LSU Tigers: Danielle Hunter

With three new assistant coaches and four early enrollees in the fold, LSU is scheduled to open spring practice on Saturday.

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.

Instant-impact candidates at LSU

February, 9, 2015
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU’s 2014 recruiting class was important, not just because of the significant talent infusion that it provided, but also because of the numerous holes that the Tigers needed to fill.

A half-dozen signees from ESPN’s No. 2-rated class -- including Leonard Fournette, Jamal Adams, Malachi Dupre and Davon Godchaux -- became instant-impact freshmen, and most of the 23-man class contributed in some capacity.

LSU’s newest crop of signees does not face the same pressure to make an immediate impact since the Tigers weren’t hit by the NFL draft as hard as they had been in recent years. That said, there are still several players in this class who seem likely to play right away.

Here is an early attempt at identifying some of those players:

Arden Key: LSU loses both of its starting defensive ends in Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco, and the candidates to replace them are largely unproven. The Tigers also need to bolster their pass rush after totaling just 19 sacks last fall. Enter Key, who LSU coach Les Miles described as a “pass-rush specialist” and who defensive line coach Ed Orgeron compared to former Tigers star Barkevious Mingo.

Miles and Orgeron both predicted on signing day that Key, ESPN’s No. 24 overall prospect and No. 6 defensive end, will immediately help address the Tigers’ needs at end.

“It’s the school that he always wanted to come to and you could just tell when he walked into Tiger Stadium, he’s a cat, he’s a Tiger, we’re glad to have him,” Orgeron said. “He’s quick-twitch, long levers. We expect him to play next year and we expect him to work very hard this spring and this summer to be ready.”

Tyron Johnson: Wide receiver was not a huge position of need in this class, but of course LSU still wanted Johnson. ESPN rated the New Orleans native as the top player in Louisiana as well as the No. 30 overall prospect and No. 3 wideout.

[+] EnlargeTyron Johnson
Miller Safrit/ESPNLSU has a deep WR corps, but ESPN 300 receiver Tyron Johnson could break into the rotation right away.
The Tigers have a ton of young receivers, but junior Travin Dural is the only one who has proven himself as a consistent contributor. Johnson should have a shot at jumping into the positional rotation right away.

“His signing sends a message to the state and to the rest of our young guys that if you’re best, you need to come to LSU, because frankly, we'll play you,” Miles said.

Cornerbacks: LSU has playing time available in the secondary following the departures of safety Ronald Martin and cornerbacks Jalen Collins and Rashard Robinson. A newcomer might not jump straight into the starting lineup, but it seems likely that at least one of them will see regular action. The question is which member of the group -- one of the nation’s best collections of defensive back signees -- will make the cut?

Kevin Toliver II, ESPN’s No. 10 overall prospect and only five-star signee in LSU’s class, seems like the safest bet since he is already enrolled and will participate in spring practice. But Donte Jackson also has star potential, and Miles said that the speedster might contribute as a return man and on offense.

Don’t forget about Xavier Lewis and Jeremy Cutrer, either. Cutrer was committed to LSU in 2013 but had to spend the last two years at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College when he failed to qualify. He’s exceptionally athletic, which could help him become an immediate contributor if he makes the grade and enrolls at LSU later this year.

“It’s a standard of excellence we look for at that position group,” LSU recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson said. “The guys that we went after fit the bill. We feel that they can come in and contribute very early. Patrick Peterson charged us with that problem in 2010 with a young Tharold Simon, Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Reid, and we’ve tried to hold that standard in recruiting at that position group.”

Running backs: Also the Tigers’ running backs coach, Wilson filled a major need by adding three players to his position group. LSU did not have a scholarship fullback on the roster after losing Connor Neighbors and Melvin Jones, so getting the versatile David Ducre (another early enrollee) was a coup.

Wilson also lost veterans Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee, leaving Fournette and Darrel Williams as his only scholarship tailbacks prior to signing day. In signing Derrius Guice and Nick Brossette, LSU added two of the state’s top prospects -- both of whom seem likely to help right away because of LSU’s tendency to rotate backs.

“We didn’t have any scholarship fullbacks, so we needed to address that need at that position group,” Wilson said. “And then we have two sophomores and bring in two freshmen [at tailback]. It gives us some leeway some next year where it’s not a position of demand in next year’s class.

“But we like where we’re at in that, only because it gives you quality depth and it’s not stacked. At times we’ve been as high as six, so four is a good number for us because the rotation becomes realistic.”
Editor's note: We broke down LSU's need to improve at quarterback as part of our SEC blog's positional series two weeks ago. This week on the LSU blog, we continue our position-by-position look at the 2015 Tigers.

Perhaps no position group at LSU progressed more over the course of the 2014 season than the defensive line.

That group was a problem early in the season when opponents like Mississippi State and Auburn rolled up two of the biggest yardage totals ever accumulated against the Tigers in the Les Miles era. But by the time the season ended, the line was a strength.

[+] EnlargeDanielle Hunter
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonLSU will be looking to replace solid defensive ends Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter.
"We mainly had to focus on our run this year more than anything because most teams were just trying to run all over us," defensive end Danielle Hunter said.

The biggest question facing the group in 2015 will be whether the Tigers' front can do a better job pressuring the quarterback, particularly without Hunter and Jermauria Rasco. The Tigers did not record many sacks -- they had just 19, second-to-last in the SEC -- even with those two ends, but now it might fall on younger players like Tashawn Bower, Sione Teuhema and Deondre Clark to make quarterbacks sweat.

"It would be great to get all the sacks, but we definitely got a lot of QB pressures and a lot of quarterback hits and things of that nature," Bower said. "So we're definitely happy with where we're at, but we're not content."

New position coach Ed Orgeron also has work to do in developing depth. Predecessor Brick Haley got a lot out of interior linemen Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux, but the Tigers have a number of heavily recruited tackles who struggled to make much of a difference.

Entering their redshirt sophomore seasons, tackles Maquedius Bain, Frank Herron and Greg Gilmore could help Orgeron build better depth, as could redshirt freshmen Travonte Valentine and Trey Lealaimatafao.

The two redshirt freshmen might be able to make an immediate impact, in fact.

