LSU Tigers: Jeremy Hill

BATON ROUGE, La. -- In April, we broke down how LSU's offense led the nation in third-down efficiency last season by converting for a first down or touchdown 57.1 percent of the time.

The three key names in that endeavor were quarterback Zach Mettenberger, receiver Jarvis Landry and tailback Jeremy Hill -- all of whom ranked among the nation's most clutch third-down performers. All three are in the NFL now, however, so it will be important for LSU to identify new players capable of keeping drives alive on those all-important downs.

Let's take a look at what could become the key factors in LSU's attempt to remain successful on third down.

Quarterback efficiency, running ability

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo, Cal Sport MediaLSU will have a hard time matching the success on third down of departed quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
One of the two April posts focused on the need for the Tigers' quarterbacks to play efficiently. Let's face it, whoever wins the starting job -- whether it's freshman Brandon Harris or sophomore Anthony Jennings -- he's not going to zing third-down completions like Mettenberger did last year.

The fifth-year senior's 96.7 Total Quarterback Rating on third down trailed only that of Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston (96.9) among FBS quarterbacks. Mettenberger was 58-for-89 for 974 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Of those 58 completions, 21 went for 20 yards or more -- a total that was second only to Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater (22).

Talented though they may be, a green freshman and a sophomore with one shaky start under his belt are not going to match that kind of passing production. As LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron indicated after the Tigers' spring game, they'll have to play it smart early in possessions in order to keep the offense in manageable down-and-distance situations.

Give the young quarterbacks this, though: both of them have an ability that Mettenberger simply does not possess, and it will almost certainly come in handy this fall. Both are good runners, so don't be surprised to see designed runs -- and scrambles after plays break down -- that result in first downs.

Jennings was credited with six rushing attempts on third downs last season, with two of them achieving first downs and another achieving a touchdown. Harris showed off some impressive wheels in LSU's spring game, rushing three times on third down for 45 yards and a touchdown. We'll certainly see more of that in 2014 than when the slow-footed Mettenberger was under center.

Filling Landry's shoes

The question isn't which LSU player replaces Landry's absurd production on third down. It's highly unlikely that one player will do that -- not this fall anyhow -- seeing as how Landry ranked third in the FBS in third-down receptions (28), second in receiving yards (474) and tied for first with six touchdown catches according to ESPN Stats & Information.

2013 FBS Leaders
Third-down receptions
35 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
30 -- Justin Hardy, East Carolina
28 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
27 -- Allen Robinson, Penn State
26 -- Willie Snead, Ball State

Third-down receiving yards
478 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
474 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
432 -- Shaun Joplin, Bowling Green
407 -- Ty Montgomery, Stanford
402 -- Antwan Goodley, Baylor

[+] EnlargeTravin Dural
AP Photo/Bill HaberTravin Dural caught the game-winning touchdown against Arkansas on third down.
LSU has only one returning wide receiver who was even targeted with a third-down pass last season -- Travin Dural caught 5 of 11 third-down passes where he was the intended target and scored two touchdowns, including the game winner against Arkansas -- so it would make sense for the Tigers to spread around the opportunities more evenly this fall.

But who will get those chances?

Dural is a given, followed by lots of uncertainty. Freshmen like John Diarse, Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch will be in the mix, but it's possible that the quarterbacks will look more often to players at other positions.

Using veterans at TE, RB in passing game

Since the receiving corps is loaded with inexperience, a good alternative might be the positions where the Tigers return some experience.

They're extremely deep at tight end, and one of the talking points of LSU's spring practice was about how the position should be more active this season.

Last season, the Tigers targeted the tight end 10 times on third down, but came away with only three completions for 35 yards and one first down. In other words, this will be a two-way street. The tight ends must hold onto the ball consistently if the quarterbacks are to look their way more often.

If LSU's spring game was any indication, the chances will be there. Jennings and Harris targeted tight ends on four of their 12 third-down passes, with DeSean Smith catching two of them for 36 yards and a touchdown.

Likewise, tailback Terrence Magee made it a point this spring that he'd like to catch more balls out of the backfield this fall. The former receiver could be dangerous as a third-down target judging by his three receptions for 46 yards in that role last season.

Fullback Connor Neighbors (one catch on two targets for 4 yards and a first down in 2013) could also become more of a factor in the passing games now that he's taking over for J.C. Copeland in the backfield.

Who handles the backfield workload?

Hill was arguably the nation's most explosive third-down back in 2013, leading the FBS with an average of 13.28 yards per carry on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Although dozens of players carried the ball more times on third down than Hill's 18 attempts, he ranked 10th nationally with 239 yards thanks in large part to his touchdown runs of 37, 49 and 69 yards.

2013 FBS Leaders
Third-down yards per carry
13.28 -- Jeremy Hill, LSU (18-239)
11.92 -- Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech (13-155)
10.76 -- Duke Johnson, Miami (17-183)
10.50 -- Larry Dixon, Army (12-126)
10.20 -- Tevin Coleman, Indiana (10-102)

Seniors Magee (eight carries, 44 yards, three first downs, one touchdown in 2013) and Kenny Hilliard (eight carries, 36 yards, two first downs, two touchdowns) have handled short-yardage duty well in limited work, but the X-factors might be freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams.

ESPN's No. 1 overall prospect for 2014, Fournette has LSU fans drooling over his combination of size, power and breakaway speed. He'll almost certainly play a leading role on third down -- and in every other type of running situation -- early in his college career. And Williams was no slouch himself as a prep star, rushing for 2,201 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior at John Ehret High School in Marrero, Louisiana.

It's possible that LSU could use all four tailbacks in some capacity, similar to a 2011 backfield that utilized Hilliard, Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Alfred Blue. Ware led the Tigers with 92 yards on 25 third-down rushing attempts that year, while Blue (16 carries for 85 yards) and Ford (13 carries for 77 yards) led the way with two touchdown runs apiece.

With inexperience at quarterback and receiver and a next-level talent like Fournette joining the backfield, conventional wisdom indicates that LSU will lean heavily on its veteran offensive line and the ground game, especially on third downs. The previously mentioned factors will certainly play an enormous role in LSU's attempt to remain effective on third down, but this might be a season where the rushing attack is the most important element in keeping the chains moving.

