LSU Tigers: Jalen Mills
Jarvis Landry: There likely have been better catches than the 32-yard, left-handed grab Landry made over Arkansas cornerback D.J. Dean on LSU's fourth-quarter field-goal drive, but it's a short list. Landry has made a habit of posterizing Razorbacks defenders, but this was the topper. Just an unbelievable catch -- and the capper on another outstanding outing in which he finished with eight catches for 113 yards. With running mate Odell Beckham out of the game with an injury, Landry's Tigers needed him to deliver, and he certainly did.
Anthony Jennings: The true freshman quarterback entered the game under almost impossible circumstances, and yet he delivered a winning performance. LSU was down 27-21 when Jennings entered the game after senior Zach Mettenberger went down with a knee injury on the same play where Landry made his ridiculous catch. Jennings completed the drive, which ended with an LSU field goal, so the Tigers needed at least a field goal to tie when Arkansas' Sam Irwin-Hill punted the ball to the LSU 1 with 3:04 to play. No problem. Jennings went 4-for-6 for 76 yards -- including the game-winning 49-yard touchdown pass to Travin Dural with 1:15 to play -- and also ran twice for 23 yards as LSU mounted the game-winning drive.
Jeremy Hill: Almost put cornerback Jalen Mills here -- and he certainly made some big plays -- but Hill deserves the mention. LSU leaned heavily on its big bull of a tailback, and he delivered with 20 carries for 145 yards, good for an average of 7.3 yards per carry. Hill's 52-yard touchdown run in the third quarter gave LSU a 21-20 lead. It was also his fourth TD run of 50-plus yards this season, which leads the SEC and is tied with Indiana's Tevin Coleman for second in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
But not everybody wants to see that.
The Tigers were one of just two teams to hold Texas A&M to under 20 points last season, but the majority of that defense is gone. It’s up to a younger, more inexperienced group to try to slow down Manziel.
What LSU needs to do to win: The key to beating Manziel this season has been to force turnovers. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner was great against both Alabama and Auburn, but he threw two interceptions in each game and that’s all it took. Texas A&M is coming off a 51-41 win over Mississippi State, but it was a game in which Manziel threw three more picks. Regardless of how many interceptions, if any, he throws, LSU will have to keep up offensively. That puts a lot of responsibility on quarterback Zach Mettenberger and this offense, but they certainly don’t lack the firepower. While it will be important to control the clock, the Tigers would love to hit a couple home runs Saturday.
Players to watch
RB Jeremy Hill: Coming off his worst performance of the season against Alabama, expect Hill to have a big game on Saturday. He’ll be more determined than ever, and he should be able to find plenty of running room against a porous Aggies defense.
CB Jalen Mills: It’s a safe bet that Mills will draw the assignment of trying to cover Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans. It’s no easy task, but he at least has the size (6-1, 189) to hold his own. Defensive coordinator John Chavis might also ask Mills to blitz some off the edge.
“I spent [Saturday] morning at the office working and spent the afternoon watching college football. What an amazing array of games and different styles. If there’s anything better than college football, I just haven’t found it.” -- Miles on how he spent his bye week
RB Kenny Hilliard: There were times when LSU looked dominant rushing the football against Ole Miss. Jeremy Hill led the team in yards, but it was Hilliard who played as well as, if not better than, the Tigers' starter. The junior rushed for a season-high 58 yards on just 11 carries. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry and put LSU on the board with a 3-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Hill is still the primary running back on this football team, but no coach has ever complained about having too many backs. Coming into Saturday's game, Hilliard was fourth on the team in rushing, but he's quickly emerging as the Tigers' No. 2 running back
DB Ronald Martin: The return of Martin was big for LSU. He missed the Florida game due to injury, but he came back in a big way against Ole Miss. The junior safety led the Tigers with 12 tackles, including eight solo stops. In the third quarter, Martin stripped running back I'Tavius Mathers and recovered the fumble on the same play. The turnover led to an LSU touchdown. Both Martin and Craig Loston have battled injuries throughout the first half of the season, but when healthy, they form one of the top safety tandems in the SEC. Cornerback Jalen Mills also has played well in the secondary. He had two sacks on Saturday.