"Trey Valentine, he's a true run-stopper," Rasco said. "He's got some juice in him in the pass rush. You'll see him in a game and you won't be expecting him to be able to move as good as he moves. And also with Trey Lay, for a guy to be so little, he's real powerful and he brings a lot to the table. Those are going to be the secret weapons for next year as long as they do what they have to do on and off the field."

It will be a huge benefit that LaCouture and Godchaux both return after locking down starting jobs last fall. That should help LSU's front seven remain strong against the run while Orgeron nails down the ends he can rely on to generate a better pass rush.

Some of those players might not even be on the roster yet. LSU continues to pursue several top-tier end prospects, some of whom would be capable of providing an immediate lift should they sign with the Tigers on Feb. 4.

"Those guys, I don't see no letdown," Rasco said during bowl practice. "The only thing that'll happen, I don't know who they're bringing in, but they'd better get with the program early if they want to play. That's the only thing I can say."

BREAKDOWN

Returning players: DT Davon Godchaux (42 tackles, 1.5 TFL), DT Christian LaCouture (40 tackles, 4 TFL, 2.5 sacks), DE Tashawn Bower (16 tackles, 2.5 TFL), DT Quentin Thomas (9 tackles, 0.5 TFL), DE Deondre Clark (9 tackles, 0.5 TFL), DE Sione Teuhema (7 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 sacks), DT Maquedius Bain (6 tackles), DT Greg Gilmore (4 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks), DE Lewis Neal (3 tackles, 1.5 TFL), DT Mickey Johnson (3 tackles), DT Frank Herron (3 tackles), DE M.J. Patterson (1 tackle), DT Trey Lealaimatafao (redshirted), DT Travonte Valentine (redshirted).

Departed players: DE Danielle Hunter (73 tackles, 13 TFL, 1.5 sacks), DE Jermauria Rasco (71 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 4 sacks), DE Justin Maclin (3 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks).

Committed prospects: Isaiah Washington (No. 72 DE, three stars)

Outlook: Orgeron will need to fill holes at defensive end after Rasco and Hunter left -- a position battle that should rank among the most intriguing for LSU in the spring and preseason. The good news is that tackles LaCouture and Godchaux developed into solid starters, which should help the line be more stout against the run than it was early last season. If Orgeron can help the Tigers' front produce more sacks and negative-yardage plays, 2015 should be a solid season for the line.

Four storylines for LSU-Arkansas

November, 14, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. – Could this be the week that Arkansas ends its 17-game losing streak in SEC play? The oddsmakers in Las Vegas seem to think so, setting the Razorbacks (4-5, 0-5 SEC) as a narrow favorite to beat No. 17 LSU (7-3, 3-3) on Saturday night.

Here are four key storylines to watch as kickoff approaches:

Snow Tigers: The weather could become a major storyline in this game, and it will be interesting to see whether it impacts the style of play in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

As of Thursday afternoon, the weather forecast for Saturday’s game called for temperatures in the 20s at kickoff along with a 10 percent chance of snow.

If that prediction comes through, it would be the coldest game in Les Miles’ tenure as the Tigers’ coach. To date, the coldest temperature at kickoff since Miles arrived at LSU in 2005 was 43 degrees for a 2005 game at Ole Miss. The Tigers have played just three games under Miles in which the temperature was 50 degrees or cooler at kickoff (the others were 47 degrees for a 2012 game at Arkansas and 50 degrees for a 2008 home game against Troy).

It could also be the coldest LSU game from at least the last 40 years. According to LSU’s online archive of box scores, the coldest temperature at kickoff since 1974 was 31 degrees for the 1992 LSU-Arkansas game in Fayetteville. The Tigers played 28 games in that timespan when the temperature was 50 degrees or cooler at kickoff and just seven when it was 40 or cooler.



Run and run some more: If it does snow, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see two run-heavy teams rely even more heavily on the ground game.

ESPN Stats & Information reports that LSU has run the ball an SEC-high 67 percent of the time this season, and its rushing success seems to have a correlation to its wins and losses. The Tigers are 5-0 when they rush for at least 200 yards and 2-3 when they do not.

Likewise, Arkansas has run for more than 200 yards in all four of its wins, but it has broken the 200-yard mark just once in its five losses (in an overtime loss to Texas A&M).

So if Arkansas’ backfield duo of Jonathan Williams (137 carries, 877 yards, 10 TDs) and Alex Collins (134-840, 10 TDs) enjoys more success moving the ball on the ground than LSU’s Leonard Fournette (152-736, 7 TDs) and Terrence Magee (81-447, 3 TDs), the Razorbacks are likely the favorite to win. LSU senior Kenny Hilliard (87-431, 6 TDs) is questionable to play after injuring his shoulder against Alabama last Saturday.

Loading the box: The worse the weather, the more likely it will be that the two defenses crowd the line of scrimmage to defend the run. That would be nothing new for the three top running backs in this game.

Fournette (67) has the most carries of any SEC back against defenses with eight or more defenders in the box. Williams (59) and Collins (56) are next in line behind the Tigers’ star freshman.

ESPN Stats & Information reports that Fournette is averaging 4.1 yards per carry against defenses with eight or more men in the box and 5.4 yards per carry against seven or fewer defenders.

LSU defense trending upward: It didn’t seem like it at the time, but the Tigers’ 41-7 loss to Auburn was a turning point in their season – particularly for their run defense.

In LSU’s first three games against Power 5 opponents (Wisconsin, Mississippi State and Auburn), the Tigers surrendered 289.3 rushing yards per game. In the last four games (Florida, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Alabama), LSU gave up 109.3 rushing yards per game.

They have done an excellent job of shutting down drives in a hurry, too. Overall, LSU has forced 46 three-and-outs this season, which is tied for third in the FBS. Of those 46 three-and-outs, 18 came in the last four games – seven of which were by Alabama last week.

Defensive end Danielle Hunter (24 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss) was a key figure in that four-game stretch, as were weakside linebacker Kwon Alexander (31 tackles, 5 TFLs), middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith (30 tackles, 2 TFLs) and defensive end Jermauria Rasco (28 tackles, 2 TFLs).

In the last three games, LSU’s defense has allowed just two touchdowns in regulation: passes by Ole Miss and Alabama. The Tigers haven’t surrendered a rushing touchdown since the first quarter of the Florida game on Oct. 11.

