senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger, so LSU's 2014 offense will feature an entirely new set of skill-position players. The offensive line should return four starters, however, in Collins and center Porter, right tackle Jerald Hawkins and left guard Vadal Alexander.

Miles said he expects the group to be dominant next season and Porter and Collins both predicted that it will be the strength of the rebuilding offense.

“Last year was our first year really playing together as a whole and I think that with another year under our belt, it's going to be a great season,” Collins said. “For me the game is won in the trenches, so if we come out and do the things that we're capable of doing, I think we'll have a great season.”

Getting Collins back makes that a much more likely proposition. He didn't give the NFL a deal, to use Miles' expression, giving LSU another season with arguably its top offensive lineman and providing Collins with another season to prove where he belongs on 2015 draft boards.

“I don't think there's any question that he has the potential to be a very early draft pick at left tackle,” Miles predicted.

Planning for success: LSU

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The partnership between LSU's Zach Mettenberger and Cam Cameron is still in the honeymoon stage, but it will face its toughest test to date when Florida visits on Saturday.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesThings have clicked for Zach Mettenberger thus far this season, but the LSU senior QB will face his toughest test to date against Florida.
Thus far, Tigers fans could hardly have expected more from their quarterback, Mettenberger, and first-year offensive coordinator, Cameron, who have turned LSU's formerly unimaginative offense into a juggernaut.

“I think Zach in his fifth year, or in his final year in college, kind of looks around and goes, 'I kind of got this. I understand this,' ” LSU coach Les Miles said of Mettenberger, who ranks fifth nationally with a Total QBR of 92.3. “Then to take a mentor that can fine tune the thought process, I just think it's exactly the right thing.”

No. 10 LSU (5-1, 2-1 SEC) and its talented offense -- which also boasts tailback Jeremy Hill and wideouts Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. -- hasn't had to function against a defense like that of No. 17 Florida (4-1, 3-0), however.

The Gators lead the SEC in scoring defense (12.2 ppg), total defense (217 ypg), passing defense (152 ypg) and rushing defense (65 ypg) and come in having just held Arkansas' powerful rushing attack to just 111 yards in last Saturday's 30-10 victory.

Florida coach Will Muschamp said this week that he'd be happy to win 51-50 on Saturday at Tiger Stadium, as long as his team comes out on the winning end. And a close game would be a reasonable expectation, as the annual cross-divisional rivals have split their last 10 meetings, with six of those 10 games being decided by 10 points or less.

Miles agreed that a one-point win would suit him, as well, although he would prefer to see his defense return to the imposing style of years past that has been absent for most of this season.

“I can tell you this: It's not nearly as much fun when it's a game that you feel like you may have to just score more than the opponent,” Miles said. “I like how our defense is coming, an I think we'll get back to great LSU defense very quickly.”

The Tigers took a step in the right direction in last week's 59-26 win over Mississippi State when they outscored the Bulldogs 31-3 in the second half. They hope it's a sign that their young defense has turned a corner.

“We came out in the second half and everybody had it on their mind and said, 'Hey, we're going to communicate, get the calls and play great football,' ” defensive lineman Anthony Johnson said.

They'll get a shot at a Florida offense on Saturday that has improved with Tyler Murphy under center, but still ranks 93rd nationally in scoring at 25 ppg. That means the strength-versus-strength matchup between the LSU offense and Florida defense will be the showdown worth watching -- and the Tigers like their chances with Cameron calling plays for Mettenberger.

“Coach Cameron's always talking about, 'It's not them, it's us. It's what we can do right and if we do things right, nobody can beat us,' ” offensive lineman Vadal Alexander said.

What to watch: LSU vs. TCU

August, 29, 2013
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Zach MettenbergerThomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsWill the addition of Cam Cameron be the thing that finally allows Zach Mettenberger to blossom? Saturday's matchup with TCU will be the first test.
There won't be anything neutral about the site of the Cowboy Classic. Tickets might be split down the middle, but there's no questioning who the home team will be when the game gets underway. LSU will travel some 400 miles to get to Arlington, Texas, from Baton Rouge, La., while TCU's bus ride from Fort Worth might take all of 30 minutes with traffic.

