LSU Tigers: John Chavis
BATON ROUGE, La. -- One of the leading questions for LSU's spring practice is how the Tigers' defense might function differently with Kevin Steele as defensive coordinator.
We probably won't have an answer there until a few weeks into the season -- LSU has no incentive to reveal anything before then -- but here's a small twist. Apparently the linebackers will be more involved when the Tigers shift into a nickel defensive package.
Under previous defensive coordinator John Chavis, the strongside linebacker (nicknamed "Sam") left the field and the Tigers used five defensive backs in the nickel along with the middle linebacker ("Mike") and weakside linebacker ("Will"). But strongside linebacker Duke Riley said he has started working at the "Money" position since spring practice started.
"Usually I wasn't in the nickel when Chief [Chavis] was here when I was at Sam," Riley said. "Me or Lamar [Louis] would go out and just the Will and the Mike would be in at the nickel, so I'm the Money now."
That shouldn't come as an enormous surprise. At Steele's previous stop, Alabama, Nick Saban's defenses frequently repped an assortment of linebackers and defensive backs at the Money position. Riley and Louis seem like obvious candidates for the job since Sam linebackers typically possess strong coverage skills in addition to tackling ability.
Such personnel adjustments frequently accompany the changes in philosophy that come with a new coordinator hire. But LSU's linebackers said they haven't noticed many major changes between the Chavis and Steele defensive schemes.
And in the meeting room or on the practice field, Steele's methods seem to be meshing well with the players from the position he also oversees, linebacker.
"He's not the type of coach that hollers and is just on you, on you, on you," Riley said. "He'll treat you like a pro and make sure you understand. It's hard to focus out there when a coach is [yelling], 'rawrrr rawrrr.' Steele is just the kind of coach where he'll pull you to the side, talk to you, tell you what you've got to do and everything goes from there.
"It's actually better for all of us. I've been having some of the best practices. Everybody has been having some of the best practices since we've been here."
The starting lineup seems set -- at least for now -- with Louis at Sam, Jones at Will and Kendell Beckwith at Mike. However, a key for LSU's linebackers this spring will be developing depth behind the three veterans.
Garrett, one of LSU's most highly recruited signees last year, believes he is better prepared to contribute than he was last fall, when he appeared in just three games.
"To be honest, toward the end of the season I was still a little bit confused," Garrett said. "I never really got the whole scheme down, so this year when Coach Steele got here, we got a chance to go over some of the new stuff and things like that, it kind of started clicking to me. I felt like I got a chance to really get a chance to sit down and actually look at it and understand it more."
It will be a tall order to steal snaps from Beckwith, though, after the junior linebacker developed into a star once he joined the starting lineup midway through last season. He finished the year with 77 tackles -- second only to Kwon Alexander's 90 -- and 7.5 tackles for loss.
Beckwith said during bowl practice that he was ready to take ownership of LSU's defense this season, and he insisted after a recent practice that it is now "his."
"I already own it. They know it. The guys on defense know it," Beckwith said with a grin. "I've been trying to just get the hang of everything right now, so I've kind of been keeping to myself and just helping people if I can. Once we start rolling and we get deep into this thing, they know. It'll be mine."
That certainly will not be a bad thing. Beckwith looks like a star in the making, and the veterans at the top of the depth chart should be fine in starting roles.
Yes, depth is a concern -- and it could become a greater issue in 2016, particularly if Beckwith plays well enough to enter the NFL draft after this season, since Louis and Jones are both seniors. But should the Tigers avoid any major health issues, Beckwith has high hopes for what LSU's linebacking corps can become this fall.
"I think we'll be the best three in the country, so I don't really have no concern about us," Beckwith said.
Indeed, the competition between junior Jennings (1,611 passing yards, 11 TDs, 7 INTs in 2014) and sophomore Harris (452 yards, 6 TDs, 2 INTs) might determine whether the Tigers re-emerge as legitimate contenders in the SEC West or remain in the middle of the pack like last season’s 8-5 club.
But there are plenty of spring stories to follow at LSU beyond Jennings-Harris. Here are five more that deserve some attention.
What will Kevin Steele’s defense look like? The public likely won’t gain a full understanding of Steele’s defensive modifications until the regular season starts in September, as LSU’s spring practices are open only for short periods of time and the Tigers will probably play it close to the vest in their spring game.
How will the secondary take shape? The Tigers have a ton of good options at defensive back, so this is hardly a nightmare for Corey Raymond’s crew. It’s a matter of figuring out which pieces fit best at which positions.
The biggest position of interest is the cornerback spot opposite two-year starter Tre'Davious White. With the departures of Jalen Collins and Rashard Robinson, the Tigers lack a proven second option -- assuming that senior Jalen Mills remains at safety. Mills started for two seasons at corner and could move back, but will that be necessary? LSU has numerous options to fill the spot -- including heavily recruited early enrollee Kevin Toliver, sophomore Ed Paris and junior Dwayne Thomas, who is coming off season-ending knee surgery. And other alternatives will arrive this summer in signees Donte Jackson and Xavier Lewis.
Safety is also an interesting position, particularly if Mills works at corner. Sophomore Jamal Adams seems likely to grab a starting spot, but who else claims the top spots in the rotation out of Rickey Jefferson, Corey Thompson, John Battle and Devin Voorhies? Raymond will have his work cut out in distributing the PT to so many capable players.
Will Cam Cameron open up the offense? This is a corollary to the decision on the starting quarterback. LSU’s passing game was woefully unproductive last season, mostly because of underwhelming play at quarterback. How much will offensive coordinator Cameron be able to open up his playbook in 2015 after playing it so conservatively a season ago?
With Leonard Fournette in the backfield, LSU still figures to be a run-heavy offense. But the Tigers might not be able to beat the high-scoring teams on the schedule without getting the ball downfield more effectively. Cameron understands this reality.
Either way, expect him to throw more wrinkles at opposing defenses than he did for most of the 2014 season. Perhaps the regular-season finale against Texas A&M was a template. Cameron mixed things up against the Aggies and a stagnant offense came to life with 491 yards of total offense. Between that game and the bowl loss against Notre Dame, Cameron handed the ball to speedy receiver Travin Dural -- mostly on jet sweeps -- a total of eight times for 110 yards.
Getting more out of the quarterbacks would greatly help Cameron make better use of his skill talent, but it seems likely that he will be more ambitious this season regardless, out of necessity.
What impact will the new assistant coaches have on their positions? We’ve already discussed Steele and how he might juggle different defensive looks. Any shuffling would likely impact how he uses the players at his new position group, linebacker, as well. When the Tigers open spring practice on Saturday, it will be interesting to see where Steele has the various linebackers lining up.
LSU’s other new assistants, defensive line coach Ed Orgeron and receivers coach Tony Ball, both have young groups to develop. They both have obvious candidates for playing time (tackles Davon Godchaux and Christian LaCouture for Orgeron and wideouts Dural, Malachi Dupre, John Diarse and Trey Quinn for Ball), but building depth will be an objective for both coaches.
The Tigers have a boatload of unproven youngsters at both position groups, and LSU would benefit greatly if the new assistants could get some production out of them starting this spring.
