LSU Tigers: Deion Jones
BATON ROUGE, La. -- One of the leading questions for LSU's spring practice is how the Tigers' defense might function differently with Kevin Steele as defensive coordinator.
We probably won't have an answer there until a few weeks into the season -- LSU has no incentive to reveal anything before then -- but here's a small twist. Apparently the linebackers will be more involved when the Tigers shift into a nickel defensive package.
Under previous defensive coordinator John Chavis, the strongside linebacker (nicknamed "Sam") left the field and the Tigers used five defensive backs in the nickel along with the middle linebacker ("Mike") and weakside linebacker ("Will"). But strongside linebacker Duke Riley said he has started working at the "Money" position since spring practice started.
"Usually I wasn't in the nickel when Chief [Chavis] was here when I was at Sam," Riley said. "Me or Lamar [Louis] would go out and just the Will and the Mike would be in at the nickel, so I'm the Money now."
That shouldn't come as an enormous surprise. At Steele's previous stop, Alabama, Nick Saban's defenses frequently repped an assortment of linebackers and defensive backs at the Money position. Riley and Louis seem like obvious candidates for the job since Sam linebackers typically possess strong coverage skills in addition to tackling ability.
Such personnel adjustments frequently accompany the changes in philosophy that come with a new coordinator hire. But LSU's linebackers said they haven't noticed many major changes between the Chavis and Steele defensive schemes.
And in the meeting room or on the practice field, Steele's methods seem to be meshing well with the players from the position he also oversees, linebacker.
"He's not the type of coach that hollers and is just on you, on you, on you," Riley said. "He'll treat you like a pro and make sure you understand. It's hard to focus out there when a coach is [yelling], 'rawrrr rawrrr.' Steele is just the kind of coach where he'll pull you to the side, talk to you, tell you what you've got to do and everything goes from there.
"It's actually better for all of us. I've been having some of the best practices. Everybody has been having some of the best practices since we've been here."
The starting lineup seems set -- at least for now -- with Louis at Sam, Jones at Will and Kendell Beckwith at Mike. However, a key for LSU's linebackers this spring will be developing depth behind the three veterans.
Garrett, one of LSU's most highly recruited signees last year, believes he is better prepared to contribute than he was last fall, when he appeared in just three games.
"To be honest, toward the end of the season I was still a little bit confused," Garrett said. "I never really got the whole scheme down, so this year when Coach Steele got here, we got a chance to go over some of the new stuff and things like that, it kind of started clicking to me. I felt like I got a chance to really get a chance to sit down and actually look at it and understand it more."
It will be a tall order to steal snaps from Beckwith, though, after the junior linebacker developed into a star once he joined the starting lineup midway through last season. He finished the year with 77 tackles -- second only to Kwon Alexander's 90 -- and 7.5 tackles for loss.
Beckwith said during bowl practice that he was ready to take ownership of LSU's defense this season, and he insisted after a recent practice that it is now "his."
"I already own it. They know it. The guys on defense know it," Beckwith said with a grin. "I've been trying to just get the hang of everything right now, so I've kind of been keeping to myself and just helping people if I can. Once we start rolling and we get deep into this thing, they know. It'll be mine."
That certainly will not be a bad thing. Beckwith looks like a star in the making, and the veterans at the top of the depth chart should be fine in starting roles.
Yes, depth is a concern -- and it could become a greater issue in 2016, particularly if Beckwith plays well enough to enter the NFL draft after this season, since Louis and Jones are both seniors. But should the Tigers avoid any major health issues, Beckwith has high hopes for what LSU's linebacking corps can become this fall.
"I think we'll be the best three in the country, so I don't really have no concern about us," Beckwith said.
As is the case each spring, there are a number of positions that are up for the grabs for the Tigers. The competition between quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris will generate the most attention, but there are several other positions where multiple players are vying for playing time.
Let’s take a look at five LSU position battles of interest this spring.
Offensive line: When last we saw Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins, the two draft-eligible mainstays along the LSU offensive line both announced that they would return for the 2015 season. They also said they expect to man the tackle positions after Alexander played left guard last season and Hawkins played right tackle. If that comes to pass, that leaves three interior line spots up for grabs. Ethan Pocic would fill one of them -- he has started at both center and guard -- and inexperienced youngsters will likely fill the others. A few names to watch this spring: Junior Josh Boutte, sophomores Andy Dodd and K.J. Malone and redshirt freshmen William Clapp and Garrett Brumfield.
Linebacker: It will hurt losing All-SEC weakside linebacker Kwon Alexander, who led the Tigers with 90 tackles, but LSU still has a solid core at the position starting with junior middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith (second on the team with 77 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss). New defensive coordinator Kevin Steele might shift things around a bit, incorporating some of the 3-4 looks that his defenses employed in his previous stop at Alabama. That might create some new roles for Steele’s linebackers. Lamar Louis could conceivably play a larger role, as could 2014 reserves like Duke Riley, Deion Jones and Clifton Garrett. The Tigers have everyone back at the position except for Alexander and D.J. Welter, so this veteran bunch should be a strength once everyone settles into the roles that Steele assigns them.
Cornerback: Jalen Collins and Rashard Robinson -- who combined to start 13 games last season -- are out of the picture, so LSU essentially has one starting position to fill opposite junior Tre'Davious White. It will be interesting to see how Steele and secondary coach Corey Raymond opt to fill that hole. Jalen Mills, who started at cornerback for two seasons before starting at safety in 2014, would be a capable option. But they have plenty of alternatives, including Dwayne Thomas (returning from ACL surgery), Ed Paris and highly touted early enrollee Kevin Toliver. LSU’s secondary is loaded with talent, so this will not be a situation where Steele and Raymond are forced to settle on a lineup. They’ll be able to work through a number of options this spring and decide which personnel combinations they like best.