Second-year stars: LSU

June, 10, 2014
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One of the most beneficial aspects of the LSU coaching staff’s philosophy of liberally using true freshmen is that those youngsters are often ready to blossom in their second seasons. Think Tyrann Mathieu, who became one of the SEC’s most explosive players as a sophomore in 2011. Think Patrick Peterson, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Eric Reid -- all of whom emerged as stars when they were sophomores. The list could go on and on and on.

With that history in mind, it should come as no surprise that LSU has plenty of candidates who are poised to repeat what Mathieu and company accomplished in recent seasons by achieving stardom in their second year in the SEC.

The Tigers are next up in our series projecting who might become a second-year star at each SEC program.

[+] EnlargeRashard Robinson
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesLocking down Texas A&M's Mike Evans gave a sign of what rising LSU sophomore Rashard Robinson can do.
Class recap: Thanks in part to LSU’s 11 early entries into the 2013 NFL draft, the Tigers had lots of holes for freshmen to fill last fall. Most notably, cornerbacks Rashard Robinson and Tre’Davious White had jumped into the starting lineup by the end of the season. But a number of other freshmen played last season, including Anthony Jennings -- who filled in at quarterback when senior Zach Mettenberger suffered a season-ending knee injury in November -- defensive tackle Christian LaCouture, defensive end/linebacker Kendell Beckwith, tight end DeSean Smith and offensive lineman Ethan Pocic. Still, some of the most talented players in the class redshirted in 2013, and there should be several breakout candidates from that bunch, including receiver John Diarse and defensive linemen Maquedius Bain, Frank Herron and Greg Gilmore. Overall, the 2013 signing class has left a small impression already, but this should be the year where its impact is truly felt.

Second-year star: CB Rashard Robinson (6-foot-1/163)

Recruiting stock: A three-star athlete from Ely High School in Pompano Beach, Fla. -- the same school that sent Peterson to LSU -- Robinson wasn’t cleared to enroll at LSU until three days before the first game. But his dynamic athleticism helped him begin contributing by Week 2 and start by the end of the season.

2013 in review: Robinson put himself on the map when he shut down Biletnikoff Award finalist Mike Evans for most of the game in LSU’s dismantling of Texas A&M. Evans averaged 107.2 receiving yards per game, but he had only three catches for 13 yards against Robinson before adding a 38-yard reception against a different Tigers defender late in the game. Robinson also notched his first career interception in the game. He finished the season with 16 tackles, 0.5 tackles for a loss, three pass breakups and four passes defended.

2014 potential: Now that he has found his footing, Robinson is poised to team with White to become LSU’s next set of shutdown cornerbacks. As long as he keeps his academic ship in order, the sky is the limit. He probably needs to add some weight to his thin frame, but Robinson has the athleticism and coverage skills to dominate in the SEC and become a pro cornerback in the not-so-distant future.

Also watch for: Aside from Robinson and White, Smith is another top candidate for the “second-year star” honor from LSU. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron typically utilizes the tight end, and Smith’s receiving skills could make him a major weapon this fall. In addition, Beckwith generated headlines by switching to middle linebacker during spring practice, and he seems ready to challenge D.J. Welter for playing time there. Keep an eye, also, on LaCouture, Tashawn Bower and the previously mentioned redshirt freshman defensive linemen, who will almost certainly all play key roles this fall. Any of these players would make sense as the LSU pick for this series, but Robinson’s potential pushed him to the top of the list.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- This spring was a lonely time in LSU’s running backs meeting room. That’s about to change, but the Tigers still must dodge any major injuries this fall or they might have problems.

[+] EnlargeKenny Hilliard
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsDue to injuries and NFL draft defections, Kenny Hilliard was the Tigers' top tailback this spring.
After losing two tailbacks with eligibility remaining to the NFL draft -- the second straight offseason where that was the case -- the Tigers went through spring practice with only two scholarship tailbacks on the roster. One of them, Terrence Magee, missed a portion of the spring with an ankle injury, leaving fellow senior Kenny Hilliard and linebacker-turned fullback-turned emergency tailback Melvin Jones to handle most of the practice carries.

Running backs coach Frank Wilson wasn’t particularly alarmed by that reality -- LSU did sign the nation’s No. 1 prospect, tailback Leonard Fournette, and three-star RB Darrel Williams in February, after all -- but it was inconvenient at times.

“The gap is in the spring. Guys declare early for the NFL, guys graduate in that time, so we have a lull there,” Wilson said earlier this month. “Once we get all 22 or 25 of our guys here, we have a full scholarship roster, then we're fine. We have the depth that we need at every position. But it was tough at times.”

Most of LSU’s freshmen are set to arrive on campus next week, potentially filling some of the holes that existed during the spring when the Tigers were far short of a full complement of players. But even when Fournette and Williams join the two seniors, LSU will still be one short of Wilson’s ideal number of five scholarship tailbacks on the roster.

That’s partially because of the NFL early entries by Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue and partially by design. Fournette was one of the most sought-after prospects in the history of Louisiana high school football, so LSU obviously made the New Orleans native’s recruitment a top priority. The Tigers signed only one tailback in 2013 -- Jeryl Brazil, who was dismissed from the team before he completed one season in Baton Rouge -- and added only Hill to the roster in 2012, a year after he initially signed with the Tigers.

So there’s a shortage for this season. It certainly won’t be a problem from a talent standpoint -- Magee and Hilliard have proven that they can be productive SEC backs, Williams rushed for 2,201 yards and 30 touchdowns as a high school senior and Fournette seems set for nothing short of superstardom -- and will become a physical issue only if injuries crop up.

As long as health doesn’t become an issue, Wilson said he’ll be able to ease in the freshmen, Fournette in particular, to complement the seniors instead of placing immense pressure on their shoulders.

“This summer’s going to be huge for [Fournette],” Wilson said. “He’ll come in and he’ll learn the system, he’ll work hard. I expect him to come in and do things in the weight room as well as from a conditioning standpoint to put himself in position to compete for a starting job. We have two quality backs here that have experience in Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee and we expect Leonard to compete with those guys. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Obviously the Tigers would be in a more comfortable position had Hill or Blue remained for another season, but Magee (626 rushing yards, eight touchdowns, 7.3 yards per carry in 2013) and Hilliard (310 yards, seven TDs) are a good insurance policy.

