LSU Tigers: Corey Thompson

BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU held its final spring practice this week, officially sending the Tigers into a crucial offseason.

An obvious point this spring was that Les Miles’ coaching staff was working with an incomplete roster. Seven underclassmen jumped ship to enter the NFL draft and only two of the Tigers’ 23 signees -- quarterback Brandon Harris and defensive back Edward Paris -- enrolled early to participate in spring practice.

That leaves plenty of questions as the team moves into the offseason -- five of which we’ll address now:

5. Do the Tigers have adequate depth in the backfield?

[+] EnlargeKenny Hilliard
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsOutside of Kenny Hilliard, there is not a lot of returning depth in the backfield and the Tigers will need to rely on incoming freshman.
The answer to this question during the spring was a resounding no -- Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard were the only scholarship tailbacks on the roster, and Magee missed a portion of the month after spraining an ankle in a scrimmage -- but that’s irrelevant. You don’t win or lose a game in March or April.

But even when freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams arrive this summer, will that be enough? An injury here or there could cause major problems. For example, look what happened at Georgia last season. When the season opened, it appeared as though the Bulldogs had one of the nation’s top backfields with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall leading the way and freshmen J.J. Green, Brendan Douglas and A.J. Turman serving as backups. But then Gurley suffered a minor injury in the opener against Clemson followed by a serious ankle injury in Game 4 against LSU. The next week, Marshall suffered a season-ending knee injury.

All of a sudden, Georgia was down to a bunch of freshmen -- all of whom were mid-level prospects -- by the first week of October. It’s no mystery why the Bulldogs went 1-2, and very nearly 0-3, in that October stretch before Gurley returned to the lineup. A lack of backfield depth in the SEC can be a season killer when you make a living on the ground like Georgia and LSU typically do.

4. How many players will figure into the Tigers’ plans on the defensive line? And how good can they be this season?

Aside from quarterback play, this might be the most important factor for the 2014 Tigers. Brick Haley’s bunch was a bit erratic last season, and now it must function with youngsters replacing departed juniors Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson in the middle.

The good news is that there is plenty of talent on hand along the interior line. Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas worked as first-teamers, with redshirt freshmen Maquedius Bain, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron chipping in as reserves. There is an extremely high ceiling with that group, but they’re about as green as it gets. It will also bear watching during preseason camp to see whether a signee like Travonte Valentine can crack Haley’s rotation, too.

The end spots are also a bit of a mystery. Jermauria Rasco -- who missed the spring while returning from offseason surgery -- and Danielle Hunter seem locked in as starters, but will they improve upon middling results in 2013? And who fills in the depth chart behind them? Tashawn Bower seems like a safe bet, but who else? We’ll see.

3. Who will start at safety?

Jalen Mills and Ronald Martin seemed to have these jobs locked down during the spring, but Rickey Jefferson and Corey Thompson -- another player who missed spring practice due to injury -- will be in the mix in August.

Keep in mind that nearly every time this position came up in one of his post-practice press gatherings, Miles mentioned how the Tigers’ safety signees -- Jamal Adams, Devin Voorhies and John Battle -- will be part of the preseason competition, too.

2. Will this offense be productive enough to win a championship?

It probably was last season, but for once it was LSU’s defense that was in the middle of a retooling effort. John Chavis’ defense appears to be on the rise now, but Cam Cameron must replace nearly every significant skill player from last season’s offense.

Freshmen like Fournette, Harris and receiver Malachi Dupre don’t just look like serviceable college players, they look like superstars in the making. But it’s a lot to ask of true freshmen to be superstars immediately.

Cameron’s dilemma is that he will almost certainly rely on at least a half-dozen newcomers to make an impact this fall. It’s a tricky proposition, but his getting reliable production out of that group might mean the difference between LSU contending for the SEC West title this fall or having to wait another year or two until they mature and bring the Tigers back to national championship contention.

1. Will Harris overtake Anthony Jennings at quarterback?

We can’t post this list and fail to address the biggest question surrounding the Tigers this spring. After a month of practice, there doesn’t seem to be an answer, although Harris clearly outperformed his sophomore counterpart in the spring game.

LSU’s coaches understandably see no need to declare a starter five months before the season starts. They’ll battle it out this summer in passing sessions and then again in August. Harris looks to be the contender with higher upside, but he must prove he can avoid the decision-making problems that most freshman quarterbacks encounter when the pressure of the season arrives.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- He probably thought he was prepared to compete at the time, but Corey Thompson can now admit that it blew his mind when he first set foot on LSU’s practice field as a freshman.

He had been an all-state safety and certainly has athletic genes -- both of his parents were college athletes -- but the speed of the players around him, the increased complexity of the playbook and the intricacies of playing safety in college initially made life rough for Thompson.

[+] EnlargeCorey Thompson
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesCorey Thompson will have to overcome a late-season knee injury as well as some talented incoming safety prospects.
“Sometimes it was a little bit overwhelming,” Thompson said. “I got tired, I got frustrated, questioned myself a few times, but I’m good now.”