The special teams: LSU never would have had a chance to tie the game late if not for the efforts of its special teams. The first big play was more of a mistake by Ole Miss when Korvic Neat muffed a punt, but Alfred Blue was there to jump on it for the Tigers. Later in the game, Ego Ferguson got his big paw in the air to block a chip-shot field goal attempt by the Rebels. The block kept it a one-score game and allowed LSU to tie it on the ensuing drive. Freshman kicker Colby Delahoussaye remained perfect on the season, making his only attempt from 41 yards out, and although Odell Beckham didn't break a big kickoff return he averaged more than 20 yards per return.
Honorable mention: WR Jarvis Landry
He’s coached a few in his two decades as a defensive coordinator in the SEC, both at LSU and Tennessee.
Chavis knew back in the offseason that it was going to be a work in progress with this group, and that some choppy waters were ahead. But seeing his defense shredded the way it was for eight quarters starting with the second half of the Auburn game, extending through the entire Georgia fiasco and then the first half of the Mississippi State game, was nauseating.
“It was difficult, but I always say, ‘We’re going to live in our hopes, not our fears,” Chavis said.
Those hopes have been rekindled thanks to the promise the No. 6 Tigers have shown defensively in their last six quarters of play. And just like that -- with some youngsters growing up in the secondary, some depth developing up front and Chavis making a few tweaks with his combinations -- LSU heads to Ole Miss on Saturday riding the kind of defensive momentum that has been a staple of this program since Chavis took over the defensive reins in 2009.
“But we can’t think that we’ve arrived,” Chavis said.
He’s been around this league long enough to know that it can change in a flash.
He’s also been around long enough to know that playing rock-solid defense and winning championships go hand-in-hand.
Granted, this hasn’t been your typical year in the SEC with so many veteran quarterbacks playing at a high level and 10 of the 14 teams in the league averaging more than 30 points per game.
But somewhere along the way, it always gets down to making key stops at key moments.
The Tigers look a lot more equipped to do that on a consistent basis as they plunge into the second half of the season. They’re coming off their most complete defensive performance of the season in a 17-6 win over Florida and have now gone six straight quarters without allowing a touchdown.
“I feel like the intensity level now is something that it hasn’t been all season, and all 11 guys are on the same page,” junior defensive tackle Ego Ferguson said. “When we’re there, it’s a special unit.”
The 44-41 loss to Georgia was undoubtedly the low point. The Bulldogs had receivers running free all game, and the Tigers just looked out of sorts defensively. They then went out the next week and gave up 23 points in the first half to Mississippi State.
“We just weren’t playing to our potential,” Ferguson said.
They also weren’t playing as many players, particularly up front. So Chavis made it a point to beef up the rotation in the defensive line, and also made some changes in the secondary.
Sophomore Jalen Mills has moved to the nickel position, which has given the Tigers more flexibility on passing downs. True freshmen Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson are now the two cornerbacks outside when Mills moves inside to the nickel, and sophomore Corey Thompson has started at safety the last two games.
Chavis said following the win over Florida that it was the best the Tigers had played at safety all season, and getting back a healthy Craig Loston was also a big part of that.
Robinson probably would have played even more earlier in the season had he not missed preseason camp while waiting to be cleared academically. He has the skill set to be the next great LSU cornerback.
And LSU coach Les Miles really likes what he sees athletically from this defense.
“I think our defense has always been a confident unit,” Miles said. “They just needed to get some things in place. This will be a team that athletically will eventually be one of the more talented defenses that we’ve had.”
Chavis, whose raw emotion is one of the things that endears him to his players, didn’t hold back last week when challenging them to get back to playing LSU football.
This is a team that had finished in the top 12 nationally in total defense and scoring defense each of the last three seasons but gave up 962 yards and 70 points in that two-week stretch leading up to the Florida game.
“Guys are really playing with the attitude and swagger that’s been played here in past years,” Collins said. “Guys are really stepping up and playing their role. We always preach that we haven’t played our best game yet.”
Judging from the way the Tigers have played on defense the last six quarters, they might be just getting started.
Here are the five big questions LSU must answer.
1. Will it be a new offense? LSU has a new offensive coordinator in former Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Does that mean the Tigers will break their recent trend of sub-par offense?
Forced to go with freshmen quarterbacks in 2008, the Tigers have seemed to be conservative and reluctant to open up the offense since. Cameron, on the other hand, was fired in Baltimore in no small part because it was perceived that he abandoned the running back too often. Perhaps the new offensive coordinator and the traditionally conservative Les Miles offense can find a happy medium, and quarterback Zach Mettenberger can have a breakthrough senior year.
