LSU Tigers: John Chavis

LSU’s spring practice ended two weeks ago, leaving a full 15 weeks before the Tigers return to the practice field.

The position battles that started in the spring will continue through summer workouts before resuming in front of coaches in August. Let’s take a look at what happened in a few of those spring battles and what we’ll be watching between now and Aug. 30, when the Tigers open the season against Wisconsin.

Defensive tackle: The spring was as much a feeling-out process as anything for defensive line coach Brick Haley. He mostly rode two departed veterans last fall while using youngsters Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas in spot duty. LaCouture and Thomas jumped into leading roles during the spring, and Haley also tested Maquedius Bain, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron (at times) in the middle. Haley has probably established a mental pecking order with the group, but August and the early-season games will certainly play important roles in cementing the coach’s opinions. It will also be worth watching how signees such as Travonte Valentine perform once they arrive on campus, as they might allow Haley to utilize a true rotation in the middle.

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Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsSophomore linebacker Kendell Beckwith moved inside and was impressive this spring.
Linebacker: This should be a fun bunch to watch in the fall. While Kwon Alexander, Lamar Louis and D.J. Welter seemed to rank among John Chavis’ first options during the spring, it’s apparent that the Tigers’ defensive coordinator has no shortage of talented options. One of the intriguing spring storylines was Kendell Beckwith’s transition to middle linebacker behind Welter. The linebackers as a group had an excellent spring game, with Ronnie Feist leading all tacklers with 14 stops and both Alexander and Deion Jones picking off Anthony Jennings passes and returning the interceptions for touchdowns. Clifton Garrett is one of the Tigers’ highest-rated 2014 signees, and he could add even more intrigue to the competition for playing time once practice resumes.

Quarterback: Surely you’ve heard by now that the battle between Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris appears to be wide open entering the summer months. Jennings has a slight experience advantage, but Harris was the more effective performer in the spring game. Both players made plenty of mistakes, however. Their offseason preparation in the next few months will be enormously important once August arrives.

Right guard: This is another battle that the coaches said was wide open once the spring concluded. Evan Washington shifted from tackle to guard and seemed to take the leading role in the competition. Fellow senior Fehoko Fanaika and sophomore Ethan Pocic are lurking, however. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see all of them play some scrimmage downs against Wisconsin -- or in Weeks 2 and 3 against Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Monroe -- as new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes weighs his options. Coach Les Miles complimented all three players after the spring game, so it seems that the coaches would be comfortable playing any of the candidates.

Safety: Injuries caused this position to remain as a bit of a mystery during the spring. Jalen Mills remained in a starting role, and Ronald Martin seemed to be faring well in a return from a fractured right foot. He was injured again by the end of the spring, however, joining Corey Thompson (knee surgery) on the sideline by the time the spring game rolled around. Mills and Rickey Jefferson were the top options in the spring game, but the Tigers could use any number of combinations when the season arrives -- especially once highly-rated safety prospect Jamal Adams and the other signees make it to Baton Rouge this summer. Once the Tigers are back to full strength in August, this should make for one of the most intriguing position battles.

Tight end: This will be a fun position to track in the fall. They had plenty of playing time last season, but barely made a blip as receivers. They seem to be confident that they will make a more well-rounded contribution in 2014. Sophomore DeSean Smith and signee Jacory Washington possess intriguing receiver skills, and Dillon Gordon, Travis Dickson and Logan Stokes worked this spring to prove that they are well-rounded players at the position. It’s a big group, but all of them should have roles to fill during the season.

Wide receiver: They were the walking wounded for much of the spring, with Avery Peterson, Kevin Spears, John Diarse and Quantavius Leslie all spending time in non-contact jerseys. That was a tough blow for a group that has a lot to prove after Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Kadron Boone and James Wright all left the roster after last season. Travin Dural -- who had an outstanding spring game with five catches for 130 yards and two touchdowns -- seemed to solidify his spot as the No. 1 receiving option for now. But this will become one of the Tigers’ most interesting position battles in August once a star-studded signing class, led by Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, arrives to challenge the returning wideouts.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU held its final spring practice this week, officially sending the Tigers into a crucial offseason.

An obvious point this spring was that Les Miles’ coaching staff was working with an incomplete roster. Seven underclassmen jumped ship to enter the NFL draft and only two of the Tigers’ 23 signees -- quarterback Brandon Harris and defensive back Edward Paris -- enrolled early to participate in spring practice.

That leaves plenty of questions as the team moves into the offseason -- five of which we’ll address now:

5. Do the Tigers have adequate depth in the backfield?

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Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsOutside of Kenny Hilliard, there is not a lot of returning depth in the backfield and the Tigers will need to rely on incoming freshman.
The answer to this question during the spring was a resounding no -- Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard were the only scholarship tailbacks on the roster, and Magee missed a portion of the month after spraining an ankle in a scrimmage -- but that’s irrelevant. You don’t win or lose a game in March or April.

But even when freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams arrive this summer, will that be enough? An injury here or there could cause major problems. For example, look what happened at Georgia last season. When the season opened, it appeared as though the Bulldogs had one of the nation’s top backfields with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall leading the way and freshmen J.J. Green, Brendan Douglas and A.J. Turman serving as backups. But then Gurley suffered a minor injury in the opener against Clemson followed by a serious ankle injury in Game 4 against LSU. The next week, Marshall suffered a season-ending knee injury.

All of a sudden, Georgia was down to a bunch of freshmen -- all of whom were mid-level prospects -- by the first week of October. It’s no mystery why the Bulldogs went 1-2, and very nearly 0-3, in that October stretch before Gurley returned to the lineup. A lack of backfield depth in the SEC can be a season killer when you make a living on the ground like Georgia and LSU typically do.

4. How many players will figure into the Tigers’ plans on the defensive line? And how good can they be this season?

Aside from quarterback play, this might be the most important factor for the 2014 Tigers. Brick Haley’s bunch was a bit erratic last season, and now it must function with youngsters replacing departed juniors Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson in the middle.

The good news is that there is plenty of talent on hand along the interior line. Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas worked as first-teamers, with redshirt freshmen Maquedius Bain, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron chipping in as reserves. There is an extremely high ceiling with that group, but they’re about as green as it gets. It will also bear watching during preseason camp to see whether a signee like Travonte Valentine can crack Haley’s rotation, too.

The end spots are also a bit of a mystery. Jermauria Rasco -- who missed the spring while returning from offseason surgery -- and Danielle Hunter seem locked in as starters, but will they improve upon middling results in 2013? And who fills in the depth chart behind them? Tashawn Bower seems like a safe bet, but who else? We’ll see.

