LSU Tigers: John Diarse

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.

[+] EnlargeKendell Beckwith
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’s spring practice is officially in the books. Now that it’s over, we thought it might be fun to review two sets of our predictions from before the spring and see how close we came.

Prediction No. 1: Freshmen will contend for playing time

[+] EnlargeEdward Paris Jr.
Max Olson/ESPN.comLSU early enrollee Edward Paris is making an impact at defensive back.
Outcome: Although it’s clear that freshmen such as tailback Leonard Fournette, receiver Malachi Dupre and safety Jamal Adams -- none of whom will arrive until this summer -- are likely contributors in 2014, this prediction mostly referred to the redshirt freshmen who will see their first action this fall. It also referred to early enrollees defensive back Edward Paris and quarterback Brandon Harris, who participated in spring practice and stand a good chance of playing this season.

We were hardly going out on a limb here, but it appears as though plenty of redshirt freshmen secured 2014 playing time over the last month. Players worth mentioning from that group include receiver John Diarse and defensive linemen Frank Herron, Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore.

Prediction No. 2: Anthony Jennings keeps the QB job

Outcome: To be determined. Harris clearly outplayed Jennings in last Saturday’s spring game, but LSU’s coaches and players insist the competition is far from over. Jennings etched his name into LSU lore by leading the game-winning touchdown drive against Arkansas last year in relief of an injured Zach Mettenberger, but his mediocre performance in the Outback Bowl and highly average spring game -- he threw two interceptions, both to linebackers who returned them for touchdowns -- leave this race wide open.

Jennings might very well start the opener against Wisconsin, but we can’t claim victory (or accept defeat) on our quarterback prediction at this point.

Prediction No. 3: Right guard isn’t the only offensive line job that’s up for grabs

Outcome: Right guard is the only spot that didn’t return a starter, so it was clearly up for grabs. We were curious as to whether new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes might shake things up along the line, but it doesn’t appear that he did.

Returning starters La'el Collins, Vadal Alexander, Elliott Porter and Jerald Hawkins apparently held onto their starting roles, although it wouldn’t be completely untrue to say that some of their jobs were up for grabs had one of the reserves put together a dominant spring. Nonetheless, the right guard battle -- Evan Washington, Fehoko Fanaika and Ethan Pocic all remain in the running for the job -- was the only one that seemed highly competitive this spring.

Prediction No. 4: Rashard Robinson keeps rising at cornerback

Outcome: Another fairly safe prediction here. As long as Robinson remains on the active roster, it seems highly likely that he will build upon his late charge in 2013 and become a star in the secondary.

Harris and Rob Bolden teamed up to beat him on a pretty throw down the sideline in the spring game, but Robinson otherwise held up well last Saturday. After shutting down Texas A&M superstar Mike Evans last season, Robinson has LSU fans excited about his potential -- and he didn’t seem to hurt his cause on the practice field this spring.

Prediction No. 5: Danielle Hunter improves as a pass rusher

Outcome: Anyone who saw Hunter manhandle the second-string offensive line in the spring game -- including back-to-back sacks on one possession -- would say this prediction seems to be sound.

LSU posted just 27 sacks last season, which was a big drop-off after the last few Tigers teams boasted at least one or two scary pass rushers. Jermauria Rasco led the team with just four sacks, and Hunter tied for second with three.

It would be a major upset -- and a big disappointment -- if Hunter fails to exceed that total this fall.

Now let’s take a look at our predictions for five players to watch during the spring: Paris, Jennings, Fanaika, wide receiver Quantavius Leslie and defensive lineman Mickey Johnson.

There were some hits and misses here. Jennings was an obvious choice since he and Harris were clearly going to battle for the quarterback job. Picking either one made sense, but we went with Jennings since he was the more experienced player. Harris was the contender who generated all of the positive buzz in the spring game, however.

Fanaika, Leslie and Johnson are all veterans at positions with major playing time available, so they seemed like good picks. Fanaika is still a leading contender to start at right guard and Leslie had a productive second scrimmage (four catches, 135 yards and three touchdowns), although he was quiet in the spring game. But Johnson dealt with injuries during the spring and was not a factor in the Tigers’ competition at defensive tackle.

The problem with our Paris prediction was that we projected him as a contender at safety, which is where ESPN listed him as a prospect. The early enrollee practiced at cornerback during the spring, so we can’t feel too good about that prediction. But he was working with the second-team defense by the end of the spring, so at least he flashed some potential.

If we could redo the list, we’d place Harris, Washington, Diarse, Bain and sophomore Kendell Beckwith -- who shifted to middle linebacker this spring -- on there.
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.”

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
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.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- A senior receiver who has yet to enjoy much success in the fall was one of the stars in LSU’s final scrimmage before next Saturday’s spring game.

Quantavius Leslie -- who joined the Tigers as a hyped junior college transfer last year only to record just one reception during the season -- led LSU’s offense with four catches for 135 yards and three touchdowns in Saturday’s scrimmage at Tiger Stadium.

“This was important for him to get on and understand the system and figure out what you have to do and how you run the route,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “And then it was read correctly, the quarterback made nice throws and he did the things that he can do. He made some really nice grabs.”

The scrimmage was closed to the media and Miles didn’t divulge the stats that would surely generate the most interest, the passing numbers of quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. But Miles noted that both quarterbacks worked with the first- and second-team offenses and faced live contact once they ran from the pocket.

