LSU Tigers: Clifton Garrett
BATON ROUGE, La. -- One of the leading questions for LSU's spring practice is how the Tigers' defense might function differently with Kevin Steele as defensive coordinator.
We probably won't have an answer there until a few weeks into the season -- LSU has no incentive to reveal anything before then -- but here's a small twist. Apparently the linebackers will be more involved when the Tigers shift into a nickel defensive package.
Under previous defensive coordinator John Chavis, the strongside linebacker (nicknamed "Sam") left the field and the Tigers used five defensive backs in the nickel along with the middle linebacker ("Mike") and weakside linebacker ("Will"). But strongside linebacker Duke Riley said he has started working at the "Money" position since spring practice started.
"Usually I wasn't in the nickel when Chief [Chavis] was here when I was at Sam," Riley said. "Me or Lamar [Louis] would go out and just the Will and the Mike would be in at the nickel, so I'm the Money now."
That shouldn't come as an enormous surprise. At Steele's previous stop, Alabama, Nick Saban's defenses frequently repped an assortment of linebackers and defensive backs at the Money position. Riley and Louis seem like obvious candidates for the job since Sam linebackers typically possess strong coverage skills in addition to tackling ability.
Such personnel adjustments frequently accompany the changes in philosophy that come with a new coordinator hire. But LSU's linebackers said they haven't noticed many major changes between the Chavis and Steele defensive schemes.
And in the meeting room or on the practice field, Steele's methods seem to be meshing well with the players from the position he also oversees, linebacker.
"He's not the type of coach that hollers and is just on you, on you, on you," Riley said. "He'll treat you like a pro and make sure you understand. It's hard to focus out there when a coach is [yelling], 'rawrrr rawrrr.' Steele is just the kind of coach where he'll pull you to the side, talk to you, tell you what you've got to do and everything goes from there.
"It's actually better for all of us. I've been having some of the best practices. Everybody has been having some of the best practices since we've been here."
The starting lineup seems set -- at least for now -- with Louis at Sam, Jones at Will and Kendell Beckwith at Mike. However, a key for LSU's linebackers this spring will be developing depth behind the three veterans.
Garrett, one of LSU's most highly recruited signees last year, believes he is better prepared to contribute than he was last fall, when he appeared in just three games.
"To be honest, toward the end of the season I was still a little bit confused," Garrett said. "I never really got the whole scheme down, so this year when Coach Steele got here, we got a chance to go over some of the new stuff and things like that, it kind of started clicking to me. I felt like I got a chance to really get a chance to sit down and actually look at it and understand it more."
It will be a tall order to steal snaps from Beckwith, though, after the junior linebacker developed into a star once he joined the starting lineup midway through last season. He finished the year with 77 tackles -- second only to Kwon Alexander's 90 -- and 7.5 tackles for loss.
Beckwith said during bowl practice that he was ready to take ownership of LSU's defense this season, and he insisted after a recent practice that it is now "his."
"I already own it. They know it. The guys on defense know it," Beckwith said with a grin. "I've been trying to just get the hang of everything right now, so I've kind of been keeping to myself and just helping people if I can. Once we start rolling and we get deep into this thing, they know. It'll be mine."
That certainly will not be a bad thing. Beckwith looks like a star in the making, and the veterans at the top of the depth chart should be fine in starting roles.
Yes, depth is a concern -- and it could become a greater issue in 2016, particularly if Beckwith plays well enough to enter the NFL draft after this season, since Louis and Jones are both seniors. But should the Tigers avoid any major health issues, Beckwith has high hopes for what LSU's linebacking corps can become this fall.
"I think we'll be the best three in the country, so I don't really have no concern about us," Beckwith said.
As is the case each spring, there are a number of positions that are up for the grabs for the Tigers. The competition between quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris will generate the most attention, but there are several other positions where multiple players are vying for playing time.
Let’s take a look at five LSU position battles of interest this spring.
Offensive line: When last we saw Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins, the two draft-eligible mainstays along the LSU offensive line both announced that they would return for the 2015 season. They also said they expect to man the tackle positions after Alexander played left guard last season and Hawkins played right tackle. If that comes to pass, that leaves three interior line spots up for grabs. Ethan Pocic would fill one of them -- he has started at both center and guard -- and inexperienced youngsters will likely fill the others. A few names to watch this spring: Junior Josh Boutte, sophomores Andy Dodd and K.J. Malone and redshirt freshmen William Clapp and Garrett Brumfield.
Linebacker: It will hurt losing All-SEC weakside linebacker Kwon Alexander, who led the Tigers with 90 tackles, but LSU still has a solid core at the position starting with junior middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith (second on the team with 77 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss). New defensive coordinator Kevin Steele might shift things around a bit, incorporating some of the 3-4 looks that his defenses employed in his previous stop at Alabama. That might create some new roles for Steele’s linebackers. Lamar Louis could conceivably play a larger role, as could 2014 reserves like Duke Riley, Deion Jones and Clifton Garrett. The Tigers have everyone back at the position except for Alexander and D.J. Welter, so this veteran bunch should be a strength once everyone settles into the roles that Steele assigns them.
Cornerback: Jalen Collins and Rashard Robinson -- who combined to start 13 games last season -- are out of the picture, so LSU essentially has one starting position to fill opposite junior Tre'Davious White. It will be interesting to see how Steele and secondary coach Corey Raymond opt to fill that hole. Jalen Mills, who started at cornerback for two seasons before starting at safety in 2014, would be a capable option. But they have plenty of alternatives, including Dwayne Thomas (returning from ACL surgery), Ed Paris and highly touted early enrollee Kevin Toliver. LSU’s secondary is loaded with talent, so this will not be a situation where Steele and Raymond are forced to settle on a lineup. They’ll be able to work through a number of options this spring and decide which personnel combinations they like best.
Defensive end: This will be only the first chapter of this battle. It will truly get interesting in the summer once signees Arden Key and Isaiah Washington arrive on campus, but somebody has to take the first step in replacing starters Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco for now. Hunter (13 TFLs and 1.5 sacks) and Rasco (7.5 TFLs and 4 sacks) were LSU’s top pass-rushers a season ago, although the Tigers left a lot to be desired in that department. Only South Carolina (1.08 sacks per game) averaged fewer sacks per game than LSU (1.46) among SEC defenses. Junior Tashawn Bower seems like an odds-on favorite to take over a starting job, but Sione Teuhema and Deondre Clark also played a bit as freshmen last season. New defensive line coach Ed Orgeron will certainly make it an objective to build a line that generates more sacks this season, and it will start with more consistent pressure off the edge. But who will Orgeron identify as the players who can handle that duty?
Quarterback: We can’t do a list like this and not touch on the quarterbacks. No position got more attention last season -- largely because Jennings and Harris were so inconsistent -- and it will continue to draw the most speculation until somebody nails down the job. Early enrollee Justin McMillan joined the team in January, but this remains a two-man race. Jennings has started 13 of the last 14 games, but he was underwhelming in his first season as a starter, completing 48.9 percent of his passes for 1,611 yards, 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions last fall. Harris had a few impressive moments as a freshman, but bombed in his starting audition against Auburn and failed to earn the trust of the coaching staff. LSU’s coaches insist, however, that he has every opportunity to win the job between now and September.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- He might add some new job responsibilities, but Kendell Beckwith should be the centerpiece of LSU’s defense in 2015.
