LSU Tigers: Vadal Alexander

The Opening has become a breeding ground for future SEC players over the years. It started in 2011 as a football camp for the nation’s top recruits and has grown every year since. For those who haven’t heard of it or know little about it, here’s a fan’s guide to the event.

This year is no different in terms of SEC participation as 37 of the 162 invitees have already committed to SEC schools.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Ryan A. Miller/Icon SMILandon Collins starred at The Opening before becoming a star for Alabama at safety.
SEC commitments by school

Alabama: 10
Texas A&M: 7
Georgia: 5
Florida: 4
LSU: 3
Mississippi State: 2
South Carolina: 2
Tennessee: 2
Kentucky: 1
Missouri: 1

The event will be broadcast on ESPN’s family of networks and gives you a chance to see the future of your school. Don’t believe me? Just look at some of the past participants to come through who are now making noise on Saturdays in the SEC.

Vadal Alexander (2011): If there were any doubts about Alexander before The Opening, he answered them with his performance. He rarely got beat in the one-on-one drills and used his strength to overpower opposing defensive linemen. It was that same strength that helped him early at LSU, and he’s expected to start up front for the third straight season. He and left tackle La'El Collins form a menacing tandem on the left side for the Tigers.

Landon Collins (2011): Collins stole the show at the inaugural camp. He won the SPARQ national championship with a high score of 143.76 and was a beast all week in the 7-on-7 competition. He didn’t make the type of impact he was hoping for as a freshman at Alabama, but he emerged last season with 69 tackles, two interceptions and two fumbles forced. He’s one of the top safeties in the country and projected to be a first-round draft pick.

Vernon Hargreaves III (2012): The week didn’t last long for Hargreaves, who injured his ankle on the first day, but he did run a 4.42 40-yard dash and a 4.1 shuttle before bowing out. That speed and athleticism was evident this past season, as the Florida freshman emerged as one of the top cornerbacks in the SEC. He finished with 38 tackles, three interceptions, and was among the league leaders in passes defended with 14.

O.J. Howard (2012): Tight ends don’t typically stand out at The Opening, but Howard isn’t your typical tight end. He measured in at 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, ran a 4.49 40-yard dash and dominated 7-on-7 play with his combination of size and speed. Unlike teammate and fellow Opening alum Derrick Henry, Howard endured a slow start to his Alabama career, but the expectations are high heading into this season.

Laquon Treadwell (2012): Treadwell might not have tested as well as some of his peers, but once he got on the field, he caught everything thrown his way. He showed the ability to make a catch under duress in traffic, and if the ball was in his vicinity, he was coming down with it. That held true at Ole Miss, where he led all SEC freshman with 72 receptions and finished with 608 yards and five touchdowns.

Most important game: LSU

July, 2, 2014
Jul 2
3:30
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We continue our series looking at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. Today we take a look at LSU.

Most important game: Nov. 8 vs. Alabama

Key players: Let's start with the offensive line, where the Tigers return four starters and expect to have a solid group, led by tackle La'el Collins and guard Vadal Alexander. They'll have to do better against Alabama's front line than they did last year in giving up four sacks. LSU's ground game also must be better than last season, when the Tide outgained the Tigers 193-43 in rushing yards. Running back Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard have the experience, but touted true freshman Leonard Fournette, the nation's No. 1 recruit in the 2014 class, could very well take over as the starter by November.

No matter who is toting the rock, the biggest key for LSU will be the play of its new quarterback, regardless of whether it's sophomore Anthony Jennings or true freshman Brandon Harris. Neither has played in a game of this magnitude, but there won't be time for jitters. Alabama's reloaded defense will be more than capable of stuffing the run and putting all the pressure on LSU's young signal-caller, whoever it is, to make a difference through the air. The Tigers lost a lot of talent to the NFL from their wide receiving corps, but Travin Dural and John Diarse have the skills to rise to the occasion. LSU also signed two of the top three wideouts in the 2014 class -- Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn.

On defense, the Tigers have few question marks at linebacker and in the secondary but must regroup on the line, where they had an uncharacteristic 9.5 sacks last season. End Jermauria Rasco had one of them against Alabama, but it was the only sack of the game for LSU. With only two other tackles for loss in that game, the Tigers simply didn't generate enough pressure. Rasco and fellow starter Danielle Hunter will have the usual challenge against Alabama's O-line, which returns three starters and loads of talent. LSU could certainly use more of a push from its defensive tackles, where youngsters like Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain have the talent to emerge this fall.