“I think it’s going to be a very competitive situation,” he said.

“I think both quarterbacks showed skill. I think there’s some opportunities to change things and improve and I think that’s what both quarterbacks are working to do. It’s going to be interesting.”

Among the statistics that Miles shared:
  • The Tigers passed for 295 yards and rushed for 231 in a scrimmage that covered 120-plus plays.
  • Kenny Hilliard was the leading rusher with 57 yards. Terrence Magee, who sprained an ankle in last week’s scrimmage, did not carry the ball. Miles said he should return to practice next week.
  • In addition to Leslie’s 135 yards, Travin Dural had four catches for 36 yards and a touchdown, John Diarse had two catches for 14 yards and tight end DeSean Smith had one catch for 17 yards. “I honestly think the ball was thrown pretty much where it was supposed to,” Miles said. “I think there was really some great plays made. It’ll be interesting to see how the film looks.”
  • Safety Ronald Martin intercepted two passes and Rickey Jefferson had one on what was a productive day for the secondary. “We kind of feel like our safety position is going to be manned well,” Miles said. “I think they’re playing better. I think there may have been some coverage mistakes in this go. We’ll have to see who that was. I think our safeties are improved. I think our corner play was really good today. I think [Tre’Davious] White and Rashard Robinson both played extremely hard.”
  • Linebacker Kendell Beckwith had six tackles, two tackles for a loss and “made a nice play down on the goal line,” Miles said.


Overall, Miles seemed to feel the scrimmage was most productive because of the physicality displayed -- particularly along the line of scrimmage.

“It was a very, very quality scrimmage. We’re improved,” Miles said. “We’re not ready to play a game yet, but we are much improved and I think the offensive and defensive line really kind of teed off and worked in a very competitive manner. You get what you earn and it looked that way today.”
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.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
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.
BATON ROUGE, La. – Les Miles has maintained for much of spring practice that LSU’s defense is ahead of its offense. And that’s still the case after Saturday’s first full scrimmage -- although it sounds as if the rebuilding offense is making up ground.

“I think the offense took a real nice stride today, but yeah, I would expect that the defense would be a little further ahead – and they are,” Miles said.

Miles didn’t offer many specifics, much less statistics, from the scrimmage at Tiger Stadium. Those are “top secret,” he joked, although he did say the quarterbacks connected on “two big passes [and we] probably threw it for, I don’t know, just under 300 yards passing today.”

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Courtesy of IntersportIncoming freshman quarterback Brandon Harris was on target during LSU's scrimmage, coach Les Miles said.
With the quarterback competition between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris ranking as perhaps the team’s top spring storyline, Miles said he was pleased with the way both players threw the ball on Saturday.

Plus, they eliminated some of the sloppy ball handling that Jennings said was a problem in the Tigers’ partial scrimmage last Saturday.

“Both of them were sharp,” Miles said. “The passing was very sharp today. We dropped a couple balls, but the balls were right on the money and to be honest with you, we caught a lot of balls.”

Miles singled out receiver Travin Dural as having enjoyed an excellent scrimmage.

Miles said senior tailback Terrence Magee sprained an ankle in the scrimmage, but said there were no major injuries. Receiver John Diarse, whom Miles said underwent a minor medical procedure, should be back on the practice field next week, the Tigers' coach said.

Before spraining his ankle, Magee and fellow senior Kenny Hilliard both ran the ball well, Miles said.

“Both Magee and Kenny Hilliard had really nice running days today,” Miles said. “I think Magee is going to have a great fall and I think Kenny Hilliard’s going to have a great fall. It looks like to me Kenny Hilliard’s lost a little bit of weight and is just a little bit quicker than he’s been.”

In addition to the scrimmage downs, the Tigers also focused on special teams Saturday. Miles said Trent Domingue has been working as the team’s top punter over last season's starter, Jamie Keehn.

“Special teams made improvement at the punting game,” Miles said. “Jamie Keehn’s not getting a lot of snaps right now. Our punter Trent Domingue really has improved. I think we were perfect with 42 [yards] at field goals and really had a pretty good scrimmage. If you look at [it being scrimmage] No. 2, it’s really a pretty strong event.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU will commemorate the midway point of spring practice Saturday with its first full team scrimmage at Tiger Stadium.

The Tigers are nowhere near installing the more complex schemes that fans will see during the fall, but Saturday's competition should provide a good measuring stick for what the team has accomplished in the first two weeks of spring workouts.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesLes Miles says the defense is ahead of the offense so far this spring.
“They scheme it up a little bit, but not a lot,” senior linebacker D.J. Welter said. “It's really just basic stuff, like the basic blitzes that we'll run every game. It won't be like a special thing or a special formation. It's basic.”

LSU held a partial scrimmage last Saturday and will return to Tiger Stadium again next Saturday for its final scrimmage before the April 5 spring game. For the most part, each of those outings emphasizes competition and fundamental techniques.

Coach Les Miles said the offense worked on first-and-10 situations last week and will practice third-and-short and third-and-medium scenarios -- to “put us in position where we have to be pass rushed and be able to execute the passing game under pressure” -- plus special teams Saturday.