3. Who will start at safety?

Jalen Mills and Ronald Martin seemed to have these jobs locked down during the spring, but Rickey Jefferson and Corey Thompson -- another player who missed spring practice due to injury -- will be in the mix in August.

Keep in mind that nearly every time this position came up in one of his post-practice press gatherings, Miles mentioned how the Tigers’ safety signees -- Jamal Adams, Devin Voorhies and John Battle -- will be part of the preseason competition, too.

2. Will this offense be productive enough to win a championship?

It probably was last season, but for once it was LSU’s defense that was in the middle of a retooling effort. John Chavis’ defense appears to be on the rise now, but Cam Cameron must replace nearly every significant skill player from last season’s offense.

Freshmen like Fournette, Harris and receiver Malachi Dupre don’t just look like serviceable college players, they look like superstars in the making. But it’s a lot to ask of true freshmen to be superstars immediately.

Cameron’s dilemma is that he will almost certainly rely on at least a half-dozen newcomers to make an impact this fall. It’s a tricky proposition, but his getting reliable production out of that group might mean the difference between LSU contending for the SEC West title this fall or having to wait another year or two until they mature and bring the Tigers back to national championship contention.

1. Will Harris overtake Anthony Jennings at quarterback?

We can’t post this list and fail to address the biggest question surrounding the Tigers this spring. After a month of practice, there doesn’t seem to be an answer, although Harris clearly outperformed his sophomore counterpart in the spring game.

LSU’s coaches understandably see no need to declare a starter five months before the season starts. They’ll battle it out this summer in passing sessions and then again in August. Harris looks to be the contender with higher upside, but he must prove he can avoid the decision-making problems that most freshman quarterbacks encounter when the pressure of the season arrives.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU is scheduled to hold its final spring walk-through on Tuesday, which will officially send the Tigers into the offseason.

As Les Miles’ club wraps up its 15 spring workouts, here are five things we took away from the last month on the practice field:

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Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesAnthony Jennings' ability as a running quarterback will be a weapon LSU can utilize this fall.
1. Those QBs can move: Having seen Anthony Jennings play a bit as a freshman, we already knew he had some wiggle. But freshman Brandon Harris looks to be at least his equal in the running-quarterback department after he had 76 rushing yards and a touchdown in last Saturday’s spring game.

Whichever quarterback wins the starting job, it’s a certainty that his playing style will differ wildly from predecessor Zach Mettenberger, who stood like a stone in the pocket. With either Jennings or Harris under center, defenses will have to respect that he can take off and make big plays with his legs.

“Oh boy, isn’t that fun to see?” Miles asked, referring to a 41-yard run that Harris made in the second quarter. “You go back in there and the defense makes a mistake and let me tell you what happened: One of those linebackers went over there to the other side with one of those backs and did not stay home. 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.”

Jennings still seems to have a tendency to hold on to the ball too long while looking to pass. Iowa sacked him four times in the Outback Bowl, and his defensive teammates got to him four times in the spring game. Harris seemed to have a better idea when to tuck it and run, which doesn’t seem to be a terrible idea for either of them, as they can both be dynamic runners when they leave the pocket.

2. Linebackers will be strong: Saturday was a great day for LSU’s linebackers. Not only did Kwon Alexander and Deion Jones both intercept Jennings' passes and take them to the house for touchdowns, but Ronnie Feist (14 tackles) and Lamar Louis (seven tackles, 0.5 tackle for a loss) were their respective teams’ leading tacklers.

Feist seemed to be everywhere, continuing what Miles said was an impressive spring from a physicality standpoint.

“When he hits you, you’re hit,” Miles said of Feist. “There’s no pretend to it.”

Senior middle linebacker D.J. Welter apparently left a major impression on his coaches this spring as well. Not only was he among the defense’s honorees in awards for leadership and for outstanding performance, but he was the lone winner of the Jimmy Taylor Award, the team’s comprehensive spring award for outstanding leadership, effort and performance.

3. Offensive playmakers still must emerge: It seemed like a foregone conclusion even before spring practice started that some of the team’s top offensive players for 2014 weren’t on campus yet. Spring didn’t do much to change that perception.

Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee -- who dealt with a sprained ankle for much of the spring -- were adequate at tailback, but freshman Leonard Fournette will inject some star power to the position once he arrives on campus. Likewise, Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn and the new receivers will add explosiveness at a position that was riddled with injuries throughout the spring. The receivers were nearly nonexistent in the spring game.

LSU wide receivers totaled seven catches for 200 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday. Sounds pretty good, right? But five of the catches, 130 yards and both touchdowns came from one player: Travin Dural.

Otherwise, the group frequently dropped passes and misplayed catchable balls, proving that they need every bit of the available practice time this summer to develop chemistry with their quarterbacks. Dural looks like a star in the making, but the others have a lot to prove from a consistency standpoint.

4. Tight end talk seems legit: DeSean Smith and the Tigers’ other tight ends expressed hope this spring that they would get more opportunities to catch passes in 2014 than they did last season, when wideouts Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham got most of the looks from Mettenberger.

They said that’s how things had been going in practice, and Saturday looked to continue that trend. Smith led the way with three catches for 45 yards and a touchdown, but Dillon Gordon (2-32), Logan Stokes (1-26), John David Moore (1-20) and Travis Dickson (1-8) also made receptions. In all, the tight ends accounted for eight of the Tigers’ 21 catches in the final spring scrimmage, and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron seems pleased with the weapons he has at his disposal at the position.

“Every year, with different personnel, creates a whole new set of opportunities, and I think the opportunities for our tight ends are going to be critical,” Cameron said. “I was thrilled -- for the most part -- I thought they made the most of it.”

5. Defense is on the comeback: Judging by the way the White team (which featured the starters) throttled the Purple team’s offense on Saturday, it looks like LSU’s first-team defense has the potential to rank among the SEC’s best this fall.

The Purple team accounted for 179 yards of offense on 46 plays -- 53 rushing on 27 carries and 126 passing on 6-for-19 attempts. The Purple converted for a first down just once out of 11 third downs.

After saying earlier in the week that he overthought things in his first season as a starter, defensive end Danielle Hunter seems to have cut loose now. He recorded two sacks on Saturday and was a regular presence in the Purple team’s backfield.

He was only one member of a sizable group of defensive players on both teams who flashed major potential in the scrimmage. Things seem to be looking up for defensive coordinator John Chavis’ bunch.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Asked whether Saturday’s spring game would be an important factor in some of his team’s key position battles, Les Miles clearly saw no need to do his best P.T. Barnum impression in order to draw a crowd -- which is fine since admission to LSU’s 1 p.m. CT scrimmage at Tiger Stadium is free.