Defensive end: This will be only the first chapter of this battle. It will truly get interesting in the summer once signees Arden Key and Isaiah Washington arrive on campus, but somebody has to take the first step in replacing starters Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco for now. Hunter (13 TFLs and 1.5 sacks) and Rasco (7.5 TFLs and 4 sacks) were LSU’s top pass-rushers a season ago, although the Tigers left a lot to be desired in that department. Only South Carolina (1.08 sacks per game) averaged fewer sacks per game than LSU (1.46) among SEC defenses. Junior Tashawn Bower seems like an odds-on favorite to take over a starting job, but Sione Teuhema and Deondre Clark also played a bit as freshmen last season. New defensive line coach Ed Orgeron will certainly make it an objective to build a line that generates more sacks this season, and it will start with more consistent pressure off the edge. But who will Orgeron identify as the players who can handle that duty?
Quarterback: We can’t do a list like this and not touch on the quarterbacks. No position got more attention last season -- largely because Jennings and Harris were so inconsistent -- and it will continue to draw the most speculation until somebody nails down the job. Early enrollee Justin McMillan joined the team in January, but this remains a two-man race. Jennings has started 13 of the last 14 games, but he was underwhelming in his first season as a starter, completing 48.9 percent of his passes for 1,611 yards, 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions last fall. Harris had a few impressive moments as a freshman, but bombed in his starting audition against Auburn and failed to earn the trust of the coaching staff. LSU’s coaches insist, however, that he has every opportunity to win the job between now and September.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- He might add some new job responsibilities, but Kendell Beckwith should be the centerpiece of LSU’s defense in 2015.
Leading tackler Kwon Alexander’s departure after a standout junior season only reinforces that possibility -- one that Beckwith himself embraces.
The rising junior took over as the Tigers’ starting middle linebacker early last fall and wound up ranking second on the team with 77 tackles, trailing only Alexander’s 90.
It remains to be seen how defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s new scheme might affect Beckwith’s role -- might the Tigers shift him outside at points to use him as a rusher off the edge? -- but his first season playing linebacker full-time has set up Beckwith to lead the defense this fall.
“I feel like I’ve got a little bit of experience now and I kind of know what it’s going to take,” Beckwith said. “I feel like I can take over the defense.”
But who will join him in the starting lineup now that Alexander and departed former starter D.J. Welter are out of the picture?
Starting strongside linebacker Lamar Louis seems like a safe bet to occupy one of the starting spots. Before he decided to return for his senior season, Louis and Steele put their heads together, with Steele telling the undersized linebacker that he envisions him playing a role similar to that of former New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers linebacker Sam Mills.
The 5-foot-9 Mills was an All-Pro linebacker while playing under Steele with the Panthers in 1996.
“Me and Coach Steele were just talking about work ethic and just doing the right things at the right times. That’s one of the biggest things that we talked about,” Louis said. “Definitely we’re going to have some discipline in the linebacker room and he’s going to expect us to be good people, foremost, much more than good players. So that’s something that he was stressing was that Sam Mills was a great player, but he was also a disciplined, good person.”
Among the other candidates for increased playing time are Deion Jones and Duke Riley, who both started against Louisiana-Monroe last season while Alexander and Louis were sidelined. Ronnie Feist might be another possibility after ranking among the top performers in last year’s spring game, as could rising sophomore Donnie Alexander, who played in 12 games (mostly on special teams) as a true freshman.
But the candidate who will likely receive the most attention this spring will be sophomore Clifton Garrett, ESPN’s No. 2 inside linebacker prospect of 2014, who appeared in just three games last fall.
Illinois native Garrett reportedly had difficulty acclimating to the South Louisiana heat when he first arrived last summer, but still impressed teammates with his potential.
“His future’s going to be bright. He’s just got to come along a little bit faster,” Alexander said during bowl practice. “He works hard and he’s going to be a great player. When he learns to get the plays down and everything, be smart -- he’s the Mike backer, so he’s got to know all the keys and all that -- when he gets all that down, he’s going to be all right.”
During that same conversation, Alexander predicted that his position group in 2015 would be “the best linebackers in the country.” He later opted to pursue a future in the NFL, but even without Alexander, the group should still have the depth and talent to remain productive.
“We work hard enough to be the best linebackers in the country,” Alexander said. “Kendell coming up, he’s going to be one of the great ’backers, I’m trying to tell you. He works hard, he works real hard. We’ve got Lamar, D-Bo Jones, Duke Riley, all them. They work hard, everybody’s coming along well.”
Expect to see Steele move several of them around during the spring as the Tigers nail down some of their new defensive looks. But as Alexander indicated, LSU should have more than enough at linebacker in order to handle the demands of any additions Steele will make to the scheme.
Returning players: Kendell Beckwith (77 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 1 INT), Lamar Louis (29 tackles, 2.5 TFL), Deion Jones (27 tackles, 3.5 TFL), Duke Riley (20 tackles), Ronnie Feist (4 tackles), Donnie Alexander (1 tackle), Clifton Garrett (0 tackles).
Departed players: Kwon Alexander (90 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks), D.J. Welter (35 tackles, 2 TFL),
Committed prospects: None.
Outlook: It hurts to lose Alexander, the team’s leading tackler, but this is still a capable group with pretty good depth. LSU could potentially lose a lot from this position after this season, so closing strong on the recruiting trail would be big. But as for 2015, returning starters Beckwith and Louis are among the leaders of what should be a highly productive position for the Tigers. They will transition a bit with some new wrinkles that will likely come under defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, but the Tigers have enough different skillsets within the group that we shouldn’t notice any drop-off.
The Tigers' streak ended last Saturday, however, when Florida's Andre Debose scorched LSU for 115 yards on two punt returns -- one of which went for a 62-yard touchdown.
That begs an obvious question: Was the problem simply that LSU was trying to corral one of the best return men in SEC history -- Debose is tied for third in the conference's career record book with five kick returns for touchdowns -- or was something lacking on the coverage units?
As White mentioned, the Tigers' issues were twofold. Punter Jamie Keehn accepted some of the blame for Debose's long returns, saying that he should have kicked the ball higher in order to give his teammates more time to sprint downfield. But White and fellow coverage man Deion Jones admitted that the group should have done a better job of defending the areas they were assigned to cover.
