LSU Tigers: Dwayne Thomas

LSU freshman tracker: Week 6

October, 5, 2014
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Brandon Harris used words like “terrible” and “nightmare” when describing his first career start against Auburn on Saturday, but those descriptions actually applied to his entire team’s performance in a 41-7 defeat.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLeonard Fournette was a semi-bright spot on a dark Saturday for LSU against Auburn.
Harris played like a freshman quarterback against Auburn before giving way to previous starter Anthony Jennings in the third quarter. The night wasn’t particularly memorable for LSU’s other true freshmen, either, but here is a recap:

S Jamal Adams

What he did:
Adams didn’t start Saturday, but he played plenty in place of injured utility man Dwayne Thomas, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last week against New Mexico State. Adams made a career-high seven tackles against Auburn, which tied for third on the team.

What it means: With Thomas out of the picture, expect to see Adams contribute in his old rushing and coverage roles in LSU’s nickel and dime packages. He was one of LSU’s most coveted defensive signees in this class and should get lots of playing time down the stretch.

WR Malachi Dupre

What he did:
Dupre started at receiver and made one catch for 52 yards late in the first quarter to set up LSU’s only touchdown of the night. He led the Tigers in receiving yardage against Auburn thanks to that single grab.

What it means: Saturday’s game marked Dupre’s second straight start at wideout, so he is obviously one of the Tigers’ top options at the position now. The passing game never got on track against Auburn, but expect to see plenty more of Dupre moving forward.

RB Leonard Fournette

What he did:
Fournette didn’t get his first carry until late in the first quarter, but he led the Tigers with 41 rushing yards on 10 carries. He also returned a pair of kickoffs for a total of 44 yards. LSU hoped it had turned a corner in the ground game with a productive outing against New Mexico State last week, but Fournette and the Tigers generated just 138 rushing yards on 36 attempts (3.8 ypc) on Saturday.

What it means: It doesn’t mean a lot, but Fournette quietly led LSU in rushing for the fourth straight game. The Tigers have a long way to go to become a good rushing team, but Fournette has done fine on the occasions where he has had room to run.

QB Brandon Harris

What he did:
Harris’ starting debut couldn’t have gone much worse. He was 3-for-14 for 58 yards and directed LSU’s offense to one of the least competitive performances in Les Miles’ decade as the Tigers’ coach. Harris left Jordan-Hare Stadium with his right foot in a walking boot after injuring his ankle late in the second quarter.

What it means: Assuming Harris’ ankle is healthy enough to play, it will be interesting to see whether LSU’s coaches let him start again Saturday in yet another difficult road venue: Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The Gators aren’t nearly the team that Auburn is, but putting together a productive outing against Florida’s defense in The Swamp would be another tall order for Harris.

RB Darrel Williams

What he did:
Williams actually carried the ball before fellow freshman Fournette on Saturday but finished with just four rushing attempts for 19 yards -- 14 of which came on one carry. He also caught two passes for 6 yards.

What it means: It was a bit of a surprise to see him carry the ball ahead of Fournette, but Williams’ role seems largely unchanged. He remains part of LSU’s backfield rotation alongside Fournette and seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, but is not playing a leading role.

LSU freshman tracker

September, 28, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. – Plenty of true freshmen played in LSU’s 63-7 rout of New Mexico State on Saturday, but it was Brandon Harris' night.

The young quarterback led the Tigers’ offense to touchdown in all seven of his possessions after replacing a slumping Anthony Jennings. At this point, it will be a major upset if Harris doesn’t make his first career start next Saturday at Auburn.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesBrandon Harris' performance Saturday might have made him LSU's starting quarterback for good.
Let’s take a quick look at the night for Harris and some of the Tigers’ other top freshmen:

S Jamal Adams

What he did: Adams played significant minutes off the bench at safety and tied for fourth on the team with five tackles. He also made a nice pass breakup on a second-and-2 pass near midfield in the first quarter.

What it means: Adams already seemed to be gaining his coaches’ confidence in recent weeks. If defensive back Dwayne Thomas is out for any extensive length of time -- he left Saturday’s game with a right knee injury -- Adams’ role might grow even more.

