LSU Tigers: Jerald Hawkins
No really, Tiger fans, thank him. Collins’ decision to return for his senior season might wind up benefiting both player and program.
“Just being able to put that [decision] behind me any way it kind of went, just being able to start back focusing on whatever it was I needed to focus on -- and that was staying in school and coming back and getting better -- it feels great because I’m able to come here every day and just work hard and know that in a few months that my time is going to come,” Collins said toward the end of spring practice. “I’m just going to focus on helping my team win football games here.”
It’s obviously early, but Collins’ time will almost certainly come this time next year. He ranks among the top offensive tackle prospects for 2015, and another season playing left tackle -- he shifted there from guard last season -- will provide an opportunity to sharpen his skills and rise in the rankings.
He’ll also serve as the centerpiece of a veteran offensive line that should become the strongest point in a reloading offense.
“I feel like we’re better off because everybody is back, not just La’el,” said center Elliott Porter, one of three probable starting linemen who will be seniors. “We’re one as an offensive line. It’s not just one person, because you can’t do it with one person. La’el ain’t out there blocking everybody by himself, so La’el’s a great player, but like I said Vadal [Alexander] is back, I’m back, [Jerald] Hawkins is back. The only one we’re missing is Trai [Turner, who entered the draft], but he had to do what he had to do.
“But we have some guys coming in that can play, too, so I feel like it’s never one guy, it’s all of us. We’re coming in as one and we’re blocking people as one.”
OK, but ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. observed last season that Collins “has as much upside as any left tackle in the country,” and he’s the guy who will protect the LSU quarterback’s blind side. There is a premium on such players at any level of football, and if he continues to develop at tackle, Collins might have premium draft value in 2015, as Tigers coach Les Miles noted when he said: “I don't think there's any question that he has the potential to be a very early draft pick at left tackle.”
Now it’s up to Collins.
“Coming back is part of the equation, but the second part of that is coming back with the right approach so you don't second guess yourself every day,” said LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, formerly a veteran NFL coach. “You just move forward and try to be great and help this team win. His approach is the approach you want a young man to take.”
If his springtime comments were any indication, that certainly appears to be the case.
LSU’s roster has been shredded by the NFL draft over the last two years, with a total of 18 underclassmen deciding to turn pro. Collins is one of the few recent Tigers who opted to wait when a possible NFL paycheck beckoned.
Collins said it was a long-term decision, not just because he should complete his degree before leaving LSU, but because an additional season should help him become a better player -- potentially raising his draft stock and earning a more lucrative rookie contract next year.
He said the decision sends a message that might benefit other LSU underclassmen.
“I think it’s telling a lot of guys that maybe you might not get it in three years, maybe you might need that fourth year to really set yourself apart from a lot of guys and let people [see] what kind of player that you really want to be,” Collins said. “Be good to this program, at least, because they’ve been good to you.”
Prediction No. 1: Freshmen will contend for playing time
We were hardly going out on a limb here, but it appears as though plenty of redshirt freshmen secured 2014 playing time over the last month. Players worth mentioning from that group include receiver John Diarse and defensive linemen Frank Herron, Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore.
Prediction No. 2: Anthony Jennings keeps the QB job
Outcome: To be determined. Harris clearly outplayed Jennings in last Saturday’s spring game, but LSU’s coaches and players insist the competition is far from over. Jennings etched his name into LSU lore by leading the game-winning touchdown drive against Arkansas last year in relief of an injured Zach Mettenberger, but his mediocre performance in the Outback Bowl and highly average spring game -- he threw two interceptions, both to linebackers who returned them for touchdowns -- leave this race wide open.
Jennings might very well start the opener against Wisconsin, but we can’t claim victory (or accept defeat) on our quarterback prediction at this point.
Prediction No. 3: Right guard isn’t the only offensive line job that’s up for grabs
Outcome: Right guard is the only spot that didn’t return a starter, so it was clearly up for grabs. We were curious as to whether new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes might shake things up along the line, but it doesn’t appear that he did.