“It was just the little things about our lane integrity, and stuff that we worked, but we didn't really stress, and it wound up showing when we took the field,” Jones said. “We saw this could hurt us, and it almost did.”
The Tigers still managed to win 30-27 despite Debose's two long returns, but those runbacks were a blow to the collective ego of an LSU punt coverage team that hadn't allowed a touchdown since Ole Miss' Marshay Green's 44-yard score in 2007.
“It hurt us. We didn't know what it was at first,” Jones said. “We'd been getting by with it each week and then somebody exposes it and it's like, ‘Oh, this is what it was.' ”
As for Keehn, his numbers are actually up from last season, when he averaged 41.0 yards per punt and the Tigers ranked eighth in the SEC in net punting (punting average minus opponent return average) at 38.1 ypp.
After Debose's long returns inflated opponents' punt return average against LSU from 1.47 yards per return to 4.0, the Tigers are currently the only SEC team to have surrendered at least 100 punt returns yards in 2014 (177 yards on 44 punts). LSU ranks fourth in the league in net punting, however, at 41.1 ypp and Keehn is third in the league with an average of 45.6 ypp.
“We have got a weapon there, we've just got to make sure that our guys recognize their responsibility to cover,” LSU coach Les Miles said.
Keehn said he should have punted the ball higher against Florida, but in his defense, LSU was backed up against its own end zone on both punts that Debose returned. LSU's offense stalled at its own 10-yard line before Keehn launched a 52-yard punt that Debose returned for an early touchdown, and LSU was on its own 11 when Debose later returned a 51-yard Keehn punt to the Tigers' 9.
Those are hardly ideal circumstances when punting to one of the conference's all-time most dangerous return men.
“The direction was good, distance was good. [We needed] a bit more hangtime from me, give my guys a little more of a chance to get down there,” Keehn said. “The hangtime probably didn't match the distance. I probably outkicked the coverage a little bit there, but when I'm backed up in my own end zone, I'm trying to hit the biggest ball I can and trying to flip the field.”
Nonetheless, LSU is typically the team that creates huge momentum swings with explosive returns, not the one that surrenders them. Those lapses caught the Tigers off guard, and were the focus of extra attention when they returned to the practice field on Monday.
Saturday's opponent, Kentucky, isn't nearly as dangerous in the return game -- the Wildcats are 10th in the SEC in punt return average at 8.4 -- but the Tigers know they can't afford to remain sloppy while defending their coverage lanes.
“I feel like going into Saturday, it'll show because we practiced it hard [Monday],” White said. “Debose, he's a great returner, not to take anything away from him, but I feel if we do those things right that we did wrong, it could have probably limited some of those yards that he got.”
It's a chicken-AND-the-egg thing -- because without one, the Tigers likely won't have the other.
"If you're covering and they're not getting that pressure, you can only cover for so long before somebody gets open," cornerback Tre'Davious White said. "But if you have both going at the same time, it's hard to get beat."
Improving in both categories was an area of offseason emphasis for LSU's defense, and the Tigers seem to be showing marked improvement. Through two games, LSU leads the SEC in pass-efficiency defense (50.6), is tied with Arkansas for the league lead in sacks (seven) and ranks second with four interceptions (Ole Miss has five).
"We've been working on a lot of ball skills and a lot of strip drills and a lot of fumble-recovery drills. As far as getting it done at practice, it's coming easier to us in the game," said defensive back Dwayne Thomas, who halted Sam Houston State's opening drive last week with an interception at LSU's 6-yard line.
Clearly it's too early to pronounce LSU's problems in either area solved. The Tigers notched three takeaways and all seven sacks in last Saturday's 56-0 rout of Sam Houston State, an FCS opponent that isn't up to the competitive level of some of the teams waiting on LSU's schedule.
And yet the Tigers picked off multiple passes for the third straight game -- their longest such streak since an all-star secondary intercepted at least two passes in each of the final four games of the 2010 season -- and recorded LSU's best single-game sack total since getting seven in a 2007 win against Alabama.
There have been other Sam Houston States on the schedule in the last several years, but LSU didn't post numbers like that against any of them. Perhaps the offseason work is actually starting to pay dividends.
"[SHSU's] offensive line, they were pretty good and we had to run our stunts perfectly. By doing that, you saw a bunch of sacks," said linebacker D.J. Welter, who accounted for one of the sacks and also stripped Bearkats quarterback Jared Johnson on the play for a fumble that Deion Jones recovered at the SHSU 1. "That definitely helps going into the next couple of games to have more confidence in the pass rush."
Saturday's game against Louisiana-Monroe will provide a further test of their progress -- the Warhawks have surrendered four sacks and have had just one of their 86 passes intercepted through two games -- but the truth will truly come to light starting the next week against Mississippi State.
In eight SEC games last season, the Tigers recorded 15 sacks and seven interceptions. Those numbers weren't pitiful, but they definitely weren't up to LSU's previous standards, either.
LSU's 2014 defense intends to function more like its dominant predecessors, and in a shutout streak that stretches over the last 87 minutes, 24 seconds of action, the Tigers have offered regular glimpses of such play.
"We kind of struggled a bit last year as a secondary," White said, "and I feel like us having two big games, going down the road that'll give us so much confidence when we get into the big-time games that we can make those plays, too."
"And that has nothing to do with me as it does with the attitude of the guys, No. 1, but the amount of pressure John [Chavis, LSU's defensive coordinator] and his defense put on them. Any flaw a guy has is going to get exposed and get exposed in the first 30 minutes of practice."
LSU's assistant coaches, quarterbacks and freshmen spoke with reporters on Sunday for the first and possibly only time this preseason, so Jennings, Harris and Cameron were among the day's busiest participants.
Head coach Les Miles said he is not rushing yet to name a starter between sophomore Jennings and freshman Harris as he wants to allow a competitive environment to thrive.
"I think the naming of a starter will be when one separates himself from the other. And when it's a real advantage to name him as a starter because he needs to recognize as does the team that this is where we're going," Miles said. "We're not there."
"My job is to make this decision as tough on Les as possible," Cameron said. "What do you mean by that? Well, we've got two guys that we feel confident we can win with -- if not three, if not four. We're not coaching one guy more than the other hoping he's the guy."