Nonetheless, jet lag shouldn't play a role in the outcome of the game. The atmosphere should be electric for this primetime matchup between the SEC and the Big 12. After more than seven months of waiting, football is finally back for two schools with BCS aspirations.

As the countdown to kickoff marches toward the final hour, here are five things to keep an eye on:

1. Reloading on defense: It's no secret that LSU lost a ton on defense from last season. Returning just three starters would be precarious for most teams, but Tigers coach Les Miles and defensive coordinator John Chavis come into the season opener confident with emerging leaders such as linebacker Lamin Barrow and rising stars such as defensive linemen Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson. There's plenty of talent at every level of the defense, especially in the secondary, where safety Craig Loston and cornerback Jalen Collins give the Tigers two NFL-caliber pieces to build around. The Horned Frogs will be a challenge, though, especially in what will essentially be a road environment in Arlington. Nerves could be an issue given the Tigers' youth, in addition to whatever wrinkles TCU coach Gary Patterson is able to employ with the nucleus of his offense intact from a season ago.

2. Cameron's first test: Much has been made about the hiring of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron over the offseason, but the real question is how much effect he'll have on an LSU offense that's struggled to meet expectations. The former coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins has plenty to work with, as the Tigers return a senior quarterback, a swath of talented running backs, playmakers at receiver and an offensive line that brings back the likes of Vadal Alexander. The trouble with Cameron's offense, though, is that it might be too complex for the college game. After all, it's been roughly 13 years since he last coached student-athletes at Indiana. The good news is that LSU was already running a pro scheme before he arrived. The running game has always been a strength under Miles, but incorporating a vibrant passing attack has been elusive. As a supposed "quarterback guru", look for Cameron to try and expand Zach Mettenberger's game and incorporate more downfield passes into the Tigers' playbook.

3. Will stars play?: The game might well be decided by who doesn't see the field. LSU, still in limbo over Jeremy Hill's status, is keeping TCU guessing over whether the team's leading returning rusher will play. Miles was vague with reporters this week, saying that while he wouldn't comment on pending disciplinary action, "I wouldn't be surprised that he would be on our trip [to Dallas]." Though the Tigers certainly have enough in the backfield to do without, having a bruising runner like Hill available would do wonders. And just to keep things interesting, Patterson is playing coy about the status of his star defensive end. Devonte Fields, who was previously suspended for two games, was listed on TCU's depth chart and will be in uniform for the game, according to reports. Patterson won't say whether or not he'll play, but it's safe to say the Horned Frogs could use the reigning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.

4. Maturation of Mettenberger: There's never been a doubt about Mettenberger's arm strength or talent. What we saw when LSU played Alabama last season was enough evidence to show he's capable of being one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC. The former Georgia transfer made the Crimson Tide's secondary look porous for the first time all season, throwing for a season-high 298 yards in Baton Rouge. Though the Tigers ultimately came up short in that game, it proved to skeptics that Mettenberger isn't a lost cause. Cameron is the quarterback's fifth coordinator since coming out of high school, but he also represents his best hope of maturing into an NFL-caliber prospect. TCU and its complex 4-2-5 scheme signal the first step in that process. Patterson's squad might play in the defensively challenged Big 12, but their aggressive style and talent up front and in the secondary has always resembled that of the SEC.

5. Preparing for two quarterbacks: It remains to be seen whether it'll be Casey Pachall or Trevone Boykin under center for the Horned Frogs in Week 1. Patterson isn't saying and Miles and Chavis aren't about to predict how TCU's quarterback race will turn out. Instead, LSU is preparing for both. The two bring different styles to the table, Pachall fulfilling the more traditional role of a pocket passer while Boykin applies his quick feet and athleticism as a dual-threat quarterback. While Pachall was sidelined with off-the-field issues last season, Boykin performed admirably, passing for more than 2,000 yards and 15 touchdowns in nine starts as a redshirt freshman in addition to rushing for 417 yards. Fans will remember, though, that it was only a year ago that Pachall was viewed as one of the top quarterbacks in the country coming off a sophomore campaign where he threw for 2,921 yards and 25 touchdowns and finished in the top 15 nationally in passing efficiency.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- When LSU offensive lineman Vadal Alexander moved to left guard last week following what may be a career-threatening injury to projected starter Josh Williford, Alexander was left with the possibility of starting at a second position on the offensive line in as many seasons.