Leading tackler Kwon Alexander’s departure after a standout junior season only reinforces that possibility -- one that Beckwith himself embraces.
The rising junior took over as the Tigers’ starting middle linebacker early last fall and wound up ranking second on the team with 77 tackles, trailing only Alexander’s 90.
It remains to be seen how defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s new scheme might affect Beckwith’s role -- might the Tigers shift him outside at points to use him as a rusher off the edge? -- but his first season playing linebacker full-time has set up Beckwith to lead the defense this fall.
“I feel like I’ve got a little bit of experience now and I kind of know what it’s going to take,” Beckwith said. “I feel like I can take over the defense.”
But who will join him in the starting lineup now that Alexander and departed former starter D.J. Welter are out of the picture?
Starting strongside linebacker Lamar Louis seems like a safe bet to occupy one of the starting spots. Before he decided to return for his senior season, Louis and Steele put their heads together, with Steele telling the undersized linebacker that he envisions him playing a role similar to that of former New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers linebacker Sam Mills.
The 5-foot-9 Mills was an All-Pro linebacker while playing under Steele with the Panthers in 1996.
“Me and Coach Steele were just talking about work ethic and just doing the right things at the right times. That’s one of the biggest things that we talked about,” Louis said. “Definitely we’re going to have some discipline in the linebacker room and he’s going to expect us to be good people, foremost, much more than good players. So that’s something that he was stressing was that Sam Mills was a great player, but he was also a disciplined, good person.”
Among the other candidates for increased playing time are Deion Jones and Duke Riley, who both started against Louisiana-Monroe last season while Alexander and Louis were sidelined. Ronnie Feist might be another possibility after ranking among the top performers in last year’s spring game, as could rising sophomore Donnie Alexander, who played in 12 games (mostly on special teams) as a true freshman.
But the candidate who will likely receive the most attention this spring will be sophomore Clifton Garrett, ESPN’s No. 2 inside linebacker prospect of 2014, who appeared in just three games last fall.
Illinois native Garrett reportedly had difficulty acclimating to the South Louisiana heat when he first arrived last summer, but still impressed teammates with his potential.
“His future’s going to be bright. He’s just got to come along a little bit faster,” Alexander said during bowl practice. “He works hard and he’s going to be a great player. When he learns to get the plays down and everything, be smart -- he’s the Mike backer, so he’s got to know all the keys and all that -- when he gets all that down, he’s going to be all right.”
During that same conversation, Alexander predicted that his position group in 2015 would be “the best linebackers in the country.” He later opted to pursue a future in the NFL, but even without Alexander, the group should still have the depth and talent to remain productive.
“We work hard enough to be the best linebackers in the country,” Alexander said. “Kendell coming up, he’s going to be one of the great ’backers, I’m trying to tell you. He works hard, he works real hard. We’ve got Lamar, D-Bo Jones, Duke Riley, all them. They work hard, everybody’s coming along well.”
Expect to see Steele move several of them around during the spring as the Tigers nail down some of their new defensive looks. But as Alexander indicated, LSU should have more than enough at linebacker in order to handle the demands of any additions Steele will make to the scheme.
Returning players: Kendell Beckwith (77 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 1 INT), Lamar Louis (29 tackles, 2.5 TFL), Deion Jones (27 tackles, 3.5 TFL), Duke Riley (20 tackles), Ronnie Feist (4 tackles), Donnie Alexander (1 tackle), Clifton Garrett (0 tackles).
Departed players: Kwon Alexander (90 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks), D.J. Welter (35 tackles, 2 TFL),
Committed prospects: None.
Outlook: It hurts to lose Alexander, the team’s leading tackler, but this is still a capable group with pretty good depth. LSU could potentially lose a lot from this position after this season, so closing strong on the recruiting trail would be big. But as for 2015, returning starters Beckwith and Louis are among the leaders of what should be a highly productive position for the Tigers. They will transition a bit with some new wrinkles that will likely come under defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, but the Tigers have enough different skillsets within the group that we shouldn’t notice any drop-off.
Let’s take a look at how some of LSU’s top freshmen performed in Saturday’s win, and what they’ve accomplished to date.
S Jamal Adams
What he did: Adams earned a heavy dose of playing time against ULM and tied for third on the team with four tackles.
What it means: Adams seems to be playing more and more on scrimmage downs, despite LSU’s depth at safety. He was the Tigers’ highest-rated defensive signee so that’s not exactly a surprise. He clearly has earned a spot in the rotation and likely will play a key role as the season progresses.
Season stats: 9 tackles
RB Leonard Fournette
What he did: Fournette rushed 10 times for 52 yards, including a third-quarter touchdown run where he ran untouched for 24 yards. Fournette also went 20 yards with a screen pass and returned the opening kickoff for 40 yards.
What it means: Nobody got a heavy workload on Saturday, but Fournette had a couple of impressive touches. His spot as a leading member in the Tigers’ tailback rotation seems to remain unchanged.
Season stats: 31 carries, 162 yards, 2 TD, 3 receptions, 52 yards
DT Davon Godchaux
What he did: In making his first college start, Godchaux recorded three tackles and half a tackle for a loss. He replaced Quentin Thomas in the starting lineup alongside Christian LaCouture and continues to rank among Brick Haley’s top interior line options.
What it means: Godchaux had been one of the first defensive tackles off the bench in the first two games, but he has clearly impressed LSU’s coaches with his performance thus far. Look for him to remain among the top members of the line rotation as the Tigers enter SEC play.
Season stats: 7 tackles, 0.5 TFL
QB Brandon Harris
What he did: Harris led the Tigers’ offense on three second-half possessions, finishing 1-for-2 for 14 yards along with two runs for 11 yards. In Harris three series, the Tigers scored one touchdown.
What it means: Harris first entered the game on LSU’s final possession of the third quarter, with the Tigers leading 24-0, so he’s a clear No. 2 behind Anthony Jennings at quarterback right now. It seems unlikely that he steals much playing time from Jennings next week against Mississippi State.
Season stats: 5-for-7 for 76 yards, TD, 9 rushes for 53 yards, TD
RB Darrel Williams
What he did: Williams carried the ball seven times for 37 yards, including touchdown runs of 22 and 1 yards. He has lined up at both tailback and fullback in the I-formation and led LSU’s four tailbacks with an average of 5.3 yards per carry.
What it means: Williams’ tough running in the past two games seems to have helped him earn more of an opportunity as short-yardage back. He didn’t play in the opener against Wisconsin, but he seems to be carving out a niche in the backfield lately.
Season stats: 21 carries, 102 yards, 3 TDs
ULM beat No. 8 Arkansas early in the 2012 season that was anything but memorable for a Razorbacks program in post-Bobby Petrino turmoil. And the Warhawks toppled Alabama in 2007, Nick Saban's first season with the Crimson Tide.