Who grabs the last two starting spots on the offensive line? The positions for LSU’s three returning starters on the offensive line -- Vadal Alexander, Jerald Hawkins and Ethan Pocic -- aren’t set in stone, but it’s almost a certainty that all three will start somewhere.
Jeff Grimes’ job this spring will be figuring out where they fit best and which players to slide into the other two openings along his offensive line. Grimes lost two senior starters (left tackle La’el Collins and center Elliott Porter) and two top reserves (seniors Evan Washington and Fehoko Fanaika) from last season, so the Tigers will be young in spots.
Most likely that will be on the interior line, although Alexander could play either guard or tackle and Pocic is capable of playing every position on the line. Guard/tackle Josh Boutte, center Andy Dodd, center/guard William Clapp, tackle K.J. Malone and guard Garrett Brumfield are all players who might get some consideration from Grimes this spring.
Let’s get even more specific and break down the good and bad for LSU (5-2, 1-2 SEC) now that the Tigers are halfway through the 14-week regular season.
Defensive MVP: Kwon Alexander. In his first season as the Tigers’ starting weakside linebacker, Alexander has been one of their most consistent tacklers. His 10-tackle performance last Saturday against Florida marked the fourth time he either led LSU in tackles or tied for the team lead (the others were eight against both Wisconsin and New Mexico State and 13 against Mississippi State). He stripped Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott early in the third quarter of that game, creating a fumble that defensive end Danielle Hunter returned for a touchdown and has a team-high two forced fumbles. Alexander leads the Tigers with 46 total tackles – his average of 7.7 tackles per game is tied for ninth in the SEC – and is second on the team in tackles for loss (3.5) and quarterback hurries (four).
Biggest surprise: Offensive line play. Last Saturday’s 30-27 win at Florida was probably the offensive line’s most consistent performance of the season, with the Tigers rushing 50 times for 195 yards – their best rushing output thus far against a Power 5 defense. Overall, though, LSU’s veteran offensive line has sometimes struggled to impose its will the way we might have expected prior to the season. They’re second-to-last in the SEC and tied for 73rd nationally by allowing 2.14 sacks per game (15 in seven games). And nine SEC teams have a better yards-per-carry average than LSU’s 4.4. The Tigers’ quarterbacks could take some heat off the line by throwing the ball more consistently, forcing defenders to reconsider loading the box, but that hasn’t happened much yet. Until it does, LSU’s line and running backs share the burden of carrying the Tigers’ offense.
Biggest disappointment: Run defense. Prior to this season, it has been highly unusual for opponents to successfully run it right up the middle against John Chavis’ LSU defenses. That has been a successful formula for several teams this year while the Tigers struggled to identify consistent performers at defensive tackle. Out of four Power 5 opponents this season, three (Wisconsin, Mississippi State and Auburn) have run for at least 260 yards against LSU, with State posting a season high against the Tigers with 302 yards on 49 attempts. Another bright spot from the Florida game was that LSU handled the run better than it had in previous games, with the Gators running 32 times for 123 yards. The Tigers are going to face several more teams with powerful rushing attacks, so this will remain a story line worth watching in the second half of the season.
Newcomer of the year: Leonard Fournette. Receiver Malachi Dupre deserves some attention for his outstanding play in a couple of games, but tailback Fournette is the obvious choice here. Fresh off a 27-carry, 140-yard performance against Florida, Fournette leads the team with 504 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 93 attempts (team-high 5.4 yards per carry and 72.0 yards per game). Fournette also handles kickoff returns and has 16 runbacks for 368 yards (23.0 ypr). His average of 136.9 all-purpose yards per game ranks third in the SEC. He got off to a quiet start against Wisconsin, but Fournette has been the Tigers’ leading rusher in each game since and seems poised for a big second half.
Game of the year: Tie, Wisconsin and Florida. Take your pick. The Tigers’ comeback for a 28-24 win against Wisconsin – after trailing 24-7 early in the third quarter – was a great way to start the season. The defense shut down the Badgers after their third-quarter touchdown and generated multiple turnovers to pave the way for a comeback. But the Florida win feels like a more important victory at this point of the season. The Tigers desperately needed to stop the bleeding after dropping their first two SEC games, and winning at The Swamp is almost always a challenge – even when the Gators aren’t the Eastern Division force that they were a few years back. The Tigers trailed 17-7 in this one before rallying behind three defensive takeaways and the power running from Fournette. They can achieve bowl eligibility and get back to .500 in SEC play by beating Kentucky on Saturday.
Biggest games of the second half: LSU vs. Ole Miss (Oct. 25) and LSU vs. Alabama (Nov. 8)
"If you look at it, without the game plan that we had, Nick Marshall could have ran for a lot more yards if we didn't have certain things put into the scheme and whatnot. Besides a couple long runs by Artis-Payne, I think we did OK against him, too. But we're going to remain confident as a defense. We know we can stop the run."
Knowing they can do it and actually doing it are two different things. Thus far, the Tigers (4-2, 0-2 SEC) absolutely have not stopped the run -- which will be their No. 1 objective when they visit Florida (3-1, 2-1) on Saturday.
Chavis' defenses have long been known for their stinginess against running teams, relying on typically powerful defensive fronts to shut down opposing ground games. This season, however, LSU's turnover on the interior defensive line and players manning new roles at linebacker have left the Tigers vulnerable in the middle at times.
There were times when LSU linebackers were too slow to read and react properly, Louis said, and that led to big plays for opponents.
"When you're outside and you're reading the line and reading the backfield, you have to read it real fast," Louis said. "You don't want to leave a receiver wide open, but at the same time, you don't want to leave a gash in the line. That's something that weighs heavily a lot on outside backers and that's one of the downfalls of the outside backers."
Both Mississippi State and Auburn exploited those weaknesses with runs straight up the middle. For instance, Auburn rushed for 199 yards between the tackles -- 163 of which came before contact with a defender -- and broke eight runs of 10 yards or more.
It was the fourth time in six games that LSU surrendered at least 100 yards between the tackles. The Tigers' defense had only two such games in the entire 2013 season.
"I wouldn't say it's not embarrassing. Embarrassing is a word that comes to mind when you think about the run game and stopping the run," Louis said. "But like I said before, we still as a defense, we know what we can do. We've just got to play the calls that we're given. We trust Chief [Chavis] to give us the right game plan, give us the right call."
With a game against Florida and its somewhat-similar running game approaching, the question is whether the Tigers will improve. The Auburn game got out of hand early, but they made strides defending the run as the night progressed.
And let's be clear, while it is also a run-centric spread offense, Florida's is nowhere near as explosive as those of Mississippi State and Auburn. And the only similarity Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel has to State's Dak Prescott or Auburn's Marshall is that he's also a somewhat-mobile quarterback.
"I heard he can run the ball pretty well," LSU linebacker Kendell Beckwith said. "We've just got to do a good job containing him and taking away all the running lanes."
Saturday's visit to The Swamp is a much more manageable challenge for the Tigers' defense, so long as it proves it can handle running backs Matt Jones (372 rushing yards, 93.0 per game) and Kelvin Taylor (144 yards, 36.0 ypg).