Cameron might even find roles for both quarterbacks to fill.
He's best remembered for leading the game-winning touchdown drive against Arkansas after replacing injured Zach Mettenberger last season, but Jennings played in nine games -- including contests against TCU, Florida, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and his first start in the bowl win against Iowa -- in 2013.
Using him in spot duty made more sense because the dual-threat Jennings possesses a different skill set from Mettenberger, a prototypical dropback passer. However, Jennings and Harris are much more similar players.
Regardless, Cameron expressed confidence that whoever wins the competition will be ready to be successful once the opener against Wisconsin arrives on Aug. 30.
"I would say this confidently: we're going to have more than one quality starter here at LSU," Cameron said. "That's what we're charged with and we'll get that done."
Linebacker rotation?: Defensive coordinator John Chavis has rarely enjoyed the luxury that a deep group of linebackers might provide this season. Beyond starters Kwon Alexander, D.J. Welter and Lamar Louis, Chavis' position group runs two and three deep with quality players across the board -- and that might help not only on defense, but on special teams.
"If they're ready to play, we're going to play them. There's no question about that," Chavis said. "They're not any different than anybody else on our field. In an ideal situation, you'd like to have six starting linebackers and then they all could go play special teams and we could rest them on defense. Unfortunately we haven't been that way with depth.
"Is this a year that we can reach that? We're closer than we've been in the past."
In addition to players such as Deion Jones, Duke Riley and Ronnie Feist, Chavis has talented sophomore Kendell Beckwith trying to surpass Welter as the starting middle linebacker and one of the Tigers' top 2014 signees, Clifton Garrett, behind them.
It might be difficult to juggle, as there are only so many snaps to go around between the three linebacker spots. But Chavis seems confident that everyone who deserves to play will be on the field in some capacity.
"If you can go two deep and you don't have a drop-off, then that just makes your special teams even better," Chavis said.
No decisions on return men: Speaking of special teams, coach Bradley Dale Peveto said he is considering six candidates for the punt return and kickoff return jobs, but wasn't ready to identify them yet.
Tre'Davious White and Travin Dural are among the players known to be working at punt returner and Terrence Magee is among the kickoff return men.
"We had four great days in evaluating a lot of our team, got it down to six guys at each spot," Peveto said. "I don't really want to talk about that yet because we've got a great competition going on, but I'm going to tell you we've got enough. We've got some really good guys, some really talented young men who might compete for those positions."
Miles said earlier that Trent Domingue has taken over as the Tigers' kickoff specialist.
Right guard competition: Offensive line coach Jeff Grimes chuckled when asked how the right guard competition is shaking out.
"It's still shaking," Grimes said. "We'll let it go until somebody lays claim to it."
Seniors Fehoko Fanaika and Evan Washington have battled for the starting job at right guard, the lone spot where the Tigers lost a starting offensive lineman from 2013.
Returning starters: D.J. Welter (80 tackles, 4 tackles for loss in 2013), Kwon Alexander (65 tackles, 6.5 TFL). Defensive coordinator John Chavis complimented Welter’s performance from spring practice -- during which he won the team’s MVP award -- following a mediocre junior season. Meanwhile, Alexander shifted from strongside linebacker to weakside during the spring, which should allow him to become a key playmaker this fall.
Starters lost: Lamin Barrow (91 tackles, 5.5 TFL). Weakside linebacker Barrow led the team in tackles and was one of the more consistent performers on a rebuilding LSU defense in 2013.
Key newcomers: Clifton Garrett (No. 31 overall on the ESPN 300 and No. 2 inside linebacker) was the Tigers’ highest-rated linebacker signee, while outside linebacker Donnie Alexander (No. 261, No. 19 OLB) was also an ESPN 300 pick. Garrett is an immensely talented prospect, but he’s listed on the preseason depth chart as the third-team middle linebacker behind Welter and sophomore Kendell Beckwith (11 tackles). He’s got his work cut out to become a key contributor in 2014.
Player to watch: Kwon Alexander. Alexander and strongside linebacker Lamar Louis (25 tackles) both moved into new starting positions during the spring, and both jobs seem to suit the veterans’ respective skill sets. Alexander, seems to be the player who is poised for a breakout season, though. Taking over Barrow’s old role, he could become one of LSU’s top defensive performers this fall -- as evidenced by his interception return for a touchdown in the Tigers’ spring game.
Overall: This is one of LSU’s most exciting position groups, blessed with substantial athleticism, speed and depth. It’s only a matter of time until Beckwith is a star in the SEC, and he and fellow reserves Deion Jones (15 tackles in 2013, plus an interception return for a 67-yard touchdown in the spring game), Duke Riley (7 tackles) and Ronnie Feist (did not play) are all capable players. Chavis acknowledged after spring practice that he is considerably excited about what the group will add to the defense this fall -- and he should be. Chavis has plenty of weapons at his disposal, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see several of them emerge as reliable performers in 2014.
If you weren’t paying close attention at the Tigers’ spring game, however, you might not have realized just how much shuffling had taken place.
One of those players was Kendell Beckwith, who is slotted to play middle linebacker after contributing mostly at defensive end in 2013. Another was Deion Jones, who provided the game’s first points when he picked off an Anthony Jennings pass and returned it 67 yards for a touchdown. And a third was Ronnie Feist, who led all tacklers with 14 stops.
This after position switches by presumptive starters Kwon Alexander and Lamar Louis also generated headlines earlier in the spring, with Alexander moving from strongside linebacker to weakside and Louis shifting from middle linebacker to strongside.
“I like to cross-train guys because if you get someone go down, it’s not the guy that’s behind him on the depth chart, but it’s going to be the next-best linebacker we’re going to put in the game,” Chavis said.
Chavis employed that strategy to great effect this spring, putting players like Alexander and Louis in positions that might help them better take advantage of their athleticism. Earlier this month, Chavis said Alexander playing on the weak side -- perhaps the most important playmaking position among the linebackers -- “fits him perfectly” and added that Louis “did a really good job on the strong side” despite a hand injury that kept him in a green no-contact jersey for most of the spring.