LSU freshman tracker: Week 11

November, 9, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Several LSU true freshmen played key roles in the Tigers’ 20-13 overtime loss to Alabama on Saturday.

Here is a recap of their performances against the Crimson Tide:

S Jamal Adams

What he did: With LSU opening in a nickel defense, Adams earned his first career start. He had a relatively quiet night, finishing with two tackles.

What it means: Regardless, Adams is already one of LSU’s most valuable special-teams players and is quickly developing into a defensive star. He was already playing a bigger role on defense prior to cornerback Rashard Robinson’s indefinite suspension, which LSU announced prior to kickoff. If Robinson remains sidelined, that might mean even more playing time for Adams.

WR Malachi Dupre

What he did: Dupre ended a two-game drought without a catch by hauling in a one-handed touchdown catch in the first quarter. The 14-yard grab was Dupre’s only catch of the night, although he was also the intended receiver on Anthony Jennings’ fourth-down incomplete pass in overtime.

What it means: The touchdown catch was one of LSU’s top offensive highlights, but Dupre and fellow freshman Trey Quinn also had some crucial drops on third down. Those missed opportunities came back to bite the Tigers when Alabama rallied to tie and then win in overtime.

RB Leonard Fournette

What he did: Fournette came off the bench for the first time in four games, but still finished as the Tigers’ leading rusher. He ran 21 times for 79 tough yards and also returned a pair of kickoffs for a total of 45 yards.

What it means: Fournette is up to 736 rushing yards for the season, so he should have an opportunity to crack the 1,000-yard mark as a true freshman. He has been the Tigers’ leading rusher in eight of the past nine games and has clearly established himself as the top option in the backfield.

DT Davon Godchaux

What he did: Godchaux started at defensive tackle for the sixth straight game and finished with three tackles and half a tackle for loss.

What it means: He was particularly effective in LSU’s dominant third quarter, when he and Kwon Alexander once combined to stop T.J. Yeldon for a short gain and later when he and Danielle Hunter stopped Yeldon for a 2-yard loss later in the quarter. On the same series, Godchaux pressured Alabama quarterback Blake Sims into an incomplete pass.

RB Darrel Williams
What he did:
With Kenny Hilliard sidelined by a shoulder injury, Williams emerged as a third option out of the backfield during the second half. He ran five times for 14 yards and also caught a pass for an 8-yard gain.

What it means: Williams doesn’t get a ton of touches, but he frequently makes good things happen when the Tigers put the ball in his hands. He spelled Fournette and Terrence Magee nicely in the second half and kept a fourth-quarter drive alive by converting a third-and-short with a 5-yard run.

LSU midseason review

October, 14, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. – Since we’ve just passed the midway point of the season, our college football blog team assembled midseason awards lists for all of FBS football as well as the individual conferences.

Let’s get even more specific and break down the good and bad for LSU (5-2, 1-2 SEC) now that the Tigers are halfway through the 14-week regular season.

[+] EnlargeLSU's Travin Dural
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty ImagesTravin Dural has sparked LSU's offense this season with numerous impact plays.
Offensive MVP: Travin Dural. LSU’s offense has had its ups and downs, but Dural has been a consistent playmaker. The sophomore receiver has 24 receptions for 626 yards and six touchdowns, and he has been one of the SEC’s top home run hitters. He logged a school-record 94-yard touchdown catch against Sam Houston State, caught an 80-yard scoring bomb against Wisconsin and also has catches of 49, 41 and 40 yards. His 41-yard grab against Florida came on a third-and-25 situation in the fourth quarter and set up his one-handed, 11-yard touchdown catch that gave the Tigers a 27-24 lead. Dural leads the nation in yards per catch (26.1) among players with at least 20 receptions.

Defensive MVP: Kwon Alexander. In his first season as the Tigers’ starting weakside linebacker, Alexander has been one of their most consistent tacklers. His 10-tackle performance last Saturday against Florida marked the fourth time he either led LSU in tackles or tied for the team lead (the others were eight against both Wisconsin and New Mexico State and 13 against Mississippi State). He stripped Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott early in the third quarter of that game, creating a fumble that defensive end Danielle Hunter returned for a touchdown and has a team-high two forced fumbles. Alexander leads the Tigers with 46 total tackles – his average of 7.7 tackles per game is tied for ninth in the SEC – and is second on the team in tackles for loss (3.5) and quarterback hurries (four).

Biggest surprise: Offensive line play. Last Saturday’s 30-27 win at Florida was probably the offensive line’s most consistent performance of the season, with the Tigers rushing 50 times for 195 yards – their best rushing output thus far against a Power 5 defense. Overall, though, LSU’s veteran offensive line has sometimes struggled to impose its will the way we might have expected prior to the season. They’re second-to-last in the SEC and tied for 73rd nationally by allowing 2.14 sacks per game (15 in seven games). And nine SEC teams have a better yards-per-carry average than LSU’s 4.4. The Tigers’ quarterbacks could take some heat off the line by throwing the ball more consistently, forcing defenders to reconsider loading the box, but that hasn’t happened much yet. Until it does, LSU’s line and running backs share the burden of carrying the Tigers’ offense.

Biggest disappointment: Run defense. Prior to this season, it has been highly unusual for opponents to successfully run it right up the middle against John Chavis’ LSU defenses. That has been a successful formula for several teams this year while the Tigers struggled to identify consistent performers at defensive tackle. Out of four Power 5 opponents this season, three (Wisconsin, Mississippi State and Auburn) have run for at least 260 yards against LSU, with State posting a season high against the Tigers with 302 yards on 49 attempts. Another bright spot from the Florida game was that LSU handled the run better than it had in previous games, with the Gators running 32 times for 123 yards. The Tigers are going to face several more teams with powerful rushing attacks, so this will remain a story line worth watching in the second half of the season.

Newcomer of the year: Leonard Fournette. Receiver Malachi Dupre deserves some attention for his outstanding play in a couple of games, but tailback Fournette is the obvious choice here. Fresh off a 27-carry, 140-yard performance against Florida, Fournette leads the team with 504 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 93 attempts (team-high 5.4 yards per carry and 72.0 yards per game). Fournette also handles kickoff returns and has 16 runbacks for 368 yards (23.0 ypr). His average of 136.9 all-purpose yards per game ranks third in the SEC. He got off to a quiet start against Wisconsin, but Fournette has been the Tigers’ leading rusher in each game since and seems poised for a big second half.