Faring better against against Florida will require more consistent play up front from the defensive line and then the Tigers must do a better job of making the tackle once they arrive at the ballcarrier.
"We were in position to make plays on defense and we didn't make them," safety Ronald Martin admitted.
Then it comes down to the mental part of playing defense that Louis described. Spread offenses work in part because they force defensive players to diagnose what is happening in front of them, rather than relying on brute force to overpower an opponent. The Tigers have been caught out of position a lot in their first two SEC games, and that can't happen if they are to handle Florida's running game better than they did Auburn's and State's.
"We've got to adjust to all these spread teams that we have now. I think that's what's transitioning from maybe the mid-2000 LSU teams until now," Louis said. "Long ago, if you could just play hard-nosed football and plug the holes, you're a great defense. But now you've got to account for the run and worry about the pass at the same time and all these teams being spread offenses, it's a little bit more tricky.
"I think that's what is [happening when] people are like, 'The dominant defenses are changing.' No, you still have the same players with the same capability. You just have a lot more mental aspect of the game is getting installed."
BATON ROUGE, La. -- This will become a familiar scenario for No. 15 LSU (4-1, 0-1 SEC) for at least the foreseeable future. Entering Saturday's game against No. 5 Auburn (4-0, 1-0), LSU probably can't afford another division loss if it wants to remain in contention in the SEC West -- much less a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
That's a tall order this weekend, considering Auburn hasn't lost at Jordan-Hare Stadium since Gus Malzahn became coach last season (11-0) and LSU will have a true freshman quarterback, Brandon Harris, making his first career start.
LSU has won six of the past seven games in this series, but getting a win Saturday will be a major challenge. Let's look at three key factors as kickoff approaches, with some help from ESPN's Stats & Information group:
Who can run and who can stop it
Both starting quarterbacks -- Harris and Auburn's Nick Marshall -- are understandably getting plenty of attention ahead of this game. But it's the teams' respective running games -- and whether the defenses can slow them -- that might be the most important factors.
Auburn ranks 17th nationally with 260.5 rushing yards per game and boasts two of the SEC's most productive runners in Cameron Artis-Payne (86 carries, 468 yards, 5 touchdowns, fourth in the SEC with 97.2 YPG) and Marshall (42 carries, 273 yards, 2 touchdowns).
Meanwhile, LSU has struggled against the run, ranking 12th in the SEC and 70th nationally by allowing 161.6 rushing YPG. Coordinator John Chavis' defense is thin at defensive tackle, and its problems there were evident against Mississippi State, which rushed for 302 yards against LSU two weeks ago. Wisconsin also rushed for more than 250 yards against LSU.
Auburn is 13-0 when it runs for at least 250 yards under Malzahn and 3-2 when it does not.
On the other side, LSU's struggling run game got a boost last week when it picked up 363 yards on 54 attempts against New Mexico State. LSU is sixth in the SEC with 226.2 rushing YPG, but Auburn has been stingy against the run (third in the SEC with 90.8 YPG). If coordinator Ellis Johnson's defense is able to shut down Leonard Fournette (LSU's leading rusher with 322 yards on 56 attempts, 64.4 YPG), Kenny Hilliard (57 carries, 298 yards, 59.6 YPG), Darrel Williams (33 carries, 165 yards, 41.2 YPG) and Terrence Magee (34 carries, 144 yards, 28.8 YPG), that will place even more pressure on Harris' shoulders.
Defending the zone read/QB run
Let's dig a little deeper into the running game. To have any chance on Saturday, LSU must contain Marshall and Auburn's option runs.
Auburn has been one of the nation's most effective teams at using the zone-read run since the start of last season. It is averaging 144.39 rushing yards and 6.8 yards per carry in those games.
It's worth noting, however, that Kansas State kept itself in the game against Auburn two weeks ago by slowing Marshall and the zone-read runs. The Wildcats held the Tigers to just 62 yards and 3.1 yards per carry off the zone-read, holding them below 200 total rushing yards for only the second time in Malzhn's tenure as Auburn's coach.
LSU was atrocious against the zone-read in its 34-29 loss to Mississippi State two weeks ago. The Bulldogs ran 20 times for 192 yards from that look, averaging 9.1 yards per carry and breaking five runs of at least 10 yards.
The key element here is slowing Marshall, but LSU has struggled to do that against mobile quarterbacks. LSU has allowed the sixth-most rushing yards to opposing quarterbacks (56 carries for 260 yards) of all FBS programs this season. That includes a 79-yard touchdown last week against New Mexico State and a 56-yard run by Mississippi State's Dak Prescott.
Marshall has 1,341 rushing yards since the start of last season, which ranks third among active FBS quarterbacks.
Harris vs. Auburn pass defense
This subject has been beaten to death all week, but Harris is in rare air for an LSU quarterback. He's the first LSU true freshman to start at the position since Jordan Jefferson in 2008 and the first since Jamie Howard in 1992 to start by Game 6.
He clearly outplayed Anthony Jennings against Mississippi State and New Mexico State, but both of those outings were off the bench. Making his first road start against a better-than-average Auburn defense -- Johnson's defense is fourth in the SEC in total defense (313.2 ypg) and sixth in scoring defense (16.2 ppg) -- won't be easy.
However, Auburn has yet to face a prolific passing team. Its opponents thus far rank 107th nationally (Arkansas, 167.8 ypg), 62nd (San Jose State, 243.0), 59th (Kansas State, 246.3) and 55th (Louisiana Tech, 248.4) in passing offense and yet Auburn still ranks seventh in the SEC in pass defense at 222.5 ypg.
We'll see whether Harris can settle his nerves enough to exploit it, but Auburn is vulnerable against the pass -- especially if veteran safety Jermaine Whitehead remains on suspension for a third straight game.
The Tigers are 9-0 all-time against FCS teams, including 6-0 since Les Miles became LSU’s coach in 2005, and winning by an average score of 38-10 under Miles.
Even if the Tigers win comfortably, there is still plenty to watch on Saturday night. Here are five storylines that LSU fans should keep in mind as kickoff approaches.
1. New Tiger Stadium: Saturday will offer many LSU fans their first glimpse at new and improved Tiger Stadium, which underwent an $85 million renovation during the offseason. With the addition of a new club level to enclose the south end zone, the 90-year-old venue will now seat 102,321 fans -- making it the fifth-largest on-campus stadium in the country.
“[The players] have always played in front of a stadium that was full and loud. They would not recognize Tiger Stadium any other way,” Miles said. “We’re spoiled, we’re expectant, we play to the expectations of our fans. We’re very much on the same page with them. … I would certainly say that christening the stadium is something that both the team and certainly the fans and the faithful should understand should be a loud and very enthusiastic crowd.”
But the main difference will be the increased decibel level that comes along with adding nearly 10,000 new seats to the old venue.
“I can imagine that there will be a little difference in wind. I’m certain it will be louder,” Miles said. “It looks, to me, beautiful, so if you like grand venues to play in, I think it should be just what you want.”
2. Quarterback reps: Sophomore Anthony Jennings won the right to start last week against Wisconsin, and he played all but one offensive series against the Badgers. But don’t be surprised if we see a lot more of freshman Brandon Harris under center this week.