“Not really to be honest with you. We’re going to watch competition [and] it’s a key scrimmage, but it’s also one of those things where there’s a lot of time left before we get to [deciding] playing time,” Miles said after Thursday’s practice. “It’s one piece, but obviously it’s important and any time we walk into that stadium, we expect our guys to play at a certain level.”

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Courtesy of IntersportAll eyes will be on the quarterbacks on Saturday in LSU's spring game, and former Under Armour All-American Brandon Harris has a chance to make a big impression.
Miles and his coaches have been observing practice for a month and then they’ll have 29 more August practices to settle their lineups for the opener against Wisconsin. But this is the first chance most of us will have to see how some Tigers handle new or expanded roles in a competitive situation. That’s what makes spring games fun, even if it’s just a glorified scrimmage.

So while Miles indicated it would be a mistake to draw any major conclusions from Saturday’s competition, there are still plenty of areas of intrigue worth observing since this is the last time we’ll see the Tigers do anything competitive until they take the field at Houston’s Reliant Stadium on Aug. 30. Here's what we’ll be keeping an eye on from the press box:

Quarterback play: Duh. It was no surprise at Thursday’s practice, which was open for students to attend, that the vast majority of them gathered around the field where LSU’s quarterbacks were throwing to their wide receivers. The competition between sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris is by far the biggest source of intrigue among Tigers fans, and their performances on Saturday will generate speculation all summer about who is best prepared to lead the offense in the opener against Wisconsin.

Both players have worked with the first- and second-team offenses, although Miles hasn’t been specific about who has done what in practices or scrimmages. Jennings certainly looks to have a better handle on things in the portions of practice that are open to the media. Harris, meanwhile, is all raw potential thanks to a powerful throwing arm. The early enrollee seems more likely to sail a ball over or behind a receiver, but when he does it correctly, it’s a thing of beauty.

Defenders could tackle Harris and Jennings when they ran from the pocket in last Saturday’s scrimmage, but Miles predicted they will likely wear non-contact jerseys in the spring game.

Offensive line development: Obviously one of LSU’s main position battles this spring has been at right guard, where Evan Washington, Fehoko Fanaika and Ethan Pocic have all gotten a look from new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see all three players factor into the Tigers’ plans in the fall, although somebody has to be the starter. Washington seems to be the leader, but we’ll gain some understanding of the pecking order on Saturday.

Overall, a line that returns four starters was effective last season, particularly as run blockers. They want to become a dominant group this season, however, and their experience and apparent depth make that seem like a possibility. Let’s see how they fare against an emerging LSU defensive line on Saturday.

Beckwith vs. Welter: We could expand this to the performance of the entire reshuffled linebacker corps, with Kwon Alexander at weakside linebacker and Lamar Louis at strong. But let’s narrow our focus on the play of senior D.J. Welter and sophomore Kendell Beckwith in the middle. Both players have reportedly enjoyed productive springs and both will likely factor into coordinator John Chavis’ plans in the fall. But who will be the starter? Saturday won’t decide that outcome, but it will be interesting to observe how the two players function in a game-like situation.

Interior defensive line: Miles has said a time or two this spring that the competition between the offensive and defensive lines has been encouraging. It will be fun to watch them duke it out on Saturday. One group has a decided experience advantage, particularly after starting defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson both bolted for the NFL draft. But there are some up-and-comers along the defensive line who could shine on Saturday.

By all accounts, sophomore Christian LaCouture has had a strong spring. Sophomore end Tashawn Bower, redshirt freshman tackles Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore and end/tackle Frank Herron are among the youngsters we’ll be watching, as well.

Secondary play: This is a group that simply has to play better in 2014. All of the contenders at safety haven’t been practicing lately, so it’s unclear whether we’ll get a clear idea of where that competition stands on Saturday. But how smooth will Jalen Mills look at safety? What does early enrollee Ed Paris look like after a month of practices at cornerback? Who fills the various defensive back roles if the Tigers line up in their nickel and dime packages? Will Rashard Robinson and Tre’Davious White continue to develop into the lockdown cornerbacks LSU fans hope they will become? Those are all questions to keep in mind as you watch the scrimmage.

Who are the playmakers?: Freshmen who could become some of the Tigers’ most dangerous 2014 offensive skill players -- such as tailback Leonard Fournette and receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn -- won’t arrive until the summer. But there are several players already on campus who could use a confidence-building performance at Tiger Stadium to catapult themselves into the offseason.

Senior receiver Quantavius Leslie had such an outing at last Saturday’s scrimmage, catching four passes for 135 yards and three touchdowns. Who else might pull off that kind of feat? Receivers Travin Dural or John Diarse? Tight end DeSean Smith? Tailbacks Terrence Magee or Kenny Hilliard? Somebody else? Stay tuned.

SEC lunchtime links

March, 26, 2014
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Spring storylines abound this week around the SEC. Let's take a quick spin around the league to see what's happening.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- We’re past the midway point of LSU’s spring practice with the Tigers’ spring game on April 5 less than two weeks away.

Before the Tigers return to the practice field on Tuesday, let’s recap some of the developments thus far this spring.

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Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesSophomore Anthony Jennings has experience on his side in the Tigers' quarterback competition.
The QB race is on: On national signing day, it looked like LSU might have five quarterbacks vying for playing time in the fall. With the announcements that Stephen Rivers will transfer and Rob Bolden will play receiver, the race was down to three before practice even started.

Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris appear to lead Hayden Rettig in one of the nation’s most-watched spring quarterback battles. With 2013 playing time under his belt -- including a start in the Outback Bowl win over Iowa -- Jennings appears to be the more composed, polished contender on the practice field. But Harris possesses special passing talent. It should continue to be an interesting race throughout the summer and into the season.

The young quarterbacks endured many sloppy moments early in camp, to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Cam Cameron’s displeasure, but Tigers coach Les Miles said both players threw the ball well in Saturday’s scrimmage. Perhaps they are starting to turn a corner toward being ready to face SEC competition.

Receivers are a mess: Between frequent dropped passes and a spate of injuries, it has not been a banner spring for LSU’s receivers. Early in the spring, they seemed to struggle to get on the same page with the quarterbacks. And by the end of last week, they only had a couple of healthy scholarship players available.