Vadal Alexander, La'el Collins
USA TODAY SportsVadal Alexander (left) and La'el Collins, should provide LSU with some dominant efforts on the left side of the O-line.
"As long I've been here, I've always known there's a chance I'd play [guard]," said Alexander, who spent the better part of last season starting at right tackle as a true freshman." It just worked out at tackle last year."

What's comforting for Alexander is, as he slides into his new spot, he can lean on the knowledge of left tackle La'el Collins, who spent 2012 as the starter at left guard.

"La'el knows the position well," Alexander said.

It is sharing Alexander can reciprocate because of the quirk to this season's LSU offensive line that Williford's injury precipitates.

Collins was last fall's starter at left guard, and Alexander was at right tackle. Now Collins is at tackle and Alexander at guard.

"We try to help each," Alexander said. "So, I'll be like, La'el, 'remember to do this' and La'el will be like, 'Hey, watch for this.'"

Together, Collins and Alexander combine to form a potentially outstanding left side of the line. Moving Alexander gives the Tigers "some real power at that left side with he and La'el Collins," head coach Les Miles said.

"I think we can dominate," Alexander said. "In my opinion, we have the potential to be one of the best sides [of an offensive line] in the country."

Even if the side didn't come together in a conventional way.

Ever since Chris Faulk, then a returning starter at left tackle, was lost for the season to a knee injury after 2012's season opener, folks have been waiting for Collins, the No. 8 player in the 2011 ESPN 300, to make the move. Left tackle is made for elite talents like him.

But Miles balked at making the move at that time, choosing to keep Collins at left guard, where he was still learning the ropes, rather than force him to learn a second position. It was better, Miles decided, to move jack-of-all-trades senior Josh Dworaczyk to the edge.

Once the season ended and with both Dworaczyk and Faulk departed, the Collins move happened, and he feels like a better player for it.

"I feel like a complete offensive lineman," Collins said. "I can still move inside and play guard. It's still in me and it's easy to me. Being able to play tackle, that's become easy to me, so it's a great transition."

Williford, who started a year and a half at right guard before being lost for the season to a concussion suffered in the 2012 Florida game, seemed like a natural to slide over to the left side to Collins former spot. Trai Turner, who started at right guard after Williford's injury, returns to that spot.

But there was always an eye on Alexander for the guard position. Like Turner, Alexander became a starter last season because of attrition (first, the injury to Faulk, then the departure of tackle Alex Hurst). But after a bad outing against Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, many wondered if he wasn't better suited for guard.

There's no doubting Alexander's enormous size (he's listed at 6-foot-6, 342 pounds) and strength, but some questioned his footwork to compete pass rushers off the edge. While that criticism might not be fair -- Alexander was coming off minor knee surgery in the bowl game -- the possibility of moving inside was always on the table.

"I can play both," Alexander said. "I listen to my coach. They think it's best for the offensive line as a whole, but I can play both."

What made the move possible was a great offseason for redshirt freshman tackle Jerald Hawkins, which has continued at camp.

"We really think that Hawkins has had as quality a camp to this point as anybody," Miles said.

So when Williford suffered his second concussion in a year last week, the move was easy. Hawkins slid in at right tackle and Alexander bumped over to right guard. It left the Tigers with a remarkable new look. While Collins, Alexander and Turner give the Tigers three returning starters, only Turner is back at the position he started last year.

But there is no questioning the talent. Hawkins was just waiting to find a place.

"Having Jerald at right tackle is kind of putting your best five out there," Alexander said.