Jennings is 2-0 as a starter, with those wins coming against Big Ten squads Iowa and Wisconsin, but he hasn’t exactly set the world on fire in either game. He was 9-for-21 for 239 yards and two touchdowns against Wisconsin, but the Tigers’ offense struggled mightily for most of the game before rallying from a 24-7 deficit for a 28-24 win. To his credit, Jennings was 4-for-6 for 119 yards and a touchdown in the second half, aiding the Tigers in their comeback bid.
Nonetheless, the Tigers need for Harris to show he can handle an increased workload against opponents like Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Monroe if he is to help them during SEC play. The next two weeks will be huge for the freshman to prove himself. Otherwise, we’re going to see a lot of Jennings down the stretch.
3. Defending against tempo: With games against high-speed offenses like Auburn’s and Texas A&M’s ahead, Saturday’s game offers a nice warmup for those SEC showdowns.
Granted, Sam Houston State is an FCS program, but the Bearkats have former FBS players like running back Jalen Overstreet (Texas) and receiver LaDarius Brown (TCU) on the roster, as well as a dual-threat quarterback, Jared Johnson, who is averaging 351.5 passing yards per game.
The Bearkats ran 105 plays for 685 yards in last week’s 51-20 win over Alabama State so it’s clear that they want to maintain a quick tempo just like the SEC offensive juggernauts the Tigers will face down the road.
“Chief [defensive coordinator John Chavis] has us really doing a lot of up-tempo stuff right now because that’s the type of offense they are,” safety Jalen Mills said. “So as soon as the play is over, less celebrating and more looking to the sideline and getting the play and lining up.”
4. Debuts continue: Should LSU take a comfortable lead by halftime, we might see several members of the Tigers’ impressive 2014 recruiting class -- plus a number of redshirt freshmen -- make their college debuts on Saturday.
Nine true freshmen played against Wisconsin, and we could see several more over the next two weekends. Among the youngsters we’re intrigued to see are receivers Malachi Dupre and D.J. Chark, running back Darrel Williams and defensive linemen Frank Herron, Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain.
Keep an eye on the positional rotations in the second half and see which inexperienced players have earned the chance for a trial by fire. That could tell you who the coaches hope might be able to help them later in the season.
5. Fournette’s follow-up: Speaking of freshmen, tailback Leonard Fournette made a quiet debut last week with 18 rushing yards on eight carries and an average of 23.4 yards on five kickoff returns.
The Tigers mostly rode senior Kenny Hilliard in the fourth quarter against Wisconsin, but Fournette and Terrence Magee should get much more of an opportunity to break some runs against SHSU.
As with Harris, it would be beneficial for Fournette to build some confidence in out-of-conference play before the Tigers host Mississippi State in a key SEC West game on Sept. 20. Our bet is that the Fournette shows off more of the skillset that made him the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect for 2014 over the next two weekends.
Since both teams have defensive fronts with questions to answer, that only makes this point more clear.
Both offenses return key pieces that will allow them to hammer most opponents into submission. It starts with four returning starters from two offensive lines that frequently had their way in 2013.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, opposing defenders didn’t make first contact with a Wisconsin ball carrier last season until he had already gained an average of 3.95 yards per carry -- an average that ranked fourth in the nation behind only Oregon (4.28), Ohio State (4.28) and Auburn (4.23). LSU finished 23 in that category, with Tiger runners averaging 3.03 yards before contact on each rush.
And with the star power either returning or added to the Badger and Tiger backfields, there is no reason to believe this season will be much different for either team. Freshman phenom Leonard Fournette joins the senior duo of Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard to give LSU what should become a phenomenal running game. And it will have to be exceptional to match what Melvin Gordon brings to Wisconsin’s backfield. The Heisman Trophy candidate ran for 1,609 yards, 12 touchdowns and averaged 7.8 yards per carry last fall.
The key, said LSU strongside linebacker Lamar Louis, is to respect Gordon’s explosive game, but not to be in awe of his abilities. After all, the Tigers have faced plenty of top-tier backs in SEC play and even in their own practices.
“He’s a good back, speedy back, makes good cuts, good decisions. I think he’s up for the Heisman Trophy, so he’s a good back,” Louis said. “I’ll say what [defensive coordinator John Chavis] tells us all the time, it’s not someone who we haven’t faced in these past years. It’s not someone who we don’t practice against in Terrence Magee, Leonard Fournette, Jeremy Hill. So we’ll be ready. But yeah, we’re not taking him lightly.”
The Tigers and Badgers have plenty to prove up front on defense, so they can’t afford to take any opponent lightly.
LSU must replace both starting defensive tackles and will break in new starters at two different linebacker positions after an offseason retooling. And Wisconsin’s roster turnover was even more severe, as it loses every starting defensive lineman and linebacker from a 2013 defense that ranked fifth nationally against the run, surrendering 102.5 yards per game.
That means focusing more on Wisconsin’s general defensive tendencies instead of on specific personnel during game preparation.
“It’s kind of weird not being able to have any film to really watch on guys that’s new to [starting], but the thing that we have to do is make sure that we prepare ourselves for the scheme that those guys run,” LSU offensive tackle La’el Collins said. “I think we’ve done a great job of that, and I think we’re still doing a great job with it. Just pretty much prepare, when you look at the program and the tradition of the team, nothing really changes.”
Wisconsin must also do the same thing when preparing for Chavis’ defense. The philosophy remains the same, but it’s more difficult for the Badgers to know much about Louis in his new spot at strongside linebacker or how Kwon Alexander fits at weakside linebacker after playing strongside in 2013. And it’s even tougher to know what to expect from the host of redshirt defensive tackles -- most notably Frank Herron -- who will make their college debuts on Saturday.
The possibilities probably excite Gordon if he hopes to build Heisman buzz, Louis admitted.
“I think it’s going to be more big for him than us,” Louis said. “If I’m a Heisman Trophy running back, and I play LSU for the opener, it doesn’t get any bigger than that. So we know what’s at stake for us and for him and what he can benefit from, so we’re going to have our head on a swivel, and we’re going to be ready.”
And it works the other way, as well. Wisconsin boasts what should be a great offensive line and one of the nation’s best backs. Shutting down a bunch like that would legitimize all of the preseason happy talk surrounding an LSU defense that is reportedly on the rise.
“We have great players on our defensive line, maybe guys that didn’t play last year, but I think we’re going to get a chance to see them on Saturday,” Stokes said. “Frank Herron and guys like that didn’t play last year and were redshirted and have been doing nothing but making plays since fall camp started. So we’re going to get a chance to see those guys. I’m looking forward to it.”
Tuesday marked the first time that the 13th-ranked Tigers turned their attention to No. 14 Wisconsin during a scrimmage, so their similar methods made it easier for LSU to mimic what it will face on Aug. 30.
“We were able to accommodate both offense and defense to some extent exactly what Wisconsin would be like,” Miles said. “Our defense has the ability to kind of mimic, if you will, their defense. And our offense certainly is very similar.”
