LSU Tigers: Jerald Hawkins
In previous weeks, we've broken down several players and position groups to watch this spring. This week, leading up to Saturday's first team workout, we'll make five predictions related to the Tigers' upcoming practices.
Today's prediction: Right guard isn't the only offensive line job up for grabs
So that means the Tigers only have one offensive line spot that is open for true competition, right? Maybe, but I'm not sure that will be the case.
Les Miles hired a new offensive line coach, Jeff Grimes, during the offseason and the message he will undoubtedly send this spring is that everyone has a clean slate. He made that very point two weeks ago in a local radio interview, noting that he watched only enough film of the group to get a general idea of what the individual players can do. He wants to see them earn their jobs, starting now.
Now you can comfortably assume Collins will remain as the starting left tackle. He's widely considered one of the nation's better senior offensive tackles and could conceivably become a first-round NFL pick in 2015. Hulking junior Alexander (LSU lists him at 6-foot-6 and 342 pounds) has a similar pedigree among 2016 guard prospects.
So where will the most competition occur? Right guard is obvious since the Tigers must replace Trai Turner, who seems to have impressed NFL scouts since deciding to leave after his redshirt sophomore season.
Massive senior Fehoko Fanaika (6-6, 348) might be the answer there, but there are other candidates. One of them might be Ethan Pocic, who could also push Porter -- whom he backed up at center last season as a true freshman -- for playing time. Another might be Evan Washington, who is officially listed as a tackle.
As a sophomore Hawkins naturally had his ups and downs in his first season as a starter, so Grimes will certainly look for more consistency out of him this season before handing him the starting spot once again. But the Tigers shifted Alexander from right tackle to left guard last season to make way for Hawkins, so clearly they liked the athletic Hawkins' potential.
The safe money is on experienced players holding onto their starting spots. And it wouldn't be much of a surprise if Collins, Alexander, Porter and Hawkins man four of the five line spots when the Tigers open the season against Wisconsin.
Grimes has been around the block a time or two, though. This is his eighth different coaching stop since grabbing his first college job coaching the offensive line at Hardin-Simmons in 1998. He knows that the best way for a new coach to motivate players is to give everyone a fair shot and then let them earn their jobs.
That's what he'll do with his new players and, even if the starters remain the same, it's safe to predict that a fresh competition might help the line improve this fall.
We covered the wide receivers, defensive tackles, quarterbacks and safeties in the first four installments. We conclude this week's series with the offensive line, which will break in a new position coach, Jeff Grimes, and at least one new starter this fall.
Departures: Right guard Trai Turner (13 starts) entered the NFL draft after a redshirt sophomore season where he became a second-team all-SEC pick. ESPN Scouts Inc. ranks him as the No. 5 guard and No. 113 overall prospect in the upcoming draft.
Returning reserves: Although Grimes could always elect to shake up the lineup, the most intriguing position at this point is the one that lost a starter: right guard. We recently wrote about how this will be a big spring for Fehoko Fanaika to prove that he deserves to inherit Turner's starting spot. Fanaika was an early enrollee after transferring from the College of San Mateo junior college last January and played in 12 games as a backup. The 6-foot-6, 348-pound mauler must now prove he deserves a starting spot. Other reserves of note are Ethan Pocic, Porter's backup at center who could play other positions if necessary, and rising sophomore tackle Josh Boutte. Tackle Evan Washington and guard Jonah Austin also played last season, with Washington earning a start against Furman.
Newcomers: Guards K.J. Malone and Andy Dodd both redshirted last season after arriving at LSU as four-star prospects. The Tigers signed just two offensive linemen in this class, both of whom will arrive in the summer. One of them, Garrett Brumfield, was ESPN's No. 1 guard prospect for 2014, so he might make the guard competition interesting in August if Fanaika doesn't nail down the job this spring. The other signee is four-star guard William Clapp.
What to watch: Beyond the candidates for the right guard spot, it's worth watching how Grimes decides to use his returning players. He said in a local radio interview last week that LSU's line was good, but rarely great in 2013, adding that he hadn't evaluated individual players too closely yet, so that he could give them all a fair shake when they start practicing together. The four returning starters have a decided experience advantage, but Grimes hasn't developed any preferences yet. This will be a valuable evaluation time for the Tigers' new assistant coach.
Grimes spent the last season as offensive line coach and running game coordinator on Frank Beamer's Virginia Tech staff, following a four-year tenure as the line coach at Auburn – a stretch that includes the Tigers' 2010 BCS title run.