He eventually made the transition in fine fashion. Thompson played in all 13 games in 2012 as a true freshman, mostly covering kicks on special teams, and had claimed a starting spot by the midway point of his second season.

He had started five of the last six games in 2013 when he suffered a season-ending knee injury against Texas A&M -- an ailment that has kept him out of the Tigers’ spring practice while he recovers from offseason surgery.

Now Thompson and his fellow veterans must help a new class of freshman safeties overcome the natural frustration and self-doubt that almost always accompanies their first taste of life in the SEC. That group, which includes ESPN’s No. 2 safety and No. 18 overall prospect for 2014, Jamal Adams, along with Devin Voorhies and John Battle, is one of the nation’s top collection of safety signees and will almost certainly compete for playing time in 2014.

Les Miles confirmed as much after Saturday’s scrimmage, when a reporter asked whether any safeties had earned a starting spot yet.

“I don’t think that decision will be made until the freshman class comes in. We’ll be in two-a-days and kind of decide who the best guys are,” Miles said.

Competition suits Thompson fine, and LSU’s coaching staff will have plenty of options since Jalen Mills, Ronald Martin and Rickey Jefferson also started at safety at least once last fall.

“It’ll be interesting to see the young guys come in, make a name for themselves,” Thompson said. “It’ll be fine. We’ll all get together and work out, do some drills together and get into fall camp, teach the young guys how to do it and they’ll be good from there.”

Martin intercepted two passes in Saturday’s scrimmage and Jefferson had one, causing Miles to remark afterward that he thinks the safeties are playing better. If that’s the case, that would be a good sign -- since safety was a fairly inconsistent position for the Tigers in 2013. Senior Craig Loston was an old hand at safety by then, but Martin was the only other experienced starter -- and he had started just once prior to last fall.

It was a rocky learning experience for all involved, which was part of the reason that Mills finally shifted from cornerback to fill in at safety against Arkansas and then start there in the Outback Bowl against Iowa.

“It was a curve, just trying to be more of a vocal leader and stepping up in a position, trying to be a first-time starter and getting to know the defense more from changing positions,” Martin said. “Because when I first got here, I was playing strong and I mixed in free safety. So it’s all about knowing the defense.”

That last part will probably be the biggest hurdle for the newcomers once they arrive this summer. Adams is LSU’s highest-rated safety signee in the ESPN prospect rankings since Loston (the No. 1 safety in 2009), so clearly he has the physical tools to excel in college. It might be only a matter of time until he cashes in on that star potential, but it’s no simple task catching on to the job that awaits him at LSU.

“One thing is the speed of the game, but the next is really just knowing your plays, knowing how to mix in different calls and stuff like that because you’re the quarterback of the defense at safety,” Thompson said. “I’m making calls every play, so I have to know what’s going on, where people are lining up at and give them different calls and stuff.”

The veterans plan to help teach the newcomers from the moment they arrive on campus. Once they learn the intricacies of the position, that’s when the competition will truly begin -- and there will be plenty of that.

“That’s what football is all about,” Mills said. “It’s about that competitive area, the competitive nature. You have to be competitive whether it’s on the field, off the field, in practice, wherever you are.”

Mills helps steady LSU's safeties

March, 19, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Jalen Mills doesn’t view himself as a safety. He doesn’t view himself as a cornerback, either.

He views himself as both -- which is coming in handy for LSU’s defense these days.

“When you come in, you call yourself a defensive back,” said Mills, a rising junior who started at safety for the first time in the Tigers’ Outback Bowl win against Iowa. “That means you can play corner to nickel to safety to dime. You want to be able to play all positions. You don’t want to be a single-position type of guy if you’re a defensive back.”

[+] EnlargeJalen Mills
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJalen Mills is helping out at safety this spring after playing the position in LSU's Outback Bowl victory over Iowa.
That’s an ideal attitude because Mills is several of those things -- particularly now, when the Tigers must replace starting safety Craig Loston and are without part-time starting safety Corey Thompson, who is still recovering from offseason knee surgery. Mills is a starting safety in LSU’s base defense, remains as the starting nickelback and still finds time to practice in a traditional cornerback role at points.

The Tigers need him most at safety for the time being, which was the message that defensive backs coach Corey Raymond imparted prior to spring practice.

“Him and Chief [defensive coordinator John Chavis], they kind of talked to me or whatever and they were like, ‘Right now we need help at safety. You played a pretty good job those last two games of the season. Can you play it for us?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah,’ ” Mills said. “And he said, ‘But we’re still going to need you at corner and you’re still going to be our starting nickel when we go Mustang package.’ ”

With Thompson on the shelf and a group of talented safety signees -- led by ESPN’s No. 18 overall prospect and No. 2 safety Jamal Adams -- not yet on campus, the Tigers are primarily using Mills and Ronald Martin with the first-team defense.