But as Welter said, it will be mostly basic situational work where both sides run vanilla schemes and the coaches can evaluate how younger players, in particular, hold up against more seasoned competitors.

“I can say one of the main things is it's for the young guys -- for guys who haven't established themselves to establish themself as a playmaker and just show that they want to play, whether it's on special teams or whether it's on offense or defense, just standing out and leaving your mark,” linebacker Lamar Louis said.

“So I can say that first spring [scrimmage] has a lot to do with that because it's not much scheme, not much put in from the playbook or whatever. You're just showing the coaches you can execute small things that they've given you already.”

Many eyes, then, will be on players like quarterback Brandon Harris and cornerback Edward Paris Jr. -- early enrollees who are getting their first taste of college competition -- and a host of redshirt freshmen expected to play larger roles this season.

Harris’ development is one of the most intriguing storylines of LSU’s spring, although he and fellow quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Hayden Rettig might face a competitive disadvantage Saturday. The receiving corps -- another group that has plenty to prove -- has been short-handed for a portion of the spring.

During the open media periods at Thursday’s practice, the only scholarship receivers catching passes from the quarterbacks were Travin Dural and Quantavius Leslie. Kevin Spears, John Diarse and Rob Bolden were absent and Avery Peterson was wearing pads but watching from the sideline. Spears and Peterson have dealt with hamstring injuries this spring and Miles said Diarse “was limited because of a small procedure that he had done,” adding that he could return to practice next week.

The limited numbers make the passing game look like even more of a work in progress.

“With John back, it’s really a pretty good group,” Miles said. “With John out, it takes some work -- plus you have new quarterbacks that are having to run the drill for the first time, so there’s a little inexperience that’s being served by practicing.”

On the other side of the ball, 2013 redshirts like Greg Gilmore, Maquedius Bain and Frank Herron could all figure heavily into the defensive line plans this fall, and they’ve yet to play a college down. But there are multiple positions throughout the roster where the Tigers have holes to fill, and scrimmages will provide the coaches with some game-like insight.

“From a defensive perspective, you just want to see how people react to the calls, that they do their assignments, how they do their techniques,” Welter said. “Specifically at linebacker, getting your pads dropped or fitting in your gap and reading the flow of the ball, fitting right. So it's all about just fitting right in the defense that's called and going out there and playing and being loose and executing.”

Miles said last week that the defense was ahead of the offense this spring, and he repeated that opinion on Thursday. That’s understandable given the turnover that has taken place at LSU’s offensive skill positions, and it’s part of the developmental process as new players fill departed veterans’ roles.

Such a transition forces the offensive Tigers to take a longer view of what’s taking place on the practice field and in competitive scrimmages like Saturday’s rather than dwell on present-day shortcomings.

“The main thing that we want to do [in scrimmages] is we want to show that we got better. Because by the end of the spring, we want to be 15 practices better than when we started,” left guard Vadal Alexander said. “So I just want to improve on something. That's my main thing.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Let’s get this out of the way first: Rob Bolden might be playing receiver now, but he hasn’t completely abandoned the idea of playing quarterback.

“I’m still open to quarterback,” he said last week, only a few days into his first-ever attempt at playing wideout. “I want to play quarterback and any time that they would need me, I’m willing to switch back and forth or whatever.”

Bolden is also a realist, though. He sees the writing on the wall -- most likely, LSU will pick between dual-threat quarterbacks Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris as the starter -- and knows that playing receiver might be his best chance to get on the field during his senior season.

[+] EnlargeBolden
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesRob Bolden knows it's unlikely he will be at quarterback for LSU this coming season.
So for the first time in his life -- Bolden said he played safety, tight end and quarterback as youth football player, but never receiver -- he’s attempting to become the guy who catches the passes instead of the guy who throws them.

“It’s just going to take a little extra, just after practice, doing a little bit with Coach [Adam Henry, LSU’s receivers coach],” Bolden said. “He’s going to coach me up and show me how to do all the stuff that I need to learn.”

Catching the ball doesn’t appear to be a problem. In his first practice at receiver, Bolden turned heads with a one-handed catch. At 6-foot-4 and 209 pounds, overpowering cornerbacks who try to jam him at the line of scrimmage probably won’t be an issue, either.

“He’s pretty big,” receiver Travin Dural chuckled. “I was telling him some techniques about how to get off the jam and he was like, ‘I’m bigger than all the cornerbacks and I’m stronger, so I can just throw them around.'”

Not that brute force is a completely effective method.

“It’s a little bit of that, but at the same time, you’ve got to learn how to use your hands, which [at last Tuesday’s practice] I kind of struggled with that,” Bolden said. “But once I learn, I’m sure -- I’m a big, strong guy and that won’t really faze me at all.”

It’s still extremely early in Bolden’s transition, so any predictions of future stardom would be premature. Understandably, LSU’s coaches are taking a wait-and-see attitude as he learns the ins and outs at his new position.

“He’s taking some snaps at receiver and it appears to be a pretty good move,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “He made a couple nice catches [in the first spring practice]. Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see how he performs.”

Such a move is not unprecedented. For example, Kodi Burns shifted from wideout at Auburn in 2009 when he lost a quarterback competition against Chris Todd. Burns became a valuable role player and even caught a touchdown pass against Oregon in the BCS title game the following season.