It would be a surprise if Fournette isn’t a major contributor in LSU’s offense this fall, but the seniors’ presence means he doesn’t have to be a superstar right away.

“I think we’re smart enough to not really think we're going to go through a 14-, 15-game schedule and lean on a guy who hasn’t played college football yet or that length of time,” LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “I think they're going to come and be a part of what we do. We’ve got depth, though it be young. We’ve got depth at every position.”
BATON ROUGE, La. – As we detailed Tuesday, LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s NFL background played a role in the emergence of several Tigers as top draft prospects. Cameron knows how to coach talented players to perform at the pro level, and he knows what it looks like when said players possess legitimate NFL potential.

Cameron predicted recently that many of LSU’s offensive draft prospects possess the potential to hang around the league for a long time after being selected in this week’s NFL draft. Here are some thoughts about those ex-Tigers straight from the horse’s mouth – the horse in this case being a coach who spent more than a decade in the NFL as an offensive coordinator and head coach before joining Les Miles’ LSU staff last year.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanCam Cameron has effusive praise for the passing ability of Zach Mettenberger.
QB Zach Mettenberger
Perhaps the greatest testimony to Cameron’s impact on the LSU offense was Mettenberger’s improvement in his final fall as the Tigers’ starting quarterback. He had long possessed the raw tools to become a success – most notably prototypical size (he’s 6-foot-5) and a strong throwing arm – but he didn't put it all together until working with Cameron.

Cameron coached NFL quarterbacks Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Joe Flacco, and he indicated that Mettenberger has the skills to become a pro starter himself.

“You’re looking for innate accuracy, a guy who can just throw the ball accurately and make it look easy. A guy who’s not mechanical, a guy who just is a natural thrower and the ball goes where it’s supposed to go,” Cameron said. “Once you’ve been around great quarterbacks, you know what it feels like and you know kind of what it looks like, but it has a certain feel to it. What you [saw at LSU’s pro day was] a guy throw a football like the great quarterbacks in the National Football League.”

RB Jeremy Hill
Hill is another Tiger who, like Mettenberger, dealt with off-the-field issues before working with Cameron. But Cameron vouched for Hill’s character, saying, “I think we all, every one of us, make mistakes. May make a mistake or two. I have no issues with Jeremy Hill. He’s been a great kid since I’ve been here. In my dealings with him, he’s where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be there.”

As far as on-the-field possibilities, there isn’t much to question when it comes to Hill. He rushed for 1,401 yards and 16 touchdowns last season and set an SEC record for a back with at least 200 rushing attempts by averaging 6.9 yards per carry.

Hill’s versatility and intelligence inflate his value even further.

“Really look at backs in the league. Go count how many can play on first down, second down and third down, third-down-and-short and inside the 3-yard line. You’re not going to find many,” Cameron said.

“He’s an every-down back and he’s an ascending player and he’s off-the-charts smart. He is LaDainian Tomlinson-smart and LaDainian is a lot like Darren Sproles, Ray Rice – it’s a who’s who of guys that were great players in our system and the one thing that they all had that most people didn’t know is how smart they were, football smart they were. He’s just a young smart, but I think he’ll be a brilliant player in the National Football League.”

WR Odell Beckham
Beckham will probably be the first Tiger selected in the draft – ESPN’s Todd McShay has him going 13th overall to St. Louis in his newest mock draft – thanks to his explosive skills as a receiver and return man.

That ability existed before Cameron’s arrival, but Beckham made big strides at receiver in 2013, improving from 713 receiving yards in 2012 to 1,152 last season. Cameron credited LSU receivers coach Adam Henry, another former NFL assistant, for teaching Beckham and Jarvis Landry how to attack the ball as pass catchers.

“Adam Henry does a tremendous job teaching our guys how to run into the football,” Cameron said. “Of course, guys who have great hands aren’t cushioning the ball into their body. They just come attack the ball. And those two are the best college receivers I’ve been around at attacking the football, which you have to do in the NFL.”

WR Jarvis Landry
Landry received plenty of love from draft analysts for his strong all-around game – as a blocker, reliable receiver and route-runner – that should translate well to the pros.

After a disappointing result running the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, Landry helped his cause a bit by running a 4.58-second 40 at LSU's pro day. But straight-line speed is not the only kind of quickness required to play in the NFL, particularly at receiver.

“If you can’t win in the first 5 yards, if you don’t have short-area quickness, you’re not going to last in that league because corners aren’t going to play off of you,” Cameron said. “And the one thing he’s got … He’s got NFL explosion, NFL quickness. You’ve got to win those first 5 yards because now they’re going to get their hands off of you.”

OL Trai Turner
Turner surprised some when he announced that he would turn pro after an All-SEC redshirt sophomore season. But the Tigers’ former right guard has generated positive buzz since the season ended and could come off the board in the draft’s early rounds, a possible outcome again strengthened by versatility.

“He has guard-center value,” Cameron said. “Most people don’t know that about him: If he has to play center, he could play center, because you have to. You only dress seven linemen in the National Football League on Sundays, so you’ve got to have a guy who can play guard and center. At least one, if not all your guards have to play center. So I think his versatility’s critical.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- It’s no mystery why NFL scouts like the offensive skill players that LSU is sending into the draft this year.

Watch Zach Mettenberger launch a pass downfield or Jarvis Landry haul in another clutch reception or Odell Beckham Jr. run circles around would-be tacklers or Jeremy Hill rumble for a long touchdown and the ex-Tigers’ physical tools are apparent. But they also credit a common source for expediting their development in their final college season: offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

[+] EnlargeCam Cameron
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesCam Cameron brought more than a decade of NFL experience to LSU's offense.
“He just knows what teams are looking for and that’s an advantage that all of us offensive guys have going into the draft,” Mettenberger said last month at LSU’s pro day. “So many guys have worked in great college systems or worked with gurus for different positions and stuff, but we have a very successful NFL offensive coordinator that’s been with us for the last year and three months, so that’s definitely an advantage that we have going into the draft.”

As the Tigers’ former quarterback mentioned, Cameron isn’t your run-of-the-mill college assistant. He returned to the college game a year ago after more than a decade as an offensive coordinator and head coach in the NFL. He was able to instill a professional mentality into his star players that helped them make enormous progress in 2013, to the point that all of them rank among ESPN Scouts Inc.’s top 125 prospects Insider in this week’s draft.