Rickey Jefferson and Dwayne Thomas are also working at safety, and thus far the foursome is pleased with what it has accomplished.

“Rickey, if he keeps coming along, he’s going to help us out a lot. Jalen Mills is doing a good job back there, also. And Dwayne Thomas, he’s doing a good job,” Martin said. “That’s the only other ones that we’ve got working in right now in the spring, just us four. Us guys, we’re doing a pretty good job so far, so we’re just trying to keep it going.”

Perhaps that’s a good sign, as safety was a problem area for much of 2013. Loston was the one constant when healthy, but the starting spot opposite him was a revolving door partially because of inconsistency. The Tigers used seven different starting combinations at safety, with Martin, Thompson, Mills and Jefferson all starting at least once.

Once Adams, Devin Voorhies and John Battle IV arrive on campus this summer, Raymond will have even more safety options from which to choose. And Tigers coach Les Miles said the newcomers will indeed get a long look from the coaching staff.

“We’ll have guys back, but I think we’ll be looking at some of these young guys that are coming in,” Miles said.

Thompson will also be back by then. The rising junior missed the final two games of 2013 after injuring his left knee against Texas A&M and undergoing surgery in December. He said after Tuesday’s practice that the knee is back to about 80 percent, but he will not attempt to test it during spring practice.

“I aim to be 100 by May,” Thompson said. “I don’t want to rush it, get back too early. But then I feel like May is a good time to be 100 and do everything to get in shape and be ready for the season.”

So for now, the Tigers will continue to function with the four available safeties -- a group attempting to prove that last season’s lapses were only a temporary hiccup for a program known for solid defensive back play. LSU’s pass defense totals actually improved slightly (from 206.0 ypg in 2012 to 197.5 last season), but the Tigers’ overall defensive slide continued, with Chavis’ group dropping from second nationally in total defense in its 2011 SEC championship run (261.5 ypg) to eighth in 2012 (307.6) to 15th last fall (340.7).

That’s an 80-yard increase in just a two-year span, and the safeties know they must perform more consistently in order to improve those numbers.

“We’ve just got to show that we can be leaders out there -- show that we can lead the defense just like those guys in the past like Eric [Reid], Brandon [Taylor], LaRon [Landry] and so on and keep the pedigree going,” Martin said.

Continued progress from Mills at the position would offer a big boost, just as he did in his first-ever attempt at playing safety when he intercepted a pass during a comeback win against Arkansas.

Mills still has nuances of the position to learn, such as how to make new reads that are different at safety from those at cornerback, but he believes he is making the transition smoothly.

“I really didn’t have a problem with [shifting positions],” Mills said. “Just coming from corner, you know where you want your safety to be sometimes in different types of checks. So just going from cornerback to safety, I know what the corner wants, so I just try to do it.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- In the weeks leading up to Saturday’s first spring practice, we offered our best guesses -- some on the mark and some off -- on how LSU’s lineup might look when the Tigers took the field.

Nothing is settled yet, but at least we now have an idea of what the coaches are thinking.

Coach Les Miles addressed some of the Tigers’ biggest position battles and lineup alterations after Saturday’s initial team workout -- starting with the quarterback battle that will likely be the talk of this camp. Here is where things stand at the positions that are in flux as the Tigers enter today’s second practice:

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Jennings is the early favorite to start for the Tigers in 2014, but two freshmen remain in the competition.
Quarterback: Miles said Saturday that “I think I have a good idea, anyway” about who the Tigers’ starting quarterback will be, but the competition for the job still figures to be fierce. By all accounts, the early leader is rising sophomore Anthony Jennings, but redshirt freshman Hayden Rettig and immensely talented early enrollee Brandon Harris could challenge Jennings for the job.

This competition is only beginning, however. Miles said the coaching staff is in no rush to settle on a starter now, preferring to allow the competition to progress over the next few months before making any decisions.

“The idea that you make the decision early is foolish,” Miles said. “I think there’s always going to be that point in time where a young guy gains speed late or an injury makes the decision or the old guy, the more veteran [player], just shows that he’s worthwhile.”

Wide receiver: We learned Saturday that there is one less contender in the quarterback battle since Rob Bolden has shifted to wideout. Bolden actually “made a couple nice catches today” after making what “appears to be a pretty good move,” Miles said.

Bolden’s position change made for an interesting side note, but he isn't the headliner at receiver. Who among the returning players is the headliner? That’s still to be determined.

It apparently starts with Travin Dural and redshirt freshman John Diarse. Candidates such as Quantavius Leslie, Kevin Spears and Avery Peterson need to use this spring to solidify their spots in the rotation before a star-studded freshman class led by Malachi Dupre -- who attended Saturday’s practice -- and Trey Quinn arrives this summer.

“Travin Dural and John Diarse are both guys that really look good. We’re going to have the ability to put those guys on the field and go,” Miles said. “Q. Leslie and Kevin Spears and those guys that are really behind that group need to come on. This is the time for that. This is an opportunity for those guys. But those first two guys, we would look forward to them playing a lot.”