2. Is it a Hill, or a mountain to climb? Most expect running back Jeremy Hill to face some disciplinary ramifications after a second violation of his probation from punching a man outside of a bar near LSU. The question is, will Hill face a short suspension or something longer? That won't likely be known until mid-August.
If Hill, LSU's leading rusher last season, does not come back to the Tigers, the question becomes, who fills the void? The Tigers only have four scholarship running backs even with the immensely talented Hill.
3. Will the defense struggle down the line? LSU lost all four defensive-line starters from last season, including three who are now toiling in the NFL.
Those around the program are ecstatic about the talent the Tigers have coming up to replace departures of Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery and Bennie Logan. But many of those talented players -- think defensive ends Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter in particular -- are woefully unproven.
Defensive tackle Anthony Johnson, a former top defensive tackle in the nation coming out of high school, is projected by many to be a first-round NFL draft pick after this season despite the fact that he mostly played a backup role last season. Johnson will need to be NFL caliber, and so will a couple of others, if the Tigers are to live up to their lofty expectations on the line.
The question is, does LSU have an NFL-quality middle linebacker for this year's defense?
Lamin Barrow was a triple-digit tackler last season as a weakside linebacker playing alongside Minter. Chavis tried to keep him outside in the spring and worked junior D.J. Welter, who missed most of last season for academic reasons, in the starting lineup.
Barrow may be an NFL-bound outside linebacker, but can he play inside? And is Welter better than a career reserve at the position? Which one will start, or will a wildcard -- perhaps true freshman stud Kendell Beckwith -- step in?
5. Will a freshman start? Under Miles, LSU has never been afraid to run a true freshman to the field. Redshirting is rarely ever the goal for new players.
On this team, there will be plenty of opportunities for a young player to emerge. In the secondary, Tre'Davious White is expected to push for starting time at a position where Jalen Mills emerged as a true freshman starter last season following the dismissal of Tyrann Mathieu.
Look for linemen to push for early playing time. Offensive lineman Ethan Pocic impressed during the spring as an early enrollee and may be an injury away from jumping into the lineup. Christian LaCouture had a similar spring on the defensive side. Look for impressive, young defensive linemen Lewis Neal, Tashawn Bower and Greg Gilmore to quickly challenge for playing time.
Here's how they rank going into the 2013 season:
1. Florida: The Gators will have arguably the nation's best cornerback duo in potential future first-rounders Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Purifoy is viewed by many as the nation's top cornerback. He's still raw, but he's a tremendous athlete, has great speed and is getting better at being a pure cover corner. Though Roberson isn't as athletic, he's more polished and has real lockdown ability (14 passes defensed in 2012). Sophomore Brian Poole made tremendous strides this spring at corner, and many think incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the ability to play now. At safety, veterans Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs have moved from corner. Coach Will Muschamp wants to see more from this position, but has plenty of bodies to help Watkins and Riggs, starting with Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman.
3. Vanderbilt: Andre Hal is one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC, while Kenny Ladler ranks near the top at the safety position in the SEC. Hal was second in the SEC with 14 pass breakups and added two interceptions last season. Ladler figured out a way to be all over the field last year, leading the team with 90 tackles. His safety partner, Javon Marshall, is back. Marshall and Ladler tied for the team lead with 60 solo tackles and will be one of the league's best safety duos. Replacing Trey Wilson won't be easy, but there are plenty of options, starting with senior Steven Clarke, who was the primary nickel corner.
4. LSU: The Tigers have to replace Eric Reid and Tharold Simon, but have the bodies to make things right, starting with corners Jalen Mills, Jalen Collins and safety Craig Loston. Mills and Collins were thrown onto the field early last season after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal and grew up in a hurry. Mills started all 13 games and defended seven passes with two interceptions. Loston had trouble reaching his potential early in his career, but has really turned the corner and should be one of the top SEC safeties. Junior Ronald Martin should be fine at the other safety spot, while sophomores Micah Eugene and Corey Thompson are solid backups. Freshman Jeryl Brazil is a freak athlete who should help at corner.