As of Monday afternoon, LSU is favored by 31 points against ULM, but Miles said history shows that his team must be prepared for a challenge.
"We are so warned," Miles said at his Monday press luncheon. "We recognize and respect that opponent. We will prepare for their best efforts."
Injury updates: Several Tigers are nursing injuries after the first two games, although Miles offered positive news on that front.
Junior linebacker Kwon Alexander said he will be ready to play Saturday after playing only two defensive series in last Saturday's 56-0 win against Sam Houston State after reaggravating a right neck/shoulder stinger he first suffered in the opener against Wisconsin.
"It's just he was bruised up a little bit and we feel like with some quiet time he'll be fine," Miles said.
Miles said sophomore center Ethan Pocic should also be available Saturday after getting hurt against SHSU, although he added that senior Elliott Porter will be back in the starting lineup following a two-game suspension to start the season. Andy Dodd played most of the second half in Pocic's place on Saturday.
Senior fullback Connor Neighbors entered the SHSU game wearing a club cast covering his entire right hand and left the game with a foot injury, but Miles said he should also be good to go on Saturday.
"He had a very difficult time catching the ball with that club on his hand. So I would think that what that was was a little wrist sprain. That will be replaced by a very mobile and agile hand for this next Saturday," Miles said. "His injuries other than that are improved and we would expect him to play and start."
In addition, senior tight end Logan Stokes was wearing a walking boot on his foot when he arrived at LSU's practice facility on Monday.
Garrett will play: LSU has already played 16 true freshmen, but one of them isn't Clifton Garrett, ESPN's No. 31 overall prospect and No. 2 inside linebacker in the 2014 signing class.
Miles predicted that could change soon.
"We expect that he'll play a good portion of the remainder of the time. We think that he came in … [and] needed an adjustment period with the weather and the heat here," Miles said. "Once he got his feet underneath him, he's really improved and we would expect that he play not only this Saturday, but Saturdays as we go forward."
Alexander said Garrett is still learning what to do behind D.J. Welter and Kendell Beckwith at middle linebacker.
"He should be ready to get in," Alexander said. "He's just learning the plays right now. When he gets the plays down pat, I think he'll get in."
Ranking receivers: Miles included Travin Dural, freshman Trey Quinn and John Diarse among the Tigers' top three wide receivers and added that freshmen Malachi Dupre and D.J. Chark as players who could join that group.
Both Dupre and Chark made their college debuts against SHSU, with Dupre also catching a fourth-quarter touchdown after missing the Wisconsin game with an injury.
Miles predicted Dupre could have an expanded role moving forward.
"There's no question that his skillset fits in very well -- tall, athletic, explosive, great ball skills," Miles said. "We're going to have to get him onto the field and he feels much healthier than he's felt. He's not limited in any way."
Versatile Washington: Senior offensive lineman Evan Washington played right and left guard against SHSU after coming off the bench at right tackle against Wisconsin.
He's actually a backup at every offensive line position, which can make things confusing at times.
"I've got a lot more in my head," Washington said. "I've got like three positions in my head. Sometimes in practice Coach [Jeff] Grimes will be like, ‘Why did you do that?' and I'm like, ‘Oh I forgot, Coach. I thought I was at another position.' "
Predominantly a tackle early in his career, Washington said he started learning all of the line positions from teammate T-Bob Hebert as a freshman and picked up pointers from Trai Turner last season about playing guard.
It took time before he felt comfortable shifting from spot to spot.
"I couldn't have done it my first two years, but after a while I was comfortable enough knowing what everybody was doing," Washington said. "Then just the little technique stuff helped me out."
It wasn’t until the final moments before his team took the field that Tigers coach Les Miles informed the junior safety of his decision.
“Actually right before we came out the tunnel. Coach Miles told me, ‘I hope you’re ready to play,’ ” said Mills, whose offseason arrest led to his banishment from all team activities throughout the summer before Miles reinstated him at the start of preseason practice. “So once he told me that, just a big weight lifted off my shoulders and I was ready.”
Mills made the most of his opportunity, starting at safety and intercepting a pass during the Tigers’ second-half comeback en route to a 28-24 victory. Several of his teammates weren’t as fortunate, with multiple Tigers missing the game because of suspension, injury or simply because they were not quite ready to face a big-time opponent.
That could change soon -- possibly as soon as this Saturday against Sam Houston State in some cases -- as expected contributors like cornerback Rashard Robinson, receiver Malachi Dupre and defensive linemen Frank Herron, Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore start to filter into the lineup.
Like Mills last week, some members of that group -- along with many others who did not play last weekend -- will walk into Tiger Stadium Saturday night not knowing whether this will be their chance to make their season debuts.
Miles said Wednesday evening that “everybody’s ready to roll. We didn’t lose anybody from the [Wisconsin] game” when asked about the health of the team, although he added that senior center Elliott Porter might sit out for a second consecutive game.
Miles would have to improve significantly before anyone would describe his disciplinary practices as transparent, but he responded “Yeah, absolutely” when a reporter on Tuesday asked whether the suspended players would be available this Saturday.
If they are available, and if players like Dupre are able to return from injuries, LSU could have far more firepower at its disposal in the near future -- even if Miles predicted that the starting lineup should mostly remain intact.
“I think it will be very similar,” Miles said after Wednesday’s practice. “There’s some young defensive linemen we’d like to put on the field, but it’s one of those things, you have to develop a level of competency in the call. That’s the issue. We have very talented guys there. We’re just getting them ready to play, hopefully this week. Hopefully they’ll play some time. But I think for the most part, you’ll recognize the same starting lineups.”
Regardless, the youthful Tigers are not the team they will become over the course of this season. Although nine true freshmen and two redshirt freshmen played their first college games, many more -- a group that includes Herron, Bain, Gilmore, receivers D.J. Chark and Avery Peterson, running back Darrel Williams and linebacker Clifton Garrett -- still hope to prove to their coaches that they deserve playing time.
“It’s definitely your coach trusting you and coming out here in practice every day and working hard,” senior middle linebacker D.J. Welter said. “Everybody’s been doing that, but you’ve just got to keep grinding every day to close that space and you’ll get to see the field.”
As Miles mentioned, that is apparently the issue with Herron and the other redshirt freshman defensive tackles. Players complimented Herron throughout the preseason, but Miles said he wasn’t ready to go against Wisconsin. Instead it was true freshman Davon Godchaux who played alongside veterans Christian LaCouture, Quentin Thomas and Lewis Neal against the Badgers.
“To be honest with you, we’d have loved to have gotten Frank in, and some other guys,” Miles said. “But the issue becomes one where when the game’s tight and you want to be able to count on the call, you go with that veteran that kind of understands it a little bit more. We’re hopeful that we can get Frank coached up a little bit better and get him on the field because he is, in my opinion, a very, very talented guy.”
Same with Chark and Williams -- and for that matter the freshmen who did play and didn’t exactly dominate. It’s part of the learning process, Miles cautioned, and that process sometimes requires some patience.