WR Malachi Dupre

What he did: Dupre made his first career start and led the team with 54 receiving yards on three catches. He caught a 27-yard touchdown pass from Harris in the second quarter.

What it means: Dupre’s role in the offense continues to grow. He and Harris clearly have developed a rapport -- Saturday’s touchdown was already their fourth scoring connection -- and that should give the Tigers a strong second option alongside leading receiver Travin Dural.

RB Leonard Fournette

What he did: Fournette ran 18 times for 122 yards and two touchdowns, setting new career highs in all three categories. He scored on a 17-yard run and plowed into the end zone for a 5-yard score in the second quarter. He also went 33 yards on his lone reception.

What it means: This was the fourth straight game that Fournette has led the Tigers in rushing, although this was his first 100-yard game. With 322 yards on 56 carries, Fournette is quietly emerging as the Tigers’ top tailback.

DT Davon Godchaux

What he did: Godchaux started for the second time in the last three games and recorded four tackles. His biggest play of the night came when he jarred the ball loose from New Mexico State’s Marquette Washington at the end of a second-quarter run. LSU safety Jalen Mills recovered Washington’s fumble and returned it 36 yards to the NMSU 3. The Tigers scored on the next play to go up 42-7.

What it means: With Quentin Thomas out of the lineup for the time being, Godchaux’s role is playing an important role on the interior of the Tigers’ defensive line. That bunch got shoved around by Mississippi State last week and will face a huge challenge next Saturday from Auburn. LSU needs Godchaux and Christian LaCouture to hold up in the middle of the line in order to have a shot at a road upset.

QB Brandon Harris

What he did: Harris likely settled the questions over who should start at quarterback on Saturday. Jennings had turned the ball over three times and the Tigers led 14-0 when Harris took over in the second quarter. They were up 63-7 when he left the game in the fourth quarter. Harris finished 11-for-14 for 178 yards and three touchdowns, plus he ran five times for 36 yards and two scores.

What it means: Although it seemingly took forever for LSU’s coaches to make the move -- as LSU’s booing fans clearly noticed -- Harris provided an instant spark when he entered the game. The level of difficulty is about to increase exponentially, but he is an obvious choice to start next week even if LSU coach Les Miles made no such public declaration after the game.

RB Darrel Williams

What he did: Williams continues to produce when he gets the ball. He was second on the team behind Fournette with 10 carries and finished with 59 rushing yards. He also caught a pass for an 11-yard gain.

What it means: Everybody got their yards from the Tigers’ backfield on Saturday -- seniors Kenny Hilliard (seven carries, 53 yards) and Terrence Magee (8-62, TD) were also productive -- and we can expect to see Williams remain as a regular contributor in LSU’s backfield timeshare.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- In the first, second and fourth quarters last Saturday, Mississippi State’s offense converted just one out of nine third downs. But in the Bulldogs’ key third-quarter run – a stretch where they pushed their lead from 17-10 to 34-10 – State’s offense didn’t just convert on third down, it made some of its biggest plays of the entire game.

The Bulldogs converted four out of five of their third-down situations in that third quarter and averaged 30.8 yards per play. That included a pair of long touchdowns -- a 56-yard run by quarterback Dak Prescott and a 74-yard pass from Prescott to Jameon Lewis -- where the Bulldogs exploited huge holes in the LSU defense.

[+] EnlargeJameon Lewis
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsLSU defenders say that many of Mississippi State's big plays last Saturday -- like Jameon Lewis' TD reception -- were the result of mental breakdowns.
“We had the momentum at the start of the third quarter,” LSU middle linebacker D.J. Welter said, referring to the Tigers’ defensive touchdown on the first play of the second half. “That kind of hurt us throughout the whole second half was not getting off the field on third down. And when they started moving the ball, it kind of got their momentum back and it really hurt us.”

We examined Mississippi State’s third-down success during the quarter in a post earlier this week. Today let’s look at it from an LSU perspective. Prescott’s improvisational skills and his running ability were key factors in several of those big plays, which is relevant since the Tigers will soon face other quarterbacks with similar run-pass ability.

If there is a silver lining to the many big plays LSU surrendered in the game, it’s that player after player insisted that their biggest problems against State – like aligning improperly or failing to make the proper pre-snap adjustments – were correctable mental errors instead of physical issues.