Game of the year: Tie, Wisconsin and Florida. Take your pick. The Tigers’ comeback for a 28-24 win against Wisconsin – after trailing 24-7 early in the third quarter – was a great way to start the season. The defense shut down the Badgers after their third-quarter touchdown and generated multiple turnovers to pave the way for a comeback. But the Florida win feels like a more important victory at this point of the season. The Tigers desperately needed to stop the bleeding after dropping their first two SEC games, and winning at The Swamp is almost always a challenge – even when the Gators aren’t the Eastern Division force that they were a few years back. The Tigers trailed 17-7 in this one before rallying behind three defensive takeaways and the power running from Fournette. They can achieve bowl eligibility and get back to .500 in SEC play by beating Kentucky on Saturday.

Biggest games of the second half: LSU vs. Ole Miss (Oct. 25) and LSU vs. Alabama (Nov. 8)

What to watch in LSU-ULM

September, 12, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Les Miles is a perfect 11-0 as LSU’s coach against in-state opposition and only once – a 24-16 homecoming win over Louisiana Tech in 2009 – has the outcome been particularly close.

LSU (2-0) has beaten its various fellow Louisianans by an average score of 43-7 in the 2000s and has not lost to an in-state opponent since falling 31-28 at Tulane in 1982. In other words, there is good reason that the Tigers were favored late this week to beat Louisiana-Monroe (2-0) by 31 points on Saturday. The day is probably not going to end unhappily for the Tigers.

That said, major-conference coaches are apparently required to remind us of the disastrous possibilities, so that is one of the storylines to watch as Saturday’s kickoff approaches.

1. Monroe’s history: One of the first points that Miles made in his Monday news conference was that ULM has knocked off SEC opposition in the past. In fact, the Warhawks have beaten four teams from the conference: No. 8 Arkansas in the 2012 opener, Alabama in 2007, Mississippi State in 1995 and Kentucky in 1994.

“When we invite an in-state team to play us, we think it makes the majority of the state want to come to that stadium, at that time and watch that game and we’re thankful that this opportunity’s here,” Miles reiterated on his Wednesday call-in show. “We think that ULM is a very, very quality team and will challenge any team and certainly will be a difficult team to play this Saturday in Tiger Stadium.”

Miles didn’t happen to mention that the Warhawks are 4-40-1 overall against SEC teams, though. That includes an 0-2 mark against LSU, which defeated ULM 49-7 in 2003 and 51-0 in 2010.

2. Aidin’ Travin: Let’s assume that receiver Travin Dural will play on Saturday, as Miles predicted, despite Dural having suffered a head injury that required stitches in an auto accident late last Saturday night. The Tigers probably will still need other wideouts to take over some of his production as he works his way back to 100 percent.

Through two games, Dural (six catches, 291 yards, four touchdowns) has been far and away the Tigers’ most prolific receiver. His absurd average of 48.5 yards per catch leads the nation, he’s fourth in receiving yards and tied for second nationally in touchdown catches – all despite being targeted on fewer than half as many passes (15) as national leader Amari Cooper of Alabama (32).

Redshirt freshman John Diarse (4-77, TD) and true freshmen Trey Quinn (3-37) and Malachi Dupre (2-23, TD) would probably be the leading candidates for extra looks if Dural isn’t 100 percent on Saturday.
3. Jennings vs. Harris: LSU quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris figure to have their battle for playing time continue on Saturday. ESPN Stats & Information reports that their production is similar, although their workload isn’t particularly comparable.

In 113 plays with Jennings under center, LSU’s offense averaged 6.5 yards per play and scored touchdowns on 35 percent of its possessions. Jennings posted the best single-game Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) of any player this season when he scored a 98.7 last week against Sam Houston State by going 7-for-13 for 188 yards and three touchdowns and rushing eight times for 43 yards.

Harris took 27 snaps last week against SHSU after getting only three (one series) in the opener against Wisconsin. He led five drives and the Tigers scored three touchdowns against SHSU, including one on a 46-yard Harris run.

In Harris’ 30 total plays, LSU averaged 6.9 yards per play and the Tigers have run the ball 83 percent of the time, compared to 70 percent with Jennings under center.

4. Playing the pass: Another interesting matchup pits LSU’s defense, which is third nationally in opponent Total QBR at 5.3 – only Baylor (4.4) and Florida (5.1) are better according to ESPN Stats & Information – against an active ULM passing game.

The Warhawks have already attempted 86 passes with only one getting intercepted. LSU, meanwhile, has picked off four passes out of 52 opponent pass attempts. The Tigers’ pass defense leads the nation by allowing a 32.7 completion percentage and ranks seventh by allowing 3.96 yards per pass attempt. LSU is also tied for 13th with seven sacks, while ULM is tied for fourth with 10.

LSU got all seven of its sacks last Saturday against SHSU, but ULM presents a different challenge for the Tigers. ULM quarterback Pete Thomas (47-85, 573 yards, 2 TDs, INT) runs the Warhawks’ no-huddle spread offense at a brisk pace. He wouldn’t rank 10th in the nation in pass attempts if the Warhawks’ offense moved slowly. ULM has surrendered four sacks, so pass-rushers like Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco will have to move quickly to earn a quarterback takedown.

5. Pounding the run: Thus far, LSU has run the ball on 73 percent of its plays (105 of 144), which creates an interesting matchup for Saturday. ULM is tied for ninth nationally against the run, surrendering just 57.5 rushing yards per game. Opponents Wake Forest and Idaho averaged 1.8 yards per carry (115 yards on 63 attempts) against the Warhawks. Wake Forest actually had 27 attempts for minus-3 rushing yards and finished with just 94 yards of total offense in a 17-10 loss.

Kenny Hilliard leads the Tigers with 165 rushing yards on 29 carries and freshman Leonard Fournette is second with 110 yards on 21 attempts.

LSU Tigers freshman tracker

September, 7, 2014
9/07/14
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Saturday’s blowout win over Sam Houston State provided LSU with an opportunity to empty the bench -- and Tigers coach Les Miles took advantage by letting 16 players make their college debuts.