5. Ole Miss: The Rebels gave up more yards and touchdowns through the air than they would have liked last season, but this group showed good flashes here and there. A good spring and a healthy dose of experience should go a long way this fall. Senior Charles Sawyer was very steady at corner after moving from safety and is the leader of this group, while hard-hitting sophomore safety Trae Elston has what it takes to be a top safety in this league. Junior Cody Prewitt leads the charge at the other safety spot, while Senquez Golson will start opposite Sawyer. Highly-touted freshman Antonio Conner could enter the season as the starter at the hybrid "Husky" position. There is a ton of depth in the secondary, starting with big-play machine Nick Brassell, who is back after a juco stint. Quintavius Burdette and Chief Brown provide good reserve options at safety.
6. Texas A&M: What was a young unit in 2012 is all grown up now. The top player back there is corner Deshazor Everett, who became a national name after his game-sealing interception against Alabama. While Everett could be a star, he and top safety Floyd Raven are dealing with legal issues after they were arrested in connection with an April incident at a College Station apartment complex. Getting them on the field is critical for the Aggies. De'Vante Harris enjoyed a solid freshman campaign and proved he can be a shutdown corner. Safety is stacked with veterans such as Raven, Howard Matthews and Toney Hurd Jr., so this unit should be drastically better in 2013.
7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost a top-flight safety in D.J. Swearinger and an experienced corner in Akeem Auguste, but they bring back a lot of athleticism and speed. It starts with junior corner Victor Hampton, who has turned into one of South Carolina's best overall players. Jimmy Legree moved back to corner from safety last season and tied for a team-high three interceptions and six pass breakups. Talented sophomore Ahmad Christian will also push to get on the field. Brison Williams is solid at strong safety, while sophomore T.J. Gurley could be a stud at free safety. He'll have to battle with the much-improved Kadetrix Marcus, but Gurley is one of the team's most talented players. There's a lot of inexperience behind the main guys, and the staff is hoping to get more out of former top safety recruit Chaz Elder.
9. Mississippi State: Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks, top interception man Darius Slay and longtime starter Corey Broomfield are all gone. It hurts, but the Bulldogs aren't lost in the secondary. Senior Nickoe Whitley has loads of experience, while fellow safety Jay Hughes really stepped up as a valuable leader this spring. Jamerson Love is the most experienced corner coming back and the coaches expect him to break out very soon. But a lot of attention is going to juco transfer Justin Cox, who might be the team's fastest player and looks ready to step right in and be a shutdown corner. The top four guys seem solid, but there is a lot of inexperience behind them.
10. Auburn: Auburn has a lot of experience coming back to a unit that ranked eighth in pass defense last season. That number should be better this year, especially with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense. Corner Chris Davis might have only played nine games last season, but Johnson thinks he could be a special player. Corners Jonathon Mincy and Josh Holsey also saw plenty of time last year, while Jonathan Jones provides solid depth. Safety is covered by the high-flying Demetruce McNeal and Jermaine Whitehead, who were two of the Tigers' top tacklers last year. This group has to be more consistent and has to generate turnovers. Auburn had just two interceptions last year, with one coming from reserve safety Trent Fisher.
11. Missouri: Senior corner E.J. Gaines is one of the best cover corners in the SEC. What he lacks in size, he makes up in athleticism, speed and toughness. He has 27 pass breakups and three interceptions in the last two seasons. Randy Ponder had a solid spring and should start opposite Gaines. He has played in 25 games with five starts. Safety Braylon Webb is back after starting 12 games last year at free safety, while senior Matt White should hold down the other safety spot. Only Gaines and Ponder return with interceptions from last year (one each) and this unit surrendered an average of 333.3 passing yards per game last November.
12. Tennessee: The Vols do bring back experience, but this same group contributed to Tennessee owning the SEC's second worst pass defense (282.5 yards allowed per game). So that means these players have to grow and simply get better on the field. It won't come over night, but the experience gained last season should help. Safeties Byron Moore and Brian Randolph, who is coming back from an ACL injury, provide a solid foundation at safety, while returning starting corner Justin Coleman has to be much better than he was in 2012. Fortunately for the Vols, Coleman made very good strides this spring. Juco transfer Riyahd Jones could come in and start immediately.
13. Arkansas: This is another group that returns a lot of experience, but it was also the SEC's worst pass defense last year. The Razorbacks surrendered 8.2 yards per pass, 285.8 passing yards per game and gave up 24 touchdowns with six interceptions. All four starters -- corners Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines and safeties Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines -- but all of them have to get better. Mitchel and Gaines have the potential to be big-time players, but they have to be more consistent. This unit should get a boost from juco transfers Tiquention Coleman and Carroll Washington, while redshirt freshman Jared Collins had a pretty good spring.
14. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost two quality starters and are now stuck with a lot of young players. Coach Mark Stoops wasn't too pleased with the play of the secondary this spring, so this won't be a quick fix. Junior safety Ashely Lowery has the playmaking ability Stoops wants back there, but he just resumed working out after his horrific car accident from earlier this year. Youngsters Daron and Zack Blaylock, J.D. Harmon, Cody Quinn, and Fred Tiller all saw good time last season, but their growing pains lasted for most of the season. There was some improvement this spring, but this unit has a long way to go before fall.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- No state produces more NFL players per capita than the Bayou State. And LSU gets the lion's share of those players. It's a winning formula.
But it wouldn't be true to say LSU wins with Louisiana talent and Louisiana talent alone. LSU has been a draw for players outside of the state for years and recent success -- two national titles and three BCS title game appearances since 2003 -- has only increased it. This year's team has plenty of key players from outside the state lines.
So while 14 of LSU's starting 22 positions were held by Louisianians at the end of spring, there are plenty of out-of-staters who will make an impact:
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From: Biff (Chicago): Do the recruiting coaches feel any advantage in having someone like Lavar Edwards, who wasn't a starter his senior year, get drafted into the NFL? Does it give them valuable ammunition for getting four- and five-star rated players to know that at LSU you don't have to be a starter to be an NFL player?
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2012 record: 10-3
2012 conference record: 6-2
Returning starters: Offense: 9; defense: 3; special teams: 1
Top returners: QB Zach Mettenberger, RB Jeremy Hill, RB Alfred Blue, OL La'el Collins, WR Jarvis Landry, WR Odell Beckham, LB Lamin Barrow, SS Craig Loston, CB Jalen Mills
Key losses: DE Barkevious Mingo, DE Sam Montgomery, DT Bennie Logan, LB Kevin Minter, FS Eric Reid, CB Tharold Simon, OT Josh Dworaczyk, C P.J. Lonergan, K Drew Alleman, P Brad Wing
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Jeremy Hill* (755 yards, 12 touchdowns)
Passing: Zach Mettenberger* (2,609 yards, 12 touchdowns)
Receiving: Odell Beckham* (43 receptions, 713 yards), Jarvis Landry* (56 receptions, 573 yards)
Tackles: Kevin Minter (130)
Sacks: Sam Montgomery (8)
Interceptions: Tharold Simon (4)
1. A new offense: The arrival of new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron saw the Tigers throwing the football around all spring. It's clear LSU's sometimes anemic passing offense will be asked to carry a larger load this fall, with Mettenberger returning along with his favorite deep threat (Beckham) and his go-to possession receiver (Landry).
2. Barrow's a leader: After losing Minter to the NFL draft, LSU will look to its other 100-tackle linebacker for leadership. Barrow was productive all spring while staying at the weak-side linebacker spot where he excelled in a 104-tackle junior season. He could possibly move to middle linebacker in the fall.
3. More power: Even in a more open offense, LSU should be able to run the ball. With La'el Collins moving from left guard to left tackle and Josh Williford replacing him at left guard (sliding over from right guard), the Tigers will be able to start four offensive linemen who have started at least the majority of a season somewhere on the line. With fullback J.C. Copeland and four proven running backs returning, don't look for Cam Cameron's offense to abandon the run.
1. The Hill situation: LSU's leading rusher was suspended from the team indefinitely after he was arrested for his part in a bar fight that happened while he was on probation for a previous charge. If Hill serves a long suspension or is not on the team, the Tigers will be down to three scholarship running backs. Would that force the Tigers to change their offensive identity?
2. A new front four: The Tigers lost all four starters on the defensive line, including three (plus a backup) who were picked in the NFL draft. LSU has recruited well, but a lot of unproven talent will have to perform up to expectations for the defense to be as good as it was in 2012. Defensive tackle Anthony Johnson, who played starter-like snaps as the third tackle last season, will take on a leadership role.
3. Special teams dominance?: Under Les Miles, LSU has usually outplayed opponents on special teams. But with Wing giving pro football a try and kicker Alleman finished, there are serious questions about whether LSU can be as consistently good as years past. Walk-ons will be asked to replace Alleman's consistency.
Alabama lost nine draft picks, including three first-rounders, but Nick Saban has a host of talent returning on both sides of the ball, and the Tide's schedule isn't too daunting after the first two games.