Redshirt freshmen Kevin Spears, Avery Peterson and John Diarse have all dealt with injuries, with those setbacks coming at a particularly inopportune time since the youngsters need to establish themselves before a talented group of signees arrives this summer. At last Thursday’s practice periods that were open to the media, the only scholarship wideouts catching passes from the quarterbacks were Travin Dural and Quantavius Leslie.

Miles said last week that he likes what Dural and Diarse have accomplished thus far this spring, and Dural caught a long touchdown pass in Saturday’s scrimmage. But the others still have a lot to prove, which might be why Miles predicted that all four receiver signees will have the opportunity to win playing time in the fall.

Defensive line coming together: Miles seems pleased with the progress that several young defensive linemen have made this spring. In the last week, he has singled out redshirt freshmen Frank Herron, Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore for getting stronger and improving their games since they arrived at LSU last year.

He also complimented sophomores Christian LaCouture and Tashawn Bower after Saturday’s scrimmage. LaCouture and Bain both had sacks in the scrimmage, and Bower had two quarterback pressures.

The defensive line competition won’t generate a fraction of the national interest that the quarterback battle will, but that group’s development might be just as important in gauging LSU’s chances to contend in the SEC West this fall. With Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson both bolting for the NFL, the Tigers desperately needed some players to fill their void -- and Miles makes it sound as if they are developing some good options.

OL battle rages: It’s no surprise that LSU’s coaching staff continues to weigh its options on the offensive line -- particularly at the right guard position.

Seniors Evan Washington and Fehoko Fanaika have worked there, as has sophomore Ethan Pocic. It’s clear that the staff likes what Pocic can do, because he has practiced at guard, center and tackle this spring. Fanaika has been strictly at guard and Washington has worked at both guard and tackle.

With a new offensive line coach, Jeff Grimes, coming on board this spring, it’s obvious that he’s experimenting with different player combinations to see what he likes best. That experimentation will probably continue beyond the spring game.

Linebacker shuffle: As with the offensive line, LSU’s linebackers are also trying some new combinations this spring. Kwon Alexander shifted from strongside linebacker to weakside linebacker, Lamar Louis went from middle linebacker to the strong side and Kendell Beckwith is now backing up D.J. Welter in the middle after playing mostly at defensive end last fall.

LSU’s linebackers were somewhat mediocre for portions of 2013, so defensive coordinator John Chavis shook things up a bit this spring. Miles said Saturday that Beckwith’s move to the middle appears to be a good one and that Welter has improved his play this spring with the talented sophomore now battling him for playing time.

The linebackers themselves seem excited about the speed and athleticism that their group possesses. It will be interesting to see whether the lineup shuffling affects the Tigers’ overall defensive performance.

Mills helps steady LSU's safeties

March, 19, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Jalen Mills doesn’t view himself as a safety. He doesn’t view himself as a cornerback, either.

He views himself as both -- which is coming in handy for LSU’s defense these days.

“When you come in, you call yourself a defensive back,” said Mills, a rising junior who started at safety for the first time in the Tigers’ Outback Bowl win against Iowa. “That means you can play corner to nickel to safety to dime. You want to be able to play all positions. You don’t want to be a single-position type of guy if you’re a defensive back.”

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Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJalen Mills is helping out at safety this spring after playing the position in LSU's Outback Bowl victory over Iowa.
That’s an ideal attitude because Mills is several of those things -- particularly now, when the Tigers must replace starting safety Craig Loston and are without part-time starting safety Corey Thompson, who is still recovering from offseason knee surgery. Mills is a starting safety in LSU’s base defense, remains as the starting nickelback and still finds time to practice in a traditional cornerback role at points.

The Tigers need him most at safety for the time being, which was the message that defensive backs coach Corey Raymond imparted prior to spring practice.

“Him and Chief [defensive coordinator John Chavis], they kind of talked to me or whatever and they were like, ‘Right now we need help at safety. You played a pretty good job those last two games of the season. Can you play it for us?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah,’ ” Mills said. “And he said, ‘But we’re still going to need you at corner and you’re still going to be our starting nickel when we go Mustang package.’ ”

With Thompson on the shelf and a group of talented safety signees -- led by ESPN’s No. 18 overall prospect and No. 2 safety Jamal Adams -- not yet on campus, the Tigers are primarily using Mills and Ronald Martin with the first-team defense.

Rickey Jefferson and Dwayne Thomas are also working at safety, and thus far the foursome is pleased with what it has accomplished.

“Rickey, if he keeps coming along, he’s going to help us out a lot. Jalen Mills is doing a good job back there, also. And Dwayne Thomas, he’s doing a good job,” Martin said. “That’s the only other ones that we’ve got working in right now in the spring, just us four. Us guys, we’re doing a pretty good job so far, so we’re just trying to keep it going.”

Perhaps that’s a good sign, as safety was a problem area for much of 2013. Loston was the one constant when healthy, but the starting spot opposite him was a revolving door partially because of inconsistency. The Tigers used seven different starting combinations at safety, with Martin, Thompson, Mills and Jefferson all starting at least once.

Once Adams, Devin Voorhies and John Battle IV arrive on campus this summer, Raymond will have even more safety options from which to choose. And Tigers coach Les Miles said the newcomers will indeed get a long look from the coaching staff.

“We’ll have guys back, but I think we’ll be looking at some of these young guys that are coming in,” Miles said.

Thompson will also be back by then. The rising junior missed the final two games of 2013 after injuring his left knee against Texas A&M and undergoing surgery in December. He said after Tuesday’s practice that the knee is back to about 80 percent, but he will not attempt to test it during spring practice.

“I aim to be 100 by May,” Thompson said. “I don’t want to rush it, get back too early. But then I feel like May is a good time to be 100 and do everything to get in shape and be ready for the season.”

So for now, the Tigers will continue to function with the four available safeties -- a group attempting to prove that last season’s lapses were only a temporary hiccup for a program known for solid defensive back play. LSU’s pass defense totals actually improved slightly (from 206.0 ypg in 2012 to 197.5 last season), but the Tigers’ overall defensive slide continued, with Chavis’ group dropping from second nationally in total defense in its 2011 SEC championship run (261.5 ypg) to eighth in 2012 (307.6) to 15th last fall (340.7).

That’s an 80-yard increase in just a two-year span, and the safeties know they must perform more consistently in order to improve those numbers.

“We’ve just got to show that we can be leaders out there -- show that we can lead the defense just like those guys in the past like Eric [Reid], Brandon [Taylor], LaRon [Landry] and so on and keep the pedigree going,” Martin said.

Continued progress from Mills at the position would offer a big boost, just as he did in his first-ever attempt at playing safety when he intercepted a pass during a comeback win against Arkansas.