Regarding freshmen like quarterback Brandon Harris and tailback Leonard Fournette, Miles said LSU’s coaches are “thrilled with their performances” even if they didn’t exactly fill up the stat sheet against Wisconsin.
It will come in time, as redshirt freshman John Diarse learned a season ago.
“I had the same expectations coming in last year and Coach Cam [Cameron] just told me, ‘It’s a process. It takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and just relax, stay in it, stay focused, keep working hard,’ ” said Diarse, who caught two passes and scored a 36-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter against Wisconsin.
Here are five items from the Tigers’ second week of preseason camp:
1. Quinn, Chark getting ready at WR: Neither player was the No. 1 receiver prospect in the nation -- that was Malachi Dupre, who also signed with LSU in February but has been slowed recently by an undisclosed injury -- but freshmen Trey Quinn and D.J. Chark might be more prepared to contribute.
2. Good news at defensive tackle: LSU coach Les Miles named Frank Herron as a starting defensive tackle alongside Christian LaCouture once Quentin Thomas went down with an injury last week.
As it turns out, the Tigers might have both Herron and Thomas at their disposal at some point. Some within the program expected the worst when Thomas injured his arm in practice last week, but the team medical staff said he can rehabilitate the injury without surgery and might not miss the season after all.
Herron looked like was going to play a major role on the defensive line regardless, but it certainly won’t hurt for the Tigers to have their eldest veteran back in the fold. Miles said this week that he believes LSU has a potentially outstanding defensive line, and Thomas’ presence can only make it that much better.
3. Playing it coy about quarterbacks: If the Tigers are as disciplined on the field this fall as they are about discussing their quarterback competition, they’ll never commit a penalty. They’re definitely not tipping their hands when it comes to the QBs.
No matter who you ask, the general message is always the same: “Whoever the coaches choose, we can win with him. They’re both playing great right now. I don’t have a preference,” referring to quarterback contenders Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.
Asked who threw the two touchdown passes in a scrimmage earlier this week, Miles replied, “A quarterback. I’m not going to share that if you don’t mind.”
This is nothing new. Miles pulled the same cloak-and-dagger routine in the spring, when he refused to reveal the quarterbacks’ passing stats after each of the Tigers’ scrimmages. Clearly this is just how Miles is going to handle it. With a tough opening matchup ahead against Wisconsin, there's no good reason to discourage one of the contenders yet.
4. Knowing their roles: LSU has established a reputation for playing freshmen -- and the Tigers will probably use somewhere around their normal 15 signees at some point this season.
But some Tigers newcomers display a mature understanding that this is probably not the fall where they make much of an impact.
Clifton Garrett -- one of the team’s highest-rated defensive signees -- showed that attitude, acknowledging that senior D.J. Welter and sophomore Kendell Beckwith are much better prepared to play at middle linebacker. So for now, he’s focusing on playing special teams and learning the intricacies of defensive coordinator John Chavis’ defense.
“I envision my role being a special teams kind of guy and just whenever coach feels like I’m able to get the plays down and everything, I’m going to be at [middle linebacker], so I’ve got to get the guys lined up,” Garrett said. “When Coach Chavis tells me I’m ready for that position, go out there and play on the field in primetime, then I’m going to do it and I want to be ready for that.”
Same with offensive lineman Jevonte Domond, who arrived from junior college just before the Tigers opened camp. This is probably a learning season, Domond acknowledged. The Tigers have a veteran offensive line and he still has three seasons of eligibility remaining, so the opportunity to learn LSU’s blocking schemes behind an established starter such as right tackle Jerald Hawkins will be incredibly valuable for him in 2015.
Plenty of LSU’s 2014 signees could make similar statements. Most recruits arrive and want to play immediately -- and some Tigers freshmen will do so this fall -- but it’s often good for them to bide their time behind experienced players without the pressure of learning in front of 102,000 people on fall Saturdays. It’s refreshing to see some newcomers possess the maturity to acknowledge that reality.
5. Kick return competition continues: The Tigers reportedly worked on kickoff returns in Wednesday’s first team scrimmage and will likely practice them again in Saturday’s first full scrimmage. But it’s difficult to predict who will handle kicks when the Tigers open the season Aug. 30 against Wisconsin.
Receiver Travin Dural said he’s practicing as a punt returner and kickoff returner and listed Tre'Davious White, Jamal Adams, Leonard Fournette, Quinn and Dupre among the other contenders. Dural said it’s difficult to detect a pecking order yet, however.
“As I see it, whoever lines up first gets the first punt or whoever gets there first gets the first kickoff,” Dural said. “There isn’t really a set order. It isn’t set in stone who’s the punt returner or who’s the kick returner.”
That could be a fun competition to watch over the next couple of weeks, as the players Dural listed have the skills to continue the LSU tradition of excellent return men.
“It’s going to be heart throbbing for me,” Garrett said. “I’m going to be extremely excited and adrenaline is going to be rushing. I can’t wait for it. I get a chill just thinking about it. I watch the hype videos and everything and it’s crazy.”
As ESPN’s No. 2 inside linebacker and No. 31 overall prospect in the 2014 recruiting class, Garrett seems bound for college stardom. That might not happen immediately, however. Not with veterans D.J. Welter and Kendell Beckwith ahead of him on the depth chart and not with the bulk of defensive coordinator John Chavis’ scheme still to learn.
Garrett himself seems ready to accept a season as a contributor on special teams, with occasional spot duty at linebacker, while he learns behind the veterans. But there are still several freshmen who have a chance to contribute immediately on Chavis’ defense. And as the Tigers’ veteran coordinator indicated, some of them -- a group that includes cornerback Ed Paris and safeties Jamal Adams and John Battle -- reside in the secondary.
Paris, ESPN’s No. 50 overall prospect, got a head start on the others by enrolling at LSU in January and participating in spring practice. He was listed as a second-team cornerback behind Rashard Robinson on the Tigers’ preseason depth chart.
“It helped me a lot. I learned it all in like a major way,” Paris said of his spring experience. “Because learning the playbook is extremely hard [as are] just learning [defensive backs coach Corey] Raymond’s terminology and seeing things and just trying to stay key on my techniques.”
Adams -- LSU’s highest-rated defensive signee at No. 18 overall and the No. 2 safety on the ESPN 300 -- might be on the field in multiple capacities. He’s in the mix for one of the Tigers’ kick return jobs, plus he could contribute in the base defense or in the Tigers’ nickel or dime packages.
“I feel like I can fit in with those guys,” Adams said of the veterans in the secondary. “I feel like I can help that group of guys, but I’m definitely not going to rush anything. I’m just going to keep working hard and my playing time is going to speak for myself on the field.”
And Battle’s versatility will someday come in handy. Sophomore Dwayne Thomas said he and Jalen Mills have been encouraging Battle to learn every position in the secondary, just as they have. That might not happen immediately, but Battle said he and the other freshman safeties should carve out a niche once they figure out their positions.
“It’s going to be fun,” Battle said. “Once we learn the plays, that’s going to be the deciding factor.”