Congrats to @coachgrimey on his move to LSU. Excited for him to get closer to his TX roots. Thanks for making our OL better this past year— Shane Beamer (@CoachSBeamer) January 15, 2014
LSU coach Les Miles told reporters Tuesday that he didn't expect to announce a hire for approximately a week, but listed some of the attributes he values in a new assistant.
“He's got to be a guy that can show us that he can improve what is already really a pretty good line,” Miles said. “And he's going to have to have run-pass technical expertise, he's got to have guys he's put in the league. Coaching in the league is a thought – not necessarily a prerequisite, but certainly a consideration.”
Grimes, a 20-year coaching veteran and native of Garland, Texas, does not have NFL experience on his resume. His players have earned their share of postseason accolades, however, with several reaching the pros. Out of the five starters on Auburn's 2010 offensive line, four earned All-SEC or All-America honors in their careers and two became NFL draft picks.
Grimes' 2001 offensive line at Arizona State had four seniors drafted the following spring, including first-round pick Levi Jones.
He inherits an offensive line that returns four starters – including second-team All-SEC left tackle La'El Collins, who announced Tuesday that he will return for his senior season – and loses only guard Trai Turner, who decided to forgo his remaining eligibility in order to enter the draft.
The returning starters – Collins, center Elliott Porter, right tackle Jerald Hawkins and left guard Vadal Alexander – collectively started all but two games in 2013.
“I think we'll be a dominant offensive line, without question,” Miles said. “There's a number of guys that really are back out there that will step forward and have an opportunity to be really significant. I think obviously La'El returning will just bolster that group.”
Collins announced his decision at an on-campus press conference alongside coach Les Miles and fellow rising seniors Jordan Allen, Kenny Hilliard, Elliott Porter and Jermauria Rasco -- all of whom also plan to return in 2014.
Miles credited the returning players for making decisions that will allow them to further develop before making the leap for the pros -- often a risky proposition, as several of the 11 Tigers who left school early after last season can attest. Only nine of those 11 got drafted and six were taken in the third round or later.
“I'm absolutely sure,” Miles said when asked if the departed Tigers' fates this season might have impacted the decisions of the players who chose to stay. “There were some unusual decisions made last year in my mind.”
Collins, Miles said, was a safe bet to become an NFL draft pick, but he emphasized that players need to strongly consider the possibilities should their pro stock sits on shakier ground.
“What we try to tell them is this: let's not give the NFL a deal. There's no reason for it,” Miles said. “The guaranteed money, the best position to go into the draft is the first round. What we want to encourage is to really view your decision in relationship to where you can be and where you are. These guys, they made great decisions.”
Collins was a second-team All-SEC selection this season after taking over as the Tigers' left tackle. He started all 13 games in 2012 at left guard, leading to some question about where he might eventually land in the pros.
He said NFL teams have offered mixed feedback as to which position he will play, but Miles said another college season at tackle will provide an opportunity to convince scouts that he can be a tackle.
“If I was sitting in an NFL room right now, I'd be sitting there questioning that. That would be a real question,” Miles said. “I think this year his piece is to improve and to make his last year his best year. And then I see tackle (in the NFL).”
The Tigers' offense lost five productive underclassmen with eligibility remaining -- receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., running backs Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue and offensive guard Trai Turner -- as well as senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger, so LSU's 2014 offense will feature an entirely new set of skill-position players. The offensive line should return four starters, however, in Collins and center Porter, right tackle Jerald Hawkins and left guard Vadal Alexander.
Miles said he expects the group to be dominant next season and Porter and Collins both predicted that it will be the strength of the rebuilding offense.
“Last year was our first year really playing together as a whole and I think that with another year under our belt, it's going to be a great season,” Collins said. “For me the game is won in the trenches, so if we come out and do the things that we're capable of doing, I think we'll have a great season.”
Getting Collins back makes that a much more likely proposition. He didn't give the NFL a deal, to use Miles' expression, giving LSU another season with arguably its top offensive lineman and providing Collins with another season to prove where he belongs on 2015 draft boards.
“I don't think there's any question that he has the potential to be a very early draft pick at left tackle,” Miles predicted.
- Alabama punter Cody Mandell, a key player for the Crimson Tide on Saturday in its win over Mississippi State, has come a long way during his four years in Tuscaloosa.
- Auburn is focused on the upcoming Iron Bowl, but not before focusing on itself first and correcting mistakes in the recent win over Georgia.
- Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk did an admirable job filling in for injured starter James Franklin, going 3-1 as a starter in Franklin's absence, but now he must go back to the bench, something that isn't easy for the freshman at the moment.
- South Carolina still has a shot at a BCS bowl, something the Gamecocks have never been to before. Coach Steve Spurrier said "Oh, it matters a little bit, I guess."
- Texas A&M has a tough test ahead, trying to go into Death Valley to beat LSU, which is pretty tough to do given the atmosphere the home crowd provides.
- When LSU hosts the Aggies, there will be a rivalry renewed between LSU offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins and Texas A&M defensive end Gavin Stansbury, a pair that knows each other well.
- Ole Miss committed five false start penalties on Saturday against Troy, which didn't make Hugh Freeze happy, but he doesn't anticipate it being a problem moving forward.
- Vanderbilt's ability to take the football away has Tennessee's attention as the two prepare to meet.
- Aaron Murray didn't get the championship he wanted while at Georgia, but he seems to be leaving as one of the most respected players in the program's recent history.
- Though the Gators were defeated, offensive coordinator Brent Pease appeared to show more creativity on Saturday against South Carolina than Florida usually displays on offense.
- Vanderbilt quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels returned to action Saturday against Kentucky after a leg injury and said there should be no lingering effects as the Commodores prepare for Tennessee.
What's comforting for Alexander is, as he slides into his new spot, he can lean on the knowledge of left tackle La'el Collins, who spent 2012 as the starter at left guard.
"La'el knows the position well," Alexander said.
It is sharing Alexander can reciprocate because of the quirk to this season's LSU offensive line that Williford's injury precipitates.
Collins was last fall's starter at left guard, and Alexander was at right tackle. Now Collins is at tackle and Alexander at guard.
"We try to help each," Alexander said. "So, I'll be like, La'el, 'remember to do this' and La'el will be like, 'Hey, watch for this.'"
Together, Collins and Alexander combine to form a potentially outstanding left side of the line. Moving Alexander gives the Tigers "some real power at that left side with he and La'el Collins," head coach Les Miles said.
"I think we can dominate," Alexander said. "In my opinion, we have the potential to be one of the best sides [of an offensive line] in the country."
Even if the side didn't come together in a conventional way.
Ever since Chris Faulk, then a returning starter at left tackle, was lost for the season to a knee injury after 2012's season opener, folks have been waiting for Collins, the No. 8 player in the 2011 ESPN 300, to make the move. Left tackle is made for elite talents like him.
But Miles balked at making the move at that time, choosing to keep Collins at left guard, where he was still learning the ropes, rather than force him to learn a second position. It was better, Miles decided, to move jack-of-all-trades senior Josh Dworaczyk to the edge.
Once the season ended and with both Dworaczyk and Faulk departed, the Collins move happened, and he feels like a better player for it.
"I feel like a complete offensive lineman," Collins said. "I can still move inside and play guard. It's still in me and it's easy to me. Being able to play tackle, that's become easy to me, so it's a great transition."
Williford, who started a year and a half at right guard before being lost for the season to a concussion suffered in the 2012 Florida game, seemed like a natural to slide over to the left side to Collins former spot. Trai Turner, who started at right guard after Williford's injury, returns to that spot.
But there was always an eye on Alexander for the guard position. Like Turner, Alexander became a starter last season because of attrition (first, the injury to Faulk, then the departure of tackle Alex Hurst). But after a bad outing against Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, many wondered if he wasn't better suited for guard.
There's no doubting Alexander's enormous size (he's listed at 6-foot-6, 342 pounds) and strength, but some questioned his footwork to compete pass rushers off the edge. While that criticism might not be fair -- Alexander was coming off minor knee surgery in the bowl game -- the possibility of moving inside was always on the table.
"I can play both," Alexander said. "I listen to my coach. They think it's best for the offensive line as a whole, but I can play both."
What made the move possible was a great offseason for redshirt freshman tackle Jerald Hawkins, which has continued at camp.
"We really think that Hawkins has had as quality a camp to this point as anybody," Miles said.
So when Williford suffered his second concussion in a year last week, the move was easy. Hawkins slid in at right tackle and Alexander bumped over to right guard. It left the Tigers with a remarkable new look. While Collins, Alexander and Turner give the Tigers three returning starters, only Turner is back at the position he started last year.
But there is no questioning the talent. Hawkins was just waiting to find a place.
"Having Jerald at right tackle is kind of putting your best five out there," Alexander said.
But will they be five that play with chemistry and savvy? To Collins, being able to draw off each others experience will lead to just that.