“I’m not taking anything away from Dak as a quarterback. The dude’s impressive, he’s a good athlete, you see him on film and he makes big plays,” Welter said. “But [if] we definitely played our techniques, it could have helped us out a lot in that game in not giving up those big busts that he had. When we gave it to him, he took it from us -- and give props for that -- but it definitely was a mistake in our technique.”

Take Prescott’s long touchdown run, for example. The Bulldogs spread out LSU’s defense with five receivers and Welter oddly lined up in a gap between right defensive tackle Davon Godchaux and right end Tashawn Bower, leaving nobody in the center of the field. When Prescott broke through a hole between defensive linemen Christian LaCouture and Deondre Clark, State’s quarterback needed only to break a tackle attempt by safety Jalen Mills in order to find himself with acres of running room on his way to the end zone.

On several of the Bulldogs’ other third-quarter conversions, defenders showed their concerns about State’s running game by either chasing Prescott or biting on run fakes, which created holes for the Bulldogs to exploit.

“Most of the key third downs, it wasn’t so much what they did, it was so much things that we didn’t do well,” cornerback Tre’Davious White said. “They played a great game – not to take things away from them – but if we just do the little things, the things that we’re taught to do, we don’t put ourselves in that position.”

Tiger Stadium’s legendary decibel level actually hurt, as well, the players said. There were times where it was so loud in the stadium that all of the defenders failed to hear the Tigers’ pre-snap calls. Several LSU defenders admitted that they must do a better job communicating between plays in order to prevent future busts.

“While it’s being so loud in our stadium, the loudest crowd out there, it’s kind of hard to be yelling at each other, so we’ve got to get our signals down pat so everybody’s on the same play before they snap the ball and get there faster,” defensive back Dwayne Thomas said.

This was LSU’s first big game in expanded Tiger Stadium, so perhaps some growing pains were inevitable as the defense adjusts to the noise created by 10,000 extra people in the stands. But while that might have been a factor, it’s hard to imagine that a home-field disadvantage was a major reason for so many defensive lapses.

With several high-scoring spread offenses fast approaching on the schedule, the Tigers must clean up their missed assignments, play tougher along the line of scrimmage and tackle more effectively in the future or this will not be their last rocky defensive outing. LSU has actually been effective on third down overall -- opponents have converted 16 of 57 attempts, with LSU's 28.1 percent conversion rate ranking fourth in the SEC -- but it probably can't afford to surrender so many big plays in those situations again.

“I feel like we could be a whole lot better all around as far as communicating, tackling, all that,” linebacker Kendell Beckwith said. “We’ve just got to get back to the old LSU way, being a dominant, dominant defense, and that starts in practice.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- When it comes to turnovers and sacks, it's not a chicken-or-the-egg equation for LSU's defense.

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."

[+] EnlargeLSU's Dwayne Thomas
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanDwayne Thomas nabs one of LSU's two interceptions against Sam Houston State.
Last season was a down year for LSU in both categories, with the Tigers registering 27 sacks and 11 interceptions -- their fewest sacks since 2009 and interceptions since 2008. It was also the first time since 2008 that the Tigers had fewer interceptions than touchdown passes allowed (15).

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."

Freshman defenders could claim roles

August, 14, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- He’s not a native-born Louisianan -- in fact, he’s 900 miles from his Illinois home -- but LSU freshman Clifton Garrett said he gets chills when he thinks about his first Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.

“It’s going to be heart throbbing for me,” Garrett said. “I’m going to be extremely excited and adrenaline is going to be rushing. I can’t wait for it. I get a chill just thinking about it. I watch the hype videos and everything and it’s crazy.”

As ESPN’s No. 2 inside linebacker and No. 31 overall prospect in the 2014 recruiting class, Garrett seems bound for college stardom. That might not happen immediately, however. Not with veterans D.J. Welter and Kendell Beckwith ahead of him on the depth chart and not with the bulk of defensive coordinator John Chavis’ scheme still to learn.