That was a common theme among LSU’s defensive newcomers, who all seemed to recognize they still have a lot to learn. Many of them were sought-after recruits who are unaccustomed to sitting on the bench, but they know they must prove themselves worthy of playing time beyond special teams.
“It’s definitely a humbling aspect, but it’s definitely a motivational thing, as well,” Garrett said. “Being one of the young guys, the underdog, you have to come in and kind of prove yourself to all the older guys.”
Most of LSU’s freshmen seem to have that attitude, sophomore safety Rickey Jefferson said, which has impressed the veterans.
“Most of the class, honestly, had their head on straight. I don’t really recall one guy that’s like a knucklehead or anything like that,” Jefferson said. “Most of them handle their business. They’ve really got it going on, so I have to give that to them.”
Nonetheless, this probably will not be a season where LSU’s freshman defenders dominate the headlines. Its offensive newcomers are getting much of the attention right now, and for good reason. The Tigers must replace 76 percent of their offensive production from last season, after all, and it’s entirely possible that freshmen will pick up some of that slack.
But quarterback Brandon Harris, running back Leonard Fournette, and receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn aren’t the only LSU freshmen set to make their mark in 2014. Several freshmen on defense, particularly those in the secondary, could play roles on scrimmage downs this season.
“These guys are pretty good,” said Mills, a former Freshman All-American. “They kind of remind me of the defensive back class that came in when I was a freshman. We were hungry and we wanted to go out there and get the starting job that next day, so it’s just good competition.”
"And that has nothing to do with me as it does with the attitude of the guys, No. 1, but the amount of pressure John [Chavis, LSU's defensive coordinator] and his defense put on them. Any flaw a guy has is going to get exposed and get exposed in the first 30 minutes of practice."
LSU's assistant coaches, quarterbacks and freshmen spoke with reporters on Sunday for the first and possibly only time this preseason, so Jennings, Harris and Cameron were among the day's busiest participants.
Head coach Les Miles said he is not rushing yet to name a starter between sophomore Jennings and freshman Harris as he wants to allow a competitive environment to thrive.
"I think the naming of a starter will be when one separates himself from the other. And when it's a real advantage to name him as a starter because he needs to recognize as does the team that this is where we're going," Miles said. "We're not there."
"My job is to make this decision as tough on Les as possible," Cameron said. "What do you mean by that? Well, we've got two guys that we feel confident we can win with -- if not three, if not four. We're not coaching one guy more than the other hoping he's the guy."
Cameron might even find roles for both quarterbacks to fill.
He's best remembered for leading the game-winning touchdown drive against Arkansas after replacing injured Zach Mettenberger last season, but Jennings played in nine games -- including contests against TCU, Florida, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and his first start in the bowl win against Iowa -- in 2013.
Using him in spot duty made more sense because the dual-threat Jennings possesses a different skill set from Mettenberger, a prototypical dropback passer. However, Jennings and Harris are much more similar players.
Regardless, Cameron expressed confidence that whoever wins the competition will be ready to be successful once the opener against Wisconsin arrives on Aug. 30.
"I would say this confidently: we're going to have more than one quality starter here at LSU," Cameron said. "That's what we're charged with and we'll get that done."
Linebacker rotation?: Defensive coordinator John Chavis has rarely enjoyed the luxury that a deep group of linebackers might provide this season. Beyond starters Kwon Alexander, D.J. Welter and Lamar Louis, Chavis' position group runs two and three deep with quality players across the board -- and that might help not only on defense, but on special teams.
"If they're ready to play, we're going to play them. There's no question about that," Chavis said. "They're not any different than anybody else on our field. In an ideal situation, you'd like to have six starting linebackers and then they all could go play special teams and we could rest them on defense. Unfortunately we haven't been that way with depth.
"Is this a year that we can reach that? We're closer than we've been in the past."
In addition to players such as Deion Jones, Duke Riley and Ronnie Feist, Chavis has talented sophomore Kendell Beckwith trying to surpass Welter as the starting middle linebacker and one of the Tigers' top 2014 signees, Clifton Garrett, behind them.
It might be difficult to juggle, as there are only so many snaps to go around between the three linebacker spots. But Chavis seems confident that everyone who deserves to play will be on the field in some capacity.
"If you can go two deep and you don't have a drop-off, then that just makes your special teams even better," Chavis said.
No decisions on return men: Speaking of special teams, coach Bradley Dale Peveto said he is considering six candidates for the punt return and kickoff return jobs, but wasn't ready to identify them yet.
Tre'Davious White and Travin Dural are among the players known to be working at punt returner and Terrence Magee is among the kickoff return men.
"We had four great days in evaluating a lot of our team, got it down to six guys at each spot," Peveto said. "I don't really want to talk about that yet because we've got a great competition going on, but I'm going to tell you we've got enough. We've got some really good guys, some really talented young men who might compete for those positions."
Miles said earlier that Trent Domingue has taken over as the Tigers' kickoff specialist.
Right guard competition: Offensive line coach Jeff Grimes chuckled when asked how the right guard competition is shaking out.
"It's still shaking," Grimes said. "We'll let it go until somebody lays claim to it."
Seniors Fehoko Fanaika and Evan Washington have battled for the starting job at right guard, the lone spot where the Tigers lost a starting offensive lineman from 2013.
LSU sports information director Michael Bonnette confirmed that Thomas had suffered an injury after the fourth-year junior missed practice on Thursday and Friday, but the Baton Rouge Advocate reported that he is expected to miss the season.
"With him going down, he's a great friend of mine [and] I felt terrible when I heard about it," sophomore defensive tackle Christian LaCouture said after Friday morning's practice. "Somebody's got to step up."
LaCouture and Thomas were listed as starting tackles on LSU's preseason depth chart, although they have only one start between them. Thomas started in place of Ego Ferguson in last season's Outback Bowl when Ferguson did not play in the game. He finished last season with nine tackles in 11 games.
Thomas redshirted in 2011 and contributed in a minimal role in 2012. He finally saw the field a bit last season and said earlier this week that he was excited to have a chance to truly make an impact.
"Redshirting and not playing as much for the past few years has helped me learn my plays and put me in a better position for when they do give me my chance, I'll be able to perform well," Thomas said after Monday's first preseason practice.
Now it looks like it will be a while before Thomas gets that chance, which his coach at Breaux Bridge (La.) High School, Paul Broussard, admitted would be a major disappointment for his former player.
"He had worked hard, waited his turn and bided his time and finally had his chance to start," said Broussard, who had not yet spoken to Thomas a couple of hours after the news broke Friday. "I know it has to be devastating for him."
The Tigers now must lean more heavily on a trio of defensive tackles: Frank Herron (LSU coach Les Miles described as "a beast" earlier this week), Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain . All three redshirted last season after arriving at LSU as ESPN 300 honorees in 2013.
Additionally, LSU might get some good news about 2014 signee Travonte Valentine soon. Champagnat Catholic (Fla.) coach Mike Tunsil told TigerSportsDigest.com that he expects the NCAA Clearinghouse to permit Valentine to enroll at LSU next Tuesday. Valentine was ESPN's No. 164 overall prospect in the 2014 class and the No. 11 defensive tackle.