That included seven true freshmen -- John Battle, D.J. Chark, Malachi Dupre, Russell Gage, Sione Teuhema, Devin Voorhies and Darrel Williams -- to go along with the nine who played in last weekend’s opener against Wisconsin. Through two games, LSU has played 16 of the 23 freshmen in its 2014 signing class, plus junior college transfer Colin Jeter.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the highlights from the freshmen in the Tigers’ 56-0 win.

WR Malachi Dupre

What he did: After an injury kept him out of the opener, Dupre got into the end zone in his college debut. His diving 8-yard touchdown catch in the back corner of the end zone gave LSU a 49-0 lead in the fourth quarter. Dupre finished with two catches for 23 yards.

What it means: Travin Dural has established himself as LSU’s go-to receiver, but the Tigers need to figure out who the second and third options will be. Dupre looked good on Saturday, so he might be ready to join fellow freshman Trey Quinn among the Tigers’ top receiving options.

RB Leonard Fournette

What he did: After playing a minor role against Wisconsin, Fournette led LSU in rushing with 92 yards on 13 carries and also made two leaping catches for a total of 32 yards. Fournette scored his first career touchdown with a 4-yard run in the first quarter -- then drew the ire of Miles by striking the Heisman pose after the score.

What it means: This was more like what we expected to see from Fournette. Now let’s see him do that against an FBS opponent. He still needs to get moving north and south more decisively on his runs, but he broke a couple nice runs and flashed impressive hands Saturday.

QB Brandon Harris

What he did: Harris also played a tiny role in the opener but made things interesting against SHSU. Harris finished 4-for-5 for 62 yards and a touchdown and also ran five times for 53 yards, including a spinning, tackle-breaking 46-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

What it means: Harris had some sloppy moments in his first big dose of playing time, like his two-fumble scramble in the fourth quarter where he eventually lost a turnover. Anthony Jennings played his most efficient game yet, but Harris also showed the playmaking ability that excites LSU’s coaches.

DE Sione Teuhema

What he did: Teuhema led LSU’s seven-sack performance by posting two in his college debut -- including a brutal blind-side hit on Don King III for a nine-yard loss in the fourth quarter. Teuhema also totaled four tackles off the bench.

What it means: LSU needs to develop a more consistent pass rush this season, and Teuhema flashed some ability in that department. We don’t expect him to steal playing time from starters Jermauria Rasco or Danielle Hunter any time soon, but Teuhema’s is a name to file away for the future.

RB Darrel Williams

What he did: In his college debut, Williams led the team in carries (14) and rushed for 65 yards. He also scored his first career touchdown on a 1-yard plunge in the third quarter.

What it means: Williams is clearly the fourth option in LSU’s four-man tailback rotation, but he looked good running the ball against SHSU. He looks to be another capable runner if the Tigers need him to spell Fournette or one of the senior tailbacks.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU has speed and athleticism in spades within its linebacking corps and a secondary that appears ready for a breakout season. The biggest unknown on the Tigers' defense -- a line that has little experience and only marginal productivity -- might be the biggest factor in whether LSU returns to its dominant form on D.

"Going into camp, that's what I was thinking about," senior defensive end Jermauria Rasco said. "Our linebackers are the strongest. They're the core of the defense. The secondary, they're real tight. And me personally, I feel like the D-line is the question mark right now."

Rasco's comments came a few days after the Tigers opened preseason camp earlier this month. The ensuing two weeks have reportedly been productive for the group -- as they needed to be.

Teams that win SEC titles usually dominate up front on defense, and even when they don't (see Auburn, 2010), they typically have at least one lineman who creates havoc in opponent backfields. Since 2000, only two SEC championship clubs (Florida in 2008 and Alabama in 2012) failed to have at least one defensive lineman make the coaches' All-SEC team at the end of the season.

Once junior tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson both jumped for the NFL draft after last season, LSU lost its only obvious picks for postseason honors. Now it's up to Rasco and fellow end Danielle Hunter -- a combination that totaled just seven sacks a season ago -- and a host of inexperienced players in the middle to pick up the slack.

"We might not be the key, but we're a piece of the puzzle," redshirt freshman defensive tackle Greg Gilmore said. "We're all a piece of the puzzle and if we can fit in right, we can make it good for us."

Gilmore and his position mates are probably the most important piece of the puzzle. Hunter seems poised for a breakout season and Rasco is now healthy after struggling with shoulder injuries earlier in his career. But the tackles are largely unknown to those who don't watch the Tigers practice each day.

Those who do continue to project confidence about the group's capabilities despite a lack of on-field experience.

"I think some of those young defensive linemen, Frank Herron and some of those guys whose names you don't know, are going to be very, very good players," LSU coach Les Miles said.

Sophomore Christian LaCouture played sparingly as a reserve last season, as did Quentin Thomas -- still working to return from a biceps injury suffered during camp -- and converted defensive end Lewis Neal. Then you have redshirt freshmen Gilmore, Herron and Maquedius Bain waiting for the chance to prove that the tackles aren't nearly the cause for concern that their lack of experience would indicate.

"They don't get enough credit, and they will. Their time comes," senior center Elliott Porter said. "Just like Ego, his time came [and he became a] second-round draft pick. The time comes. It's going to happen. You've got to open your eyes and see. You've got to open your eyes. We breed D-tackles around here, as you can see the last three or four years."

That is true -- LSU has placed eight defensive linemen in the NFL draft over the past four years -- but that has no impact on the present. When the Tigers open the season against Wisconsin on Aug. 30, they'll rely on multiple interior linemen who have yet to play a college game.

Of course, that's another LSU tradition of late.

"Coach Miles always says we play young guys, we play freshmen," Herron said. "So I'm ready to play and show the world what I've got. Playing next to Christian and Greg and Bain, it's been a blessing. Those guys show me new things each day and they're just telling me to keep pushing myself, keep going."

Herron and LaCouture have reportedly had good camps, but Hunter might be the top breakout candidate on the line. Good luck getting him to admit it, though. The junior defensive end -- who generated lots of attention when practice photos of his ripped physique made the rounds on social media early in preseason camp -- seems completely oblivious to outside attention, even after Miles credited him with nine tackles and four tackles for a loss after last Saturday's scrimmage.

"I didn't really hear all this about what Coach Miles said about me until this morning, when one of my teachers texted me saying I did well in the scrimmage. I didn't realize I did that well," Hunter said, adding, "I actually felt like during the scrimmage, I really didn't feel like I did so good."