He reserved his most glowing praise for D.J. Welter, however, noting that the talented Beckwith’s presence immediately behind him on the depth chart seemed to motivate the senior middle linebacker.
“Believe it or not, we had a senior that had his best spring practice. D.J. by far had the best spring practice that you can easily say that I’ve been around,” Chavis said of Welter, who is LSU’s top returning tackler with 80 stops in 2013. “He was incredible this spring, and I think rightfully so because he’s got a big guy behind him that’s pushing him that’s going to be a great football player and that’s going to play.
“Kendell Beckwith’s going to play a lot of football this year and for a while here at LSU. Competition makes you better and I think he took heed to the competition.”
There should be no shortage of competition among the players at Chavis’ position this fall. Louis said during the spring that LSU will boast its fastest, most athletic group of linebackers in years -- and the talent within the group will only grow when signees Clifton Garrett and Donnie Alexander arrive on campus.
The linebackers probably rank as LSU’s deepest, most experienced defensive position group as the season approaches, placing a burden on Chavis’ group to lead while green players at other positions find their legs. But if the Tigers find the right combinations at positions like defensive tackle and safety, LSU’s defense might continue its progress from late last fall following a shaky start to the 2013 season.
“Obviously we take a lot of pride in being good up front,” Chavis said. “If you’re going to win championships, you need good players everywhere and that’s what we’re here for: to compete for championships. Certainly I think we made some steps in that direction.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do. I’m proud of those guys that I coach personally, but I kind of keep a big eye on the entire defense. Hopefully if we mature at a couple positions, hopefully we can create some special things.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Cam Cameron used a golf analogy to describe his quarterbacks’ nonchalance when LSU’s offense faced third-down situations during spring practice. Clearly the Tigers' offensive coordinator has yet to see the young quarterbacks execute at a Tiger Woods level, unlike their predecessor Zach Mettenberger.
“The biggest thing that young quarterbacks have to learn is that if you don’t convert on third down, you’re going to go sit down,” Cameron said. “In practice, it’s almost like they’re at the driving range hitting a bucket of balls: ‘Ah, I missed that one. I’ll put another one down.’ Well, playing quarterback is not like hitting a bucket of balls. You go three-and-out, you’re sitting down watching.”
But the Tigers posted those numbers with a fifth-year senior, Mettenberger, under center, with veterans Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. at receiver and NFL-bound Jeremy Hill at tailback. That group of recently departed stars posted eye-popping numbers in general, particularly on third down (more on that tomorrow).
Mettenberger threw 94 passes on third downs, completing 59 of them for a total of 978 yards. Of those passes, 44 resulted in a first down, and nine more went for touchdowns. Mettenberger tossed only one interception and was sacked six times in such situations.
Then-freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings also posted solid third-down statistics in a significantly smaller sample size, although his 49-yard touchdown pass to Travin Dural in the waning moments against Arkansas accounted for nearly half of his yardage total. Jennings was 5-for-11 on third downs for 120 yards, with four of the completions going for a first down and the one to Dural accounting for a game-winning score. He also tossed a third-down interception in his lone start, the Outback Bowl win against Iowa.
One threat that both Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris present that Mettenberger didn’t is their ability to move the chains by running for first downs. On the three third downs that Jennings attempted to run last season, he achieved two first downs and a touchdown. And Harris proved in the spring game that he might be even more dangerous as a scrambler.
“One of those linebackers went over there to the other side with one of those backs and did not stay home,” LSU coach Les Miles said of a 41-yard Harris run in the second quarter of the Tigers’ spring game. “And so that quarterback came out the back side and suddenly 41 yards later, he’s run out of bounds. That’s something you can’t do, either, so when you line up against a quarterback with that kind of ability -- and both of our guys have it -- you’d better keep that linebacker home.”
If the trends from LSU’s spring game carry over into the fall, Jennings would almost certainly be the quarterback who is sitting down and watching in Cameron’s analogy. The rising sophomore struggled mightily on third down, while early enrollee Harris made some of the day’s most exciting plays in those situations.
Jennings was under center for seven third downs, and only one of them resulted in a first down: a 3-yard run by fullback Connor Neighbors. Jennings was 0-for-3 passing on third down and tossed an interception that linebacker Deion Jones returned 67 yards for a touchdown.
On the other hand, Harris overcame a sluggish start -- the offense failed to convert on third down on any of Harris’ first five attempts -- to finish with a flourish. The Harris-led offense converted six of the final eight third downs, including three touchdowns: a 19-yard pass to tight end DeSean Smith, a 21-yard rainbow to Dural on the final play of the opening half, and a 4-yard touchdown run of his own.
In all, LSU’s offense gained 115 yards in 13 plays when Harris was on the field for third down and lost three yards in the seven times that Jennings was under center -- and that doesn’t include the 67 going the wrong direction for a score on Jones’ interception.
Harris had a hot streak in the second quarter where five of six plays on third down went for either a first down or a touchdown. It’s no coincidence, Cameron said, that only once in those instances did he face third-and-10 or longer -- a down-and-distance scenario that his starting quarterback must avoid if LSU’s youthful 2014 offense is to remain effective on third down.
Mettenberger’s veteran savvy and strong throwing arm frequently dug LSU out of third-and-long situations last year, and it didn’t hurt that he had two future NFL wideouts in Landry and Beckham and a future NFL tailback in Hill at his disposal.
This season’s offense will be extremely young at the skill positions, so Cameron emphasized that whoever wins the quarterback job must keep the offense in manageable situations in order to move the chains.
“I thought we converted pretty well on third down [in the spring game] and now they’ve got to understand how you set yourself up for a manageable third down by the decisions you make on first and second down,” Cameron said. “And right now, we’re not where we need to be.
“We’ve got to know on first down and second down, let’s put ourselves in the best third-down position possible. Last year we converted on third-and-22, third-and-15, third-and-18, third-and-10 consistently. You don’t do that every year, and I think they’re starting to figure that out.”