Regardless of whether Valentine contributes this fall, the interior line will still feature mostly inexperienced players. The next several weeks of practice will help determine which players figure heavily into defensive line coach Brick Haley's plans.
"Even though I'm a sophomore, I'm trying to be an upperclassman and trying to help with the young guys. A lot of them have to play," LaCouture said. "With everything going on, we're just trying to figure out who's ready to play. I thought we had a great day today."
Thompson playing it smart: Safety Corey Thompson said his surgically repaired knee is completely healthy, but he's still trying to be smart in his return to the field.
"I took limited reps today, but the first few practices, I got them all, I got it in," Thompson said after Friday's first practice in full pads. "So just trying to get back in shape is my main thing."
Thompson missed spring practice following surgery to repair the ACL he tore last season against Texas A&M. He's in the mix to return to the starting lineup this fall -- he had started five of the last six games last season when he went down against the Aggies -- although LSU lists him behind Rickey Jefferson on the preseason depth chart.
Thompson said he expects all of the returning veterans -- a group that also includes Jalen Mills and Ronald Martin -- to contribute this season, as could freshmen Jamal Adams, John Battle and Devin Voorhies.
"We're just trying to teach the freshmen, make sure they understand, because they're going to get some play, too," Thompson said. "So we know that everybody's going to play, everybody's good enough to play, so we're all rotating."
Absences and graduations: Center Elliott Porter was among the Tigers who were absent from Friday's practice periods that were open to the media. The senior sport administration major participated in summer commencement exercises Friday morning at LSU's Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Porter was one of three current players -- along with fullback Connor Neighbors and Justin Maclin -- to graduate Friday, as did former Tigers Rob Bolden, Richard Murphy and Karnell Hatcher.
Among the other Tigers who were not present during Friday's practice periods that were open to the media: receiver Malachi Dupre, linebacker Clifton Garrett and cornerback Rashard Robinson.
Now he must somehow retain that honor once the full team begins practicing together later this week -- and that won't be easy with freshman quarterback Brandon Harris breathing down his neck.
"Anthony threw the ball real well. He knew the offense like the back of his hand," wide receiver Travin Dural said after working with Jennings and the first-team offense in Monday morning's practice. "I'm not sure how Brandon's going to do, but I have a lot of confidence that he's going to do real well in the afternoon. And then when we come together, it's going to be pretty good. They're going to show that ability and one of them's going to emerge as the starter."
LSU's team split into two groups on Monday, as it will for each of the first four days of practice, with one group composed largely of starters and a handful of freshmen working out in the morning, while a collection of mostly reserves and the remaining freshmen practices in the afternoon.
LSU coach Les Miles said on Sunday that LSU's two quarterback contenders, sophomore Jennings and early enrollee Harris, will practice with both groups in the first four days before the Friday's first full-squad practice.
Neither quarterback was available to speak to media members on Monday.
Harris practiced with the afternoon group on Monday -- as did several other blue-chip signees in the nation's No. 2 recruiting class like tailback Leonard Fournette and receiver Trey Quinn. Among the freshmen who practiced with the varsity group in the morning were safety Jamal Adams, linebacker Clifton Garrett and receiver Malachi Dupre.
"Once they come in and they do 7-on-7 [in summer workouts], they kind of get a feel for things, but this is really what's going to tell the tale," running back Terrence Magee said. "We're just as intrigued at seeing them play as the coaches are, and to get out there and teach them and help them because we had guys before us that were the same way, ready to see us play and bring [us] along. For me, when I leave, I want to be able to look back at some of those young guys and say, ‘I helped him get to where he's at.' "
New No. 18: With that attitude in mind, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Magee was wearing a new jersey number, 18, when he practiced with the varsity on Monday morning.
LSU made it official on Sunday night that the senior running back would be the next recipient of the coveted number, following a vote to determine the most deserving player. The Tigers have a tradition each year in which they select a leader who best represents the team on and off the field to wear No. 18, and this year, it will be Magee.
"The No. 18 really isn't significant of all the leaders that we have on this team, from every senior that we have on the team, from La'el Collins to Jermauria Rasco to even some of the younger guys like Kwon Alexander," Magee said. "They wear their number and they're still leaders on this team. It's not going to change my mindset or how I do."
Magee breaks a streak of three straight seasons where a defensive player had worn No. 18. Linebacker Lamin Barrow wore it last season, following defensive tackle Bennie Logan and safety Brandon Taylor in previous years.
"They really showed me what it means to wear the No. 18," Magee said. "They represented it well and laid the foundation for me to continue the tradition. It's a tremendous honor and I'm very excited that the coaches thought enough of me to pick me."
Fournette's debut: Believe it or not, Fournette didn't take his first handoff at LSU 99 yards for a touchdown -- although maybe it's just because that first handoff came in a simple position drill.
Seriously, though, the heavily-hyped tailback -- as well as the other members of the touted recruiting class -- had even the veterans curious about how they'd look in practice.
"I might go out there and peek when they practice this afternoon ... just see what I'm going to be going up against in a couple days," linebacker D.J. Welter said with a grin.
Thompson, Rasco back; Mills practices: Safety Corey Thompson and defensive end Jermauria Rasco both practiced Monday with the starting defense after missing spring practice while recovering from offseason surgeries.
Thompson wore a brace on his surgically-repaired left knee, but seems to have recovered most of his mobility.
"He looks good. He's doing better," safety Ronald Martin said. "Hopefully he gets back up to 100 percent sometime during camp, but today he looked great out there."
A surprise from the afternoon workout was safety Jalen Mills' presence on the practice field. Mills has been indefinitely suspended since June following an incident where he allegedly punched a woman. East Baton Rouge district attorney Hillar Moore informed the Baton Rouge Advocate early Monday that he plans to charge Mills with misdemeanor simple battery, which is punishable with up to six months in prison or up to a $1,000 fine.
An LSU spokesman said Miles will address the junior safety's status with the team when he meets with reporters Monday evening. Running back Jeremy Hill sat out the first five quarters of the 2013 season after pleading guilty to a simple battery charge prior to the season.
"We've just got to keep getting better, keep helping each other get better as a whole, keep trying to [be] cohesive and get better as a unit like we are," Martin said. "And once [Mills] comes back, if he comes back, I hope he does come back, he just steps back into what we were doing this spring and just continue to grind."
Returning starters: D.J. Welter (80 tackles, 4 tackles for loss in 2013), Kwon Alexander (65 tackles, 6.5 TFL). Defensive coordinator John Chavis complimented Welter’s performance from spring practice -- during which he won the team’s MVP award -- following a mediocre junior season. Meanwhile, Alexander shifted from strongside linebacker to weakside during the spring, which should allow him to become a key playmaker this fall.
Starters lost: Lamin Barrow (91 tackles, 5.5 TFL). Weakside linebacker Barrow led the team in tackles and was one of the more consistent performers on a rebuilding LSU defense in 2013.