Right guard: Miles emphasized that for new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes, “playing the best player is obviously the key.”

Four offensive line jobs have clear leaders, with returning players who started nearly every game a season ago. But the right guard position is wide open, and Evan Washington is shifting from tackle to try to grab the job.

Fehoko Fanaika and Ethan Pocic -- who can also play center -- are among the other candidates at right guard, Miles said, but “we’re going to have to see how that all goes.”

Linebacker: It looks like the Tigers will do some juggling at these spots. Kendell Beckwith, a utility player last season, worked at middle linebacker on Saturday. Kwon Alexander shifted from strongside linebacker to the weak side. Lamar Louis practiced on the strong side after playing in the middle in 2013.

“We’re really taking the time to multi-train these linebackers so we can put the best three guys on the field,” Miles said. “Kwon has moved from his starting spot to the other side, so we think this spring will allow them to be put in either side.”

The quarterback battle will attract most of the headlines, but this might wind up becoming the Tigers’ most interesting competition this spring. Lots of moving pieces here.

Safety: We know this much: Jalen Mills is a safety and early enrollee Edward Paris Jr. -- who is working at cornerback -- is not. Beyond that, we’ll see where this battle goes.

Mills and Ronald Martin might be the top options here for now, but this is a competition that will begin in earnest when signees Jamal Adams, Devin Voorhies and John Battle IV arrive on campus this summer.

“We’ll have guys back, but I think we’ll be looking at some of these young guys that are coming in,” Miles said. “Ed Paris is lined up at corner right now and getting some corner work and then some of these young guys coming in will get opportunities to fit in there.”

Junior safety Corey Thompson (knee) might participate at some point this spring, but Miles said did not sound particularly optimistic on that front. Incidentally, he shared a similar spring-time prognosis for defensive end Jermauria Rasco (shoulder).
Setting up the spring in the SEC West:

ALABAMA

Spring start: March 15

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Succeeding McCarron: The Crimson Tide must find the person who will step into AJ McCarron’s shoes. There are several quarterbacks on campus: Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman. The person most have pegged as the favorite, however, won’t be on campus until the summer: Jacob Coker. A transfer from Florida State, Coker is finishing his degree before enrolling at Alabama. But new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will get a chance for a long look at the others this spring.
  • What’s next for Henry?: Running back Derrick Henry has the fans excited after his Allstate Sugar Bowl performance (eight carries, 100 yards), and he brings great size to the position (6-foot-3, 238 pounds). T.J. Yeldon is a returning starter who is more experienced and battle-tested, and there are still other talented backs on the roster, such as Kenyan Drake. But plenty of eyes will be on the sophomore-to-be Henry.
  • Replacing Mosley: Linebacker C.J. Mosley was a decorated star and leader, so his presence will be missed. Alabama has plenty of talent in the pipeline; it’s just not tremendously experienced. Watch for Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland.
ARKANSAS

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Keeping it positive: It’s been rough around Fayetteville, Ark. The Razorbacks closed their season with nine losses in a row; coach Bret Bielema is a focal point in the unpopular NCAA proposal designed to slow down hurry-up offenses; and leading running back Alex Collins served a weeklong suspension last month for unspecified reasons. The Hogs could use some positivity.
  • A new DC: The Razorbacks will be working in a new defensive coordinator, Robb Smith. He came over from the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he was the linebackers coach. Smith made a significant impact at his last college stop, Rutgers, where he led the Scarlet Knights' defense to a No. 10 ranking in total defense in 2012.
  • Year 2 progress: Making a drastic change in scheme isn’t easy to do, which is what the Razorbacks tried to accomplish in Bielema's debut season. In the second spring in Fayetteville for Bielema, things should come a little more easily as the Razorbacks continue to institute Bielema's brand of power football.
AUBURN

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Picking up where they left off: The Tigers put together a memorable, magical 2013, and with eight starters returning on offense, keeping that momentum going is key. Replacing running back Tre Mason and O-lineman Greg Robinson won't be easy, but there is still plenty of talent on offense to aid quarterback Nick Marshall.
  • Marshall's progress: Marshall’s ascent last year was impressive, but can he continue it? He’s great with his feet and made some big-time throws last year. As he continues to progress as a passer, it should add another facet to the Tigers’ explosive, up-tempo, multifaceted attack.
  • Improving the defense: The Tigers lost five starters from a group that was suspect at times last season. But defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has a history of improving defenses from Year 1 to Year 2, and it should be interesting to see if he can do that at Auburn.
LSU