Why it matters: We could have easily chosen Auburn to be LSU's most important game of 2014, since LSU was the only SEC team to beat Auburn last season. But the most important game -- and rivalry -- remains with Alabama. Maintaining an edge over Auburn is important, but LSU-Alabama continues to be one of the nation's biggest annual games. The Tide are the standard against which LSU measures itself, and vice versa. These schools also love recruiting in each other's territory, so the Tigers can't afford to slip. Last season saw LSU lose to Bama for the second straight season. The Tigers lost two fumbles, two turnovers on downs and basically let the game get out of hand in the second half, losing 38-17. It was the the most points LSU had given up in the rivalry since 1947. This year, LSU will face Alabama in Baton Rouge, presumably under the lights of Tiger Stadium. With both teams breaking in new QBs and several new players on defense, there's a chance this game won't have the national title implications it usually does. But it's a safe bet the SEC West race will loom large. All that aside, this is a down-and-dirty Southern grudge match. It's the Hatfields and McCoys of the SEC. The Tigers simply can't afford to lose a third straight game to their most-heated rival.
Earlier today we ranked all 14 teams based on their offensive line. Now it’s time to look at the top tackles, the top guards and the top centers and determine who will stand out above the rest this fall.

[+] EnlargeCedric Ogbuehi
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherTexas A&M expects big things from Cedric Ogbuehi, who is expected to move over to left tackle this fall.
1. OT Cedric Ogbuehi, Sr., Texas A&M: The recent string of left tackles in College Station has been nothing short of remarkable. Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews each were selected in the top 10 of the NFL draft the past two years, and there’s a strong possibility that Ogbuehi will make it 3 for 3. The 6-foot-5, 300-pound senior played right tackle last fall, but he’s expected to move over and replace Matthews at left tackle this season.

2. OT La'el Collins, Sr., LSU: The Tigers had nine players drafted last month, more than any team in college football, but it could’ve easily have been 10 had Collins opted to leave school early. He was projected to go as high as the second round. Instead, he will return for his senior season, try to improve his draft stock and anchor LSU’s offensive line.

3. OT Laremy Tunsil, So., Ole Miss: The Rebels’ 2013 recruiting class was full of five-star prospects, but none played better than Tunsil last season. He appeared in 12 games, making nine starts at left tackle. He allowed just one sack all year. He was a second team All-SEC selection, a member of the SEC All-Freshman team, and the coaches expect him to only get better as a sophomore.

4. C Reese Dismukes, Sr., Auburn: In a league full of standout centers, Dismukes tops the list. He wasn’t the most talented player on Auburn’s offensive line last season, but you can make the argument that he was the most important during the Tigers' run to the BCS title game. He’s started every game in the past three years, and he’s looking to end his career on a high note.

5. OG A.J. Cann, Sr., South Carolina: The 37 career starts made by Dismukes over the past three seasons is impressive, but Cann has him beaten. The South Carolina senior has made 38 straight starts at left guard since taking over as a redshirt freshman in 2011, and after serving as the captain in 2013, he’ll again be counted on for his leadership this fall.

6. C Ryan Kelly, Jr., Alabama: The transition from All-American Barrett Jones to Kelly shouldn't have been a simple one, but the fact that it occurred without a hiccup is a testament to Kelly's ability not just athletically, but intellectually. Injuries, however, caused him to miss four games last season. Now recovered, he has every shot to to win the Rimington Trophy.

7. OT Corey Robinson, Sr., South Carolina: At 6-foot-8 and 348 pounds, it’s hard to miss Robinson when you watch the Gamecocks play. He has the size that makes everybody, NFL scouts included, take notice. The former defensive tackle has found a home at left tackle and will be in charge of protecting Dylan Thompson’s blind side this fall.

8. C Evan Boehm, Jr., Missouri: What can’t Boehm do? As a true freshman, he started 12 games at left guard, earning freshman All-American honors. He moved to center last season and led an offensive line that paved the way for a stellar Tigers rushing attack. The junior could probably play tackle if he wanted, but he’ll stay at center, where he could have a big season.

9. OG Vadal Alexander, OG, LSU: If going against Collins at left tackle weren't intimidating enough, imagine seeing the 6-foot-6, 342-pound Alexander lining up right next to him on every play. The two of them can open a hole big enough for a truck to run through, and it should be plenty big enough for five-star freshman Leonard Fournette.