Key newcomers: Clifton Garrett (No. 31 overall on the ESPN 300 and No. 2 inside linebacker) was the Tigers’ highest-rated linebacker signee, while outside linebacker Donnie Alexander (No. 261, No. 19 OLB) was also an ESPN 300 pick. Garrett is an immensely talented prospect, but he’s listed on the preseason depth chart as the third-team middle linebacker behind Welter and sophomore Kendell Beckwith (11 tackles). He’s got his work cut out to become a key contributor in 2014.
Player to watch: Kwon Alexander. Alexander and strongside linebacker Lamar Louis (25 tackles) both moved into new starting positions during the spring, and both jobs seem to suit the veterans’ respective skill sets. Alexander, seems to be the player who is poised for a breakout season, though. Taking over Barrow’s old role, he could become one of LSU’s top defensive performers this fall -- as evidenced by his interception return for a touchdown in the Tigers’ spring game.
Overall: This is one of LSU’s most exciting position groups, blessed with substantial athleticism, speed and depth. It’s only a matter of time until Beckwith is a star in the SEC, and he and fellow reserves Deion Jones (15 tackles in 2013, plus an interception return for a 67-yard touchdown in the spring game), Duke Riley (7 tackles) and Ronnie Feist (did not play) are all capable players. Chavis acknowledged after spring practice that he is considerably excited about what the group will add to the defense this fall -- and he should be. Chavis has plenty of weapons at his disposal, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see several of them emerge as reliable performers in 2014.
Since several open spots on the depth chart make this arguably the most important freshman class in Les Miles’ decade as the Tigers’ coach, we thought it might be a good time to offer a refresher on Miles’ thoughts about each signee once they officially became Tigers on national signing day.
Keep in mind that this is before two junior college prospects -- offensive lineman Jevonte Domond and tight end Colin Jeter -- joined the class as summer additions, so they are not included in this rundown.
Here’s what Miles had to say on what the newcomers might bring to LSU's roster:
No. 1 overall prospect on ESPN 300/No. 1 RB
Miles said: Not surprisingly, the nation’s top overall prospect was a hot topic on signing day. Discussing him publicly for the first time, Miles said, “The inhibitor for a running back, generally speaking, is if he’s got great speed, he’s not very big. And if he’s very, very big, he doesn’t have great speed. And so basically you take a big back and you trim him up and you get him faster and you take the small back and you build him up and hope that you don’t get him slower. But for Leonard Fournette, it’s size and speed and ball skills and great vision. He’s a guy that will step in and play.”
No. 17 on ESPN 300/No. 1 WR
Miles said: One of three No. 1 players at a position to sign with the Tigers, wide receiver Dupre “can jump out of this gym,” Miles said. “He’s a guy that not only has size and height and ball skills and speed, but he has explosiveness that’s just different. Those quarterbacks that could miss him would have to throw it low, not high.”
No. 18 on ESPN 300/No. 2 S
Miles said: Clearly excited about the Texan’s potential, Miles brought up former first-round NFL draft pick Eric Reid as a comparison to Adams. “A multi-dimensional athlete. Played offense, defense, special teams return man,” he said. “Very tough, physical player. Ran track. Just reminds you of Eric Reid, maybe a little bit better ball skills, maybe a little bit more explosive.”
No. 29 on ESPN 300/No. 3 WR
Miles said: One of the most statistically prolific high school receivers in history, Quinn is a “tremendously capable athlete, a guy that can make plays after he catches the ball,” Miles said. “His run after catch will be significant.”
No. 31 on ESPN 300/No. 2 ILB
Miles said: The No. 1 player in Illinois, the middle linebacker is “big, physical, fast -- forced fumbles, sacks, going to give us a tremendous presence inside,” Miles said.
No. 37 on ESPN 300/No. 2 dual-threat QB
Miles said: The coach said early enrollee Harris “may well be as natural a passer as we’ve been around” and added that he has “got great arm velocity, great speed. Will really challenge defenses vertically down the field and have the ability to move his feet to extend plays.”
No. 50 on ESPN 300/No. 4 S
Miles said: The early enrollee, who played cornerback during the spring, has great coverage skills, Miles said. “Again, I say that he is already on campus and has an opportunity to compete this spring for playing time.”
No. 54 on ESPN 300/No. 1 OG
Miles said: The third No. 1 player at his position, Baton Rouge native Brumfield is an “extremely athletic offensive lineman,” Miles said. “Great versatility will give him a chance to play multiple positions.”
No. 134 on ESPN 300/No. 16 ATH
Miles said: Miles said Mississippi’s Gatorade Player of the Year, who is slated to play safety. is “just a very versatile athlete with good size. We’ll enjoy him in our secondary, as well.”
No. 164 on ESPN 300/No. 11 DT
Miles said: The massive four-star prospect “is one of the premier tackles out of Florida. … Big body, really will clog up the middle and push the pocket.”
No. 169 on ESPN 300/No. 5 TE (H)
Miles said: The four-star tight end is “a guy that really is a receiving tight end, can really stretch the field vertically. Again very talented,” Miles said. “He went to the Under Armour All-America Game in Orlando and he won the skills competition.”
No. 213 on ESPN 300/No. 22 DE
Miles said: The four-star prospect, who will start out at defensive tackle at LSU, “had a major knee injury that he recovered from in his senior year,” Miles said. “But he has a very high motor, very athletic and we look forward to him playing with us in the middle.”
No. 261 on ESPN 300/No. 19 OLB
Miles said: Miles called the New Orleans native “one of the top linebackers in the state. … He will fit into our package very comfortably. He’ll be great in space and he is a very vicious tackler.”
No. 271 on ESPN 300/No. 38 WR
Miles said: Miles has frequently mentioned the speedy Chark as a future contender for a kick returner job. On signing day, he said Chark is “really a tremendous prospect at the wide receiver spot.”
No. 273 on ESPN 300/No. 24 DE
Miles said: With severe winter weather in his native Oklahoma delaying the process, Clark didn’t officially sign with LSU until several days after national signing day. But in a release announcing his signing, Miles said Clark “is a very athletic and versatile player who was a standout on both sides of the ball in high school. … He fills a need for us at defensive end. He’ll be able to come in and compete for playing time right away.”
No. 283 on ESPN 300/No. 42 WR
Miles said: He contributed at multiple positions in high school, but the big-bodied Upchurch will play receiver at LSU, leading Miles to say he’s “a very strong, physical [player] that can catch the ball and will give us a great opportunity to use his size and skill set.”
No. 27 DT
Miles said: Although he recently suffered a serious arm injury and jeopardized his 2014 season when he punched through a window, the four-star defensive lineman reminds Miles of a previous LSU standout. “What he would remind you of is Drake Nevis,” Miles said. “He is a little taller, maybe a little wider, maybe a little faster, but he has a very high motor and a real acceleration on the field.”
No. 22 OG
Miles said: LSU likes versatility in its offensive linemen and Miles said LSU gets that with Clapp, noting also that he “comes with an LSU background. His father played defensive line at LSU. … Again, very athletic, has good size and mobility that will allow him to play a number of spots.”