But there are teams that will test the Tide's road to a national championship trifecta in 2013. Colleague Travis Haney picked five teams from around the country that could challenge Alabama's title hopes this fall. Ohio State topped his list, while Texas A&M made it from the SEC.
No surprise there with the Aggies. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel returns with a bundle of riches to accompany him in the Aggies' backfield.
Johnny Football might not have Luke Joeckel protecting him, but Jake Matthews provides quite the safety net with his move to left tackle, and there is still talent and experience up front. Mike Evans leads a young but talented group of pass-catchers.
The defense is a concern, with five members of last season's front seven gone, but the Aggies will still be equipped to win most shootouts.
A&M benefits from getting Alabama at home early in the season, but has to play Arkansas, Ole Miss, LSU and Missouri on the road. Even beating Alabama early doesn't guarantee the Aggies will make it to Atlanta over the Tide.
Here are four other SEC teams that could wreck Alabama's title train this fall:
The Gators will yet again be elite on defense. First-round draft picks Sharrif Floyd and Matt Elam might be gone, but Dominique Easley moves back to his more natural position at defensive tackle and could one of the best at his position this fall. Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy could be the top cornerback duo in the SEC, while inside linebacker Antonio Morrison has the makings of being a budding star.
The offense is still a concern, especially with the lack of proven receiving talent, but quarterback Jeff Driskel has found a lot more confidence in his second year under offensive coordinator Brent Pease, and he'll have a much tougher offensive line and another loaded backfield to work with.
Sure, the defense is younger and less experienced, but people in Athens are excited about the younger guys taking over. They were very receptive to coaching and showed continued improvement this spring. Linebacker Jordan Jenkins has playmaker written all over him, while freshman Tray Matthews could be the next big thing at safety. Having Damian Swann back at cornerback is huge.
Offensively, Georgia will be able to score on just about everyone. Aaron Murray is looking to be the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in four seasons, and should leave with a handful of SEC/Georgia records. He has five offensive linemen returning, the best one-two running back punch (Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall) and plenty of receivers to throw to, including Malcolm Mitchell, who has moved back to offense full-time.
Yes, the Tigers lost a ton of talent on the defensive side of the ball, but Les Miles seemed pretty happy with where his defense was -- especially his defensive line -- at the end of spring. Jermauria Rasco could be a big-time player at defensive end for LSU, while linebacker Lamin Barrow has the talent to be an All-SEC performer. The return of cornerbacks Jalen Collins and Jalen Mills should continue the Tigers' trend of having an elite secondary.
The offense should be better, too. Zach Mettenberger is way more comfortable in the offense and has developed better chemistry with his receiving targets, which all return from last season. He'll have a solid offensive line in front of him and a loaded backfield. Although, it will be important to see what happens to the suspended Jeremy Hill, who could be the Tigers' top offensive weapon.
Jadeveon Clowney hasn't left, and the Gamecocks should once again be stacked along their defensive line. South Carolina does have to replace its two-deep at linebacker and has a couple of holes in its secondary, but we all know that a good defensive line can mask weaknesses behind it.
And the offense should be pretty balanced this fall. South Carolina possesses two solid quarterbacks and a talented running back stable led by rising sophomore Mike Davis. Bruce Ellington is back at receiver, and it sounds like the very talented Shaq Roland is finally starting to come around and should be a valuable receiving target this fall. This team has the personnel to make it back to Atlanta.
2. QB Zach Mettenberger: The senior had a good spring, throwing for big yards in touchdowns in all of the scrimmages while looking mostly comfortable in Cam Cameron's offense. LSU might lean on its passing game more this season.
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1. Mettenberger adjusts: Quarterback Zach Mettenberger completed 12 of 19 passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns, all in the first half, after he evidently adjusted his own game plan.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron came up with the idea of allowing the quarterbacks to call their own plays in the spring game, so Mettenberger had some adjustments to make to his own calls.
"It was tough out there," the quarterback said. "Coach Cameron allowed us to call our own plays and it was the first time I've ever done that. It was kind of a slow start to get going, but we turned it around and had a pretty good day."
LSU coach Les Miles said the idea was to allow coaches to get a better feel for each quarterback's preference in certain situations and to allow the quarterbacks to gain a respect, and some insight, in the play-calling process.
"It allows you to see how the quarterback thinks," Miles said. "It allows you to see how he views the game plan, what he would call. I think it was a tremendous exercise."