10. OT Chaz Green, Sr., Florida: The other nine offensive linemen on this list all played last season, but Green is the wild card of the group. He missed the entire season after tearing his labrum during fall camp. He has all the talent -- he started in 10 games in 2012 and was a freshman All-American in 2011 -- but how will he bounce back?
BATON ROUGE, La. – LSU football assistants Cam Cameron, John Chavis and Frank Wilson were among six Tigers coaches -- a group that also included men’s basketball coach Johnny Jones, women’s basketball coach Nikki Caldwell and gymnastics coach D-D Breaux -- who spoke at the school’s Tiger Tour stop on Wednesday.

We’ll flesh out some of what the football coaches had to say in future stories, but here are some of the highlights from their conversations with the media before the booster function.

• Cameron, LSU’s offensive coordinator, was clearly chapped over the validity and timing of recent reports that former Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger’s drug test results were flagged at the NFL combine. Mettenberger’s drug sample was diluted, but his reps claimed that it was because he was drinking extra water to combat dehydration while recovering from offseason knee surgery.

“That information -- which tells you a little bit about the guy who released the story, No. 1, and the way the media works today -- that information’s been out 30 days. It’s been out for a while,” Cameron said. “And then to strategically, I guess, announce it at this time just goes to show what the motive was. It was either selfish motivation individually for that person or it was a message sent by somebody that wanted to see their quarterback above him. We know Zach. I’m pretty worked up over that, by the way.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsCam Cameron sees plenty of potential for improvement in Anthony Jennings.
“Zach Mettenberger is our guy, one of the great quarterbacks to ever play here, and he’s got my and Les [Miles’] and our program’s backing 100 percent. So we’ve been in contact. The guys that were really interested and are looking for that kind of quarterback have already done their homework, contacted us a long time ago, talked to Jack [Marucci, LSU’s head trainer], talked to all our people, and the teams that know, it’s a non-issue. The teams that didn’t do their homework, then they’re scrambling now to try to clarify some things.”

• Cameron said he was encouraged by the progress made by quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris in spring practice, particularly because they were still so raw.

“I’m really excited about where we’re headed at the quarterback position, and here’s the reason: We’re doing some good things and we still don’t have the fundamentals down yet,” Cameron said. “I’ve always found that to be a good sign: When you’re doing good things but you haven’t mastered the fundamentals – whether it be quarterback-center exchange, taking the proper first step, getting the exact first read – and you’re still being productive, that’s a great sign for LSU football, vs. a guy who’s doing everything right and he’s really well coached and very coachable and not getting a lot done; that’s not good.”

• Wilson, LSU’s recruiting coordinator, said the offensive line will be one priority in the 2015 signing class. The Tigers might start three seniors in center Elliott Porter, left tackle La’el Collins and either Evan Washington or Fehoko Fanaika at right guard, plus a draft-eligible junior in left guard Vadal Alexander.

“We’re top-heavy in this upcoming class at some positions: at the center position with Elliott Porter, with La’el Collins, with Vadal Alexander. That’s the way we want it,” Wilson said. “See that’s the catch. In one sense, we’re saying, ‘What are y’all going to do now?’ And then in the other sense, it’s like, ‘Get them to stay.’ Do we want them to stay or do we want them to leave? We want them to stay, of course, and have the problem that we have, which is a good problem, to be top-heavy so that the influx of incoming freshmen or junior college transfers can come in and contribute to our team.

“So our plan is just to be conscientious of what we’re losing and we have a plan in place to replace those guys that we foresee leaving.”

• Chavis, the Tigers’ defensive coordinator, listed defensive tackle Christian LaCouture and end Danielle Hunter as linemen who should make a bigger impact this season.

[+] EnlargeKendell Beckwith
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsSophomore linebacker Kendell Beckwith was LSU's highest-rated signee in the Class of 2013.
“There’s several guys, with Christian being one of those guys obviously inside [now], that we’ve got two guys to replace,” Chavis said. “I think Danielle Hunter will take his game to a different level even though he played extremely well for us last year. He’s capable of going to a different level. So there’s some good leadership there. You get Jermauria Rasco back out there and get him healthy and we get a chance to see him play healthy for a full season. We’ll be fine.”

• Chavis added that senior middle linebacker D.J. Welter – who won the Tigers’ Jimmy Taylor Award, which goes to the player who showed the best leadership, effort and performance in spring practice – was truly outstanding in the spring, in part because of the presence of talented sophomore Kendell Beckwith.