"That's what the O-line is about," he said. "Guys who know what's going on at every position of the line and just be able to help the guy onside you.
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.
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.
It looked, however, like it might have been something else, like a symbolic black eye that came from a jab thrown by Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, or from a hook fired by a couple of surprisingly early departures from his team to the NFL, part of a whopping 13 NFL departures after a 10-3 season.
At any rate, Miles looked ready to put the pink eye, and any symbolic black eye, behind him as LSU begins drills on Thursday.
Here is what we learned from Miles on Wednesday:
Miles confirmed that Collins, now a junior, will get his chance to slide over to tackle, but added that redshirt freshman Jerald Hawkins will get a look at the position as well. If Hawkins proves to be the better tackle candidate, Collins would move back inside.
Miles said if Collins indeed wins the left tackle spot, senior Josh Williford would be the likely choice to start at left guard. Junior college transfer Fehoko Fanaika came to LSU at 370 pounds, Miles said, and is more likely to play on the right side, where Trai Turner returns as the starting guard, Miles said.
2. Lamin Barrow gets first shot at MLB: Miles also indicated that Barrow would get the first shot at the vacant starting middle linebacker role, a spot vacated by Kevin Minter's early NFL departure.
Miles said Barrow " can do the job outside," where he excelled with 107 tackles at weak-side linebacker last season. If one of LSU's six Class of 2012 linebacker recruits or another veteran -- Miles mentioned junior D.J. Welter -- steps up at middle linebacker, Barrow can easily move back to his weak side spot.
3. Bolden, Maclin out: Miles said quarterback Rob Bolden, who made news when he transferred from Penn State to LSU last summer following the NCAA fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, will not participate in spring practice after undergoing knee surgery in the off-season.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU begins springs football practice Thursday with plenty of question marks, from adjusting to a new offensive coordinator to replacing the entire defensive line.
Here are the big story lines as practice gets set to start Thursday and continue until the spring game April 20:
1. What's the Cam Cameron effect? It's really going to be hard to pinpoint the Cameron influence on the offense until the Tigers start taking snaps in games next fall.
But if we start seeing Jeremy Hill taking swing passes from Zach Mettenberger and tight ends getting targeted repeatedly in passing drills, we'll know where that came from.
As LSU prepares to begin spring practice March 14, GeauxTigerNation will take daily looks at aspects of the spring camp. This is the third in the series:
BATON ROUGE, La. -- If you watched the NFL combine, you saw former LSU defensive linemen and defensive backs lining up to take their turns in drills.
So you want to know the areas of need as we head to the spring?
The combine gave you most of the answers.
Experience returning: Jermauria Rasco
Outlook: LSU won't have all of its candidates until August, when a trio of true freshmen arrive. But it'll be interesting to see who emerges out of the four veterans. Rasco worked his way into the top four last season and Hunter was a nice special teams player. Allen is coming off a knee injury. Any strong play from these four would be great news in the spring.
Outlook: LSU is a little more solid here than at end because Johnson and Ferguson have seen plenty of snaps. Ferguson needs to step his game up though. There's a lot of talk that Thomas is a guy who might step up and earn significant playing time, possibly even challenging Ferguson for a starting spot. True freshman Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore will arrive in August. Another freshman, LaCouture, is already on campus.
Player lost: Kevin Minter
Experience returning: Lots of players, but are there any natural MLBs?
Outlook: This position is more a matter of finding the right guy than finding a guy. Does LSU move weak linebacker Lamin Barrow there? Does D.J. Welter, who was second team in the Chick-fil-A bowl after missing the season for academic reasons, get a shot? How about young Ronnie Feist? There are no shortage of candidates. It's just a matter of finding the right fit.
Outlook: Like middle linebacker, there are candidates here, but which one is the best fit? Collins was a highly-regarded prospect coming out of high school, but he got comfortable at left guard as a sophomore and there could be a reluctance to move him. Hawkins is a talented redshirt freshman, but do you really want a redshirt freshman blocking quarterback Zach Mettenberger's blind side? Alexander, last year's starter at right tackle, could be an option as well, but that would leave the Tigers having to find a new starter for two positions.
Similarly, with a veteran stable of running backs returning, few saw true freshman Jeremy Hill emerging as a primary running back for LSU this year. Yet, it took only one injury -- to original starter Alfred Blue -- to get Hill the break he needed to start getting carries and eventually become the starter and the Tigers' leading rusher.
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Mettenberger's Rehab Ahead Of Schedule
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