For the most part, LSU’s starting units went against the reserves in a scrimmage that lasted approximately 120 plays. Miles said the team avoided any serious injuries and that he remains impressed with the way John Chavis’ defense is performing.
“I thought that they tackled well and it was very difficult to get balls off,” Miles said. “But again, I think that that defense is pretty special.”
Senior tailbacks Kenny Hilliard -- whom Miles said ran for more than 100 yards -- and Terrence Magee also stood out.
“Kenny had a really good camp and today I’d have to say Kenny was a very special back, and I think [Magee] was a special back today, too,” Miles said. “It was really, really exciting to watch.”
As for the quarterback battle, Miles still didn’t offer any updates on where the battle stands between Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings. He said the quarterbacks tossed three touchdowns and two interceptions, but didn’t specify whether Harris, Jennings or one of the walk-ons made those throws.
“I don’t know that there’s been separation from one from the other, but both provide a very high level of execution today,” Miles said of Harris and Jennings.
He did say that it’s possible that both Harris and Jennings will play against Wisconsin, adding that the coaching staff will probably inform the quarterback contenders of their starting decision at their Thursday meetings next week.
“I think there’s an opportunity to see both quarterbacks play,” Miles said. “... We have a full game week and several practices this week left, so I think I’ll wait before I describe exactly how we’d like to play these guys.”
Among the other updates that Miles provided after the scrimmage:
- Defensive tackle Quentin Thomas scrimmaged for the first time after he was once feared to be lost for the season with a biceps injury. “He’s got full range of motion, but he just needs a little bit of rehabilitation workout -- basically weight room and football,” Miles said.
- Freshman receiver Malachi Dupre participated for the first time after missing the first two scrimmages with an undisclosed injury. He “caught a couple balls” on Tuesday. “He’s beyond what was an early injury and he’s really just getting back to health,” Miles said. “I think he’ll maintain this opportunity to play from this point forward.”
- The Tigers worked on special teams on Tuesday and punter Jamie Keehn “punted the heck out of it.” Trent Domingue and Cameron Gamble “both kicked the ball extremely well” on kickoffs and Colby Delahoussaye also attempted a couple of field goals.
- A couple of position battles continue on the offensive line. Both Elliott Porter and Ethan Pocic worked at center on Tuesday and “Pocic is looking forward to playing a lot of football in the first game,” Miles said. At right guard, it’s still Hoko Fanaika and Evan Washington. Even if Fanaika does in fact lead for the starting spot, Washington appears to be one of the Tigers’ top reserves at multiple positions. “The one thing about it is Washington is going to play in four spots, so it’s still ... both guys will play,” Miles said.
- Freshman defensive tackle signee Travonte Valentine has still not arrived at LSU yet after a lengthy wait to earn academic eligibility. Valentine tweeted on Monday that he had been cleared to enroll, but Miles said there were still some administrative hurdles that the freshman must clear before he joins the team. “I think he shows up here, or has the opportunity to show up here, in the next two or three days,” Miles said.
Here are five items from the Tigers’ second week of preseason camp:
1. Quinn, Chark getting ready at WR: Neither player was the No. 1 receiver prospect in the nation -- that was Malachi Dupre, who also signed with LSU in February but has been slowed recently by an undisclosed injury -- but freshmen Trey Quinn and D.J. Chark might be more prepared to contribute.
2. Good news at defensive tackle: LSU coach Les Miles named Frank Herron as a starting defensive tackle alongside Christian LaCouture once Quentin Thomas went down with an injury last week.
As it turns out, the Tigers might have both Herron and Thomas at their disposal at some point. Some within the program expected the worst when Thomas injured his arm in practice last week, but the team medical staff said he can rehabilitate the injury without surgery and might not miss the season after all.
Herron looked like was going to play a major role on the defensive line regardless, but it certainly won’t hurt for the Tigers to have their eldest veteran back in the fold. Miles said this week that he believes LSU has a potentially outstanding defensive line, and Thomas’ presence can only make it that much better.
3. Playing it coy about quarterbacks: If the Tigers are as disciplined on the field this fall as they are about discussing their quarterback competition, they’ll never commit a penalty. They’re definitely not tipping their hands when it comes to the QBs.
No matter who you ask, the general message is always the same: “Whoever the coaches choose, we can win with him. They’re both playing great right now. I don’t have a preference,” referring to quarterback contenders Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.
Asked who threw the two touchdown passes in a scrimmage earlier this week, Miles replied, “A quarterback. I’m not going to share that if you don’t mind.”
This is nothing new. Miles pulled the same cloak-and-dagger routine in the spring, when he refused to reveal the quarterbacks’ passing stats after each of the Tigers’ scrimmages. Clearly this is just how Miles is going to handle it. With a tough opening matchup ahead against Wisconsin, there's no good reason to discourage one of the contenders yet.
4. Knowing their roles: LSU has established a reputation for playing freshmen -- and the Tigers will probably use somewhere around their normal 15 signees at some point this season.
But some Tigers newcomers display a mature understanding that this is probably not the fall where they make much of an impact.
Clifton Garrett -- one of the team’s highest-rated defensive signees -- showed that attitude, acknowledging that senior D.J. Welter and sophomore Kendell Beckwith are much better prepared to play at middle linebacker. So for now, he’s focusing on playing special teams and learning the intricacies of defensive coordinator John Chavis’ defense.
“I envision my role being a special teams kind of guy and just whenever coach feels like I’m able to get the plays down and everything, I’m going to be at [middle linebacker], so I’ve got to get the guys lined up,” Garrett said. “When Coach Chavis tells me I’m ready for that position, go out there and play on the field in primetime, then I’m going to do it and I want to be ready for that.”
Same with offensive lineman Jevonte Domond, who arrived from junior college just before the Tigers opened camp. This is probably a learning season, Domond acknowledged. The Tigers have a veteran offensive line and he still has three seasons of eligibility remaining, so the opportunity to learn LSU’s blocking schemes behind an established starter such as right tackle Jerald Hawkins will be incredibly valuable for him in 2015.
Plenty of LSU’s 2014 signees could make similar statements. Most recruits arrive and want to play immediately -- and some Tigers freshmen will do so this fall -- but it’s often good for them to bide their time behind experienced players without the pressure of learning in front of 102,000 people on fall Saturdays. It’s refreshing to see some newcomers possess the maturity to acknowledge that reality.
5. Kick return competition continues: The Tigers reportedly worked on kickoff returns in Wednesday’s first team scrimmage and will likely practice them again in Saturday’s first full scrimmage. But it’s difficult to predict who will handle kicks when the Tigers open the season Aug. 30 against Wisconsin.
Receiver Travin Dural said he’s practicing as a punt returner and kickoff returner and listed Tre'Davious White, Jamal Adams, Leonard Fournette, Quinn and Dupre among the other contenders. Dural said it’s difficult to detect a pecking order yet, however.
“As I see it, whoever lines up first gets the first punt or whoever gets there first gets the first kickoff,” Dural said. “There isn’t really a set order. It isn’t set in stone who’s the punt returner or who’s the kick returner.”
That could be a fun competition to watch over the next couple of weeks, as the players Dural listed have the skills to continue the LSU tradition of excellent return men.