Mills still has nuances of the position to learn, such as how to make new reads that are different at safety from those at cornerback, but he believes he is making the transition smoothly.

“I really didn’t have a problem with [shifting positions],” Mills said. “Just coming from corner, you know where you want your safety to be sometimes in different types of checks. So just going from cornerback to safety, I know what the corner wants, so I just try to do it.”
BATON ROUGE, La. – Early enrollment is frequently beneficial in that it helps a newcomer address a team’s immediate need, but its value goes well beyond the short term. Imagine what LSU’s spring position battles might look like if eight signees hadn’t joined the Tigers in January 2013.

“There’s no question, if they had not been here in January and moved and advanced in their knowledge of what we’re doing, then they’d have a very difficult time competing,” LSU coach Les Miles said.

If not for the valuable experience he gained last spring, Anthony Jennings -- one of two quarterbacks who early enrolled last year, along with Hayden Rettig -- almost certainly wouldn’t have catapulted up the depth chart the way he did, much less completed a game-winning comeback against Arkansas in place of injured senior Zach Mettenberger. And Jennings and Rettig wouldn’t be as far along as they are now in learning the nuances of Cam Cameron’s offense if not for that low-pressure springtime learning environment, since the Tigers already had an established starter in Mettenberger.

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Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsIf Anthony Jennings didn't enroll early, it's doubtful he would have been ready to step in for the injured Zach Mettenberger and lead LSU to a comeback win over Arkansas.
“I’m definitely more confident because I’ve known all the guys for a year now,” Jennings said. “I’m confident in everybody on my team rallying around me to become a better leader and a better quarterback.”

Quarterback being the high-profile position that it is, perhaps it’s the most noticeable place where the Tigers benefited from last year’s big group of early enrollees. But LSU is actually better off at several positions because of those eight players who early enrolled last January -- a group that also includes defensive tackle Christian LaCouture, tight end Logan Stokes, offensive linemen Fehoko Fanaika and Ethan Pocic and receivers John Diarse and Avery Peterson.

Nearly all of those players are in the thick of the competition to grab a starting spot this spring.

“Think about Ethan Pocic. He was our second-team center last year. He shows up here in January or he doesn’t finish at center. He’s not there,” Miles said of Pocic, who played offensive tackle throughout high school, but backed up Elliott Porter at center last season and could contribute at a number of different positions this fall.

“It’s a tremendous advantage for these guys that show up early. There’s no question,” Miles continued. “And it’s a tremendous advantage for us. We get to see what they look like, how they think and is there somebody that we should count on other than them, short term, or do we say, ‘No, move him in because he’s got it.’”

Take Diarse for example. The redshirt freshman probably would have played last season but for an ankle injury he suffered during preseason camp. But he wouldn’t have been in position to back up Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry in 2013 -- much less occupy the starting position he currently enjoys -- if not for his experience last spring.

Louisiana’s 2012 Mr. Football, Diarse was a star dual-threat quarterback at Neville High School in Monroe. He admits that he had a lot to learn about playing his current position, receiver, when he arrived last January.

“It blew my mind the first couple of months into it -- it blew my mind how much detail and technique that it takes to be a receiver,” Diarse said. “Just coming in last spring kind of put me ahead of the 8-ball and now I’m just picking up tidbits here and there to better myself every day.”

Three of the five 2013 early enrollees who played last season -- Stokes, Jennings and Pocic -- all started at least one game. LaCouture played in all 13 games as one of the top reserves on the defensive line, while Fanaika played behind Trai Turner at right guard in several games and worked on the Tigers’ field-goal unit in 12 contests.

All five players are either the leading candidate to start at their position this fall or to play in some sort of a rotation, thanks in no small part to the head start they got this time a year ago.

“You’ve got to learn quick,” LaCouture said. “Spring ball is something that really helped me out -- coming in and knowing the pace of the game, knowing the plays right off the bat. That way when we hit fall ball, it was quick and we were rolling and we were getting ready for that.”

Now he’s in position to help guide less experienced teammates at a position where LSU desperately needs leadership. NFL draft early entrants Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson played the vast majority of the key snaps at defensive tackle last season, thrusting 2013 signees LaCouture, Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain into position where they might play much bigger roles this fall.

LaCouture is the only member of the trio who played last season, so if LSU’s line performs anywhere near a championship-caliber level -- which might be one key in whether LSU becomes more than an also-ran in the SEC title chase -- the knowledge and experience he gained last year could become even more valuable.

“It was an awesome experience,” LaCouture said. “It was something for me that I’ve always grown up wanting to do. I wanted to come in here [and] it was so great for me having spring ball and preparing myself to do that with the help of Coach Brick [Haley, LSU’s defensive line coach] and the older guys, [defensive coordinator John] Chavis also and Coach Miles.

“Having Ego, Freak [Johnson] and all the guys that left for the draft helped me build my way up for now where I can lead the team this year, just do as much as I can to produce a national championship.”

BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU sophomore Kendell Beckwith described himself as “the happiest man ever” when he learned that the Tigers’ coaching staff planned to move him from defensive end to linebacker this spring.

After completing his second practice backing up senior D.J. Welter at middle linebacker, Beckwith discussed the position change and what he needs to improve with a group of beat reporters.

Here is a portion of that conversation:

[+] EnlargeKendell Beckwith
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsSophomore linebacker Kendell Beckwith was LSU's highest-rated signee in the Class of 2013.
Q: How has move to linebacker been so far?

A: I came in as a linebacker and moved to the D-line. I mean, it wasn’t that bad. Moving back to linebacker, it wasn’t as bad as people would think it would be. I don’t know. I try to base my play off being as athletic as possible anyway, so going back and standing up, it’s really not that bad.

Q: What was your reaction when you learned you would switch back?

A: I was the happiest man ever.

Q: Why?

A: Linebacker’s what I wanted to play. What I really wanted to play and where my heart was.

Q: When they told you you were playing defensive end last year, were you the unhappiest man ever?

A: It didn’t matter. I wanted to do whatever I could do to help the team win at that point in time. It really didn’t matter. But linebacker, being that it’s what I really wanted to play, you know.

Q: What all did you do last year? You were listed at linebacker.

A: I was listed as a linebacker all season. Coach [Les] Miles told me it’s just a place where he could see me helping out the team and I was for it, but I was still listed as a linebacker. They told me it wasn’t a definite move. It was for the team.

Q: Did you ever practice at linebacker last year?

A: I practiced at linebacker at the end of the season. But after the Florida game, that’s when I started practicing at defensive end.

Q: Why do you fit at middle linebacker?