“D.J. by far had the best spring practice that you can easily say that I’ve been around,” Chavis said. “He was incredible this spring, and I think rightfully so because he’s got a big guy behind him that’s pushing him that’s going to be a great football player and that’s going to play. Kendell Beckwith’s going to play a lot of football this year and for a while here at LSU. Competition makes you better and I think he took heed to the competition.”

• Cameron, who returned to the college game last year after more than a decade in the NFL, said he has thoroughly enjoyed the recruiting aspect of his job.

“There’s no better joy I get than recruiting for LSU, I can tell you. You walk into a school and everybody takes notice. You walk into a school and every kid’s eyes light up. And every airport you walk through, I walked through the Dallas airport and it’s ‘Geaux Tigers’ at every gate I go by. Houston, ‘Geaux Tigers.’ I was in New Jersey recently, ‘Geaux Tigers.’ It’s a joy to recruit for LSU.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU has a chance to break its year-old program record of nine players selected in the NFL draft this week. If the Tigers fail to set a new milestone, thank La’el Collins.

No really, Tiger fans, thank him. Collins’ decision to return for his senior season might wind up benefiting both player and program.

[+] EnlargeLael Collins
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesLa'el Collins came back to LSU to improve as a player and earn his degree.
Had the All-SEC offensive tackle opted to enter the draft, he would have been a lock to become an NFL pick, raising the number of sure-fire LSU draft picks to 10. Instead, he chose to remain in order to elevate his draft stock, obtain his degree and help the Tigers compete for an SEC championship.

“Just being able to put that [decision] behind me any way it kind of went, just being able to start back focusing on whatever it was I needed to focus on -- and that was staying in school and coming back and getting better -- it feels great because I’m able to come here every day and just work hard and know that in a few months that my time is going to come,” Collins said toward the end of spring practice. “I’m just going to focus on helping my team win football games here.”

It’s obviously early, but Collins’ time will almost certainly come this time next year. He ranks among the top offensive tackle prospects for 2015, and another season playing left tackle -- he shifted there from guard last season -- will provide an opportunity to sharpen his skills and rise in the rankings.

He’ll also serve as the centerpiece of a veteran offensive line that should become the strongest point in a reloading offense.

“I feel like we’re better off because everybody is back, not just La’el,” said center Elliott Porter, one of three probable starting linemen who will be seniors. “We’re one as an offensive line. It’s not just one person, because you can’t do it with one person. La’el ain’t out there blocking everybody by himself, so La’el’s a great player, but like I said Vadal [Alexander] is back, I’m back, [Jerald] Hawkins is back. The only one we’re missing is Trai [Turner, who entered the draft], but he had to do what he had to do.

“But we have some guys coming in that can play, too, so I feel like it’s never one guy, it’s all of us. We’re coming in as one and we’re blocking people as one.”

OK, but ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. observed last season that Collins “has as much upside as any left tackle in the country,” and he’s the guy who will protect the LSU quarterback’s blind side. There is a premium on such players at any level of football, and if he continues to develop at tackle, Collins might have premium draft value in 2015, as Tigers coach Les Miles noted when he said: “I don't think there's any question that he has the potential to be a very early draft pick at left tackle.”

Now it’s up to Collins.

“Coming back is part of the equation, but the second part of that is coming back with the right approach so you don't second guess yourself every day,” said LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, formerly a veteran NFL coach. “You just move forward and try to be great and help this team win. His approach is the approach you want a young man to take.”

If his springtime comments were any indication, that certainly appears to be the case.

LSU’s roster has been shredded by the NFL draft over the last two years, with a total of 18 underclassmen deciding to turn pro. Collins is one of the few recent Tigers who opted to wait when a possible NFL paycheck beckoned.

Collins said it was a long-term decision, not just because he should complete his degree before leaving LSU, but because an additional season should help him become a better player -- potentially raising his draft stock and earning a more lucrative rookie contract next year.

He said the decision sends a message that might benefit other LSU underclassmen.

“I think it’s telling a lot of guys that maybe you might not get it in three years, maybe you might need that fourth year to really set yourself apart from a lot of guys and let people [see] what kind of player that you really want to be,” Collins said. “Be good to this program, at least, because they’ve been good to you.”
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.”

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

February, 19, 2014
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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

October, 10, 2013
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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.

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