“It’s going to be heart throbbing for me,” Garrett said. “I’m going to be extremely excited and adrenaline is going to be rushing. I can’t wait for it. I get a chill just thinking about it. I watch the hype videos and everything and it’s crazy.”
As ESPN’s No. 2 inside linebacker and No. 31 overall prospect in the 2014 recruiting class, Garrett seems bound for college stardom. That might not happen immediately, however. Not with veterans D.J. Welter and Kendell Beckwith ahead of him on the depth chart and not with the bulk of defensive coordinator John Chavis’ scheme still to learn.
Garrett himself seems ready to accept a season as a contributor on special teams, with occasional spot duty at linebacker, while he learns behind the veterans. But there are still several freshmen who have a chance to contribute immediately on Chavis’ defense. And as the Tigers’ veteran coordinator indicated, some of them -- a group that includes cornerback Ed Paris and safeties Jamal Adams and John Battle -- reside in the secondary.
Paris, ESPN’s No. 50 overall prospect, got a head start on the others by enrolling at LSU in January and participating in spring practice. He was listed as a second-team cornerback behind Rashard Robinson on the Tigers’ preseason depth chart.
“It helped me a lot. I learned it all in like a major way,” Paris said of his spring experience. “Because learning the playbook is extremely hard [as are] just learning [defensive backs coach Corey] Raymond’s terminology and seeing things and just trying to stay key on my techniques.”
Adams -- LSU’s highest-rated defensive signee at No. 18 overall and the No. 2 safety on the ESPN 300 -- might be on the field in multiple capacities. He’s in the mix for one of the Tigers’ kick return jobs, plus he could contribute in the base defense or in the Tigers’ nickel or dime packages.
“I feel like I can fit in with those guys,” Adams said of the veterans in the secondary. “I feel like I can help that group of guys, but I’m definitely not going to rush anything. I’m just going to keep working hard and my playing time is going to speak for myself on the field.”
And Battle’s versatility will someday come in handy. Sophomore Dwayne Thomas said he and Jalen Mills have been encouraging Battle to learn every position in the secondary, just as they have. That might not happen immediately, but Battle said he and the other freshman safeties should carve out a niche once they figure out their positions.
“It’s going to be fun,” Battle said. “Once we learn the plays, that’s going to be the deciding factor.”
That was a common theme among LSU’s defensive newcomers, who all seemed to recognize they still have a lot to learn. Many of them were sought-after recruits who are unaccustomed to sitting on the bench, but they know they must prove themselves worthy of playing time beyond special teams.
“It’s definitely a humbling aspect, but it’s definitely a motivational thing, as well,” Garrett said. “Being one of the young guys, the underdog, you have to come in and kind of prove yourself to all the older guys.”
Most of LSU’s freshmen seem to have that attitude, sophomore safety Rickey Jefferson said, which has impressed the veterans.
“Most of the class, honestly, had their head on straight. I don’t really recall one guy that’s like a knucklehead or anything like that,” Jefferson said. “Most of them handle their business. They’ve really got it going on, so I have to give that to them.”
Nonetheless, this probably will not be a season where LSU’s freshman defenders dominate the headlines. Its offensive newcomers are getting much of the attention right now, and for good reason. The Tigers must replace 76 percent of their offensive production from last season, after all, and it’s entirely possible that freshmen will pick up some of that slack.
But quarterback Brandon Harris, running back Leonard Fournette, and receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn aren’t the only LSU freshmen set to make their mark in 2014. Several freshmen on defense, particularly those in the secondary, could play roles on scrimmage downs this season.
“These guys are pretty good,” said Mills, a former Freshman All-American. “They kind of remind me of the defensive back class that came in when I was a freshman. We were hungry and we wanted to go out there and get the starting job that next day, so it’s just good competition.”
Miles confirmed that freshmen Leonard Fournette and Malachi Dupre are both dealing with injuries, adding that tailback Fournette ran a handful of times in “thud” drills (not full contact) and that he should participate in a greater role in Saturday’s full scrimmage.
“He really could have been involved today, but [with] a little bruise, we decided not to,” Miles said.
“He’s really nicked and on the heal and they don’t think it’s anything major in any way, but we’ve just got to continue to treat and get him going,” Miles said.
He didn’t say which quarterbacks threw the passes, but Miles did reveal that Avery Peterson and Travin Dural caught touchdowns in the scrimmage.
Speaking generally, he said that quarterback contenders Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris are in command of the offense most of the time. The rest remains a work in progress.
“They’re young, they’re both engaged in leadership and want to have command of the offense -- and they do for the most part,” Miles said. “They don’t know what command is. They don’t necessarily understand exactly what has to be communicated to make this thing go easy. They’re learning.
“I’d say 70 percent of today was just very, very well done and 30 percent’s probably not enough for anybody that sits in the stands to even notice. And yet that 30 percent we expect from our quarterbacks.”
Miles said defensive tackle Quentin Thomas -- initially thought to be lost for the season with a torn bicep -- worked in individual drills on Wednesday and might still play this season.
“Today he went through individual and moved and used his hands. It’s one of those things when you have a big old arm and you get it nicked, you can’t quite tell what it is and what it isn’t initially. Frankly he’s as fortunate as he could be.”
Miles added that the Tigers’ occupational therapist, “looked at it and he says there’s absolutely no reason to do anything else than rehabilitate and let him play.”
Thomas’ versatility: One of the primary benefits of LSU’s “Mustang” defense is that it’s difficult to tell which rushers will attack the line of scrimmage on any given play. So perhaps it fits that one of the Tigers’ key players in that package is Dwayne Thomas, since you never know where he might play.
Thomas said he has learned the duties of every position in the secondary, joining Jalen Mills as the only Tiger defensive backs who can do that.
“Corner, safety, nickel and dime -- I pretty much know the entire defense,” Thomas said. “Wherever Coach [Corey] Raymond needs me, I just go fill in. It’s a great opportunity to do that. Being able to be in the mix of any position is good for the next level.”
Thomas said he added safety to his repertoire since the end of last season, having worked at the position throughout spring practice.
“Once I got safety down pat, that was like the last position I had to learn for the entire defense,” Thomas said. “I had already been doing nickel and dime and corner. After the spring passed, getting all the safety reps down pat was just fantastic.”
But it’s that Mustang role where Thomas might make the biggest impact. Because of his speed off the edge -- aided by his ability to jump the snap count, work with assistant coach Brick Haley on the finer points of pass rushing and film study of former Mustang standouts Tyrann Mathieu and Ron Brooks -- Thomas could be even more valuable in that role this season.
“Dwayne really gives us what we’re looking for at that position. He does a great job there,” defensive coordinator John Chavis said when asked about who will play the rushing positions in the Mustang. “Jalen Mills has played a lot at that position. I’m not ready to say anything other than we expect Thomas to be one of those guys.”
Kick returners: Dural said one factor will probably determine who eventually wins LSU’s kickoff and punt return jobs.
“We’re battling every day to see who’s going to drop the ball first,” Dural chuckled.
Dural listed a half-dozen candidates who are contending for the return jobs when they catch balls before and after practice each day.