[+] EnlargeJamal Adams
Miller Safrit/ESPNESPN 300 safety Jamal Adams is one of several freshman defensive backs looking to make an immediate impact at LSU.
“There’s positions that are easier to play when you take into consideration athletic ability, experience,” Chavis said. “It’s a lot tougher to walk in and play tougher than it is to, say, play corner from an experience standpoint. Those guys don’t have as much to learn, but obviously they have to be better athletes. It’s a lot easier to get a freshman corner ready to play than it is to get a freshman linebacker, or as far as that goes because of the physicality, a freshman defensive lineman.”

Garrett himself seems ready to accept a season as a contributor on special teams, with occasional spot duty at linebacker, while he learns behind the veterans. But there are still several freshmen who have a chance to contribute immediately on Chavis’ defense. And as the Tigers’ veteran coordinator indicated, some of them -- a group that includes cornerback Ed Paris and safeties Jamal Adams and John Battle -- reside in the secondary.

Paris, ESPN’s No. 50 overall prospect, got a head start on the others by enrolling at LSU in January and participating in spring practice. He was listed as a second-team cornerback behind Rashard Robinson on the Tigers’ preseason depth chart.

“It helped me a lot. I learned it all in like a major way,” Paris said of his spring experience. “Because learning the playbook is extremely hard [as are] just learning [defensive backs coach Corey] Raymond’s terminology and seeing things and just trying to stay key on my techniques.”

Adams -- LSU’s highest-rated defensive signee at No. 18 overall and the No. 2 safety on the ESPN 300 -- might be on the field in multiple capacities. He’s in the mix for one of the Tigers’ kick return jobs, plus he could contribute in the base defense or in the Tigers’ nickel or dime packages.

“I feel like I can fit in with those guys,” Adams said of the veterans in the secondary. “I feel like I can help that group of guys, but I’m definitely not going to rush anything. I’m just going to keep working hard and my playing time is going to speak for myself on the field.”

And Battle’s versatility will someday come in handy. Sophomore Dwayne Thomas said he and Jalen Mills have been encouraging Battle to learn every position in the secondary, just as they have. That might not happen immediately, but Battle said he and the other freshman safeties should carve out a niche once they figure out their positions.

“It’s going to be fun,” Battle said. “Once we learn the plays, that’s going to be the deciding factor.”

That was a common theme among LSU’s defensive newcomers, who all seemed to recognize they still have a lot to learn. Many of them were sought-after recruits who are unaccustomed to sitting on the bench, but they know they must prove themselves worthy of playing time beyond special teams.

“It’s definitely a humbling aspect, but it’s definitely a motivational thing, as well,” Garrett said. “Being one of the young guys, the underdog, you have to come in and kind of prove yourself to all the older guys.”

Most of LSU’s freshmen seem to have that attitude, sophomore safety Rickey Jefferson said, which has impressed the veterans.

“Most of the class, honestly, had their head on straight. I don’t really recall one guy that’s like a knucklehead or anything like that,” Jefferson said. “Most of them handle their business. They’ve really got it going on, so I have to give that to them.”

Nonetheless, this probably will not be a season where LSU’s freshman defenders dominate the headlines. Its offensive newcomers are getting much of the attention right now, and for good reason. The Tigers must replace 76 percent of their offensive production from last season, after all, and it’s entirely possible that freshmen will pick up some of that slack.

But quarterback Brandon Harris, running back Leonard Fournette, and receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn aren’t the only LSU freshmen set to make their mark in 2014. Several freshmen on defense, particularly those in the secondary, could play roles on scrimmage downs this season.

“These guys are pretty good,” said Mills, a former Freshman All-American. “They kind of remind me of the defensive back class that came in when I was a freshman. We were hungry and we wanted to go out there and get the starting job that next day, so it’s just good competition.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Les Miles didn’t offer many specifics about LSU’s first preseason scrimmage on Wednesday -- particularly about which quarterbacks completed the two touchdown passes -- but the Tigers’ coach described the 26-play scrimmage as “pretty productive.”

Miles confirmed that freshmen Leonard Fournette and Malachi Dupre are both dealing with injuries, adding that tailback Fournette ran a handful of times in “thud” drills (not full contact) and that he should participate in a greater role in Saturday’s full scrimmage.