His influence, plus that of receivers coach Adam Henry -- who came to LSU in 2012 following a five-year stint with the Oakland Raiders -- played a huge part in Landry and Beckham developing into perhaps the nation’s top receiver tandem last season.

“I can’t say enough about the attitude that he brought to the script that we had, to coaching me this final year,” said Landry, who led the Tigers with 77 catches for 1,193 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. “And not only that, but being able to let Coach Henry do his job, also -- being able to let Coach Henry coach us the way that an NFL receiver is supposed to be coached.

“I think that his mentorship and the things that he did for us off the field allowed us to be a stronger band of brothers. I think that his contribution to LSU not only this year, but for years to come, is going to be great.”

At pro day, the coaches provided clear evidence that their relationship with the ex-Tigers didn’t end when the underclassmen announced in early January that they would enter the draft. With hundreds of his former NFL colleagues observing, Cameron was the ringleader when the quarterbacks, running backs and receivers worked out in position drills, just like it was any other LSU practice where he would instruct the offense.

It made perfect sense to all involved, seeing as how he knows better than most what those in attendance wanted to see.

“I told our guys, ‘They’re going to have an opinion of you coming in here. We’re not going to reinvent the wheel. We’re just going to go out there and show them how we practice. This is not some drill that we’ve conjured up for pro day. We’re going to go out there and you’re going to see us do exactly what we do every day in practice, ” Cameron said. “When I was a pro coach, I wanted to get a feel for if a guy has great practice habits and he’s got talent, he’s going to be successful in our system. But if a guy’s lazy or he skips out of this drill or you just get that feel -- he’s not a worker or whatever those things would be -- I’m going to have concerns because if a guy’s not going to work, if a guy doesn’t know how to practice, then he’s not going to be a great pro.

“Our guys know how to work, they know how to practice. I think all our guys offensively will have extensive NFL careers.”

If they do, their final developmental season at LSU will have been instrumental in that success.

Mettenberger was arguably the country’s most improved quarterback as a senior, ranking sixth among FBS quarterbacks with an 85.1 Total QBR last season after he was 80th with a 47.1 Total QBR as a junior.

Likely first-round pick Beckham (59 catches, 1,152 yards, eight touchdowns, plus 178.1 all-purpose yards per game) and Landry both became focal points in LSU’s revived passing game, and both players were able to flash skills that jumped out at scouts.

Despite serving a suspension that kept him off the field at the start of the season, Hill still rushed for 1,401 yards and set a new SEC record for a back with at least 200 carries by averaging 6.9 yards per rushing attempt.

Perhaps they might have made such progress last season even if Cameron hadn’t joined Les Miles’ coaching staff. LSU didn’t have any problems sending players to the pros before he arrived, after all. But the players acknowledge that he made an impression, helping them advance to their current positions as probable early-round draft picks.

“He just made us think like pros,” Mettenberger said. “For Jarvis and Odell being three years removed from high school playing their final season and thinking like Steve Smith, who’s been in the NFL for 13 years, they approach the game that way. The same for me. I had one online class. I was basically an NFL quarterback as a senior in college and every day was just dedicated to getting better and game planning and trying to fix some of the problems that we had in the previous week.

“I think that’s something that not only myself, but everybody has an advantage on the other guys in this draft is we know how to approach this game like a pro. We thought like pros and really all that credit goes to Coach Cam.”
Editor’s note: On Thursday, we examined LSU’s success on third down last season (the Tigers led the nation by converting 57.1 percent of the time) and the importance the quarterbacks will play in remaining successful. Today we explore how much production the Tigers must replace at the skill positions in order to remain effective on third down.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Among ESPN’s top-10 quarterback prospects for the upcoming NFL draft, LSU’s Zach Mettenberger posted the best third-down conversion percentage (53.7) of the bunch.

Certainly it helped that Mettenberger possesses a cannon for a right arm and the experience that comes with being a fifth-year senior. But even Mettenberger would agree that he greatly benefited from the freakish playmaking abilities of receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham and tailback Jeremy Hill.

That foursome helped LSU lead all FBS teams with a 57.1-percent conversion rate on third down last season, but now all four are waiting to hear their names called in next month’s NFL draft.

That leaves offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and the other offensive assistants with the burden of replacing some incredibly productive players who were often at their best on third down.

On Thursday, we looked at the role young quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris will play in LSU’s third-down fortunes in the fall. We’ll do a bit more of that in a second, plus we’ll examine LSU’s third-down production at receiver and running back in an effort to identify which returning players have the most experience at keeping drives alive by achieving all-important first downs.

Mettenberger was outstanding on third down last season, averaging 16.6 yards per completion and throwing only one interception against nine touchdowns. That’s going to be nearly impossible for either Jennings or Harris to duplicate this season, but it should help that the two youngsters have the ability to run as well as throw.

Mettenberger hung out in the pocket as if his sneakers were made of lead, but Jennings and Harris are both quick enough to move the chains on the run. Harris, in particular, showed his speed in the Tigers’ spring game with a 41-yard run, and he also converted for a first down or touchdown on six of the last eight times he was under center on a third down.

Jennings struggled in that department in the spring game, with the offense converting for a first down just once in his seven attempts on third down. He also threw an interception that linebacker Deion Jones returned for a 67-yard touchdown on a third down.

Mettenberger should send a thank you note to Landry for all the times he made a clutch grab to extend a drive or end one with a touchdown. The junior wideout made a catch on 28 of the 35 times he was targeted, with 20 of the receptions earning a first down and six more going for a touchdown. He finished the season with 474 receiving yards and an average of 16.9 yards per catch on third down alone.

Beckham’s solid numbers are unfairly overshadowed by Landry’s, as Beckham caught a pass on 15 of the 25 times he was targeted on third down, gaining 272 yards in the process. Thanks to a pair of penalties against defenders, LSU actually picked up more first downs (16) on passes in which Beckham was targeted than there were instances when he actually caught the ball (15). He averaged 18.1 yards per catch on third down.