“It’s just me, Tre White, Leonard, Jamal [Adams], Malachi, Trey Quinn. We’re all back there battling for a spot,” Dural said. “Everybody wants to be that dynamic player. Everybody wants to be the kickoff guy or [punt].”
LSU had one of the nation’s best return men last year in Odell Beckham, who entered the NFL draft after winning the Paul Hornung Award as college football’s most versatile player. Dural said it won’t be easy to replace the explosive Beckham, but he believes the Tigers have plenty of promising candidates.
“It’s hard to replace someone like that, but we have a lot of guys who have the ability to make those plays,” Dural said. “Tre White, he’s a guy that can return punts and return kickoffs as well as Leonard. Leonard’s back there returning both of them. So as the season goes on, whoever that guy may be, you’ll start to see him make those types of plays that Odell did.”
"And that has nothing to do with me as it does with the attitude of the guys, No. 1, but the amount of pressure John [Chavis, LSU's defensive coordinator] and his defense put on them. Any flaw a guy has is going to get exposed and get exposed in the first 30 minutes of practice."
LSU's assistant coaches, quarterbacks and freshmen spoke with reporters on Sunday for the first and possibly only time this preseason, so Jennings, Harris and Cameron were among the day's busiest participants.
Head coach Les Miles said he is not rushing yet to name a starter between sophomore Jennings and freshman Harris as he wants to allow a competitive environment to thrive.
"I think the naming of a starter will be when one separates himself from the other. And when it's a real advantage to name him as a starter because he needs to recognize as does the team that this is where we're going," Miles said. "We're not there."
"My job is to make this decision as tough on Les as possible," Cameron said. "What do you mean by that? Well, we've got two guys that we feel confident we can win with -- if not three, if not four. We're not coaching one guy more than the other hoping he's the guy."
Cameron might even find roles for both quarterbacks to fill.
He's best remembered for leading the game-winning touchdown drive against Arkansas after replacing injured Zach Mettenberger last season, but Jennings played in nine games -- including contests against TCU, Florida, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and his first start in the bowl win against Iowa -- in 2013.
Using him in spot duty made more sense because the dual-threat Jennings possesses a different skill set from Mettenberger, a prototypical dropback passer. However, Jennings and Harris are much more similar players.
Regardless, Cameron expressed confidence that whoever wins the competition will be ready to be successful once the opener against Wisconsin arrives on Aug. 30.
"I would say this confidently: we're going to have more than one quality starter here at LSU," Cameron said. "That's what we're charged with and we'll get that done."
Linebacker rotation?: Defensive coordinator John Chavis has rarely enjoyed the luxury that a deep group of linebackers might provide this season. Beyond starters Kwon Alexander, D.J. Welter and Lamar Louis, Chavis' position group runs two and three deep with quality players across the board -- and that might help not only on defense, but on special teams.
"If they're ready to play, we're going to play them. There's no question about that," Chavis said. "They're not any different than anybody else on our field. In an ideal situation, you'd like to have six starting linebackers and then they all could go play special teams and we could rest them on defense. Unfortunately we haven't been that way with depth.
"Is this a year that we can reach that? We're closer than we've been in the past."
In addition to players such as Deion Jones, Duke Riley and Ronnie Feist, Chavis has talented sophomore Kendell Beckwith trying to surpass Welter as the starting middle linebacker and one of the Tigers' top 2014 signees, Clifton Garrett, behind them.
It might be difficult to juggle, as there are only so many snaps to go around between the three linebacker spots. But Chavis seems confident that everyone who deserves to play will be on the field in some capacity.
"If you can go two deep and you don't have a drop-off, then that just makes your special teams even better," Chavis said.
No decisions on return men: Speaking of special teams, coach Bradley Dale Peveto said he is considering six candidates for the punt return and kickoff return jobs, but wasn't ready to identify them yet.
Tre'Davious White and Travin Dural are among the players known to be working at punt returner and Terrence Magee is among the kickoff return men.
"We had four great days in evaluating a lot of our team, got it down to six guys at each spot," Peveto said. "I don't really want to talk about that yet because we've got a great competition going on, but I'm going to tell you we've got enough. We've got some really good guys, some really talented young men who might compete for those positions."
Miles said earlier that Trent Domingue has taken over as the Tigers' kickoff specialist.
Right guard competition: Offensive line coach Jeff Grimes chuckled when asked how the right guard competition is shaking out.
"It's still shaking," Grimes said. "We'll let it go until somebody lays claim to it."
Seniors Fehoko Fanaika and Evan Washington have battled for the starting job at right guard, the lone spot where the Tigers lost a starting offensive lineman from 2013.
Throughout his LSU career, the senior defensive end has dealt with torn labrums in both shoulders – injuries that dated back to his early years of high school. Rasco had the left shoulder surgically repaired last year and underwent the procedure on the right shoulder this year, which forced him to miss spring practice.
The rehab process is grueling enough after surgery on just one shoulder. Doing both at the same time, essentially rendering his arms useless for a while, might have been more than he could bear, Rasco said.
“When I had gotten my left one done, my right one was still torn, so I just had to play last year with it because they didn’t want me to get both of them done at the same time,” Rasco said. “That would have been real miserable.”
Considering how he played with only one good arm in 2013, it’s interesting to consider how Rasco might improve upon his production – 56 tackles, four sacks, 6.5 tackles for a loss – now that he is able to reach and punch and hold off offensive linemen more easily.
“I’m glad I don’t have to get another surgery,” Rasco said. “But I’m just ready to go. It’s going to be my best year because this is the strongest I’ve been in my whole life.”
LSU coach Les Miles said at SEC media days that his defensive end tandem of Rasco and Danielle Hunter might rank among the nation’s best this season, a status that would require a much more consistent season from both of them. But center Elliott Porter said he believes a healthy Rasco is on the verge of a big season.
“Rasco doesn’t get enough credit, I believe,” Porter said. “Rasco’s a great defensive end. The last three years, I’ve seen him make big plays in big games. I think he will continue to do so.”
Old man in the room: Quantavius Leslie arrived at LSU last season as a junior college transfer. In little more than a year, he’s gone from one of the least experienced receivers on the roster to by far the oldest player in the Tigers’ wideout meeting room.
Leslie is the only scholarship senior receiver on the roster. The Tigers don’t have a scholarship junior, although Travin Dural is a redshirt sophomore. Otherwise, the depth chart is loaded with redshirt and true freshmen.
“We always joke about that in the receiving room about me being the oldest, but I take pride in being an older guy,” Leslie said. “I just tell them what’s right. I’ve been through this, so this is not my first year going through it. I just kind of tell the guys what to expect and stuff.”
Leslie had a quiet debut season at LSU, when he struggled to pick up the one position – the “X” receiver – that receivers coach Adam Henry asked him to learn. Since the start of spring practice, Leslie has learned all three receiving positions, which he hopes will allow him to become a more productive player.
“It’s different from last year because last year coming in, I was really just getting my feet wet and everything. I really didn’t know everything I needed to know,” Leslie said. “I barely knew one position as to now where I know all the positions and know what to do.”