“He really could have been involved today, but [with] a little bruise, we decided not to,” Miles said.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsCoach Les Miles said that QBs Anthony Jennings, left, and Brandon Harris are both grasping LSU's offense.
He made similar comments about wide receiver Dupre, who already missed a couple of practice days with an undisclosed injury.

“He’s really nicked and on the heal and they don’t think it’s anything major in any way, but we’ve just got to continue to treat and get him going,” Miles said.

He didn’t say which quarterbacks threw the passes, but Miles did reveal that Avery Peterson and Travin Dural caught touchdowns in the scrimmage.

Speaking generally, he said that quarterback contenders Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris are in command of the offense most of the time. The rest remains a work in progress.

“They’re young, they’re both engaged in leadership and want to have command of the offense -- and they do for the most part,” Miles said. “They don’t know what command is. They don’t necessarily understand exactly what has to be communicated to make this thing go easy. They’re learning.

“I’d say 70 percent of today was just very, very well done and 30 percent’s probably not enough for anybody that sits in the stands to even notice. And yet that 30 percent we expect from our quarterbacks.”

Miles said defensive tackle Quentin Thomas -- initially thought to be lost for the season with a torn bicep -- worked in individual drills on Wednesday and might still play this season.

“Today he went through individual and moved and used his hands. It’s one of those things when you have a big old arm and you get it nicked, you can’t quite tell what it is and what it isn’t initially. Frankly he’s as fortunate as he could be.”

Miles added that the Tigers’ occupational therapist, “looked at it and he says there’s absolutely no reason to do anything else than rehabilitate and let him play.”

Thomas’ versatility: One of the primary benefits of LSU’s “Mustang” defense is that it’s difficult to tell which rushers will attack the line of scrimmage on any given play. So perhaps it fits that one of the Tigers’ key players in that package is Dwayne Thomas, since you never know where he might play.

Thomas said he has learned the duties of every position in the secondary, joining Jalen Mills as the only Tiger defensive backs who can do that.

“Corner, safety, nickel and dime -- I pretty much know the entire defense,” Thomas said. “Wherever Coach [Corey] Raymond needs me, I just go fill in. It’s a great opportunity to do that. Being able to be in the mix of any position is good for the next level.”

Thomas said he added safety to his repertoire since the end of last season, having worked at the position throughout spring practice.

“Once I got safety down pat, that was like the last position I had to learn for the entire defense,” Thomas said. “I had already been doing nickel and dime and corner. After the spring passed, getting all the safety reps down pat was just fantastic.”

But it’s that Mustang role where Thomas might make the biggest impact. Because of his speed off the edge -- aided by his ability to jump the snap count, work with assistant coach Brick Haley on the finer points of pass rushing and film study of former Mustang standouts Tyrann Mathieu and Ron Brooks -- Thomas could be even more valuable in that role this season.

“Dwayne really gives us what we’re looking for at that position. He does a great job there,” defensive coordinator John Chavis said when asked about who will play the rushing positions in the Mustang. “Jalen Mills has played a lot at that position. I’m not ready to say anything other than we expect Thomas to be one of those guys.”

Kick returners: Dural said one factor will probably determine who eventually wins LSU’s kickoff and punt return jobs.

“We’re battling every day to see who’s going to drop the ball first,” Dural chuckled.

Dural listed a half-dozen candidates who are contending for the return jobs when they catch balls before and after practice each day.

“It’s just me, Tre White, Leonard, Jamal [Adams], Malachi, Trey Quinn. We’re all back there battling for a spot,” Dural said. “Everybody wants to be that dynamic player. Everybody wants to be the kickoff guy or [punt].”

LSU had one of the nation’s best return men last year in Odell Beckham, who entered the NFL draft after winning the Paul Hornung Award as college football’s most versatile player. Dural said it won’t be easy to replace the explosive Beckham, but he believes the Tigers have plenty of promising candidates.

“It’s hard to replace someone like that, but we have a lot of guys who have the ability to make those plays,” Dural said. “Tre White, he’s a guy that can return punts and return kickoffs as well as Leonard. Leonard’s back there returning both of them. So as the season goes on, whoever that guy may be, you’ll start to see him make those types of plays that Odell did.”
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.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- With LSU opening preseason practice today, the Tigers will have no shortage of position battles to watch over the next 26 days until the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin.