The position battles that started in the spring will continue through summer workouts before resuming in front of coaches in August. Let’s take a look at what happened in a few of those spring battles and what we’ll be watching between now and Aug. 30, when the Tigers open the season against Wisconsin.
Defensive tackle: The spring was as much a feeling-out process as anything for defensive line coach Brick Haley. He mostly rode two departed veterans last fall while using youngsters Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas in spot duty. LaCouture and Thomas jumped into leading roles during the spring, and Haley also tested Maquedius Bain, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron (at times) in the middle. Haley has probably established a mental pecking order with the group, but August and the early-season games will certainly play important roles in cementing the coach’s opinions. It will also be worth watching how signees such as Travonte Valentine perform once they arrive on campus, as they might allow Haley to utilize a true rotation in the middle.
Quarterback: Surely you’ve heard by now that the battle between Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris appears to be wide open entering the summer months. Jennings has a slight experience advantage, but Harris was the more effective performer in the spring game. Both players made plenty of mistakes, however. Their offseason preparation in the next few months will be enormously important once August arrives.
Right guard: This is another battle that the coaches said was wide open once the spring concluded. Evan Washington shifted from tackle to guard and seemed to take the leading role in the competition. Fellow senior Fehoko Fanaika and sophomore Ethan Pocic are lurking, however. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see all of them play some scrimmage downs against Wisconsin -- or in Weeks 2 and 3 against Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Monroe -- as new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes weighs his options. Coach Les Miles complimented all three players after the spring game, so it seems that the coaches would be comfortable playing any of the candidates.
Safety: Injuries caused this position to remain as a bit of a mystery during the spring. Jalen Mills remained in a starting role, and Ronald Martin seemed to be faring well in a return from a fractured right foot. He was injured again by the end of the spring, however, joining Corey Thompson (knee surgery) on the sideline by the time the spring game rolled around. Mills and Rickey Jefferson were the top options in the spring game, but the Tigers could use any number of combinations when the season arrives -- especially once highly-rated safety prospect Jamal Adams and the other signees make it to Baton Rouge this summer. Once the Tigers are back to full strength in August, this should make for one of the most intriguing position battles.
Tight end: This will be a fun position to track in the fall. They had plenty of playing time last season, but barely made a blip as receivers. They seem to be confident that they will make a more well-rounded contribution in 2014. Sophomore DeSean Smith and signee Jacory Washington possess intriguing receiver skills, and Dillon Gordon, Travis Dickson and Logan Stokes worked this spring to prove that they are well-rounded players at the position. It’s a big group, but all of them should have roles to fill during the season.
Wide receiver: They were the walking wounded for much of the spring, with Avery Peterson, Kevin Spears, John Diarse and Quantavius Leslie all spending time in non-contact jerseys. That was a tough blow for a group that has a lot to prove after Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Kadron Boone and James Wright all left the roster after last season. Travin Dural -- who had an outstanding spring game with five catches for 130 yards and two touchdowns -- seemed to solidify his spot as the No. 1 receiving option for now. But this will become one of the Tigers’ most interesting position battles in August once a star-studded signing class, led by Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, arrives to challenge the returning wideouts.
As Les Miles’ club wraps up its 15 spring workouts, here are five things we took away from the last month on the practice field:
Whichever quarterback wins the starting job, it’s a certainty that his playing style will differ wildly from predecessor Zach Mettenberger, who stood like a stone in the pocket. With either Jennings or Harris under center, defenses will have to respect that he can take off and make big plays with his legs.
“Oh boy, isn’t that fun to see?” Miles asked, referring to a 41-yard run that Harris made in the second quarter. “You go back in there and the defense makes a mistake and let me tell you what happened: One of those linebackers went over there to the other side with one of those backs and did not stay home. And so that quarterback came out the back side and suddenly 41 yards later, he’s run out of bounds.
“That’s something you can’t do, either, so when you line up against a quarterback with that kind of ability -- and both of our guys have it -- you’d better keep that linebacker home.”
Jennings still seems to have a tendency to hold on to the ball too long while looking to pass. Iowa sacked him four times in the Outback Bowl, and his defensive teammates got to him four times in the spring game. Harris seemed to have a better idea when to tuck it and run, which doesn’t seem to be a terrible idea for either of them, as they can both be dynamic runners when they leave the pocket.
2. Linebackers will be strong: Saturday was a great day for LSU’s linebackers. Not only did Kwon Alexander and Deion Jones both intercept Jennings' passes and take them to the house for touchdowns, but Ronnie Feist (14 tackles) and Lamar Louis (seven tackles, 0.5 tackle for a loss) were their respective teams’ leading tacklers.
Feist seemed to be everywhere, continuing what Miles said was an impressive spring from a physicality standpoint.
“When he hits you, you’re hit,” Miles said of Feist. “There’s no pretend to it.”
Senior middle linebacker D.J. Welter apparently left a major impression on his coaches this spring as well. Not only was he among the defense’s honorees in awards for leadership and for outstanding performance, but he was the lone winner of the Jimmy Taylor Award, the team’s comprehensive spring award for outstanding leadership, effort and performance.
3. Offensive playmakers still must emerge: It seemed like a foregone conclusion even before spring practice started that some of the team’s top offensive players for 2014 weren’t on campus yet. Spring didn’t do much to change that perception.
Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee -- who dealt with a sprained ankle for much of the spring -- were adequate at tailback, but freshman Leonard Fournette will inject some star power to the position once he arrives on campus. Likewise, Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn and the new receivers will add explosiveness at a position that was riddled with injuries throughout the spring. The receivers were nearly nonexistent in the spring game.
LSU wide receivers totaled seven catches for 200 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday. Sounds pretty good, right? But five of the catches, 130 yards and both touchdowns came from one player: Travin Dural.
Otherwise, the group frequently dropped passes and misplayed catchable balls, proving that they need every bit of the available practice time this summer to develop chemistry with their quarterbacks. Dural looks like a star in the making, but the others have a lot to prove from a consistency standpoint.
4. Tight end talk seems legit: DeSean Smith and the Tigers’ other tight ends expressed hope this spring that they would get more opportunities to catch passes in 2014 than they did last season, when wideouts Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham got most of the looks from Mettenberger.