As it was with Burns, one thing that should ease Bolden’s transition is that he has a quarterback’s working knowledge of the offensive scheme. He already knew how the various receivers’ routes complemented each other in the passing game and thinks he might be able to help players at his new position gain a better understanding of what a quarterback sees on different plays.

“It’s a great opportunity with me knowing the offense the way that I do,” Bolden said. “I know it like a quarterback, so I know the thought process of it, I know the reads, I know everything. So I may be able to help some of the other guys out as far as lining up and doing all that type of stuff.

“You know a lot of stuff that a lot of other guys wouldn’t. Being in there with [offensive coordinator Cam Cameron], you’re going to learn the offense in and out -- this way, that way, every type of way. That’s going to benefit me a lot. The only thing that I will have to really learn is how to run certain routes and that type of stuff.”

Bolden certainly has spent enough time in quarterback meeting rooms to develop that knowledge base. He’s entering his fifth season in college -- and his third at LSU -- although he hasn’t appeared in a game since 2011. At the time he was at Penn State, where he started 17 games as a freshman and sophomore before transferring to LSU in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

He has only watched from the sidelines at LSU, redshirting in 2012 and backing up Zach Mettenberger last season. Even when Mettenberger suffered a season-ending knee injury late last fall, Miles’ staff turned to then-freshman Jennings to start against Iowa in the Outback Bowl, which offers some insight into where Bolden sat in the quarterback pecking order.

So now he’s a wideout, and his new position mates are willing to teach Bolden the ins and outs of the job. Considering how the Tigers lost their most experienced and productive wideouts in Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Kadron Boone and James Wright, Bolden should have more than enough opportunity to gain some experience this spring.

LSU signed four receivers whom ESPN ranked among the nation’s top 300 prospects -- led by No. 1 wideout Malachi Dupre and No. 3 Trey Quinn -- but those signees won’t arrive on campus until this summer. For now, Bolden is the newest member of an inexperienced receiving corps, and his fellow receivers are trying to encourage him that wideout is a position where he can be successful.

“It was kind of funny seeing him put on gloves and catch balls with us, but I just took him in just like he’s any other guy,” redshirt freshman John Diarse said. “Any little question he has, I try to answer to the best of my knowledge and just try to keep him encouraged that, ‘You’re an athlete. You can do anything you put your mind to.’ So I’m trying to keep him going here."

SEC lunchtime links

March, 17, 2014
Mar 17
12:00
PM ET
Yes, it's that time of year where the talk is centered on the hardwood and brackets, but don't forget, spring football and pro days are in full swing, so there is still much to talk about on the gridiron. A sampling of news, notes and nuggets from around the SEC today:
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.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
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. -- Of the six receivers listed on the depth chart for LSU’s Outback Bowl win over Iowa, only two of them are still on the Tigers’ roster this spring.

The returning duo -- Travin Dural and Quantavius Leslie were in their first season of SEC competition. They combined for eight catches and 156 yards all season, nearly all of which came from Dural. Believe it or not, now they are by far the most experienced receivers on the team.

[+] EnlargeDural
AP Photo/Bill HaberTravin Dural had seven catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns last season.
That’s how dramatic the turnover has been since star juniors Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry decided to enter the NFL draft and seniors Kadron Boone and James Wright completed their college careers.

“It’s kind of like the transformation I made in high school. Out of nowhere, I was the older guy,” said Dural, a rising sophomore who is LSU’s top returning receiver with seven catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns last season. “That’s kind of how it is here. It’s a little weird, but I’ve been waiting on this forever, so I’m kind of taking advantage of it and trying to run away with it.”

It is indeed weird. It’s rare that a player who has yet to appear in a game is able to become a leader for his position group, but that’s one of redshirt freshman John Diarse’s goals. An early enrollee last season, Diarse was in position to play last fall before a preseason ankle injury kept him off the field.

Nonetheless, Diarse is actually among the more experienced LSU receivers since he’s nearly a week into his second spring practice with the Tigers -- and as of now, he and Dural have separated themselves as the top players at their position.

“We would look forward to them playing a lot,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “We expected John to play more except he got injured just before we went into the season and it really cost him.”

LSU’s depth at the position this spring is not ideal, particularly after redshirt freshmen Kevin Spears and Avery Peterson both hobbled off the practice field earlier this week with hamstring injuries. At the very beginning of spring practice, Miles emphasized that now is the time for players such as Spears, Peterson, Leslie and converted quarterback Rob Bolden to seize some playing time because the competition will get much steeper during preseason camp.

LSU signed arguably the nation’s top collection of receivers last month when it added ESPN’s No. 1 and 3 wideouts, Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, plus ESPN 300 picks D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch. After that group arrives this summer, inconsistent performers could easily find themselves watching from the sidelines.

“There’s definitely more competition on the way. It’s going to be that way until I graduate,” Diarse said. “It’s just something you’ve got to take as motivation to stay in your spot and don’t let anybody take it from you. That’s what I’ve been taught from Day 1 -- there’s always somebody that’s going to try to come take your job, and you’ve just got to do your best to keep it every day.”

Leslie and Dural are the only members of the group with on-field experience, and even junior college transfer Leslie’s experience is fairly limited. The rising senior appeared in four games last fall -- against UAB, Kent State, Mississippi State and Furman -- and caught just one pass for 11 yards.