But will they be five that play with chemistry and savvy? To Collins, being able to draw off each others experience will lead to just that.

"That's what the O-line is about," he said. "Guys who know what's going on at every position of the line and just be able to help the guy onside you.

"That's chemistry."

LSU camp: Early lessons 

August, 9, 2013
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU is done with a mere three days of August camp and already we've learned some things about this team.

1. The offensive line might shuffle: Right tackle Vadal Alexander was hobbled in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and rumors were, he was being seriously challenged for his starting spot by redshirt freshman Jerald Hawkins.

Little has happened at camp that would suggest otherwise after Alexander missed Tuesday and Wednesday’s practices and Hawkins was running with the starters at right tackle. The Hawkins-as-a-starter scenario is looking more and more plausible.

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BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU's August camp graduates Friday from the limited contact portion -- four days where the NCAA does not allow full contact -- to the first day of full pads Friday morning.

Limiting contact theoretically should limit injuries. But for the Tigers that hasn't been the case.

LSU suffered what appears to be its second major injury of camp Wednesday when, according to several reports, offensive guard Josh Williford was knocked out with his second concussion in 10 months. This one might be career-threatening.

[+] EnlargeTurner
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsTrai Turner might find more playing time with Josh Williford going down with another concussion.
Williford, then LSU's starting right guard, was knocked out of the Florida game with a concussion and missed the remainder of the season. He said by the Chick-fil-A Bowl, he felt normal again and got past the fear of the re-injury.

But it happened anyway and given his history with concussions, his career is now in jeopardy.

Williford moved to left guard in the spring after his 2012 replacement, Trai Turner solidified the right guard spot. Williford was the first team left guard when he went down and will likely be replaced by Vadal Alexander, last year's starter at right tackle for much of the season.

Alexander has missed the last three days of practice while redshirt freshman Jerald Hawkins lined up with the first team at right tackle. But head coach Les Miles said that Alexander's injury, which he proclaimed to be "less" than a sprained ankle, would not keep him out of Friday's practice.

LSU also lost freshman wide receiver Avery Peterson, possibly for the season.

Peterson mentioned that he was done with August camp on social media. Miles would not confirm the nature of the injury Thursday, but did say Peterson might miss the season, or at the very least not be available to come back until late in the season.

Not all the injury news was bad. The Alexander injury turned out to be less than severe and Miles said an injury to tight end DeSean Smith was not severe either.

Hill will miss time

If you think Jeremy Hill was going to get by without missing any game action after he was allowed back on the team following an indefinite suspension, Miles refuted that notion in a very Miles-esque way.

Asked if Hill would miss games as a punishment for pleading guilty to misdemeanor simple battery charge -- thus extending the probation from an older misdemeanor charge he plead guilty to -- for the second time in four days, Miles declined to say.

But he did say that "there will be withholding," of games. Does that mean an entire game? Maybe a quarter of a game? Miles declined to specify.

Come together

Not only will Friday's morning practice mark the first full pads practice of camp, it will also mark the first time the team will come together for one practice.

For the first four days, the team has been split into a morning and an afternoon session, with the morning session reserved for a mostly veteran group with some young players getting to join the morning sessions and some veterans being asked to provide leadership in the afternoon session.

That trend continued Thursday with the most notable young participant in the veteran session being offensive lineman Ethan Pocic, who ran with the first team at center.





LSU 10: Imported stars 

June, 24, 2013
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Zach MettenbergerAP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherGeorgia native Zach Mettenberger will look to have a big senior season under new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- No state produces more NFL players per capita than the Bayou State. And LSU gets the lion's share of those players. It's a winning formula.

But it wouldn't be true to say LSU wins with Louisiana talent and Louisiana talent alone. LSU has been a draw for players outside of the state for years and recent success -- two national titles and three BCS title game appearances since 2003 -- has only increased it. This year's team has plenty of key players from outside the state lines.

So while 14 of LSU's starting 22 positions were held by Louisianians at the end of spring, there are plenty of out-of-staters who will make an impact:


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