They said that’s how things had been going in practice, and Saturday looked to continue that trend. Smith led the way with three catches for 45 yards and a touchdown, but Dillon Gordon (2-32), Logan Stokes (1-26), John David Moore (1-20) and Travis Dickson (1-8) also made receptions. In all, the tight ends accounted for eight of the Tigers’ 21 catches in the final spring scrimmage, and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron seems pleased with the weapons he has at his disposal at the position.
“Every year, with different personnel, creates a whole new set of opportunities, and I think the opportunities for our tight ends are going to be critical,” Cameron said. “I was thrilled -- for the most part -- I thought they made the most of it.”
5. Defense is on the comeback: Judging by the way the White team (which featured the starters) throttled the Purple team’s offense on Saturday, it looks like LSU’s first-team defense has the potential to rank among the SEC’s best this fall.
The Purple team accounted for 179 yards of offense on 46 plays -- 53 rushing on 27 carries and 126 passing on 6-for-19 attempts. The Purple converted for a first down just once out of 11 third downs.
After saying earlier in the week that he overthought things in his first season as a starter, defensive end Danielle Hunter seems to have cut loose now. He recorded two sacks on Saturday and was a regular presence in the Purple team’s backfield.
He was only one member of a sizable group of defensive players on both teams who flashed major potential in the scrimmage. Things seem to be looking up for defensive coordinator John Chavis’ bunch.
- Ole Miss is feeling good after wrapping up its spring with the Grove Bowl on Saturday.
- LSU's quarterback situation is more murky after Saturday's spring game. Linebacker Deion Jones and tight end DeSean Smith had standout performances. In other news about the Tigers, the SEC Network has added former LSU defensive linemen Marcus Spears and Booger McFarland as studio analysts.
- Texas A&M sophomore receiver Ricky Seals-Jones was arrested early on Sunday morning for disorderly conduct.
- In Missouri's first full scrimmage on Saturday, running backs Russell Hansbrough (shoulder) and Marcus Murphy (ankle) were hurt, opening the door for Morgan Steward to put on a show.
- Nick Saban was pleased with Alabama's first scrimmage on Saturday. The Tide have reached the halfway point of their spring session. Five story lines have taken center stage while players have emerged as well.
- South Carolina RB Mike Davis says he measures himself against the SEC's top backs. Tight end Rory Anderson will miss the rest of spring ball after tearing his triceps in Saturday's scrimmage.
- Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott starred in Saturday's scrimmage.
- Auburn is still sorting out its offensive line, as Avery Young moves from right tackle to right guard and Patrick Miller rotates at left and right tackle.
- Georgia's offense outshined the defense in Saturday's scrimmage. Running back Todd Gurley was the standout of the day.
- Quarterback Brandon Allen was sharp in Arkansas' first scrimmage inside Razorback Stadium on Saturday.
- Tennessee quarterbacks have been inconsistent this spring with no leader emerging from the pack. The Vols defense stepped up in Saturday's scrimmage.
- Florida punter Johnny Townsend will miss the rest of spring after surgery on his wrist.
- A mural of Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason's face will be redone after complaints and a petition started by the school's NAACP chapter.
By all rights, they should still be in high school, making prom plans or figuring out where to go for spring break. They’ve had only a couple of months to digest a complex college playbook, and they’re competing against more seasoned, more physically mature athletes.
It was an eye-opening performance, but let’s pump our breaks before declaring the Tigers’ quarterback race over -- even if Anthony Jennings followed an underwhelming performance in the Outback Bowl by going 9-for-17 for 157 yards and tossing interceptions that linebackers Deion Jones and Kwon Alexander returned for touchdowns.
Let’s be clear: if LSU had been playing Alabama -- which seems to be the measuring stick for anything around this program these days -- the performances by either Jennings or Harris would have probably led to an LSU loss.
“There needs to be improvement at the position for both guys,” LSU coach Les Miles confirmed afterward.
Obviously the pair of pick-sixes determined the day’s narrative for Jennings, but Harris had plenty of misfires himself. He displayed a phenomenal skillset and made some remarkable plays, without question, but he simply must reduce the mistakes before he can fulfill his obviously sky-high potential.
Case in point: in the second quarter, Harris overthrew a wide-open DeSean Smith -- wide open as in there was nobody within 10 yards of the big tight end -- and then floated an ugly throw over fullback Connor Neighbors' head on his next pass attempt. Later, he made a debatable decision to throw into double coverage in the end zone, with the pass luckily falling incomplete.
“I really think he made, I don’t know, four, five, six major errors in the scrimmage and yet had the ability to get beyond it, which always is a tremendous mark,” Miles said of Harris, whom LSU has not made available to speak to the media. “And if we can eliminate the mistakes and really play to the advantages, that’s what we’re looking to do.”
If there was anything positive that Jennings could take away from the day, it’s that he at least finished with a flourish. In the first two quarters, Jennings presided over seven drives -- the longest of which covered 31 yards -- with those seven possessions ending in five punts and the two interception returns for touchdowns.
He wrapped up his day with an efficient 73-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter, concluding the possession with a 13-yard scoring pass to Travin Dural.
“If you throw an interception and you don’t come right back, you’re not a good quarterback,” Jennings said afterward. “So every quarterback goes through adversity. It’s how you respond, it’s not how you fall.”
He seemed to take a nasty fall on Saturday, but Jennings now has plenty of time to respond. The good news for the Tigers is that they don’t play Alabama for seven months. In fact, they don’t play anybody until the Aug. 30 kickoff against Wisconsin. That’s nearly five months for both quarterbacks to keep developing a rapport with their receiving corps and battling for the right to take the first snap against the Badgers.
Asked about the message he will send the quarterbacks going into summer workouts, Miles’ message was simple: “Compete. That’s it.” This after saying in his press conference that the coaches plan to “let the competition continue and see how this thing plays out” this summer.
Competition was also the theme of this spring, and it was apparently a productive period for both players, of whom Miles reiterated after Saturday’s game that “I think both guys are talented enough to be our quarterback.”