If that's the case, LSU fans can't wait until Hunter's offseason focus on pass-rushing results in a sack or three and he actually feels good about a performance.

Nonetheless, the Tigers' defense has emphasized competition since the end of last season, when a strong finish generated some offseason momentum after what had been a sometimes-rocky fall. Things are looking good at linebacker and in the secondary, so if the line can prove Miles correct for being confident, the Tigers will once again become a defensive force within the SEC.

"The ceiling's so high," LaCouture said. "Looking at it, you don't know if you have a ceiling on it. We're full of potential and stuff like that, but potential's just a name. ... You have to know what you're doing."
BATON ROUGE, La. – Danielle Hunter led what LSU coach Les Miles described as a “dominant” effort by the Tigers’ defense in Saturday’s second preseason scrimmage.

The junior defensive end had nine tackles and four tackles for loss during the 120-play scrimmage at Tiger Stadium, with linebackers D.J. Welter and Kendell Beckwith and cornerback Rashard Robinson also drawing praise from Miles.

That said, Miles hesitated to declare a victor following the day’s competition, which featured multiple situational scenarios and special-teams work.

“It was nip and tuck,” Miles said. “It was difficult to move the ball and when we did, we had to earn it. They made us earn it. I thought it was really an even go, to be honest. Very physical. Big lines, defensive lines and offensive lines having at it.”

Following his pattern following previous scrimmages from the spring and earlier this week, Miles didn’t offer any specifics about his quarterbacks’ performances.

He said collectively they completed 20 of about 40 to 45 pass attempts and tossed three touchdowns. Miles wouldn’t say who caught the touchdowns, although he did say that nine different players caught a pass. He did reveal that freshman safety Austin Suits provided the day’s lone turnover, an interception.

The quarterback competition between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris still remains close, Miles said.

“There’s days where one quarterback shines a little bit more than the other quarterback. That’s something that everybody sees,” Miles said. “And then there’s those days where the other quarterback shines and the other guy can’t get out of his shadow. It’s just the way it is and it just takes time to put them in position and in situations enough to have them operate the offense so that you know really what it is you’re going to do with them.”

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLeonard Fournette, who didn't participate on Wednesday, saw action in Saturday's scrimmage.
LSU’s four running backs all averaged about 14 carries, with the leading rusher going for about 60 yards and others finishing with 43 and 41 -- again, with no specifics on the players’ identities.

Freshman Leonard Fournette, who did not face full contact during Wednesday’s first scrimmage while nursing an injury, picked up a loose ball and “went a long way and certainly looked good” on a broken play against the scout team, Miles said. He also singled out senior Kenny Hilliard and freshman Darrel Williams for their power running.

“I think Kenny Hilliard is poised to have a really big year,” Miles said. “And I think Darrel Williams is learning behind him, and I think Darrel Williams is going to be a very good back here.”

Freshman receiver Malachi Dupre did not compete in either scrimmage, but Miles said he expects the nation’s top 2014 wideout prospect to return on Monday -- which could benefit the Tigers with the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin less than two weeks away.

“We expect him to be back on Monday, and that’s really good news because there’s going to be some things that he can do that he’s done naturally in his life forever that we’ll want to use in this game,” Miles said.

The Tigers will scrimmage again on Tuesday, this time in preparation for the Wisconsin game instead of the ones versus ones work that dominated Saturday’s scrimmage.

While Christian LaCouture and Frank Herron were the starting defensive tackles on Saturday, junior Quentin Thomas -- once thought to be out for the season with a torn bicep -- might be nearing a return. He didn’t play on Saturday, but might actually be back in time for the Wisconsin scrimmage.

“I don’t know that he played in this one at all, but he was in position to,” Miles said. “He did some individual [drills] and kind of decided rather than to go live into this one, to hold him. So he’ll probably get that opportunity in what will be the middle-of-the-week Wisconsin scrimmage that we’ve got coming up.”

High five: Five items from Week 1

August, 8, 2014
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Each Friday during LSU’s preseason practice, we will review five things we learned that week.

Here are five things we learned about the Tigers since LSU opened preseason camp on Monday.

1. Jalen Mills will play: When he’ll play remains a mystery -- it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him receive a similar punishment to that of Jeremy Hill, who sat out last season’s opener against TCU -- but LSU coach Les Miles reinstated safety Jalen Mills this week, so we at least know he will return to the field at some point.

Mills had been indefinitely suspended since June, when he was arrested for allegedly punching a woman and knocking her unconscious. Mills’ attorney maintains that his client is innocent of the accusation -- which potentially could have led to a felony charge -- and the East Baton Rouge district attorney instead charged the junior safety with a misdemeanor this week, leading Miles to reinstate him to the team.

2. Leonard Fournette looks the part: Veteran teammates aren’t always quick to heap praise on new freshmen immediately, but running back Leonard Fournette earned compliments before the Tigers even put on the pads.

All-SEC left tackle La'el Collins' tweet after Wednesday’s practice, when Fournette worked with the starters for the first time:

.

The nation’s No. 1 overall prospect in 2014, Fournette practiced alongside senior Terrence Magee both Wednesday and Thursday, first working with the starters on Wednesday afternoon and then with mostly reserves and freshmen on Thursday afternoon. As Magee said of the freshman class this week, practicing in pads will start to "tell the tale," but it’s clear optimism about Fournette’s capabilities is as high within the locker room as it is in the LSU fan base.

3. Suitable depth at defensive tackle: Perhaps the key to this season for LSU’s defense will be the performance of its line. The Tigers need to generate a better pass rush off the edge -- the burden likely falls on Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco to get that done -- and at least a few young tackles must perform consistently.

Miles said Thursday that he is satisfied so far with the Tigers’ depth in the middle and singled out sophomore Christian LaCouture and Frank Herron, whom he described as "a beast."

Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore are also in the picture, but LaCouture is the only member of the group who have appeared in an actual game. With the Tigers practicing today for the first time in full pads, it’s time for the youngsters to pressure the veterans and prove to line coach Brick Haley that, if nothing else, he has strong options to utilize in a rotation if he wants to spell or replace LaCouture.

4. Freshman wideouts are legit: Multiple older receivers said this week that the Tigers’ four freshman wideouts -- led by Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn -- showed up brimming with confidence and ready to compete.