A: I think it’s because of my size.

Q: Do they want you to [lose weight]?

A: Me, myself and I talked about it with Chief [defensive coordinator John Chavis], I want to play at like 240. I’m at like 245 right now. ... I’m trying. It’s been the hardest thing ever for me.

Q: Is D.J. Welter helping you with the move?

A: Oh yeah, he’s always there for me when I need him.

Q: What do you need?

A: If there’s a play that I don’t quite know, don’t remember, he helps me out. ... If it’s something I think I missed, I didn’t do well or I messed up on, I just go to the sideline and I ask him.

Q: What do you think the different position moves are going to bring to y’all’s group?

A: It just shows our athleticism, I guess, being that we can play all those different types of positions. I really like the way that Chief does that.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Chat with Lamar Louis for a minute or two and it will become clear that LSU’s linebackers have plenty of confidence.

One of several Tigers linebackers who will shift to new positions this spring -- Louis spent the first few practices at strongside linebacker after playing in the middle in 2013 -- Louis believes this could be the strongest the position group has been in his three seasons at LSU.

“I would like to think this is the best linebacker group that we’ve ever had,” Louis said. “Most definitely it’s the fastest and most athletic. I was looking at drills today and I was talking to Kwon Alexander, basically telling him that this might be the most talented, athletic group ever, period.”

[+] EnlargeLamar Louis
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsLamar Louis is one of several LSU linebackers who are switching positions to give the defense a bit more of an edge.
They certainly look capable, but still have a lot to prove about their abilities to produce in game situations. LSU’s defense took a step backward last season -- the Tigers ranked 15th nationally in total defense (340.7 ypg) after ranking second (261.5) in 2011 and eighth in 2012 (307.62) -- and the linebackers weren’t a particularly dominant group.

Obviously one of their top goals is to reverse that downward trend.

“As a defense, I think we have to prove a lot. Every year I think we have to prove a lot because LSU defense is top-notch,” Louis said. “We’re known to be tough, and we’re known to be fast. You could say that the past few years, we haven’t had that swagger from the other teams, maybe the national championship contenders and whatnot. Same talent, same great coaching. I just think we were missing that swagger, basically saying that we’re here and we’re knocking down doors. That’s what we’re trying to bring back to the game this spring.”

Perhaps that’s why defensive coordinator John Chavis is trying out some new personnel groups this spring. In the early practices, Louis shifted outside, Alexander switched from strongside linebacker to the weak side -- where he would replace Lamin Barrow -- and touted sophomore Kendell Beckwith is backing up senior D.J. Welter in the middle.

There are a lot of moving pieces in play, but they all relate to Chavis’ philosophy of putting the best three linebackers on the field.

“At LSU, you can be a starter one year, but the coaches preach that every day, you have to give your all every year,” said Welter, LSU’s leading returning tackler with 80 stops a season ago. “So definitely it’s a big-time competition at every linebacker spot, so you have to be on your A-game and just work on the small individual battles every day. If I handle mine and my buddy handles his, then somebody will end up making a play.”

Beckwith was LSU’s highest-rated signee in 2013 and said he was the “happiest man ever” when LSU’s coaches told him he’d move back to linebacker. That’s one of the positions he played in high school and where he wanted to play all along.

Welter has assisted him in learning a new position, even if both players realize that their competition for playing time has already begun.

That’s no different than any of the other linebacker positions, though, where competition is the theme of the spring.

“When you’re competing against each other, we all work hard,” Alexander said. “That’s the first thing we talked about when we were on our break -- just to work hard, go out here and just compete and whoever gets the spot gets the spot. We’re all going to back each other up regardless.”

Welter said the ideal situation for the linebackers would be for each player to prove to Chavis that he deserves a role in some package or a spot in the rotation. The veteran said he sees plenty of potential for such a situation within the group.

“I feel like we have the strongest room since I’ve been here,” Welter said. “Depth-wise we definitely have people at every position in the linebacker room that can play multiple positions.”

LSU’s defense will need to improve across the board if it returns to the dominant form of previous seasons, and the linebackers know they will play a vital role in that improvement. One area of emphasis is developing an attitude, which is why the defense has taken to calling itself the “Legion of Boom” and breaking group huddles during drills by chanting, “L-O-B.”

On-field results allow such a motto to evolve from idle chatter to a defensive identity -- just ask the inspiration for the L-O-B label, the Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks -- but the process has to start somewhere. It might as well be with a linebacker group that’s trying to bring some fire back to LSU’s defense.

“We look at the Seahawks and we’re just trying to resemble them in what we do and the swagger that we approach the game with,” Louis said. “We’re all competing with each other and the thing about it is we’re all trying to be great. We’re all practicing like we’re the No. 1 guys and we’re developing great relationships outside of football at the same time.”

Season report card: LSU Tigers

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Another season, another 10 wins for LSU under Les Miles. It wasn't quite as good as Tigers fans have come to expect lately, but Miles' club still graded out fairly high.

OFFENSE: B
[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesLSU wasn't in the national title chase in 2013, but it was still another successful season for Les Miles' team.
With new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron at the helm, the Tigers became the SEC's first team to boast a 3,000-yard passer (Zach Mettenberger), a 1,000-yard rusher (Jeremy Hill) and two 1,000-yard receivers (Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry) in one season. Even with those four players posting impressive numbers, LSU still finished in the middle of the pack on offense (sixth in the SEC in scoring at 35.8 ppg and seventh in total offense at 453.3 ypg). The Tigers lose all four of those players to the NFL draft, too, so 2014 could be an adventure as LSU breaks in an entirely new set of offensive skill players. Give Cameron some credit, however. He helped Mettenberger make enormous strides as a senior and injected some life into an LSU offense that was stagnant prior to his arrival. With the group of freshmen that LSU might sign next week -- led by tailback Leonard Fournette, Recruiting Nation's No. 1 overall prospect -- he should have some promising raw materials to work with in the fall.

DEFENSE: C
If the offense was a bit better than expected, the defense might have been a bit worse. Everyone knew it was a rebuilding year after John Chavis' group lost a whopping seven players to early entry into the draft. Losing Eric Reid, Barkevious Mingo and Kevin Minter hurt badly, as some of the totals opponents posted early showed. LSU's defense did improve as the season progressed -- an impressive late-November performance against Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M was the highlight -- but it was still not as consistent as Chavis certainly would have preferred. Nonetheless, LSU finished the season ranked third in the SEC in total defense (340.7 ypg) and fourth in scoring (22 ppg). Those aren't bad numbers, but they aren't up to the standard Chavis' recent defenses have set.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B
Having Beckham on its side helps LSU quite a bit here. The Paul Hornung Award winner and all-purpose All-American helped the Tigers lead the SEC in kickoff return average (25.5) and rank fifth in punt return average (7.5). His 109-yard touchdown return of a missed UAB field goal was one of the season's most electrifying plays. Kicker Colby Delahoussaye (13-for-14 on field goals and 56-for-57 on PATs) had a solid freshman season, but the Tigers were fairly average on special teams aside from his kicking and Beckham's work as a return man.