The talent was apparent, particularly when Harris was throwing darts and sprinting away from defenders for big gains. But will LSU’s coaches be able to harness that talent quickly enough to beat opponents like Wisconsin, Auburn, Florida, Mississippi State and, of course, the mighty Crimson Tide?
That is going to be the deciding factor in LSU’s 2014 season. With what should be an improved defense and with Leonard Fournette, Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard in the backfield, the Tigers should be able to pound most of their opponents into submission. But against the nastiest teams on the schedule, they need to be able to at least make opposing defenses respect the pass -- and not make any catastrophic errors when they do choose to put the ball in the air.
Both quarterbacks made some potentially catastrophic throws on Saturday, and that’s OK for now. Jennings and Harris need to make great strides in this summer’s passing sessions, however, or it will be 2015 at the earliest before the Tigers again rank among the top contenders for a national championship.
LSU SPRING AWARDS
Here is the full list of spring practice awards that LSU coach Les Miles presented after Saturday’s spring game:
Jimmy Taylor Award (Comprehensive spring award for outstanding leadership, effort and performance): D.J. Welter
Ralph Norwood Performance Award (Outstanding performance in spring drills, offense): Kenny Hilliard, La'el Collins, Elliott Porter, Jerald Hawkins
Toby Caston Performance Award (Outstanding performance in spring drills, defense): Deion Jones, Tre'Davious White, Rashard Robinson, Danielle Hunter, D.J. Welter, Kwon Alexander
Eric Andolsek Leadership Award (Outstanding leadership in spring drills, offense): La'el Collins, Connor Neighbors, Kenny Hilliard, Terrence Magee, Jerald Hawkins
Mike Miley Leadership Award (Outstanding leadership in spring drills, defense): Danielle Hunter, Christian LaCouture, D.J. Welter, Jalen Mills, Ronald Martin
Alvin Roy Fourth Quarter Award (Outstanding performance in LSU offseason program): Danielle Hunter, Duke Riley, K.J. Malone, Ethan Pocic, Travin Dural, Christian LaCouture, Lewis Neal, Tre'Davious White, Tre' Sullivan, Terrence Magee, Luke Boyd, Jeff Lang
Most Improved Award: Ronald Martin, Lewis Neal, Quentin Thomas, Dillon Gordon, Dwayne Thomas, Fehoko Fanaika, K.J. Malone, DeSean Smith, Anthony Jennings, Tashawn Bower
Jerry Stovall Special Teams Award: Colby Delahoussaye, Reid Ferguson, Tre'Davious White
Newcomer Award: Brandon Harris, Ed Paris
Overcoming Adversity Award: Dwayne Thomas, Quantavius Leslie, Lamar Louis
Coaches Award: Devante Meullion, John David Moore, Chris LaBorde, Tommy LeBeau, Tre' Sullivan, Brad Kragthorpe, Alex Cheramie
After discussing the tight ends, defensive tackles and safeties in the first three installments of this week's series on position groups that can improve this fall, today we move to the linebackers, who disappointed a bit last season and now must replace starter Lamin Barrow.
Battling for No. 1: Barrow, one of the leaders of the 2013 LSU defense, is a likely NFL draft pick and tied for ninth in the SEC with 91 tackles. He, rising senior D.J. Welter (80 tackles, four tackles for a loss) and rising junior Kwon Alexander (65 tackles, 6.5 TFLs) hardly set the world on fire, however, as the Tigers' typical starters. When spring practice opens, Welter probably starts as the middle linebacker and Alexander could remain at the strongside linebacker spot. There could be a competition between rising junior Deion Jones (15 tackles, 1 TFL) and sophomore Duke Riley (seven tackles, 0.5 TFLs) for the starting spot on the weak side.
Strength in numbers: Kendell Beckwith -- the highest-rated prospect in LSU's 2013 signing class -- made a small impact as a freshman. He totaled 11 tackles and one TFL but has the ability to play a larger role at strongside linebacker, in the middle, or at defensive end. Rising junior Lamar Louis (25 tackles) might also be a candidate for a bigger role in the middle. Sophomore Ronnie Feist is also coming off a redshirt season and might figure into the rotation somewhere.
New on the scene: Clifton Garrett is clearly one of the stars of LSU's newest signing class, ranking as ESPN's No. 31 overall prospect, No. 2 inside linebacker and top prospect in the state of Illinois. He looks like exactly the type of downhill run stopper who will fit in well in Baton Rouge, but it's rarely a great idea to project immediate greatness for freshmen who arrive in the summer. Perhaps he, or ESPN 300 outside linebacker Donnie Alexander, will be able to crack the rotation sometime during the fall, but it's probably best to temper expectations early on in preseason practice.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- If you see LSU linebacker Lamin Barrow's first name and wonder how to properly pronounce it, just remember, it rhymes with "machine."
As in, "Lamin, the Tackling Machine."
That might be appropriate for the rising senior linebacker coming off a junior year in which he eclipsed the 100-tackle mark (104), finishing second on the team behind potential NFL first-round draft pick Kevin Minter. Many expected Barrow, who accumulated his numbers playing on the weak side, to move into Minter's spot at middle linebacker, a position that, in recent seasons, been manned by future NFL players like Minter, Kelvin Sheppard and Jacob Cutrera.
That, however, hasn't happened, at least not yet as LSU experiments with junior D.J. Welter, who has never started a game for the Tigers, in the middle. It doesn't mean that Barrow won't be the linebackers' leader in a way that Sheppard and Minter clearly were.
Marcus Spears reviews LSU Pro Day
TBD Bowling Green Tennessee TBD Wisconsin Alabama TBD UTEP Arkansas TBD Louisville Auburn TBD New Mexico State Florida TBD Louisiana-Monroe Georgia TBD Louisiana-Lafayette Kentucky TBD McNeese State LSU TBD Southeast Missouri State Missouri TBD Tennessee-Martin Ole Miss TBD Mississippi State Southern Miss TBD Arizona State Texas A&M TBD Western Kentucky Vanderbilt