LSU’s problem is that only two of its top six third-down targets will be back this fall. Travin Dural (five catches, 97 yards, two touchdowns on third down) returns, but wideout Kadron Boone (four catches, 93 yards and two touchdowns) and tailback Alfred Blue (three catches, 46 yards) are both gone.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see tailback Terrence Magee (three catches, 46 yards), tight ends such as DeSean Smith, Travis Dickson and Dillon Gordon and fullback Connor Neighbors play more active roles on third down in Landry's and Beckham’s absence. The Tigers might also lean heavily on a new crop of receivers (including redshirt freshman John Diarse and signees Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn) on key downs once the season begins.

Hill was superb when Cameron called his number on third down last season, averaging 13.2 yards per carry and achieving either a first down or a touchdown 13 times in 18 tries. Included in that fairly small collection of carries was a 49-yard touchdown on a third-down run against Auburn, a 69-yard burst for a score against Mississippi State and a 37-yard score that put away the Tigers’ Outback Bowl victory over Iowa.

Magee and Kenny Hilliard, meanwhile, posted fairly pedestrian numbers in limited work on third down. Both players receieved eight carries on third down, with Magee achieving three first downs and two touchdowns (he also lost a fumble) and Hilliard getting two first downs and two touchdowns.

The fullback typically earns some short-yardage carries in LSU’s offense – senior J.C. Copeland picked up two first downs and scored twice in four carries on third down – so it will be interesting to see whether Neighbors or Melvin Jones continue that trend.

Freshman tailback Leonard Fournette will be another player to watch here, as the nation’s top overall prospect will certainly earn some carries when the Tigers need to move the chains or hammer the ball into the end zone. Fournette and fellow signee Darrel Williams aren’t on campus yet, but the Tigers’ lack of backfield depth means they must be ready to perform once the season arrives.
Editor’s note: Today and tomorrow, we’ll take a look at LSU’s success on third down last season -- the Tigers led the nation by converting 57.1 percent of the time -- and the obstacles Cam Cameron’s offense will face in its attempt to remain similarly efficient this fall.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Cam Cameron used a golf analogy to describe his quarterbacks’ nonchalance when LSU’s offense faced third-down situations during spring practice. Clearly the Tigers' offensive coordinator has yet to see the young quarterbacks execute at a Tiger Woods level, unlike their predecessor Zach Mettenberger.

“The biggest thing that young quarterbacks have to learn is that if you don’t convert on third down, you’re going to go sit down,” Cameron said. “In practice, it’s almost like they’re at the driving range hitting a bucket of balls: ‘Ah, I missed that one. I’ll put another one down.’ Well, playing quarterback is not like hitting a bucket of balls. You go three-and-out, you’re sitting down watching.”

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY Sports Anthony Jennings excelled on third down in his limited playing time last season but struggled mightily on third down in LSU's spring game.
LSU’s veteran-heavy offense was the best in the nation on third down last fall, converting for a first down or touchdown 57.1 percent of the time (92 of 161). LSU was one of nine teams to convert at least half the time and one of just two in the SEC -- trailing the Tigers were Texas A&M (50.3 percent) and Alabama (47.6).

But the Tigers posted those numbers with a fifth-year senior, Mettenberger, under center, with veterans Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. at receiver and NFL-bound Jeremy Hill at tailback. That group of recently departed stars posted eye-popping numbers in general, particularly on third down (more on that tomorrow).

Mettenberger threw 94 passes on third downs, completing 59 of them for a total of 978 yards. Of those passes, 44 resulted in a first down, and nine more went for touchdowns. Mettenberger tossed only one interception and was sacked six times in such situations.

Then-freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings also posted solid third-down statistics in a significantly smaller sample size, although his 49-yard touchdown pass to Travin Dural in the waning moments against Arkansas accounted for nearly half of his yardage total. Jennings was 5-for-11 on third downs for 120 yards, with four of the completions going for a first down and the one to Dural accounting for a game-winning score. He also tossed a third-down interception in his lone start, the Outback Bowl win against Iowa.

One threat that both Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris present that Mettenberger didn’t is their ability to move the chains by running for first downs. On the three third downs that Jennings attempted to run last season, he achieved two first downs and a touchdown. And Harris proved in the spring game that he might be even more dangerous as a scrambler.

“One of those linebackers went over there to the other side with one of those backs and did not stay home,” LSU coach Les Miles said of a 41-yard Harris run in the second quarter of the Tigers’ spring game. “And so that quarterback came out the back side and suddenly 41 yards later, he’s run out of bounds. That’s something you can’t do, either, so when you line up against a quarterback with that kind of ability -- and both of our guys have it -- you’d better keep that linebacker home.”

If the trends from LSU’s spring game carry over into the fall, Jennings would almost certainly be the quarterback who is sitting down and watching in Cameron’s analogy. The rising sophomore struggled mightily on third down, while early enrollee Harris made some of the day’s most exciting plays in those situations.

Jennings was under center for seven third downs, and only one of them resulted in a first down: a 3-yard run by fullback Connor Neighbors. Jennings was 0-for-3 passing on third down and tossed an interception that linebacker Deion Jones returned 67 yards for a touchdown.

On the other hand, Harris overcame a sluggish start -- the offense failed to convert on third down on any of Harris’ first five attempts -- to finish with a flourish. The Harris-led offense converted six of the final eight third downs, including three touchdowns: a 19-yard pass to tight end DeSean Smith, a 21-yard rainbow to Dural on the final play of the opening half, and a 4-yard touchdown run of his own.

In all, LSU’s offense gained 115 yards in 13 plays when Harris was on the field for third down and lost three yards in the seven times that Jennings was under center -- and that doesn’t include the 67 going the wrong direction for a score on Jones’ interception.

Harris had a hot streak in the second quarter where five of six plays on third down went for either a first down or a touchdown. It’s no coincidence, Cameron said, that only once in those instances did he face third-and-10 or longer -- a down-and-distance scenario that his starting quarterback must avoid if LSU’s youthful 2014 offense is to remain effective on third down.

Mettenberger’s veteran savvy and strong throwing arm frequently dug LSU out of third-and-long situations last year, and it didn’t hurt that he had two future NFL wideouts in Landry and Beckham and a future NFL tailback in Hill at his disposal.

This season’s offense will be extremely young at the skill positions, so Cameron emphasized that whoever wins the quarterback job must keep the offense in manageable situations in order to move the chains.

“I thought we converted pretty well on third down [in the spring game] and now they’ve got to understand how you set yourself up for a manageable third down by the decisions you make on first and second down,” Cameron said. “And right now, we’re not where we need to be.