OVERALL: B
With division rivals Alabama and Auburn having either won or played for the BCS title in each of the past five seasons, LSU might be getting a bit tired of its bridesmaid status of late. It's not as if the Tigers have been pushovers, however. This marked the first time in school history that LSU won at least 10 games for a fourth straight season, and included in those 10 wins was the only victory against eventual SEC champ Auburn in the regular season. Considering the roster turnover that took place on defense, a 10-win season and a New Year's Day bowl in Florida were perfectly acceptable results.

Past grades:
Kentucky
Georgia
Florida
Auburn
Arkansas
Alabama

Draft entries create youth movement

January, 22, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- The way Les Miles sees it, rival programs that aren't hit as hard by the NFL draft might boast older, more physically developed talent since fewer players skipped town with college eligibility remaining.

“Or [they] have lesser players,” Miles said last week. “One of the two.”

The truth, of course, is that it's a bit of both for most of the teams that Miles' LSU faces annually.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Courtesy of IntersportUnder Armour All-American QB Brandon Harris will be in the thick of the LSU QB race when he arrives on campus.
Any program that targets elite recruits does so with the knowledge that they might bolt for the NFL after three years on campus. In fact, they recruit such players with the intention of playing them early if they prove they deserve a spot on the depth chart.

“If a great player can be in your two-deep, he plays,” Miles said of the hypothetical incoming freshman. “If a great player can't be in your two-deep, he's probably not a great player.”

The concept is simple. Players who aren't great tend to stick around longer than those whose physical abilities make them promising targets for NFL scouts. The tricky part for a college coach is convincing players who possess NFL potential to stick around long enough to maximize their talents and land a lucrative professional contract. That takes longer for some than it does for others.

LSU has fallen short in that department, which is why Miles hammers the point that players shouldn't give the NFL “a deal” by leaving school before they have proven themselves as sure-fire, early-round picks.

Some who left Baton Rouge early last year -- and a couple more this year might follow in their footsteps -- could have improved their stock by returning for another season in college. Instead, they made a risky decision to turn pro that blew up in their faces. While improving their draft stock, they also could have been helping LSU win football games had they stayed. Poor choices caused both parties to suffer.

Miles refuses to say that early draft entry has created a problem for LSU -- “It appears to me that we're winning a lot of games year after year after year. I think that will continue,” he insisted -- but the Tigers will provide a case study that bears watching.

After leading the nation with 11 early departures a season ago, LSU again leads the pack with seven this year. LSU's 18 early entries are 10 more than any school has ever had in a two-year period according to ESPN's Brad Edwards. Further, Edwards tweeted on Tuesday that LSU's 18 early entries are seven more than the entire Big 12 in that span and eight more than the entire Big Ten.

Honestly, how could that not create problems? Nobody, not even Alabama, is dealing with that kind of draft-created roster turnover.

Miles is a confident coach who believes that his coaching staff is capable of attracting enough high-level talent that they can plug in youngsters without missing much of a beat. LSU handled the attrition well for the most part in 2013, although last year's seven early departures off fearsome defenses from 2011 and 2012 clearly affected John Chavis' inconsistent unit in the fall.

It's only natural to wonder whether another veteran's defensive presence here or there might have made a difference in 2013 going down as a championship-caliber season instead of simply another solid fall under Miles' leadership.

Now it will be Cam Cameron's turn to rebuild, with five of the seven early departures -- including receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham and tailback Jeremy Hill, who combined for 3,985 of LSU's 5,893 offensive yards in 2013 -- coming on offense. And Cameron will be breaking in a new starting quarterback, as well.

This is where players like Leonard Fournette, Trey Quinn and Brandon Harris fit into the conversation.

Among the motivational signs in LSU's team meeting room is one that spells out the Tigers' team process. One line reads “Young guys must prepare to play big roles,” which is exactly what tailback Fournette -- ESPN's No. 1 overall prospect -- receiver Quinn and early enrollee quarterback Harris might have to do.

Fournette has two veterans in Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard to help him make the transition into college, but it will be an enormous disappointment if he does not play a leading role in the 2014 offense.

Quinn -- ESPN's No. 29 overall prospect and No. 3 receiver -- and other players who will have either signed with the Tigers last February or in a couple of weeks must also play big roles this fall. The Tigers have next to no experienced alternatives at the position.

And while rising sophomore Anthony Jennings got a head start on the competition by starting the Tigers' Outback Bowl win against Iowa, he can’t be crowned the 2014 starter just yet. Harris -- ESPN's No. 37 overall prospect and No. 2 dual-threat quarterback -- is among those who will challenge for the job.

Those players and more, who will officially become Tigers on signing day, are immensely talented prospects. That is why several will be included in the coaching staff's plans almost immediately.

“For years we've said that young guys that come into this program are expected not to be young guys,” Miles said. “They're expected to take their roles and play big roles in this program. That being said, we recruit to that. We recruit to those guys that see themselves stepping in and making big plays and playing a part.”

John Calipari's basketball program at Kentucky employs a similar recruiting philosophy and has also kept winning despite considerable attrition through the NBA draft. In both situations, however, it's reasonable to wonder whether the model is sustainable.

Calipari has won a national title but also fielded disappointing teams following considerable draft attrition at Kentucky. Year 2 of the closest comparison in college football -- Miles' LSU -- will tell us plenty about whether it can work on the gridiron.

Season wrap: LSU

January, 15, 2014
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With new coordinator Cam Cameron leading a revitalized offense and senior Zach Mettenberger making major strides at quarterback, LSU finished with double-digit wins for a school-record fourth straight season.

The Tigers (10-3) fell out of the national championship hunt with a midseason loss to Ole Miss and suffered a lopsided defeat at Alabama but rallied to win their final three games -- including impressive defensive outings against Texas A&M and in the Outback Bowl against Iowa -- and finish with a No. 14 national ranking.

Offensive MVP: Mettenberger combined with wideouts Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham and running back Jeremy Hill to make LSU the first SEC team ever to have a 3,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard rusher. They would all make good choices, but Mettenberger's emergence helped turn LSU into a much more effective offensive club.