Returning starters La'el Collins, Vadal Alexander, Elliott Porter and Jerald Hawkins apparently held onto their starting roles, although it wouldn’t be completely untrue to say that some of their jobs were up for grabs had one of the reserves put together a dominant spring. Nonetheless, the right guard battle -- Evan Washington, Fehoko Fanaika and Ethan Pocic all remain in the running for the job -- was the only one that seemed highly competitive this spring.
Prediction No. 4: Rashard Robinson keeps rising at cornerback
Outcome: Another fairly safe prediction here. As long as Robinson remains on the active roster, it seems highly likely that he will build upon his late charge in 2013 and become a star in the secondary.
Harris and Rob Bolden teamed up to beat him on a pretty throw down the sideline in the spring game, but Robinson otherwise held up well last Saturday. After shutting down Texas A&M superstar Mike Evans last season, Robinson has LSU fans excited about his potential -- and he didn’t seem to hurt his cause on the practice field this spring.
Prediction No. 5: Danielle Hunter improves as a pass rusher
Outcome: Anyone who saw Hunter manhandle the second-string offensive line in the spring game -- including back-to-back sacks on one possession -- would say this prediction seems to be sound.
LSU posted just 27 sacks last season, which was a big drop-off after the last few Tigers teams boasted at least one or two scary pass rushers. Jermauria Rasco led the team with just four sacks, and Hunter tied for second with three.
It would be a major upset -- and a big disappointment -- if Hunter fails to exceed that total this fall.
Now let’s take a look at our predictions for five players to watch during the spring: Paris, Jennings, Fanaika, wide receiver Quantavius Leslie and defensive lineman Mickey Johnson.
There were some hits and misses here. Jennings was an obvious choice since he and Harris were clearly going to battle for the quarterback job. Picking either one made sense, but we went with Jennings since he was the more experienced player. Harris was the contender who generated all of the positive buzz in the spring game, however.
Fanaika, Leslie and Johnson are all veterans at positions with major playing time available, so they seemed like good picks. Fanaika is still a leading contender to start at right guard and Leslie had a productive second scrimmage (four catches, 135 yards and three touchdowns), although he was quiet in the spring game. But Johnson dealt with injuries during the spring and was not a factor in the Tigers’ competition at defensive tackle.
The problem with our Paris prediction was that we projected him as a contender at safety, which is where ESPN listed him as a prospect. The early enrollee practiced at cornerback during the spring, so we can’t feel too good about that prediction. But he was working with the second-team defense by the end of the spring, so at least he flashed some potential.
If we could redo the list, we’d place Harris, Washington, Diarse, Bain and sophomore Kendell Beckwith -- who shifted to middle linebacker this spring -- on there.
Hard-nosed and extremely vocal, Studrawa -- whom Les Miles did not retain after the 2013 season, and who has since accepted the same job at Maryland -- could have come straight from Central Casting to play the role of an offensive line coach. Grimes, on the other hand, does his teaching without all the yelling.
That’s not to say that Grimes lacks an edge. It’s there when necessary -- just not as loud.
“He’s upfront. He won’t sugarcoat anything. He’ll just tell you how it is,” said senior Fehoko Fanaika, who is battling for the Tigers’ starting right guard spot.
LSU’s offense relied heavily on a foursome of NFL-caliber skill players in quarterback Zach Mettenberger, tailback Jeremy Hill and receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry -- a group that helped the Tigers become the first SEC team to boast a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers.
However, the Tigers’ offense was fairly average overall, ranking in the middle of the SEC pack in both total offense (seventh, 453.3 ypg) and scoring offense (sixth, 35.8 ppg). The offensive line’s play certainly factored into those middling results, ranking 57th nationally with an average of 1.92 sacks allowed per game.
Miles, however, believes Grimes’ focus on “attention to detail and technique” will help a line that returns four starters become a more effective group this fall.
“I think we’ll be better. I really do,” Miles said. “But it has to do with the duality of veteran offensive linemen getting to a point in their career where they’re making the final adjustments and Jeff coming in with a real nice focus for them there. I think it should be pretty quick.”