That puts some leadership responsibility on Dural, simply because the Tigers don’t have a better option.

“I see sometimes when they don’t really know what’s going on because they haven’t been in certain situations. I kind of step in and let them know,” Dural said. “But mainly they’re kind of getting it. They’ve been in the system. All of them have been in the system for a year, so they pretty much know what’s going on.

“But in certain instances, I step in and let them know how if you do this wrong, it would be different in a game because I’ve seen it in a game so I can critique them on what I’ve seen and what I know.”

Dural characterized the receivers’ first few spring practices as “shaky,” noting that they needed a while to get their timing down after not facing live competition for a few months. They’re also still working to build continuity with three young quarterbacks in sophomore Anthony Jennings, redshirt freshman Hayden Rettig and early enrollee Brandon Harris.

Dural's description certainly seemed accurate in the portions of practice that have been open to the media, as some wideouts frequently dropped passes and the group generally struggled to get on the same page as their quarterbacks in some drills.

It can be a rocky transition, going from being an off-the-radar freshman to a player who expects to contribute, but the young wideouts are fortunate that they don’t have to play a game for nearly six months. They will get in hundreds of valuable practice repetitions this spring without the pressure of a game approaching each Saturday -- so that they’ll be ready when the Tigers finally take the field on Aug. 30 against Wisconsin.

“I knew this time was coming. I knew I was going to have the opportunity to show the world what I can do, and now that it’s here, it’s kind of time for me to just let it all out. I’ve been holding it in for too long,” Diarse said. “I was talking to my mom the other day -- it seems like it’s been forever since I’ve played, but like I said, I’m here now and I’m letting my opportunity just take over.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris were both supposed to roll right before attempting a pass during a drill at LSU’s practice on Monday, but Harris ran right up Jennings’ back and disrupted his timing enough to prevent him from even making a throw.

Jennings’ frustration quickly evaporated into empathy, however, because it was only a year ago that he was doing the exact same thing to Zach Mettenberger.

“That’s fine with me,” Jennings chuckled after practice, the Tigers’ second team workout of the spring. “I did the same thing to Zach, so Zach was in the same predicament. I guess I’m like the veteran of the quarterbacks [now]. That’s hard to say coming in when I guess I’m a sophomore now. But I know how it is. You’re not going to be perfect right when you arrive on campus. You’re working to start. It’s all fun; it’s all fine. I’m just ready to get him going and teach him everything that I know -- and I’m still learning, too.”

[+] EnlargeJennings
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesSophomore Anthony Jennings is looking to jump into being LSU's starting quarterback, but he'll be challenged by Hayden Rettig and Brandon Harris.
Jennings put himself on the map as an early enrollee last spring, eventually claiming the Tigers’ backup quarterback job as a true freshman and starting the Outback Bowl in place of injured senior Mettenberger. Harris is on campus as an early enrollee not only in an attempt to learn Cam Cameron’s offense prior to preseason camp, but to try to win the starting job.

Understandably, Harris still has plenty of work to do on that front. He’s only been on campus for two months after all. He doesn’t possess a veteran’s understanding of the offense or a feel for the personnel around him yet. And that’s enough to rattle anyone’s confidence -- even a player whom every recruiting service ranked among the nation’s top dual-threat prospects for 2014.

The constant theme that everyone seems to be reinforcing to the freshman is positivity. Even when Cameron would chastise Harris for reflexively clapping after misfiring on a pass Monday, he'd give his young quarterback a fist-bump moments later in an attempt to encourage him.

“It’s definitely going to benefit him,” said receiver John Diarse, who is in line to start as a redshirt freshman after enrolling early a year ago. “I’ve been trying to talk to him here and there whenever I get an opportunity, just stay encouraging, stay upbeat because everybody can’t do it and apparently you have your opportunity because somebody believes you can do it. So just believe in yourself, stay confident and like [strength and conditioning coach Tommy] Moffitt tells us every day, practice positive self-talk and just believe that you can do it and take your time with it.

“Don’t try to be in a rush, don’t worry so much about the media or just the pressure around you. Just focus on yourself and what you can do.”

The media probably won’t be an issue for Harris. As a freshman, he is off limits to reporters until further notice. His plate is full enough in simply adapting to college life and trying to decipher LSU’s offense -- much less compete against Jennings and redshirt freshman Hayden Rettig.

But with nearly six months remaining until the Tigers’ opener against Wisconsin, nobody is winning the quarterback job now.

“The older guys obviously know cadence, and there’s some comfort there,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “We want to allow a quality competitive environment for Brandon Harris and the other quarterbacks, so we have to bring Brandon to speed, just a comfort of the offense, and then let’s have at it. Let’s see who’s best.”

For now, Jennings wants to prove that he’s more like the player who came off the bench to lead the game-winning touchdown drive against Arkansas than the one who struggled in his first start, the bowl win over Iowa where he completed just 7 of 19 pass attempts for 82 yards and an interception.

“I don’t think that game was one of my best games. If it was, I don’t think I would be starting,” Jennings said, later adding, “I watched [film of the Iowa game] so many times, I don’t think you’d believe it.”

Jennings and Rettig were both in Harris’ position a year ago, so while they both have the advantage of a year in Cameron’s system, nobody has a decided experience advantage -- particularly now that senior Rob Bolden has shifted to receiver in an attempt to earn some playing time.