Spring start: March 7

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
MISSISSIPPI STATE

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • All eyes on Prescott: With some strong performances to close out the season in the Egg Bowl and in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, quarterback Dak Prescott certainly played the part of an elite SEC quarterback. He'll enter the season with more national attention after putting together some gutsy performances while pushing through some personal adversity last season after the death of his mother.
  • Malone stepping in: Justin Malone was on pace to start at right guard last season, but was lost for the year with a Lisfranc injury in his foot in the season opener against Oklahoma State. With Gabe Jackson gone, the Bulldogs need another solid interior lineman to step up, and a healthy 6-foot-7, 320-pound Malone could be that guy.
  • Offensive staff shuffle: The Bulldogs added some new blood on the offensive coaching staff, bringing in young quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, a former Utah quarterback. Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy were promoted to co-offensive coordinators, though head coach Dan Mullen will continue as the playcaller in games.
OLE MISS

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
  • Wallace’s development: Coach Hugh Freeze believes quarterback Bo Wallace will be helped by having more practice this time around; last year, January shoulder surgery had Wallace rehabilitating most of the offseason, and Freeze believes it affected Wallace's arm strength later in the season. A fresh Wallace going into the spring can only help, and as he’s heading into his senior season, the coaching staff will look for more consistency.
  • Status of Nkemdiche and Bryant: Linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant were arrested last month and suspended. Ole Miss is investigating the situation, but their status remains undecided.
  • A healthy Aaron Morris: During the season opener against Vanderbilt, Morris tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. The offensive guard was recently granted a medical hardship waiver to restore that season of eligibility. Getting Morris back healthy for 2014 is important for the Rebels as he is a key piece to their offensive line.
TEXAS A&M

Spring start: Feb. 28

Spring game: None (final practice is April 5)

What to watch:
  • Life after Johnny Manziel: Texas A&M says goodbye to one of the best quarterbacks in college football history and must find his successor. Spring (and fall) practice will be the stage for a three-way battle between senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen. Only one of those three has started a college game (Joeckel), and he played in just one half last August. Whoever wins the competition will be green, but all three have the ability to run the Aggies’ offense.
  • Retooling the defense: The Aggies were pretty awful on defense last season, ranking among the bottom 25 nationally in most defensive statistical categories. They have to get much better on that side of the football if they want to be a real factor in the SEC West race, and that starts in the spring by developing the young front seven and trying to find some answers in the secondary, particularly at the safety positions.
  • New left tackle: This spring, the Aggies will have their third different left tackle in as many seasons. Luke Joeckel rode a stellar 2012 season to the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. Senior Jake Matthews made himself a projected top-10 pick for this year's draft while protecting Manziel last season. This season, Cedric Ogbuehi gets his turn. Ogbuehi has excelled throughout his Texas A&M career on the right side of the offensive line (first at right guard, then at right tackle last season) and is looking to follow in the footsteps of Joeckel and Matthews.

Key spring position battles: Safety

February, 27, 2014
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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 and quarterbacks in the first three installments. Now let's look at the safeties. The Tigers never settled on a starter opposite now-departed senior Craig Loston last season.

Returning starters: None. (No full-time starters, anyway.)

[+] EnlargeJalen Mills
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJalen Mills started at safety in the Outback Bowl.
Departures: Loston was one of the team's defensive leaders when healthy. He started 10 games, registering 57 tackles, four tackles for loss and tying for the team lead with three interceptions. The Tigers also lost Micah Eugene, who started twice early last season before leaving the program in December.

Returning reserves: Jalen Mills (67 tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks, three INTs) slid over from his cornerback position to start in the Tigers' Outback Bowl victory over Iowa. That was his first start at safety, but don't be surprised if he stays there, at least part time. The Tigers worked with seven starting combinations at safety last year, and the other players with starting experience – Corey Thompson (23 tackles, 0.5 TFLs), Ronald Martin (38 tackles, one INT) and Rickey Jefferson (six tackles, 0.5 TFLs) – are all back.

Newcomers: Early enrollee Edward Paris Jr. – ESPN's No. 50 overall prospect and No. 4 safety – is the first member of LSU's star-studded group of safety signees to get a crack at winning some playing time. He is on campus for spring practice, and that might help him win some playing time in the fall. The other new safeties – No. 2 safety and No. 18 overall prospect Jamal Adams, ESPN 300 pick Devin Voorhies and three-star prospect John Battle IV – will get a chance to prove themselves after they arrive in the summer.

What to watch: This position group dealt with regular turnover last fall, so LSU's coaching staff certainly will be looking to develop more consistency at safety starting this spring. Mills' presence could help stabilize the group a bit, but the Tigers need to establish two starters and a solid depth chart at some point. They don't necessarily have to see that happen during the spring, but it would certainly help if position coach Corey Raymond is able to begin narrowing his options after the spring game.

Players to watch in spring: Ed Paris

February, 17, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- We're only a couple of weeks away from LSU's first spring practice on March 7. With that in mind, let's take a look at some players who have the opportunity to help their cause by stringing together a strong month of practices.

We begin this week's list with a look at an early enrollee who hopes to seize some playing time at a position that struggled for much of the 2013 season, safety.

[+] EnlargeEdward Paris Jr.
Max Olson/ESPN.comEnrolling early can give ESPN 300 safety signee Edward Paris Jr. a leg up in the battle to replace Craig Loston.
Edward Paris Jr. (Safety, Fr.)