"If you didn’t know those guys and you walked out there to practice, you wouldn’t know if they were a freshman or a senior," senior Quantavius Leslie said Wednesday.

They look impressive to reporters, too. Dupre, ESPN’s No. 1 receiver signee for 2014, practiced with the starting offense all week and didn’t seem out of place.

5. Expect QB option: Sure, we expected it prior to this week, but it’s clear from its work in position drills that LSU will incorporate quarterback options and runs into the offensive scheme.

Only small portions of the practices were open to the media, but essentially every media period thus far has featured position drills where quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris worked on zone-read handoffs with the running backs and other option plays that utilized their mobility.

Several Tigers said this week that the basics of the offense will remain the same, but that they will add wrinkles to take advantage of the quarterbacks’ running ability. That assessment looks to be on the money.

LSU notes: New and improved Rasco

August, 6, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- The wait was long and sometimes painful, but Jermauria Rasco is finally healthy again.

Throughout his LSU career, the senior defensive end has dealt with torn labrums in both shoulders – injuries that dated back to his early years of high school. Rasco had the left shoulder surgically repaired last year and underwent the procedure on the right shoulder this year, which forced him to miss spring practice.

The rehab process is grueling enough after surgery on just one shoulder. Doing both at the same time, essentially rendering his arms useless for a while, might have been more than he could bear, Rasco said.

“When I had gotten my left one done, my right one was still torn, so I just had to play last year with it because they didn’t want me to get both of them done at the same time,” Rasco said. “That would have been real miserable.”

Considering how he played with only one good arm in 2013, it’s interesting to consider how Rasco might improve upon his production – 56 tackles, four sacks, 6.5 tackles for a loss – now that he is able to reach and punch and hold off offensive linemen more easily.

“I’m glad I don’t have to get another surgery,” Rasco said. “But I’m just ready to go. It’s going to be my best year because this is the strongest I’ve been in my whole life.”

LSU coach Les Miles said at SEC media days that his defensive end tandem of Rasco and Danielle Hunter might rank among the nation’s best this season, a status that would require a much more consistent season from both of them. But center Elliott Porter said he believes a healthy Rasco is on the verge of a big season.

“Rasco doesn’t get enough credit, I believe,” Porter said. “Rasco’s a great defensive end. The last three years, I’ve seen him make big plays in big games. I think he will continue to do so.”

Old man in the room: Quantavius Leslie arrived at LSU last season as a junior college transfer. In little more than a year, he’s gone from one of the least experienced receivers on the roster to by far the oldest player in the Tigers’ wideout meeting room.

Leslie is the only scholarship senior receiver on the roster. The Tigers don’t have a scholarship junior, although Travin Dural is a redshirt sophomore. Otherwise, the depth chart is loaded with redshirt and true freshmen.

“We always joke about that in the receiving room about me being the oldest, but I take pride in being an older guy,” Leslie said. “I just tell them what’s right. I’ve been through this, so this is not my first year going through it. I just kind of tell the guys what to expect and stuff.”

Leslie had a quiet debut season at LSU, when he struggled to pick up the one position – the “X” receiver – that receivers coach Adam Henry asked him to learn. Since the start of spring practice, Leslie has learned all three receiving positions, which he hopes will allow him to become a more productive player.

“It’s different from last year because last year coming in, I was really just getting my feet wet and everything. I really didn’t know everything I needed to know,” Leslie said. “I barely knew one position as to now where I know all the positions and know what to do.”

Mustang personnel: The first-team defense worked on a number of front-seven progressions in defensive coordinator John Chavis’ “Mustang” package on Wednesday morning.

Jalen Mills and Dwayne Thomas served as the extra two defensive backs who line up at either end of the line, D.J. Welter and Kwon Alexander were the linebackers and Rasco, Christian LaCouture and Hunter were the linemen.

After several reps, Chavis worked several other players in the dime package, including defensive back Jamal Adams behind Thomas, Quentin Thomas, Maquedius Bain and Frank Herron behind LaCouture in the defensive tackle spot, Sione Teuhema for Hunter and Deondre Clark for Rasco at end. Lamar Louis came in behind Welter and Ronnie Feist replaced Alexander at linebacker.

Morning movement: The Tigers’ quarterback rotation continued as it had the previous two days, with Anthony Jennings shifting back to work with the starting offense in Wednesday’s split-squad practice, as he had Monday. Brandon Harris moved back to Wednesday’s afternoon session after practicing with the varsity on Tuesday morning.

Freshman running back Leonard Fournette switched places with Kenny Hilliard on Wednesday, working with Terrence Magee and the varsity for the first time after practicing in the afternoon sessions on Monday and Tuesday.

Additionally, LSU’s top four tight ends – Dillon Gordon, Travis Dickson, DeSean Smith and Logan Stokes – all practiced with the varsity on Wednesday morning after splitting up between the two groups in the first two days.

LSU position breakdown: DL

July, 28, 2014
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Editor’s note: This week, we’ll take a quick look at each of LSU’s position groups as the Tigers prepare to open preseason practice next week. Up next is the defensive line.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Returning starters: DE Danielle Hunter (57 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 3 sacks), DE Jermauria Rasco (56 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 4 sacks). LSU coach Les Miles opined at SEC media days that Hunter and Rasco “may arguably be two of the finest defensive ends in the country.” They haven’t come close to proving Miles right, but they have that kind of ability. Hunter had a big spring and ranks among the Tigers’ top breakout candidates. Rasco missed the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery, but will apparently be good to go when the Tigers open preseason practice.

Starters lost: DT Anthony Johnson (35 tackles, 9 TFL, 3 sacks), DT Ego Ferguson (58 tackles, 3.5 TFL). Juniors Johnson and Ferguson were the leaders at the center of the line before entering the NFL draft, leaving Christian LaCouture (11 tackles, 1.5 TFL), Quentin Thomas (9 tackles) and a host of redshirt and true freshmen to take over a substantial amount of playing time.

Key newcomers: Travonte Valentine (No. 164 overall on ESPN 300, No. 11 DT) is the highest-rated of LSU’s three ESPN 300 line signees (the others are No. 213 Davon Godchaux and No. 273 Deondre Clark). Valentine missed out on LSU’s summer conditioning workouts, so his performance in August might determine whether he plays this fall.