Everyone in the quarterback room has plenty to prove, which is why Jennings said he has been spending six days a week at LSU’s football building in an attempt to learn as much as possible from his offensive coordinator.

It should be a competition where knowledge of the offense and daily consistency become enormously important factors as the coaches weigh their options at the position. Jennings is in the lead for now, but he knows -- and Miles guaranteed on Saturday -- that the starting privilege against Wisconsin is “going to be given to no one, earned by the one that plays.”

“[Harris and Rettig] wouldn’t be here if they couldn’t play on this level,” Jennings said. “They’re going -- just like I am -- to try to progress every day. Brandon’s throwing the ball well, still has a lot of things to learn in the offense, but I was in the same predicament last year. Hayden’s just learning along with me. He’s throwing the ball well, he’s speaking, he’s vocal. So we’re all trying to get better as spring goes along, and I think they’re progressing rapidly.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- In the weeks leading up to Saturday’s first spring practice, we offered our best guesses -- some on the mark and some off -- on how LSU’s lineup might look when the Tigers took the field.

Nothing is settled yet, but at least we now have an idea of what the coaches are thinking.

Coach Les Miles addressed some of the Tigers’ biggest position battles and lineup alterations after Saturday’s initial team workout -- starting with the quarterback battle that will likely be the talk of this camp. Here is where things stand at the positions that are in flux as the Tigers enter today’s second practice:

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Jennings is the early favorite to start for the Tigers in 2014, but two freshmen remain in the competition.
Quarterback: Miles said Saturday that “I think I have a good idea, anyway” about who the Tigers’ starting quarterback will be, but the competition for the job still figures to be fierce. By all accounts, the early leader is rising sophomore Anthony Jennings, but redshirt freshman Hayden Rettig and immensely talented early enrollee Brandon Harris could challenge Jennings for the job.

This competition is only beginning, however. Miles said the coaching staff is in no rush to settle on a starter now, preferring to allow the competition to progress over the next few months before making any decisions.

“The idea that you make the decision early is foolish,” Miles said. “I think there’s always going to be that point in time where a young guy gains speed late or an injury makes the decision or the old guy, the more veteran [player], just shows that he’s worthwhile.”

Wide receiver: We learned Saturday that there is one less contender in the quarterback battle since Rob Bolden has shifted to wideout. Bolden actually “made a couple nice catches today” after making what “appears to be a pretty good move,” Miles said.

Bolden’s position change made for an interesting side note, but he isn't the headliner at receiver. Who among the returning players is the headliner? That’s still to be determined.

It apparently starts with Travin Dural and redshirt freshman John Diarse. Candidates such as Quantavius Leslie, Kevin Spears and Avery Peterson need to use this spring to solidify their spots in the rotation before a star-studded freshman class led by Malachi Dupre -- who attended Saturday’s practice -- and Trey Quinn arrives this summer.

“Travin Dural and John Diarse are both guys that really look good. We’re going to have the ability to put those guys on the field and go,” Miles said. “Q. Leslie and Kevin Spears and those guys that are really behind that group need to come on. This is the time for that. This is an opportunity for those guys. But those first two guys, we would look forward to them playing a lot.”

Right guard: Miles emphasized that for new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes, “playing the best player is obviously the key.”

Four offensive line jobs have clear leaders, with returning players who started nearly every game a season ago. But the right guard position is wide open, and Evan Washington is shifting from tackle to try to grab the job.

Fehoko Fanaika and Ethan Pocic -- who can also play center -- are among the other candidates at right guard, Miles said, but “we’re going to have to see how that all goes.”

Linebacker: It looks like the Tigers will do some juggling at these spots. Kendell Beckwith, a utility player last season, worked at middle linebacker on Saturday. Kwon Alexander shifted from strongside linebacker to the weak side. Lamar Louis practiced on the strong side after playing in the middle in 2013.

“We’re really taking the time to multi-train these linebackers so we can put the best three guys on the field,” Miles said. “Kwon has moved from his starting spot to the other side, so we think this spring will allow them to be put in either side.”

The quarterback battle will attract most of the headlines, but this might wind up becoming the Tigers’ most interesting competition this spring. Lots of moving pieces here.

Safety: We know this much: Jalen Mills is a safety and early enrollee Edward Paris Jr. -- who is working at cornerback -- is not. Beyond that, we’ll see where this battle goes.

Mills and Ronald Martin might be the top options here for now, but this is a competition that will begin in earnest when signees Jamal Adams, Devin Voorhies and John Battle IV arrive on campus this summer.

“We’ll have guys back, but I think we’ll be looking at some of these young guys that are coming in,” Miles said. “Ed Paris is lined up at corner right now and getting some corner work and then some of these young guys coming in will get opportunities to fit in there.”

Junior safety Corey Thompson (knee) might participate at some point this spring, but Miles said did not sound particularly optimistic on that front. Incidentally, he shared a similar spring-time prognosis for defensive end Jermauria Rasco (shoulder).

Opening spring camp: LSU

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
9:00
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Schedule: The Tigers open spring practice on Saturday. They will conclude with the spring game on April 5 at Tiger Stadium.