“We’ve got to know on first down and second down, let’s put ourselves in the best third-down position possible. Last year we converted on third-and-22, third-and-15, third-and-18, third-and-10 consistently. You don’t do that every year, and I think they’re starting to figure that out.”

SEC lunchtime links

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
12:00
PM ET
Plenty going on as spring practices continue in the SEC. We have pro days, coaching talk, players adapting to new positions and even reality TV news in today's lunch links:

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Barely three months removed from surgery to repair the torn ACL and MCL in his left knee, Zach Mettenberger hardly took it easy in his first public throwing session before NFL talent evaluators.

The former LSU quarterback gave NFL eyeballs plenty to see -- and looked both frustrated and exhausted by the end -- when he completed 93 for 107 pass attempts at the Tigers’ pro day workouts on Wednesday.

“I’m three months out of surgery and not in playing shape and my legs are kind of tired. So yeah, that’s kind of something to expect,” said Mettenberger, who will visit the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday and said he will work out with the Detroit Lions on Saturday. “But I’m doing everything I can to work through that to be ready for rookie camp.”

Like Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel at his pro day, Mettenberger threw passes while wearing a helmet and shoulder pads. LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said before the workout that they had been planning the move since well before Manziel did it, and Mettenberger added that the trend will likely continue.

“You play the game in pads,” Mettenberger said. “We talked about that probably three months ago and really started talking about it seriously two months ago. People can believe it or not, but I just think it’s going to be a new trend for quarterbacks to work out with pads on.”

Mettenberger, who wore a brace on the left knee, said he’s between 85 and 90 percent and predicted he’d be operating at full strength in time for a rookie camp in May. He showed the teams in attendance -- a group that was several hundred strong and included five head coaches and seven general managers -- a variety of drops and rollouts in order to indicate that his knee is stable.

LSU director of athletic training Jack Marucci, who helped coordinate Mettenberger’s rehab, said he placed no limitations on what Mettenberger would attempt in the workout.

“If he was practicing in spring ball, we would have let him do spring ball,” Marucci said.

Overall, it seemed to go well. Mettenberger has never had a problem zipping passes with authority, and although he wasn’t thrilled with the 14 incompletions -- about half of which came on dropped passes -- he understood that some rust was inevitable.

“Timing was a little off,” Mettenberger said. “It wasn’t the most disciplined route running that we’ve had here, something Coach Cam wouldn’t allow. But all things considered, with guys being gone and we haven’t been with Coach Cam every day for the last three months, it was a pretty good day.”

Mettenberger had a big collection of former LSU teammates to throw to on Wednesday. Among the 21 overall participants were receivers Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Kadron Boone and James Wright and running backs Jeremy Hill, Alfred Blue and J.C. Copeland.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanZach Mettenberger predicted he'd be operating at full strength in time for a rookie camp in May.
Not only were they looking to impress NFL execs with their pass-catching skills and positional abilities, some of them wanted to improve upon their workouts at the combine. Aside from Mettenberger’s throwing, perhaps the biggest storyline of the day would be whether Landry could complete the 40-yard dash faster than the 4.77 seconds he posted while nursing a hamstring injury in Indianapolis.

Problem solved. Landry’s two official times on Wednesday were 4.58 and 4.51, and he improved his production in all of the testing drills in which he participated at the combine.

“Even though it took a while [since the combine in late February], I feel like today was a positive day,” Landry said. “I got a lot out of today. I’m getting great feedback. I think now is just not letting up, just continue working and continuing to impress people.”

Landry has never been one to test particularly well, but his on-field production in 2013 was unquestioned. He ranked among the SEC’s top receivers with 77 catches for 1,193 yards and 10 touchdowns and flashed some of the most reliable hands of any receiver in the country -- reminding Cameron of a star wideout he once coached with the Baltimore Ravens.

“Guys know he can run,” Cameron said. “They’ve already told me, ‘We know this guy can run.’ They’re going to look at the tape when it comes to a guy like that. We had Anquan Boldin, and I don’t know that Anquan ever ran a 4.58, but all he does is catch the ball, compete and win world championships. So I guess he helped himself.”

Hill also improved upon his 40 time at the combine, going from a 4.66 in Indianapolis to a 4.52 and a 4.54 on Wednesday, helping reinforce Cameron’s prediction that he can be a valuable every-down back in the pros.

One player who didn’t need to run again, however, was Beckham. He posted a 4.43 40 time at the combine and joked that he felt so good on Wednesday that he thought about trying to beat that time at pro day.

“I was warming up and I was kind of telling my dad, ‘I want to run again.’ And they were all like, ‘There’s just no point,’ ” Beckham said. “So there was a part of me that wanted to run again, just to show that I do have that speed and it wasn’t just a one-time thing.”

He seems to be the highest-rated Tiger in this draft, with some projections placing him in the middle of the first round. Beckham -- who has workouts ahead with the New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills -- said he has already accepted an invitation to attend next month’s draft and is proud to be considered one of the best prospects in a loaded class of receivers.

“Honestly I wouldn’t say that I didn’t expect it, but it’s a little surprising now to finally see that they’re saying that if not the best, you’re one of the best,” Beckham said. “So it’s a great feeling to me and it’s something that I worked for.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- The race to become the first quarterback selected in next month’s NFL draft is apparently down to three players: Central Florida’s Blake Bortles, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo, Cal Sport MediaZach Mettenberger will get a chance to show he's 100 percent healthy at LSU's pro day on Wednesday.
But according to quarterback guru George Whitfield, who recently visited LSU to speak at a coaches clinic, there easily could have been another contender had Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger avoided the late-season injury that prevented him from showing off in postseason all-star games and at the pre-draft combine.

“If he was healthy, I think he’s right in this,” said Whitfield, who tutored Manziel and Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas this year, after working with such prospects as Cam Newton and Andrew Luck in previous draft cycles. “I don’t think it’s a conversation of three, it could be a conversation of four if Zach was healthy coming down the back stretch. But I don’t think it’s going to be a shock at all if you see him go in the top couple rounds. Not at all. I think somebody’s going to get a great return on investment.”