2013 review: The native Louisianan ranked among the nation's top safety prospects at Mansfield Timberview High School in Arlington, Texas. The U.S. Army All-American was ESPN's No. 50 overall prospect and No. 4 safety when he enrolled at LSU in January.

Why spring is important: The Tigers experienced their share of upheaval at safety last season, experimenting with seven starting combinations at the position. Now they move forward without 2013 senior Craig Loston, who started 10 of the 13 games last year. Jalen Mills shifted to safety for the bowl game against Iowa and seems likely to remain there this spring, but the other safety spot just might be up for grabs. The other safeties who started in 2013 -- Corey Thompson, Ronald Martin and Rickey Jefferson -- remain on the roster, so there are plenty of candidates. Several other well-regarded prospects, led by No. 2 safety Jamal Adams, will arrive this summer. But Paris has the advantage of already being on campus, meaning he will have a leg up on his fellow 2014 recruits by participating in spring practice and could carve out a niche at an unproven position if he gets off to a quick start.

Best case/worst case: Getting a spring under his belt, before the arrival of the high-pressure circumstances that accompany preseason practice, obviously will benefit Paris. Look at what a strong spring did last year for early enrollee Christian LaCouture, who became one of the Tigers' top reserves at defensive tackle after arriving on campus months ahead of more heralded recruits. If Paris starts strong this spring and follows it up with another solid camp in August, he might just find himself in contention for a starting spot in the fall -- or at least a spot on the safety depth chart. If he struggles, he might be limited to special teams duty or even a possible redshirt while other freshman signees get a chance to play scrimmage downs.

LSU position groups to improve: No. 3

February, 12, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- With more than three weeks to go until LSU opens spring practice on March 7, we'll use some of the down time to preview the upcoming series of team workouts.

In the first two days of this week's series listing five position groups with room to improve in the fall, we discussed the tight ends and defensive tackles. Now we move onto the safeties, where LSU must replace starter Craig Loston, though the Tigers have added some excellent young players in the most recent signing class.

[+] EnlargeJalen Mills
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJalen Mills started at safety in the Outback Bowl.
3. Safety

Battling for No. 1: For a school that prides itself on its defensive back legacy, LSU's secondary was far too erratic in 2013. Of course, there was a lot to replace -- Eric Reid made the Pro Bowl as an NFL rookie, for instance -- but it was certainly a transitional season for the Tigers. The transition continues this season with senior Craig Loston leaving for the NFL. It appears that Jalen Mills -- whose transition to safety was eased by the emergence of Rashard Robinson and Tre'Davious White at corneback -- might be in the running for a starting spot. Mills (who had 67 tackles last fall and tied for the team lead with three interceptions) started for the first time at safety in the Outback Bowl win over Iowa after starting the first 12 games at corner. That was the last of seven different starting safety combinations for LSU in 2013, and Corey Thompson (40 tackles), Ronald Martin (38 tackles) and Rickey Jefferson (six tackles) also return among safeties who started at least once last season. But it wouldn't be much of a surprise to see some talented new safety signees immediately enter the mix this fall -- and in the case of early enrollee Edward Paris Jr., this spring.

Strength in numbers: LSU's coaches did a superb job of not only replenishing the depth chart at safety last week, but in adding players with the potential to play early. Jefferson could play a larger role this season after he was only a minor factor last fall as a true freshman -- one who most recruiting services graded as a wide receiver. Rising junior Thompson also seems like a candidate to occupy a prominent spot on the depth chart, if not start.

New on the scene: This is the area that has to excite LSU fans. There might have been a program that signed a better crop of safeties last week, but the Tigers' group looks about as good as it gets. In Jamal Adams and Paris, LSU added ESPN's Nos. 2 and 4 safeties in this class. The Tigers also landed ESPN 300 athlete (and likely safety) Devin Voorhies and three-star safety John Battle. Finally, late addition Russell Gage has multiple-position ability, but safety could be his eventual landing spot as well. With that collection of talent joining the roster, don't be surprised if freshmen challenge veteran players for spots on the depth chart this fall.

LSU's defense comes back swinging

October, 17, 2013
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John Chavis knows what a championship defense looks like.

He’s coached a few in his two decades as a defensive coordinator in the SEC, both at LSU and Tennessee.

[+] EnlargeLamin Barrow, Mack Brown
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAfter a shaky stretch, Lamin Barrow and the LSU defense haven't given up a touchdown in six quarters.
He’d be the first to tell you that the defense LSU put on the field to start this season wasn’t championship caliber, which wasn’t all that surprising considering the amount of talent (six starters) the Tigers lost last season to the NFL draft.

Chavis knew back in the offseason that it was going to be a work in progress with this group, and that some choppy waters were ahead. But seeing his defense shredded the way it was for eight quarters starting with the second half of the Auburn game, extending through the entire Georgia fiasco and then the first half of the Mississippi State game, was nauseating.