What's new: Former Auburn and Virginia Tech assistant Jeff Grimes joined the staff in January, replacing Greg Studrawa as offensive line coach. An old face will also return to Les Miles' staff, as Bradley Dale Peveto -- a Miles assistant from 2005-08 and participant in a failed experiment as co-defensive coordinator in 2008 -- was recently hired as special teams coordinator. He replaces Thomas McGaughey, who accepted the same position with the New York Jets of the NFL.

[+] EnlargeWideout Travin Dural will need to step up for the Tigers in 2014.
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsWideout Travin Dural will need to step up for the Tigers in 2014.
Attrition: The Tigers once again suffered a big hit from early NFL entry. LSU receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, tailbacks Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue, defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson and right guard Trai Turner all entered the draft despite having eligibility remaining.

On the move: If comments he made last month are any indication, Miles and the coaching staff intend to leave Jalen Mills at safety on at least a part-time basis. He started at the position in the Tigers' Outback Bowl win against Iowa. Don't be surprised if players who have played other positions -- tackle Evan Washington and center Ethan Pocic are reportedly among them -- figure into the competition to replace Turner at right guard. Also, keep an idea on how the Tigers deploy Kendell Beckwith this spring. He has the ability to contribute at defensive end or linebacker, and he might play both positions at points.

New faces: The Tigers have two early enrollees participating in spring practice in quarterback Brandon Harris and defensive back Edward Paris Jr. We'll discuss Harris, who was ESPN's No. 2 dual-threat quarterback and No. 37 overall prospect for the 2014 class, more below. ESPN ranked Paris as its No. 4 safety and No. 50 overall prospect, but LSU listed him as a cornerback when it added the freshmen to the roster.

Key battle: There will be several position battles worth watching -- right guard, defensive tackle and quarterback are among them -- but let's talk about the wide receivers. With Landry and Beckham jumping to the NFL, LSU lost nearly all of its production at wideout. Speedster Travin Dural (seven catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns in 2013) is the only receiver who has done much of anything, and even his production was limited last fall. With arguably the nation's top collection of receiver signees -- led by ESPN's No. 1 wideout Malachi Dupre and No. 3 Trey Quinn -- set to arrive in the summer, now is the time for the players on campus to show they deserve some snaps. Senior Quantavius Leslie (1-11) was disappointingly quiet last season as a junior college transfer. Freshmen John Diarse, Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears all redshirted. Conventional wisdom has Dural and Diarse as the most likely contributors in 2014. Will at least one or two of the others join that group?

Breaking out: Let's see whether cornerbacks Rashard Robinson and Tre'Davious White continue the ascent that started late last season. They started alongside one another in two of LSU's last three games -- wins against Texas A&M and Iowa -- and the secondary made strong showings in both games. Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel had one of the worst outings of his college career (16-for-41 for 224 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions), with Robinson intercepting the former Heisman Trophy winner once. LSU held Iowa to 13-for-30 passing and 157 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions -- one of which came when White picked off a Jake Rudock pass at the LSU 7-yard line in the second quarter. LSU has a longstanding tradition of excellence at cornerback, although the Tigers' entire defense needed to perform more consistently last fall. Perhaps they've found something in sophomores Robinson and White.

Don't forget about: Most of us have already penciled in No. 1 overall prospect Leonard Fournette as the Tigers' starter-in-waiting at tailback. And he very well may be. But he won't arrive on campus until the summer. For now, rising seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard will handle the carries, and both players have proved themselves capable of producing. Magee was Hill's primary backup last season, rushing for 626 yards (and 7.3 yards per carry!) and also flashing good receiving skills (six catches for 49 yards). Hilliard has never been the No. 1 tailback, but he has acquitted himself in a short-yardage role, rushing for at least six touchdowns in all three seasons. Fournette has stardom written all over him, but he won't push the veterans completely out of the way. Count on Magee and Hilliard to keep getting their touches.

All eyes on: Anthony Jennings started LSU's bowl game against Iowa after replacing an injured Zach Mettenberger -- and leading the game-winning comeback -- against Arkansas. He was shaky to say the least (7-for-19 for 82 yards and an interception) in that first career start, however. With Harris, an excellent passer and explosive runner, already on campus, Jennings needs to show he can handle the starting job. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron hand-picked Harris and is no doubt excited about what he can bring to the offense, but he needs to learn the offense first before he can truly threaten Jennings for a starting spot. Throughout the summer, LSU fans will dissect the two quarterbacks' performances in the spring game. Jennings seems like the safe bet to open the season as the Tigers' starter, but whether he holds onto that spot is up to him -- and perhaps up to his new freshman competitor, whose ability to execute the offense will be under heavy scrutiny over the next month.
Setting up the spring in the SEC West:

ALABAMA

Spring start: March 15

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Succeeding McCarron: The Crimson Tide must find the person who will step into AJ McCarron’s shoes. There are several quarterbacks on campus: Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman. The person most have pegged as the favorite, however, won’t be on campus until the summer: Jacob Coker. A transfer from Florida State, Coker is finishing his degree before enrolling at Alabama. But new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will get a chance for a long look at the others this spring.
  • What’s next for Henry?: Running back Derrick Henry has the fans excited after his Allstate Sugar Bowl performance (eight carries, 100 yards), and he brings great size to the position (6-foot-3, 238 pounds). T.J. Yeldon is a returning starter who is more experienced and battle-tested, and there are still other talented backs on the roster, such as Kenyan Drake. But plenty of eyes will be on the sophomore-to-be Henry.
  • Replacing Mosley: Linebacker C.J. Mosley was a decorated star and leader, so his presence will be missed. Alabama has plenty of talent in the pipeline; it’s just not tremendously experienced. Watch for Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland.
ARKANSAS