At LSU’s pro day on Wednesday, Mettenberger gets his first major opportunity to prove that the knee he injured in the regular-season finale against Arkansas is stable. He already has proven that his arm is NFL caliber, which is why some draft projections have Mettenberger going as high as the second round after a standout senior season.

Mettenberger (3,082 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, eight interceptions) was sixth among FBS quarterbacks with an 85.1 Total Quarterback Rating last season. According to ESPN Stats and Information, he made the biggest jump of any qualified FBS quarterback after ranking 80th out of 122 qualified quarterbacks with a 47.1 Total QBR in 2012.

“I think he’s one of the best quarterbacks in this draft,” Whitfield said. “I thought the year he had and the growth he had this year, especially with [LSU offensive coordinator] Cam Cameron, just getting a chance to get out there and operate in that system -- [and to] have more responsibility. He was better in the pocket. It was just a shame he did take that injury toward the end of the season, but he just looked more confident, and he wasn’t just a big guy [who] was pitching anymore.”

Mettenberger is just one member of a large group of LSU prospects who will work out in front of NFL scouts, coaches and player personnel executives on Wednesday. Among those expected to participate are running backs Jeremy Hill, J.C. Copeland and Alfred Blue, receivers Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Kadron Boone, defensive linemen Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson, linebacker Lamin Barrow, safety Craig Loston and offensive lineman Trai Turner.

ESPN Scouts Inc. rates seven of them among the draft’s top 150 prospects: Beckham (No. 21), Landry (47), Hill (69), Turner (109), Loston (110), Ferguson (120) and Johnson (139).

Let’s take a closer look at three of them -- Mettenberger, Beckham and Hill -- with a statistical assist from ESPN Stats and Info.

ZACH METTENBERGER
In his first season working with Cameron, Mettenberger greatly improved as a downfield passer. He raised his completion percentage on throws of 15 yards or longer 14 points, to 53.4 percent, in 2013. Among ESPN’s top-10 quarterback prospects in this draft, only Clemson’s Tajh Boyd (53.7 percent) completed a higher percentage of long balls. Of the 10, Mettenberger had by far the highest percentage of total completions (67.7) travel at least 10 yards. Bridgewater was next at 57.1.

He was also outstanding against the blitz and on third down -- assets that should help convince a team looking for a pro-style pocket passer to keep him in mind. Mettenberger (57-for-85, 883 yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions against blitzing defenses) had the second-highest completion percentage (67.1) against the blitz of any of the top-10 quarterbacks. And on third down, his 53.7 conversion percentage was the best of the bunch. Mettenberger went 58-for-89 with nine touchdowns and one interception on third down, and his 65.2 completion percentage in those situations was third among the top-10 quarterbacks.

JEREMY HILL
Because of the declining value attached to running backs in the NFL, it seems entirely likely that no running backs will go in the first round of this draft. Last year, the first running back went at No. 37 -- the latest the first running back was picked in the common draft era.

Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde is generally considered the top running back prospect in this draft, although Hill’s physical ability makes him an enticing target.

Hill faced eight or more defenders in a stacked box on nearly half of his carries last season (96 of 203), and yet, he still averaged an AQ-best 8 yards per rush in those situations and scored 15 touchdowns.

He was also a phenomenal between-the-tackles runner, picking up 7.9 yards per carry on runs up the middle, with about one in every five (24 of 118) going for at least 10 yards. On runs outside the tackles, Hill had 16 of 85 attempts go for at least 10 yards.

ODELL BECKHAM
Beckham is one of the draft’s most explosive playmakers, which is why ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. had him going 18th overall to the New York Jets in his most recent mock draft. He and Landry are both among the 15 wideouts who rank among Scouts Inc.’s Top 100 players -- the most receivers in the top 100 since 2005.

Beckham (59 catches, 1,152 yards, eight touchdowns, 178.1 all-purpose ypg last season) had an AQ-high 26 receptions on passes thrown at least 15 yards last season. He had at least two catches that covered such a distance in seven of 13 games in 2013, which certainly speaks to the big-play ability that has him so high on Kiper’s mock draft board.
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Les Miles’ official title is head football coach at LSU, but he might as well add "fortune teller" to the list of roles he fills in his job.

On some level, every big-time college football coaching staff deals with the dilemma that Miles currently faces, but a spate of NFL early entries in recent seasons has made predicting the future an even more vital element in LSU’s success. Specifically, Miles and his staff must lead an incomplete 2014 squad through 15 spring practices while also attempting to project whether players who aren’t yet on campus will be ready to play key roles this fall.

[+] EnlargeMalachi Dupre
ESPNMalachi Dupre won't be on campus until this summer, but he's one of several LSU freshmen who could vie for playing time immediately.
“We absolutely have to,” Miles said after last Saturday’s scrimmage. “I think we’re trying make a determination as we design the summer plans that, 'This is where this guy’s going to be, this is where this guy’s going to be’ and how to operate it.

“I think the skill players on offense are going to be musts and I think the skill players on defense, with the safeties stepping in there and being able to play -- I just think the recruiting class will hit us just where we need to be hit.”

At some positions, LSU’s needs are great. At others, it’s simply that the caliber of athlete is high enough that Miles’ staff knows to include him in its 2014 plans. In some cases, both scenarios are in play.

Take receiver and running back, for example.

When 2014 signees Malachi Dupre -- the nation’s No. 1 receiver prospect -- and tailback Darrel Williams showed up to observe the Tigers’ first spring practice, Miles joked afterward that he wished the two players could have participated in the team’s workout.

The Tigers are short on proven performers at receiver -- and thanks to several recent injuries at the position, they’ve been short on warm bodies to even run through drills -- and have only two scholarship tailbacks available this spring.

Those depth shortages are a direct result of several NFL draft early entries in the last couple of seasons. LSU lost two tailbacks to the draft after the 2012 season and two more this year when Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue both turned pro. It's a similar story at wideout, where the only two accomplished players on the roster, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, opted to skip their senior seasons.

Miles’ staff addressed those issues in phenomenal fashion on signing day, adding Williams and the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect, Leonard Fournette, at tailback, plus arguably the top collection of receivers that any program signed in 2014 -- a group that also includes No. 3 wideout Trey Quinn and two more ESPN 300 recruits in D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch.

The problem is that no member of that group is on campus yet, forcing LSU’s coaches to both evaluate what they have at present and how the signees’ summer arrival will affect the group dynamic.