Let’s take a glance at five positions that should feature considerable competition this month.

Quarterback: This one will attract the most attention, just as it did during spring practice. Sophomore Anthony Jennings or freshman Brandon Harris will be the starter. That was all but certain during the spring and is guaranteed now that backups Stephen Rivers, Hayden Rettig and Rob Bolden have all transferred from the program since the end of last season. But which of the youngsters will it be?

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsFreshman Brandon Harris made a heck of a first impression during LSU's spring game.
The Tigers got an outstanding season out of Zach Mettenberger in 2013, but he played almost every important down before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the regular-season finale against Arkansas. The opportunity to lead the offense to a win against the Razorbacks surely benefited Jennings, but he didn’t show as much composure in the Outback Bowl win against Iowa. And that was before his performance in the Tigers’ spring game was a complete flop.

Harris, meanwhile, overcame a sloppy start that day to show off a strong arm and impressive wheels. The day belonged to him, but the competition isn’t over. Jennings will still have a chance this month to convince offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to let him start against Wisconsin, but Harris is going to be tough to hold off.

Wide receiver: This is going to be a fun position to watch over the next couple of seasons since LSU signed arguably the top class of receivers in the country in February. It started with the No. 1 and 3 prospects at the position, Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, and continued with two more ESPN 300 honorees in D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch.

Since the Tigers lost two extremely productive wideouts from last season -- Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry -- the receiver spots are wide open entering camp. Sophomore Travin Dural and senior Quantavius Leslie are the only LSU receivers with any game experience, and they occupy the starting spots on the preseason depth chart. But the Tigers probably need several of the true and redshirt freshmen -- John Diarse appears to be the most likely contributor out of that group -- to prove themselves in August and beyond for this to be a productive season for the receiving corps.

Safety: This was one of the team’s bigger question marks in the spring and it’s still a question now in part because of Jalen Mills’ uncertain status following an offseason arrest.

Injuries hit the Tigers hard at safety last season, forcing starters Corey Thompson and Ronald Martin out of the lineup and eventually clearing the way for Mills to shift from cornerback to safety for the Iowa game. The good news now is that all those injuries helped plenty of LSU safeties get on-field tryouts, and now Thompson, Martin, Mills, Rickey Jefferson and Dwayne Thomas are all back in the mix.

Freshmen Jamal Adams and Devin Voorhies are in the picture, too, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a freshman -- particularly the heavily recruited Adams -- participating in some capacity early in the season.

Defensive tackle: Like running back, where freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams will join seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, this is a spot where a group of players should have an opportunity to contribute.

Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas are the closest things the Tigers have to seasoned veterans, having played behind Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson last season. They’ll be joined this season by redshirt freshmen Maquedius Bain, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron -- all of whom earned a mention from position coach Brick Haley last week on local radio for having strong summers in LSU’s conditioning program.

Signee Travonte Valentine was once thought to have a chance to contribute immediately as well, but the NCAA has yet to clear him to enroll at LSU, meaning he also missed out on the Tigers’ valuable summer workouts. If he makes it to Baton Rouge sometime this month, he might still make it onto the field in 2014, but it appears Valentine is behind the 8-ball for now.

Right guard: The offensive line should be an area of strength in 2014 since it must replace only one starter, right guard Trai Turner. Unlike some of the other open jobs, this one won’t go to a freshman since both of the leading candidates to take over the job are seniors: Fehoko Fanaika and Evan Washington. This is another battle that started in the spring, but if new line coach Jeff Grimes has made a decision, he hasn’t made it publicly. Fanaika and Washington are listed as co-No. 1s on LSU’s preseason depth chart.

LSU position breakdown: S

July, 31, 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 are the tight ends.

SAFETY

Returning starters: Jalen Mills (67 tackles, four tackles for a loss, three sacks, three interceptions). We’re making two assumptions here about Mills, who shifted from starting cornerback to safety and started there in the bowl win against Iowa. One, that he will return to active participation following an offseason arrest that resulted in his indefinite suspension. And two, that he will remain at safety once he clears up his legal issues. Mills was poised to be a steadying force at the back end of the defense during spring practice, so his presence will be valuable should he return to the lineup.