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Keeping it positive: It’s been rough around Fayetteville, Ark. The Razorbacks closed their season with nine losses in a row; coach Bret Bielema is a focal point in the unpopular NCAA proposal designed to slow down hurry-up offenses; and leading running back Alex Collins served a weeklong suspension last month for unspecified reasons. The Hogs could use some positivity.
  • A new DC: The Razorbacks will be working in a new defensive coordinator, Robb Smith. He came over from the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he was the linebackers coach. Smith made a significant impact at his last college stop, Rutgers, where he led the Scarlet Knights' defense to a No. 10 ranking in total defense in 2012.
  • Year 2 progress: Making a drastic change in scheme isn’t easy to do, which is what the Razorbacks tried to accomplish in Bielema's debut season. In the second spring in Fayetteville for Bielema, things should come a little more easily as the Razorbacks continue to institute Bielema's brand of power football.
AUBURN

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Picking up where they left off: The Tigers put together a memorable, magical 2013, and with eight starters returning on offense, keeping that momentum going is key. Replacing running back Tre Mason and O-lineman Greg Robinson won't be easy, but there is still plenty of talent on offense to aid quarterback Nick Marshall.
  • Marshall's progress: Marshall’s ascent last year was impressive, but can he continue it? He’s great with his feet and made some big-time throws last year. As he continues to progress as a passer, it should add another facet to the Tigers’ explosive, up-tempo, multifaceted attack.
  • Improving the defense: The Tigers lost five starters from a group that was suspect at times last season. But defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has a history of improving defenses from Year 1 to Year 2, and it should be interesting to see if he can do that at Auburn.
LSU

Spring start: March 7

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
MISSISSIPPI STATE

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • All eyes on Prescott: With some strong performances to close out the season in the Egg Bowl and in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, quarterback Dak Prescott certainly played the part of an elite SEC quarterback. He'll enter the season with more national attention after putting together some gutsy performances while pushing through some personal adversity last season after the death of his mother.
  • Malone stepping in: Justin Malone was on pace to start at right guard last season, but was lost for the year with a Lisfranc injury in his foot in the season opener against Oklahoma State. With Gabe Jackson gone, the Bulldogs need another solid interior lineman to step up, and a healthy 6-foot-7, 320-pound Malone could be that guy.
  • Offensive staff shuffle: The Bulldogs added some new blood on the offensive coaching staff, bringing in young quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, a former Utah quarterback. Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy were promoted to co-offensive coordinators, though head coach Dan Mullen will continue as the playcaller in games.
OLE MISS

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
  • Wallace’s development: Coach Hugh Freeze believes quarterback Bo Wallace will be helped by having more practice this time around; last year, January shoulder surgery had Wallace rehabilitating most of the offseason, and Freeze believes it affected Wallace's arm strength later in the season. A fresh Wallace going into the spring can only help, and as he’s heading into his senior season, the coaching staff will look for more consistency.
  • Status of Nkemdiche and Bryant: Linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant were arrested last month and suspended. Ole Miss is investigating the situation, but their status remains undecided.
  • A healthy Aaron Morris: During the season opener against Vanderbilt, Morris tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. The offensive guard was recently granted a medical hardship waiver to restore that season of eligibility. Getting Morris back healthy for 2014 is important for the Rebels as he is a key piece to their offensive line.
TEXAS A&M

Spring start: Feb. 28

Spring game: None (final practice is April 5)

What to watch:
  • Life after Johnny Manziel: Texas A&M says goodbye to one of the best quarterbacks in college football history and must find his successor. Spring (and fall) practice will be the stage for a three-way battle between senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen. Only one of those three has started a college game (Joeckel), and he played in just one half last August. Whoever wins the competition will be green, but all three have the ability to run the Aggies’ offense.
  • Retooling the defense: The Aggies were pretty awful on defense last season, ranking among the bottom 25 nationally in most defensive statistical categories. They have to get much better on that side of the football if they want to be a real factor in the SEC West race, and that starts in the spring by developing the young front seven and trying to find some answers in the secondary, particularly at the safety positions.
  • New left tackle: This spring, the Aggies will have their third different left tackle in as many seasons. Luke Joeckel rode a stellar 2012 season to the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. Senior Jake Matthews made himself a projected top-10 pick for this year's draft while protecting Manziel last season. This season, Cedric Ogbuehi gets his turn. Ogbuehi has excelled throughout his Texas A&M career on the right side of the offensive line (first at right guard, then at right tackle last season) and is looking to follow in the footsteps of Joeckel and Matthews.

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No. 2 CB Sheffield Talks Recruiting
Fort Bend Marshall cornerback Kendall Sheffield landed at No. 12 in the new ESPN 300. That's good enough to earn him the top spot in Texas. Sheffield spoke about the ranking, a recent trip to LSU and his decision date with ESPN's Phil Murphy.Tags: Kendall Sheffield, Fort Bend Marshall, RecruitingNation, ESPN 300, high school football recruiting, Phil Murphy
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