“It was difficult, but I always say, ‘We’re going to live in our hopes, not our fears,” Chavis said.

Those hopes have been rekindled thanks to the promise the No. 6 Tigers have shown defensively in their last six quarters of play. And just like that -- with some youngsters growing up in the secondary, some depth developing up front and Chavis making a few tweaks with his combinations -- LSU heads to Ole Miss on Saturday riding the kind of defensive momentum that has been a staple of this program since Chavis took over the defensive reins in 2009.

“But we can’t think that we’ve arrived,” Chavis said.

He’s been around this league long enough to know that it can change in a flash.

He’s also been around long enough to know that playing rock-solid defense and winning championships go hand-in-hand.

Granted, this hasn’t been your typical year in the SEC with so many veteran quarterbacks playing at a high level and 10 of the 14 teams in the league averaging more than 30 points per game.

But somewhere along the way, it always gets down to making key stops at key moments.

The Tigers look a lot more equipped to do that on a consistent basis as they plunge into the second half of the season. They’re coming off their most complete defensive performance of the season in a 17-6 win over Florida and have now gone six straight quarters without allowing a touchdown.

“I feel like the intensity level now is something that it hasn’t been all season, and all 11 guys are on the same page,” junior defensive tackle Ego Ferguson said. “When we’re there, it’s a special unit.”

The 44-41 loss to Georgia was undoubtedly the low point. The Bulldogs had receivers running free all game, and the Tigers just looked out of sorts defensively. They then went out the next week and gave up 23 points in the first half to Mississippi State.

“We just weren’t playing to our potential,” Ferguson said.

They also weren’t playing as many players, particularly up front. So Chavis made it a point to beef up the rotation in the defensive line, and also made some changes in the secondary.

Sophomore Jalen Mills has moved to the nickel position, which has given the Tigers more flexibility on passing downs. True freshmen Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson are now the two cornerbacks outside when Mills moves inside to the nickel, and sophomore Corey Thompson has started at safety the last two games.

Chavis said following the win over Florida that it was the best the Tigers had played at safety all season, and getting back a healthy Craig Loston was also a big part of that.

Robinson probably would have played even more earlier in the season had he not missed preseason camp while waiting to be cleared academically. He has the skill set to be the next great LSU cornerback.

And LSU coach Les Miles really likes what he sees athletically from this defense.

“I think our defense has always been a confident unit,” Miles said. “They just needed to get some things in place. This will be a team that athletically will eventually be one of the more talented defenses that we’ve had.”

Chavis, whose raw emotion is one of the things that endears him to his players, didn’t hold back last week when challenging them to get back to playing LSU football.

This is a team that had finished in the top 12 nationally in total defense and scoring defense each of the last three seasons but gave up 962 yards and 70 points in that two-week stretch leading up to the Florida game.

“Guys are really playing with the attitude and swagger that’s been played here in past years,” Collins said. “Guys are really stepping up and playing their role. We always preach that we haven’t played our best game yet.”

Judging from the way the Tigers have played on defense the last six quarters, they might be just getting started.

Week 6 helmet stickers

October, 6, 2013
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STARKVILLE, Miss. -- During the course of Saturday's game between No. 10 LSU and Mississippi State, a few players stood out as worthy of a coveted helmet sticker.

WR Odell Beckham Jr.: What more is there to say about LSU's talented wide receiver? Last time I saw him in person he had a billion all-purpose yards and a buffet of touchdowns against UAB. I travel to Starkville a few weeks later and it's much of the same. The special teams plays weren't there, granted, but Beckham shined as a receiver, breaking down Mississippi State's defense at will. Even with the Bulldogs playing almost 10 yards off in coverage, Beckham got the best of them, accounting for 179 yards and two touchdowns on nine receptions.

RB Jeremy Hill: The man is playing like there's an enormous chip on his shoulder. Hill is running roughshod over defenses these days, displaying a unique blend of size and speed few in the game can match. Against Mississippi State he showed it all, accounting for 157 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries. He did it running between the tackles, he did it running outside the tackles and when he needed to, he did it by running right over would-be tacklers.

S Corey Thompson: Somebody on LSU's defense needed a helmet sticker, though during the first half it looked like no one deserved it. But instead of being a sticker curmudgeon, we'll tip our collective cap to Thompson, who led the team in tackles (6) and pass breakups (3). In a secondary that struggled to stop Mississippi State, Thompson did his part.
Ronald MartinCrystal Logiudice/US PresswireRonald Martin looks like LSU's starting strong safety, but the Tigers coaches are excited about a couple of their options at the position.
GeauxTigerNation writer Gary Laney takes your questions.

From: Will (Florida): What do you think about Ronald Martin being the starting saftey?


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LSU spring football primer

March, 14, 2013
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Here are things to know as LSU starts spring practice:

Practice dates: March 14, 15, 16, 19, 21, 23 (scrimmage), 25, 26 and 28. After spring break, resumes April 9, 11, 13 (scrimmage), 16, 18 and 20 (spring game).