“I just think that some of those guys are going to get first-[team] snaps,” Miles said of the receiver signees. “They’re going to be advantages for us and we’ve got to use them well.”

As Miles mentioned, a high-quality group of safety signees could dent the depth chart in similar fashion. The Tigers have a few returning veterans and have moved Jalen Mills over from cornerback to shore up their needs at safety, but signees such as No. 2 safety Jamal Adams, ESPN 300 prospect Devin Voorhies and John Battle could shake up the competition in August.

It’s not that those players’ absences have made this spring useless for LSU. But Miles and his staff must function this spring with the knowledge that they’re coaching an incomplete roster.

That’s not much different from Alabama or Texas A&M or Auburn, which also lost players to the draft and have key signees who haven't arrived, but the situation is more extreme in Baton Rouge. If Miles balances the magician part of his job correctly, perhaps he can pull a rabbit out of his famous hat by the end of August, when the Tigers open the season against Wisconsin in Houston.

“Here’s what you get out of 15 practices in the spring of the year: You practice the team that you have with you and you advance them and get them taught and get them improved. You teach technique and whatever you can get to, you get to with that team,” Miles said recently.

“Before the next team, that next part of your team, shows up, you anticipate where your direction goes. You anticipate that, ‘That guy goes here and that guy goes here’ and you fit it. Then in the first game, you hope that you prepared them well enough to win and play well in the first game. If you win and play well in the first game, you’re all on track.”
BATON ROUGE, La. – A new season brings an entirely new set of challenges for LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

This time last year, he had just opened his first spring in Baton Rouge, so the main objective was teaching a mostly-veteran group of offensive players his way of executing on offense. Now that they've been together for a year, more players are familiar with Cameron’s system, but they will rely on an entirely new set of skill players.

[+] EnlargeCam Cameron
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanNow in his second year at LSU, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron isn't slowing down the implementation of his offense for his young signal-callers.
Cameron, however, hasn’t exactly spoon-fed quarterbacks such as sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris this spring. Not initially, anyway.

“At the beginning, he threw a lot out at us. Now we’re trying to perfect those plays,” Jennings said after Tuesday’s practice. “So I don’t think he’s put in a lot -- as much as I think last year [when] he put in a lot of things because he had a veteran quarterback. So now he’s put in a lot of things early and trying to make us perfect those things we’re doing.”

That in itself has been a work in progress. Although LSU’s offensive players insist that they’re improving with each practice together, the Tigers understandably have plenty of work to do before they can match the efficiency of departed leaders like quarterback Zach Mettenberger, receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry and tailback Jeremy Hill.

And it hasn’t helped that both the receivers and running backs have dealt with injury and depth issues during the spring, with several months to go until a touted group of 2014 signees at those positions arrives.

At times, the results have been ugly -- like in a practice last week, when the quarterbacks and receivers struggled to connect in a simple passing drill where they were working on slant routes. Because of the array of inaccurate and dropped passes, a frustrated Cameron made them repeat the routes again and again.

“Until we can throw a slant, we aren't going to throw another route, I promise you,” Cameron yelled. “We’ll be the simplest -- I’ll tell you what, we’ll run 1950s football until we can do this. We’ll run one route the whole year.”

Obviously a transition from one of the most prolific foursomes in LSU history to a group of largely inexperienced players wasn't going to occur seamlessly. But you’d never know it from the way Cameron has approached the spring, according to senior center Elliott Porter.

Asked whether Cameron has slowed things down for the new quarterbacks, Porter’s response was emphatic.

“No! That’s not right,” Porter chuckled. “It’s Coach Cam. Coach Cam believes in going full speed. If we get it, we’re going to get it. That’s it. That’s how we do things around here. If you couldn't do it, you wouldn’t be here. That’s what you have to look at. We’re not slowing down for no one and we’re going to keep moving and keep doing it. You’re smart enough to get it.”

After all, Porter pointed out, there will be times in the fall where the Tigers must adjust on the fly while preparing for an upcoming opponent’s defensive scheme. They won’t have time to take things slowly for youngsters then, either.

“It’s college football, baby,” Porter said. “I believe Coach Cam and [offensive line coach Jeff] Grimes and Coach [Les] Miles are the best ones to prepare you for the NFL. That’s the type of pace you go by. You just don’t know, in a game week, if you change something whole about your offense, we have two days to change it. Maybe one. You really have to be able to adjust and adjust fast.”

Nonetheless, quarterback guru Cameron has the luxury of drilling the small details of the position with his youngsters this spring, since the opener against Wisconsin is still five months away.

As Jennings noted, Cameron probably hasn’t operated as briskly as he might have otherwise with more experienced quarterbacks, but LSU veterans are still observing the methodical progress the youngsters are making under Cameron’s tutelage.

“I feel like he’s getting the quarterbacks really prepared for the fall. … That’s what has kind of been going on, but the guys have been picking it up real good at practice,” senior tailback Kenny Hilliard said. “Hopefully they just continue to get better and learn from Coach Cam and just carry that on to the fall.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- There are distinct differences between the coaching style of LSU’s new offensive line coach, Jeff Grimes, and the methods of his predecessor, Greg Studrawa. Perhaps the most obvious for an outside observer is that the decibel level on the practice field has dropped several notches.

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.

[+] EnlargeJeff Grimes
Jeff Lack/Icon SMIFormer Hokies O-line coach Jeff Grimes has brought an "attention to detail and technique" to LSU, according to coach Les Miles.
“If [Grimes is] on the practice field, you probably wouldn't even notice him. You notice Stud because he was out there yelling and doing all those things and being passionate like that,” left guard Vadal Alexander said. “Grimes is just a guy that just wants everything to be perfect. He's kind of like Coach Miles. They're both kind of the same in that facet. So I can tell you right now, we're better this week than we were last week just because of Coach Grimes.”

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.”

SEC's lunch links

March, 20, 2014
Mar 20
12:00
PM ET
March Madness is here. A new Cinderella will emerge, and your bracket is bound to start falling apart. For those at work and for those who are taking off early, enjoy a full day of basketball, and for a little football, enjoy today’s lunch links.

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LSU head coach Les Miles talks about the loss of talent to the NFL Draft, how he will replace quarterback Zach Mettenberger and his expectations for running back Leonard Fournette.
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