Just because Alexander, left tackle La'el Collins, center Elliott Porter and right tackle Jerald Hawkins are all back doesn’t mean Grimes has guaranteed starting roles to the returning starters. The Tigers have at least seven linemen whom the coaches like -- throw Fanaika (guard), Evan Washington (guard or tackle) and Ethan Pocic (center, guard or tackle) into the mix -- and want to evaluate as potential starting combinations.
“Everyone’s been moving around a lot. Coach Grimes has been moving us around. He’s trying to see where he likes people at,” Pocic said.
That type of experimentation is fairly common during the spring even among coaches who didn’t just arrive on campus. But in this case, Grimes is simply getting a feel for his personnel -- and they’re getting a feel for him, which they quickly noticed does not include the in-your-face tactics one might expect from an offensive line coach.
“Coach Grimes is one of the most specific, technical guys you'll meet in your life. Automatically, right off the bat, he got us better,” Alexander said. “Coach Stud was a great coach and I love him. He got us better, as well, but just Coach Grimes has a different way of approaching things. He's more mellow.”
In Grimes’ profession, results are what matter, not coaching methods. He has been successful in that regard, most notably during Auburn’s 2010 BCS championship run, but also in stops at Virginia Tech, Colorado, BYU, Arizona State and Boise State.
Starting with his first practice on campus, Grimes’ reputation as a technician caught his head coach’s attention. Miles said last week that it was paying off, with linemen picking up the finer points of their positions that can lead to an overall more productive performance from his group.
“I think our guys are responding to it,” Miles said. “I think the guys are really in position to do so in other words. It’s pretty much a veteran group and there’s always the final footwork, if you will, or the final course, the head placement. I think Jeff’s coming in at the right time for these guys and making that point.”
Fanaika made no such comment, but make no mistake: he has no intention of handing over the job to Washington -- a senior who is shifting from offensive tackle in an effort to win the position -- or Ethan Pocic without a fight.
“We want the best out there,” Fanaika said. “If someone’s beating me out, that’s probably going to be hard to do, but I’d want him on the field more than me. I want the best.”
So does new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes, who has a long way to go before he settles on anything, however. Pocic said Grimes has been moving his linemen around throughout LSU’s early practices in order to identify the combinations he likes.
It’s unclear whether one of those combinations will include Pocic at center. An early enrollee last year, Pocic backed up Elliott Porter at center during the fall. Pocic said Tuesday that he had practiced only at guard and tackle so far this spring, but Coach Les Miles said Pocic spent about half of Thursday’s practice at center.
“When I came in, I went to center and just the whole basic stuff was pretty hard -- like snapping and stepping -- but once you really get the hang of it, you get more into a groove,” said Pocic, who played left tackle in high school. “The good part about playing center is you’ve basically got to know what everyone’s doing, so when it’s time to play a different position, I pretty much already know it because you’ve got a good overall base of what the O-line’s doing.”
If the rotation in the periods of practice that were open to the media are any indication, the seniors are Grimes’ top two options at right guard. For the most part, Washington was the first to work alongside starting right tackle Jerald Hawkins in drills, but he and Fanaika are both getting their chances to impress the new position coach.
“It’s pretty much a great battle right now,” Hawkins said. “They both know what they’re doing -- especially Evan Washington and Hoko [Fanaika]. They know the playbook from last year, so it’s just who really wants it more.”
Fanaika said he now weighs 340 pounds after tipping the scales at approximately 370 when he transferred from College of San Mateo junior college last January. He said he wants to get down to 330 pounds before the season.
In addition to dropping more weight, Fanaika said he also needs to prove to Grimes that he’s mentally and physically tough enough to claim the job.
“I’m not there, but I’m just trying to get better every day -- as well as everyone who’s trying to fight for it,” Fanaika said.
That fight will continue for the next couple of weeks, although Washington predicted there will be a clear leader by the time the spring game arrives on April 5.
“I feel like everyone has a chance right now,” Fanaika said. “[Grimes] came in actually telling us that no one has a guaranteed spot. We’re all going to come out here and work and the best five will start.”
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.
LSU's Talented Youth
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