Starters lost: Craig Loston (57 tackles, four tackles for a loss, three interceptions) was one of a small handful of seniors on LSU’s 2013 defense and one of its more valuable leaders. The safety spot opposite Loston was a revolving door where multiple players started at least once, so the position is much more uncertain entering 2014 in his absence.

Key newcomers: Jamal Adams -- ESPN’s No. 18 overall prospect for 2014 and No. 2 safety -- was one of the biggest names in LSU’s highly regarded signing class. He could be in the mix to make an immediate impact, although he’s listed as a third-team safety behind Ronald Martin (38 tackles, one interception) and the versatile Dwayne Thomas (10 tackles, four tackles for a loss, three sacks) on LSU’s preseason depth chart. ESPN 300 athlete Devin Voorhies is also listed as a third-team safety behind Corey Thompson (40 tackles) and Rickey Jefferson (six tackles).

Player to watch: Thompson. Since we just mentioned Adams -- and to be sure, he’ll be a player to watch in August -- let’s mention Thompson here. The junior had started five out of the last six games before suffering a season-ending injury against Texas A&M that forced him to miss spring practice. He’s listed as Jefferson’s backup on the preseason depth chart, and the battles for both safety spots should be competitive.

Overall: Who opens the Wisconsin game at safety is anyone’s guess at this point. Martin seems like a solid option at strong safety after starting seven of the first nine games there in 2013 before a foot fracture forced him to miss four of the last five games. But assuming Mills returns to the lineup, when will the return occur? Who will emerge as a more consistent performer between Thompson and Jefferson? And how will Adams and Voorhies figure into the Tigers’ defensive plans? It’s difficult to answer any of those questions with much confidence today, which is why August will be an especially important month for LSU’s safeties.

LSU position breakdown: CB

July, 30, 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 are the cornerbacks.

CORNERBACK

Returning starters: Tre'Davious White (55 tackles, two interceptions, team-high nine passes defended) and Jalen Mills (67 tackles, three sacks, three interceptions). The White-Mills tandem started at corner for most of the fall before Mills shifted to safety at the end of the season. He stayed there this spring and projects as a starting safety for 2014 assuming that his legal issues clear up following a summertime arrest. The second starting corner is presumably Rashard Robinson (16 tackles, one interception), who took over Mills' starting spot in the bowl win against Iowa.

Starters lost: None.

Key newcomers: Among the newcomers is Ed Paris, who enrolled in January and participated in spring practice. That advantage could place Paris -- whom ESPN rated as the nation's No. 50 overall prospect for 2014 -- in line for playing time ahead of fellow signees John Battle and Russell Gage.

Player to watch: Keep an eye on Robinson's development. White is getting more preseason love, which is understandable since he started the last 11 games of 2013 and had an outstanding freshman season. Robinson came on late, however, and is aiming to build off what he accomplished in shutting down Texas A&M's star wideout Mike Evans in November. He's less of a known quantity than White, but at 6-foot-1, his ceiling might be even higher. If he approaches his potential, LSU will have a pair of sophomore stars in the making at corner.

Overall: The Tigers look to be in great shape at the position. Not only do they have two of the SEC's better young corners in White and Robinson, but they have a solid third option in Jalen Collins (22 tackles), a swingman in Dwayne Thomas (10 tackles, four tackles for a loss, three sacks), a talented freshman like Paris and a heck of an emergency fill-in in Mills.

It's unclear how playing time might shake out when the Tigers are in their various defensive packages, so it's highly likely that we'll see more than just the starting corners once the season begins. The depth chart is full of talent, and because of the youth present on the depth chart, cornerback figures to be a strength -- and a source of continuity -- in 2014 and beyond.

Mills helps steady LSU's safeties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I really didn’t have a problem with [shifting positions],” Mills said. “Just coming from corner, you know where you want your safety to be sometimes in different types of checks. So just going from cornerback to safety, I know what the corner wants, so I just try to do it.”

LSU spring football primer

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Read full post)

Opening spring camp: LSU

March, 14, 2013
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Schedule: The Tigers open spring practice Thursday and will conclude the spring April 20 with their annual National L Club spring game at 3 p.m. ET in Tiger Stadium.