Player to watch: Hunter. We could go with a number of players here -- maybe one of the redshirt freshman tackles such as Maquedius Bain, Greg Gilmore or Frank Herron -- but Hunter has the potential to become the Tigers’ next great sack artist. LSU needs him and Rasco to help return the Tigers’ pass rush to the dangerous force it has been in the recent past, as 2013 was a fairly quiet year for the group.

Overall: The interior of the line bears watching early in the season -- particularly in the opener against run-oriented Wisconsin -- since LaCouture and company have so much to prove. He and Thomas are the only regulars at tackle who aren’t freshmen, but the group has plenty of promise. Beyond Hunter and Rasco, the Tigers also have a breakout candidate in sophomore Tashawn Bower. The group was a bit of a disappointment last fall, but if the youngsters in the middle hold up, this could be a major bounceback season for the line.

Most important game: LSU

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

Most important game: Nov. 8 vs. Alabama

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

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

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

Why it matters: We could have easily chosen Auburn to be LSU's most important game of 2014, since LSU was the only SEC team to beat Auburn last season. But the most important game -- and rivalry -- remains with Alabama. Maintaining an edge over Auburn is important, but LSU-Alabama continues to be one of the nation's biggest annual games. The Tide are the standard against which LSU measures itself, and vice versa. These schools also love recruiting in each other's territory, so the Tigers can't afford to slip. Last season saw LSU lose to Bama for the second straight season. The Tigers lost two fumbles, two turnovers on downs and basically let the game get out of hand in the second half, losing 38-17. It was the the most points LSU had given up in the rivalry since 1947. This year, LSU will face Alabama in Baton Rouge, presumably under the lights of Tiger Stadium. With both teams breaking in new QBs and several new players on defense, there's a chance this game won't have the national title implications it usually does. But it's a safe bet the SEC West race will loom large. All that aside, this is a down-and-dirty Southern grudge match. It's the Hatfields and McCoys of the SEC. The Tigers simply can't afford to lose a third straight game to their most-heated rival.
If you’re just now jumping on board our little road trip, we at the SEC Blog have been getting you ready for the coming season by plotting out our top destinations for each week of the season. So far we’ve been to spots like Athens, Auburn, College Station, Tuscaloosa, Houston and Norman, Oklahoma.

We’ve knocked out eight weeks of trips in all, which means we’ve got only six more to go. The clock is ticking. You know as soon as Halloween arrives, we’ve hit the home stretch.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at the best options for Week 9:

Oct. 25

Alabama at Tennessee
UAB at Arkansas
South Carolina at Auburn
Mississippi State at Kentucky
Ole Miss at LSU
Vanderbilt at Missouri

Alex Scarborough’s pick: South Carolina at Auburn

We’re eight weeks into our hypothetical season, so anything could have happened by now. But there’s a pretty good chance that this game will be a top-25 matchup with significant postseason implications.

Plus, it’s as good an East-West crossover game as you’ll find on the schedule. These two teams have met just five times since 2000, and three such contests were decided by 8 points or less.

It’s got a pretty good storyline to build around, too. Think about it: Steve Spurrier, the 69-year-old author of the Fun ‘N’ Gun, up against Gus Malzahn, the 48-year-old hurry-up no-huddle perfectionist. It’s the visor against the sweater vest. Well, they both wear visors, but still. In fact, there’s another storyline for you!

Outside of the head coaches and their fashion choices, the game on the field could be a good one as well.

The Auburn offense should be even better in 2014, with Nick Marshall progressing under center and D'haquille Williams added on the outside at receiver. The defense, meanwhile, has nowhere to go but up, and should have some momentum after a relatively strong showing in the BCS National Championship Game.

South Carolina, despite losing Connor Shaw and Jadeveon Clowney, should match up well. Dylan Thompson has experience at quarterback, and he’s got plenty of weapons to work with. The receiving corps has some burners in Damiere Byrd and Pharoh Cooper, and the running backs are led by an All-American candidate in Mike Davis. The secondary might be a major question mark on defense, but the linebackers are solid and the defensive line has some depth.

Edward Aschoff’s pick: Ole Miss at LSU

This might not be Alabama-Auburn or even Ole Miss-Mississippi State, but this is a very important and heated rivalry. Just ask Ole Miss fans what they think of LSU when it comes to singing the National Anthem. It's a rivalry that stretches as far back as 1894, with LSU holding a commanding 58-40-4 record.

But all-time records will mean absolutely nothing when these two meet. It's actually been one of the more fun SEC rivalries of late, as four of the last five games in this series have been decided by seven points or less. A year after losing a heartbreaker in Baton Rouge, the Rebels bounced back to shock LSU with a 27-24 win at home last season, so you know the Tigers will be looking for revenge inside of Death Valley.

This game has some exciting storylines, and we haven't even gotten to Week 1 of the regular season. Ole Miss is a dark horse to take the SEC West, while LSU is a relative unknown with so many questions on both sides of the ball. Who's going to be LSU's quarterback? Who's going to step up at wide receiver? What we do know is that Ole Miss should have a potent offense with veteran quarterback Bo Wallace back and some quality athletes at receiver and running back to take some pressure off of star receiver Laquon Treadwell. But can LSU's defense stop it?

The Tigers have some budding stars, especially in the secondary and at linebacker, but defensive line could be an issue. Ends Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter have experience, but who's going to step up at tackle? Ole Miss is not a team that you don't want to struggle in rushing the passer against, and the Rebels plan to use their running backs even more in the passing game.

If Ole Miss is going to take the next step in its quest to becoming an elite SEC team, it needs to get wins like this one in hostile environments. If LSU wants to prove that it's still a contender in 2014, it needs to beat an up-and-coming, dangerous team like this. Drama, excitement and the possibility of a lot of points await in Tiger Stadium.

The West could be on the line for both teams when they meet, but so will the ultimate SEC tailgating challenge. Baton Rouge and Oxford own arguably the SEC's -- and nation's -- best tailgating spots, which means you're going to be in absolute heaven dining on gumbo under a tent with a chandelier.

Even if your team doesn't win, you'll eat well, and you'll see a pretty exciting game. Sign me up.

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John Chavis Suing Texas A&M, LSU
ESPN.com SEC reporter Sam Khan Jr. reports the latest on Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis, who has sued both LSU and Texas A&M over a buyout he claims he doesn't owe.
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