Mustang personnel: The first-team defense worked on a number of front-seven progressions in defensive coordinator John Chavis’ “Mustang” package on Wednesday morning.
Jalen Mills and Dwayne Thomas served as the extra two defensive backs who line up at either end of the line, D.J. Welter and Kwon Alexander were the linebackers and Rasco, Christian LaCouture and Hunter were the linemen.
After several reps, Chavis worked several other players in the dime package, including defensive back Jamal Adams behind Thomas, Quentin Thomas, Maquedius Bain and Frank Herron behind LaCouture in the defensive tackle spot, Sione Teuhema for Hunter and Deondre Clark for Rasco at end. Lamar Louis came in behind Welter and Ronnie Feist replaced Alexander at linebacker.
Morning movement: The Tigers’ quarterback rotation continued as it had the previous two days, with Anthony Jennings shifting back to work with the starting offense in Wednesday’s split-squad practice, as he had Monday. Brandon Harris moved back to Wednesday’s afternoon session after practicing with the varsity on Tuesday morning.
Freshman running back Leonard Fournette switched places with Kenny Hilliard on Wednesday, working with Terrence Magee and the varsity for the first time after practicing in the afternoon sessions on Monday and Tuesday.
Additionally, LSU’s top four tight ends – Dillon Gordon, Travis Dickson, DeSean Smith and Logan Stokes – all practiced with the varsity on Wednesday morning after splitting up between the two groups in the first two days.
Returning starters: D.J. Welter (80 tackles, 4 tackles for loss in 2013), Kwon Alexander (65 tackles, 6.5 TFL). Defensive coordinator John Chavis complimented Welter’s performance from spring practice -- during which he won the team’s MVP award -- following a mediocre junior season. Meanwhile, Alexander shifted from strongside linebacker to weakside during the spring, which should allow him to become a key playmaker this fall.
Starters lost: Lamin Barrow (91 tackles, 5.5 TFL). Weakside linebacker Barrow led the team in tackles and was one of the more consistent performers on a rebuilding LSU defense in 2013.
Key newcomers: Clifton Garrett (No. 31 overall on the ESPN 300 and No. 2 inside linebacker) was the Tigers’ highest-rated linebacker signee, while outside linebacker Donnie Alexander (No. 261, No. 19 OLB) was also an ESPN 300 pick. Garrett is an immensely talented prospect, but he’s listed on the preseason depth chart as the third-team middle linebacker behind Welter and sophomore Kendell Beckwith (11 tackles). He’s got his work cut out to become a key contributor in 2014.
Player to watch: Kwon Alexander. Alexander and strongside linebacker Lamar Louis (25 tackles) both moved into new starting positions during the spring, and both jobs seem to suit the veterans’ respective skill sets. Alexander, seems to be the player who is poised for a breakout season, though. Taking over Barrow’s old role, he could become one of LSU’s top defensive performers this fall -- as evidenced by his interception return for a touchdown in the Tigers’ spring game.
Overall: This is one of LSU’s most exciting position groups, blessed with substantial athleticism, speed and depth. It’s only a matter of time until Beckwith is a star in the SEC, and he and fellow reserves Deion Jones (15 tackles in 2013, plus an interception return for a 67-yard touchdown in the spring game), Duke Riley (7 tackles) and Ronnie Feist (did not play) are all capable players. Chavis acknowledged after spring practice that he is considerably excited about what the group will add to the defense this fall -- and he should be. Chavis has plenty of weapons at his disposal, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see several of them emerge as reliable performers in 2014.
So turn down the air conditioning and pack a light jacket for the night games.
The leaves won’t be the only things changing colors around this time, though. Contenders and pretenders will begin to separate themselves as we get into the meat of the conference schedule.
If you’re just now jumping on board, we at the SEC blog have been getting ready for the coming season by plotting out our top destinations every week. So far we’ve been to Georgia, LSU, Alabama, South Carolina, Houston, Vanderbilt and Oklahoma. We’ve got five weeks down and nine more to go.
Let’s take a look at the best options for Week 6:
Alabama at Ole Miss
LSU at Auburn
Florida at Tennessee
Vanderbilt at Georgia
South Carolina at Kentucky
Texas A&M at Mississippi State
Alex Scarborough’s pick: LSU at Auburn
Nothing approaches Alabama and the Iron Bowl when you’re talking about Auburn’s most significant rivalry game. But Auburn’s annual matchup with LSU is darn close. When these Tigers hook up, it’s appointment viewing.
I'm talking about the 1988 earthquake game. I'm talking about 1996, when a fire broke out. I'm talking abut 2004, when John Vaughn needed two shots at a game-winning extra point. And I'm definitely talking the 2006 slugfest that was one of the best displays of SEC defense in recent memory.
A 10-point game? Yeah, I don’t think that will happen any time soon. Not as long as Gus Malzahn is putting the pedal to the metal offensively at Auburn.
But this year’s Auburn-LSU game is appealing for that same reason: It pits one of the most prolific offenses in college football against one of the most physical defenses. Nick Marshall and the Auburn offense like to get out in open space and run. John Chavis wants his LSU defense to hit you in the teeth and suffocate you with speed. It’s strength vs. strength.
Man is it fun to watch when both teams are clicking, too. And at a venue such as Jordan-Hare Stadium in early October, you can’t ask for much more.
David Ching’s pick: Alabama at Ole Miss
You’ve made a good pick there, Alex. The craziest game I’ve attended was the 1994 LSU-Auburn game, when Auburn rallied to a miraculous win by returning three interceptions for touchdowns. That series probably doesn’t get the attention it deserves nationally, considering how many ridiculous things have happened when they’ve met in the last couple decades.
At any rate, I nearly allowed nostalgia to overcome me with my pick, which would have led me to select Florida-Tennessee. I’m a child of the early 1990s and there was no more important annual SEC rivalry in those days than when Phil Fulmer’s Vols took on Steve Spurrier’s Gators. For that reason alone, I’d enjoy watching those teams meet at Neyland Stadium, simply to soak in a bit of that history.
But both of those teams missed out on the postseason last year, and even if I think at least one of them -- if not both -- will return to bowl contention this season, Alabama-Ole Miss feels like it will be a more appealing game this fall.
Ole Miss’ solid 2013 recruiting class is coming of age, and the Rebels might be good enough to challenge the Crimson Tide -- particularly because this game will be played in Oxford, Mississippi. Second, there’s the lure of The Grove and the sights and sounds that come with tailgating around campus.
I’ve covered a couple of games in Oxford but haven’t been able to enjoy all that Oxford has to offer. If I’m picking a game to attend for fun, the social aspect would definitely figure into the equation as I choose what might also be a key game in the SEC West race.
Haskins, McElwain Shine At IMG Regional
TBD Bowling Green Tennessee TBD Wisconsin Alabama TBD UTEP Arkansas TBD Louisville Auburn TBD New Mexico State Florida TBD Louisiana-Monroe Georgia TBD Louisiana-Lafayette Kentucky TBD McNeese State LSU TBD Southeast Missouri State Missouri TBD Tennessee-Martin Ole Miss TBD Mississippi State Southern Miss TBD Arizona State Texas A&M TBD Western Kentucky Vanderbilt