What’s new: Cam Cameron steps in as LSU’s offensive coordinator after spending part of last season in that role with the Baltimore Ravens. Cameron replaces Greg Studrawa as LSU’s play-caller on offense and will also coach the quarterbacks. Studrawa remains on staff and will coach the offensive line. Steve Kragthorpe will move into an administrative role after coaching the LSU quarterbacks the previous two seasons.

On the mend: Reserve quarterback Rob Bolden (knee) and defensive end Justin Maclin will both miss the spring while recovering from injuries.

On the move: Junior La’el Collins will get first shot at left tackle this spring after starting all last season at left guard. Senior Josh Williford will shift from right guard to left guard. Junior Terrence Magee is moving back to running back after playing receiver last season and catching just one pass.

Question marks: The Tigers are replacing five of their top seven defensive linemen. Junior tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson and junior end Jermauria Rasco need to take that next step and become every-down forces up front. Head coach Les Miles said sophomore tackle Mickey Johnson has lost weight and had a promising offseason. Playing with more consistency at receiver will also be important. The Tigers had too many dropped passes last season and didn't make a lot happen down the field. Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry will be counted on to make big moves as juniors. LSU also has to find a new place-kicker and punter. Sophomore Jamie Keehn heads into the spring as the punter, while junior James Hairston will have to hold off redshirt freshman walk-on Colby Delahoussaye for the starting place-kicking job.

New faces: Junior-college newcomer Logan Stokes will battle for a starting job at tight end, while junior-college newcomer Fehoko Fanaika could factor in at offensive guard. At receiver, redshirt freshman Travin Dural will be one to watch after injuring his knee last season along with a pair of early enrollees -- Avery Peterson (Patrick Peterson’s younger brother) and John Diarse. Two more true freshmen, Anthony Jennings and Hayden Rettig, will be among a handful of players vying for the backup quarterback job. The Tigers have a total of six true freshmen on campus who will be going through spring practice as early enrollees. Redshirt freshman Dwayne Thomas is a prime candidate to be the Tigers’ third cornerback on passing downs.

Breaking out: In reality, senior linebacker Lamin Barrow has already broken out. He had 104 total tackles last season, but was overshadowed by Kevin Minter. With Minter leaving early for the NFL draft, Barrow will move this spring from weakside linebacker to Minter’s middle-linebacker spot. The 6-foot-2, 232-pound Barrow has everything it takes to become an All-SEC performer. If he sticks in the middle, it just makes the Tigers that much deeper at linebacker. Talented sophomores Kwon Alexander, Deion Jones and Lamar Louis can all play on the outside along with senior Tahj Jones, who returns after missing all but one game last season for academic reasons.

Don’t forget about: Senior running back Alfred Blue returns to give the Tigers one of the deepest backfields in the league. He injured his knee in the third game last season and was No. 2 in the SEC in rushing at the time. The 6-2, 220-pound Blue has excellent speed and also catches the ball well out of the backfield. He’ll team with sophomore Jeremy Hill to give LSU a dynamite one-two punch. The 6-2, 235-pound Hill had four 100-yard games as a true freshman and led the Tigers in rushing. Following a splendid freshman season, Kenny Hilliard was the forgotten man last season. He’ll be looking to regain his form this spring, while Magee will add some speed to the Tigers’ backfield.

All eyes on: Now that senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger has a season as a starter in the SEC under his belt, can he capitalize on the improvement he showed toward the end of last season? In particular, Miles wants to see Mettenberger get better at throwing the deep ball and understand all of the throws better. Mettenberger struggled early last season, but he didn’t get a lot of help from his receivers. The best news for Mettenberger was the hiring of a veteran offensive coordinator like Cameron, who’s tutored a ton of quality quarterbacks. There’s no question that LSU has to be more consistent on offense if it’s going to return to the SEC championship picture. How much Mettenberger improves from his junior to senior season will go a long way toward determining whether the Tigers will be a part of that equation.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- By the middle of August camp, free safety Eric Reid was the only returning starter in LSU's vaunted secondary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Where LSU will need help: Defense 

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

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

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

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