No. 26 S
Miles said: Although he’s listed at cornerback on LSU’s preseason depth chart, Miles said at the time that Battle is “one of the rising safety prospects in this class, a four-star recruit. A very bright guy … a very high-character man, a track athlete and a four-point student. Very hard-hitting safety, a very talented guy that we look forward to him lining up in our secondary.”
No. 41 DE
Miles said: A tweener who could contribute as a defensive end or outside linebacker, Teuhema “has an unbelievably high motor and will play with his hands on the ground or play standing up and just to me is a tremendous prospect,” Miles said.
No. 57 ATH
Miles said: A late addition to LSU’s class, Gage was “a multi-sport athlete, displayed toughness and physicality and speed, was very competitive in our camp and we knew of him best and he’ll be with us as a corner,” Miles said.
No. 6 KTS
Miles said: Although LSU seems set at placekicker with Colby Delahoussaye, Miles has mentioned Gamble several times as a candidate for the kickoff job in 2014, including on signing day. “Big leg. Nineteen kickoffs went into the end zone as a senior.”
No. 77 RB
Miles said: Fournette gets most of the attention, but Miles said of 2,200-yard rusher Williams that “he’s a tough, physical running back, runs behind his pads, punishes defenders, displays great balance and vision.”
The Tigers ranked among the nation’s top-five programs at playing freshmen in each of the last two seasons -- 14 freshmen in 2013 (third) and 15 in 2012 (fifth) -- and Miles has all but guaranteed at least 15 more will see the field this fall once a star-studded recruiting class arrives on campus.
It has quickly become a calling card for Miles’ staff on the recruiting trail.
“You can’t guarantee a guy he’s going to play, but if he knows he’s given the opportunity and he’s got confidence in his ability, the track record speaks for itself. Come in and help us win and here’s the key thing, I think, that I’ve learned since being here is our veteran players -- our juniors and sophomores and redshirt sophomores and so forth -- they expect young guys to come help them play. They’re not afraid of young guys coming in and playing with them.”
Considering its recent history at the position group, it should come as no surprise that LSU recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson traces the development of this trend back to the arrival of key players in the secondary. The wheels were set in motion when cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne contributed as true freshmen in 2008 and 2009, respectively, but the freshman movement truly took off with the 2010 class that featured Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Reid and Tharold Simon.
Those players -- and several others who played bigger roles the next season when LSU won an SEC championship -- started to show what they could do in the second half of their freshman seasons, capped by an impressive win against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl where Mathieu, Reid and Simon all intercepted passes.
“It really hit because we had three guys in the secondary because so many spread defenses came (along), so we played a lot of nickel and a lot of dime with five and six defensive backs there,” Wilson recalled. “So Tyrann Mathieu took to the field, Tharold Simon took to the field as well as Eric Reid, and then offensively Spencer Ware began to emerge, et cetera. So probably in that class, the class of , it kind of hit a high point from that point on. These guys have relished and looked forward to the opportunity to contribute as freshmen, and we like it.”
Mathieu went on to become the 2011 SEC Defensive Player of the Year, a first-team All-American and a Heisman Trophy finalist thanks to his dynamic playmaking ability. Reid also became an All-American and first-round NFL draft pick. Simon didn’t earn the same level of acclaim in college, but he was still able to jump to the NFL after his junior season and become a draft pick himself.
All three players had eligibility remaining when they left LSU, which exemplifies the greatest contributing factor in the program’s recent trend of playing youngsters. No program has had more players enter the draft early in the last couple seasons than LSU, and those departures created holes that talented freshmen could fill.
LSU recruited toward that end for this year's class and cashed in on signing day when it landed the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class, one that featured the top overall prospect in tailback Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 receiver (Malachi Dupre), top guard (Garrett Brumfield) and 16 players who made the 2014 ESPN 300.
“We knew our needs, we knew what we wanted to get,” Wilson said of signing day. “We targeted certain guys, so there was never a panic on our part. We kind of knew early on by way of communication and feedback who we’re in good shape with and who we’re not and have a plan on people to place and sign in those positions.”
Tailback and receiver will certainly be manned at least in part by freshmen this season, and many other freshmen such as quarterback Brandon Harris, safety Jamal Adams and linebacker Clifton Garrett also might follow Mathieu, Reid and Simon’s lead by playing key roles this fall.
LSU isn’t the only school that relies heavily on young players, but it has quickly gained a reputation as a trendsetter in that regard.
“I think that’s a little unique,” Cameron said. “Sometimes guys are afraid of young players coming in and taking their position, but here I don’t sense that. I sense guys like the competition and they know we’re going to need everybody to win a championship.”
If you weren’t paying close attention at the Tigers’ spring game, however, you might not have realized just how much shuffling had taken place.
One of those players was Kendell Beckwith, who is slotted to play middle linebacker after contributing mostly at defensive end in 2013. Another was Deion Jones, who provided the game’s first points when he picked off an Anthony Jennings pass and returned it 67 yards for a touchdown. And a third was Ronnie Feist, who led all tacklers with 14 stops.
This after position switches by presumptive starters Kwon Alexander and Lamar Louis also generated headlines earlier in the spring, with Alexander moving from strongside linebacker to weakside and Louis shifting from middle linebacker to strongside.
“I like to cross-train guys because if you get someone go down, it’s not the guy that’s behind him on the depth chart, but it’s going to be the next-best linebacker we’re going to put in the game,” Chavis said.
Chavis employed that strategy to great effect this spring, putting players like Alexander and Louis in positions that might help them better take advantage of their athleticism. Earlier this month, Chavis said Alexander playing on the weak side -- perhaps the most important playmaking position among the linebackers -- “fits him perfectly” and added that Louis “did a really good job on the strong side” despite a hand injury that kept him in a green no-contact jersey for most of the spring.
He reserved his most glowing praise for D.J. Welter, however, noting that the talented Beckwith’s presence immediately behind him on the depth chart seemed to motivate the senior middle linebacker.
“Believe it or not, we had a senior that had his best spring practice. D.J. by far had the best spring practice that you can easily say that I’ve been around,” Chavis said of Welter, who is LSU’s top returning tackler with 80 stops in 2013. “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.”
There should be no shortage of competition among the players at Chavis’ position this fall. Louis said during the spring that LSU will boast its fastest, most athletic group of linebackers in years -- and the talent within the group will only grow when signees Clifton Garrett and Donnie Alexander arrive on campus.
The linebackers probably rank as LSU’s deepest, most experienced defensive position group as the season approaches, placing a burden on Chavis’ group to lead while green players at other positions find their legs. But if the Tigers find the right combinations at positions like defensive tackle and safety, LSU’s defense might continue its progress from late last fall following a shaky start to the 2013 season.
“Obviously we take a lot of pride in being good up front,” Chavis said. “If you’re going to win championships, you need good players everywhere and that’s what we’re here for: to compete for championships. Certainly I think we made some steps in that direction.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do. I’m proud of those guys that I coach personally, but I kind of keep a big eye on the entire defense. Hopefully if we mature at a couple positions, hopefully we can create some special things.”
Haskins, McElwain Shine At IMG Regional
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