Defensive MVP: Senior linebacker Lamin Barrow was one of the few veterans on a defense that lost seven underclassmen to the draft a year ago. He served as a steadying force for coordinator John Chavis, leading the team with 91 tackles -- tied for ninth in the SEC -- and finishing as a second-team All-SEC selection.

Best moment: Freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings came off the bench when Mettenberger suffered a torn ACL against Arkansas and led the Tigers on a 99-yard, go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. Jennings hit Travin Dural with a 49-yard touchdown pass with 1:15 to play to help LSU win 31-27.

Worst moment: The sloppy outing at Ole Miss was LSU's worst loss of the season, but the most painful was the 38-17 loss against heated rival Alabama, where the top-ranked Crimson Tide scored the game's final 21 points. The Tigers blew early chances to take control of the game and got dominated late.

Bowl could springboard Iowa offense

December, 24, 2013
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After a season in the wilderness of transition, Iowa's offense found itself this fall. The next step is to find out what it could be.

The possibilities are exciting for a unit that will lose only three starters and bring back valuable pieces at running back, line and quarterback. While Iowa's offense might not make as dramatic a jump as it did this season -- when it vaulted from 114th nationally to 79th -- it certainly could move into the top half of the Big Ten.

"We have a good understanding of what the identity is," offensive coordinator Greg Davis told ESPN.com this week. "We're a zone, slant team with the tight ends that tries to use play-action. The players understand how we need to play, and that's how we try to go about game-planning."

Davis had three objectives for the offense entering the fall: play faster by incorporating a no-huddle element; maximize the strength at tight end by using two or three on the field together in many sets; and create more explosive plays.

Although few would confuse Iowa with Baylor, the Hawkeyes achieved the first objective by improving their tempo. Senior tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz became the team's top red-zone threat (six touchdown catches), while Jake Duzey emerged during Big Ten play with 16 receptions and Ray Hamilton had eight. Iowa recorded 41 offensive plays of 20 yards or longer, including eight passes of 40 yards or longer, though Davis admits, "We have a hard time creating the big run, the big throw."

[+] EnlargeJake Rudock
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJake Rudock stepped in as starting quarterback and provided stability, if not eye-popping numbers.
But the Hawkeyes created some progress after floundering in Davis' first season at the helm. The outlook was bleak for a unit that finished near the bottom of the FBS in so many categories, couldn't keep its running backs healthy and had no quarterbacks with game experience on the roster. Sophomore Jake Rudock performed the best in practices, but as Davis knows, things change when the hitting begins.

"He's an extremely bright person, he takes courses I can't spell the name of," Davis said of Rudock, a microbiology and premed major. "We ask a lot of our quarterback at the line. We thought he would handle all that, but we didn't know for sure. There's still that apprehension going into the year."

Rudock's numbers hardly jump off the page (2,281 pass yards, 18 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 60.2 percent completions), but he steadied the ship and helped the Hawkeyes more than he hurt them. Although Rudock left the regular-season finale against Nebraska with a knee injury, he'll be ready for next week's Outback Bowl clash against LSU.

"He's a real even-keeled guy," Davis said. "Sometimes it's hard to tell if he threw an interception or a touchdown. That serves him well playing quarterback."

Iowa's offense in 2012 essentially consisted of two ball-carriers in Mark Weisman (159 attempts) and Damon Bullock (135 attempts) and three pass-catchers in Kevonte Martin-Manley (52 receptions), Keenan Davis (47) and Fiedorowicz (45). The touches were spread around much more this season.

Four Hawkeyes have more than 60 rushes, including Jordan Canzeri, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. Seven players have 12 or more receptions, including Tevaun Smith, who led Iowa in catches during conference play with 21, and Damond Powell, a junior-college transfer who averages 24.2 yards per reception.

"The more guys you can depend on, the harder it is for the defense," Davis said. "That's what we've tried to do."

The bowl game is a final exam of sorts, and Iowa faces an LSU defense ranked 20th nationally despite having only three seniors on the two-deep. Davis went against LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis during the early to mid 1990s when Davis coached in the SEC and calls the Tigers a "huge challenge."

It's also a huge opportunity for Iowa, not just for now but for the future. Aside from Fiedorowicz, guard Conor Boffeli and right tackle Brett Van Sloten, Iowa returns every other starter, including standout left tackle Brandon Scherff, who recently announced he's passing up the NFL draft for one more year in Iowa City.

"With two years under their belt," Davis said, "we have an opportunity to take another step going into 2014."

What we learned: Week 14

December, 1, 2013
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Here are three things we learned in No. 17 LSU's 31-27 win against Arkansas on Friday:

Jennings has the goods: Zach Mettenberger has enjoyed an exceptional senior season as LSU's quarterback, but Arkansas was still in the lead when Mettenberger left the game with a knee injury. That brought on true freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings, who was 2-for-3 for 23 yards this season before Friday. And all Jennings did was lead a 99-yard, go-ahead touchdown drive and hit Travin Dural with the winning 49-yard touchdown pass with 1:15 to play -- and he did it with a backup center and offensive tackle and with star receiver Odell Beckham out of the game. Mettenberger is a future NFL quarterback who won't be easy to replace, but the dual-threat Jennings showed that he has some impressive playmaking ability of his own.

Interesting offseason: The story of the last offseason for LSU was its mind-boggling number of losses on defense, mostly to underclassmen who entered the draft with college eligibility remaining. Their absences were evident, as John Chavis' defense dealt with consistency issues for much of the fall. The shoe could be on the other foot for the Tigers next season. Mettenberger (14-for-22 for 156 yards and one interception against Arkansas) will definitely be gone. Star receivers Beckham (one catch for 16 yards) and Jarvis Landry (8 catches for 113 yards), both juniors, could also join him in the draft pool. The Tigers should still have tailbacks Jeremy Hill (20 carries, 145 yards, TD) and Terrence Magee (7 carries,58 yards, 2 TDs), but the offense could lose a lot of firepower soon. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron might soon be in the same position as Chavis was this year.

Wrong kind of history for Hogs: Arkansas has had bad seasons in the past -- last year was no great shakes, in fact -- but none quite like this. By losing its lead late in Friday's game, Arkansas completed its first winless season in conference play since it joined the SEC in 1992. That 0-8 conference mark was part of a nine-game losing streak to close the season, with six of those defeats coming against teams that were ranked when they beat the Hogs. Arkansas couldn't have salvaged its season by winning in Baton Rouge, but it would have made the offseason much more tolerable.

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