It didn't get off to a rip-roaring start. Playing against a depleted second-team defense, the White offense managed a single field goal in its first three possessions before threw touchdown passes of 15 and 79 yards from Mettenberger to tight end Dillon Gordon and receiver Odell Beckham on consecutive possessions.
"We turned it around and had a pretty good day," Mettenberger said.
That goes especially for Beckham, who had two touchdown and 202 receiving yards on six catches, and Jarvis Landry, who added 132 yards on six catches.
2. Left out: LSU was without six injured first team players, as the secondary was depleted by injuries that kept out Jalen Collins, Jalen Mills and Ronald Martin. Offensive linemen Elliott Porter and Vadal Alexander also missed the game, as did defensive end Jermauria Rasco.
Joe (Denham Springs, La.): Who are the big-name prospects coming to LSU's spring game?
Gary Laney: The spring game (2 p.m. Saturday) is always a big draw and we are working on figuring out the guest list.
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Gone are seven starters, and six of those were underclassmen. All six are projected to be selected later this month in the NFL draft.
Experience won’t be in abundance on LSU’s defense next season. Chavis, one of the best defensive coordinators in the business, glances at the depth chart on the wall in the Tigers’ defensive meeting room and points out that only three seniors are listed.
Cornerback Morris Claiborne and tackle Michael Brockers both came out early a year ago and were drafted in the first round. Cornerback Tyrann Mathieu was also sent packing and didn’t play at all last season after failing too many drug tests.
Anybody thinking Chavis is sitting around mourning all the talent the Tigers lost on defense doesn’t really know him.
This is the kind of challenge he relishes and the kind he’s met head-on his entire career, going all the way back to his days as the defensive coordinator at Alabama State and Alabama A&M in the early 1980s.
Plus, it’s not like the Tigers are void of talent. It’s just young talent.
“Listen, it’s where we are right now, and nobody’s more excited about coaching this group than I am,” Chavis said. “We don’t have any choice but to grow up in a hurry. I can promise you we’re not going to fold up our tents and say, ‘Come get us.’
“We’re going to get there. It may not happen overnight, but we’re going to be a good defense.”
The Tigers have been better than just good defensively under Chavis. They’ve been dominant. Since he arrived in 2009, they’ve finished in the top 12 nationally in scoring defense all four seasons, and were in the top 10 nationally in total defense each of the past two seasons.
The year before he arrived, LSU had dipped to 56th nationally in scoring defense.
Without question, this will be his most daunting rebuilding job since that first season in Baton Rouge. But the standard has been set.
“There are a lot of guys on this defense who’ve just been waiting their turn,” said senior linebacker Lamin Barrow, who has been working both outside and in the middle this spring. “We know what people are saying about us because of the players we lost, but we can’t wait to get out there and let this beast out.”
The LSU offense put up big numbers against the defense in last Saturday’s scrimmage, but several starters on defense were out.
One of the biggest challenges will be finding finishers at end, although Jermauria Rasco had shown a lot of promise before having his spring cut short by shoulder surgery.
In the middle of that defensive line, the Tigers are set with Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson, and Chavis thinks both are future pros.
He also wouldn’t trade his young group of linebackers for anybody. Kwon Alexander was one of the best true freshman defenders in the league last season until he broke his ankle in the Florida game. He returned to play in the bowl game, which should help him mentally going into next season.
The Tigers also get senior Tahj Jones back at linebacker. Jones missed all of last season because of academic issues. The other senior who will play a big role next season on defense is safety Craig Loston.
Three sophomores who played last season as freshmen in the secondary -- cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins, and safety Corey Thompson -- are poised to take big steps in 2013. Mills started all season at cornerback.
Six defensive linemen were part of the Tigers’ 2013 signing class, and Chavis said it’s likely that several of those will have to play, particularly at end. Something says it won’t take long for talented incoming linebackers Kendell Beckwith and Melvin Jones to get on the field, either.
“When you sign great players, you do so knowing they may leave early,” Chavis said. “You go back and look, and we’ve always played a lot of freshmen. That’s for a reason. You’ve got to have those guys ready, and we will be.”
From Joseph (Seattle): Is it that I'm too LSU focused, or is there a surplus of hidden talent in Baton Rouge? And, coupled with the motivation created by "everyone counting them out," the Tigers are positioned to have a big season?
Gary Laney: When you look at the players stepping up at the areas where LSU lost starters, they were all highly-regarded prospects.
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