What's new: Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will install his new offense, and four new starters will man the defensive line.

What's old: The Tigers have eight returning starters on offense, led by quarterback Zach Mettenberger.

Offensive outlook:
Starters returning (8): QB Mettenberger, RB Jeremy Hill, FB J.C. Copeland, WR Jarvis Landry, WR Odell Beckham, LT La'el Collins (moved from left guard), LG Josh Williford (moved from right guard), RG Trai Turner, RT Vadal Alexander.

New starters: TE Dillon Gordon or Logan Stokes, C Elliott Porter. Key reserves -- QB Stephen Rivers, RBs Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard and Terrance Magee, FB Connor Neighbors, LT Jerald Hawkins, RG Fehoko Fanaika, RT Ethan Pocic, WR James Wright, Kadron Boone, John Diarse and Travin Dural, TE Travis Dickson.

(Read full post)

BATON ROUGE, La. -- By the middle of August camp, free safety Eric Reid was the only returning starter in LSU's vaunted secondary.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
AP Photo/Bill HaberCraig Loston will have to step into a leadership role with the departures of Eric Reid and Tharold Simon.
After Heisman Trophy finalist Tyrann Mathieu was dismissed from the team, Reid, the junior free safety from Geismar, became the elder statesman and responded with a solid, 91-tackle, two-interception season during which he was the Tigers' unquestioned leader in the secondary and became a consensus All-American.

His end of the bargain held up, Reid announced his decision Friday to leave LSU for the NFL. He wasn't the only one.

In a mild surprise, junior cornerback Tharold Simon also declared for the draft after leading the team with four interceptions and 13 passes defended. A first-year starter in 2012, he was a key piece to the LSU secondary in 2011 as the fifth defensive back whose presence allowed the Tigers to use Mathieu as a nickel back.

With their departures, all six of LSU's primary defensive backs on the 2011 team -- Simon, Reid, Mathieu, cornerback Morris Claiborne, safety Brandon Taylor and dime back Ron Brooks -- probably will be on NFL rosters next season.

Regardless, LSU looks to be in better shape next season than it was entering 2012. Where only two of the top six DBs returned for the 2012 season, the Tigers should still have four of their top six back next season.

Junior strong safety Craig Loston probably will return for his senior year and starting cornerback Jalen Mills, nickel back Jalen Collins and dime back Micah Eugene were all freshmen.

That bodes well for the Tigers' secondary, which outperformed expectations most of the year, given that Mathieu's departure forced LSU to have to start a true freshman, Mills, in his place. The Tigers did struggle down the stretch, allowing four straight 300-yard passing games to finish the season.

Developing young talent will be crucial this offseason. Ronald Martin, Eugene, Corey Thompson and Jerqwinick Sandolph are young safeties who might vie for Reid's free safety spot. LSU has one 2013 recruit committed, Jeremy Cutrer. But LSU is pursuing more, including ESPN 150 safety Priest Willis.

At cornerback, Collins figures to replace Mills and LSU also returns Dwayne Thomas and Derrick Raymond and has a talented class of cornerbacks coming on signing day, including three four-star prospects -- Jeryl Brazil, Tre'Davious White and Rickey Jefferson -- and three-star Rashard Robinson.

 

 

Where LSU will need help: Defense 

January, 3, 2013
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- The commitment of Maquedius Bain to LSU on Wednesday made perfect sense.

Bain, the No. 6 defensive tackle in the ESPN 150 and the highest-rated of the Tigers' 24 commitments, figures to play at LSU early. And he'll play a position where the Tigers have a tremendous recent track record for getting players to the NFL. Part of the reason there is a need for defensive tackles in this LSU class (Bain is one of four DT commitments in the class) is the presumed early departure of junior Bennie Logan to the NFL.

If Bain does play immediately, it will continue an LSU trend: Tiger freshmen should come ready to play because many of them will play. LSU used 15 true freshmen in the 2012 season, including four who started and a fifth who was a special-teams starter.

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After all his contributions, it's easy to forget that Tyrann Mathieu was once an unheralded true freshman. His dismissal from LSU's roster leaves the Tigers with just one experienced cornerback. It also leaves a massive hole at nickelback -- the spot where the Honey Badger caused the majority of his chaos.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
AP Photo/Dave MartinLes Miles has a lot of talent in the secondary, but with Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal, there is a lack of experience.
So who takes over in these two spots?

1. CB Jalen Collins: Take a gander at the roster and find a better replacement cornerback than Collins -- there isn't one. The Olive Branch, Miss., native is only a redshirt freshman with no in-game experience, but that makes him the second-most experienced corner on the team behind Tharold Simon. The rest of LSU's corners are straight from high school. Collins impressed last spring, but he was picked on often during the team's spring game in April. On a defense this talented, he'll be the weak link by default, but the Tigers have a good history of youngsters stepping up.

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