LSU Tigers: John Diarse

What to watch in LSU-ULM

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Les Miles is a perfect 11-0 as LSU’s coach against in-state opposition and only once – a 24-16 homecoming win over Louisiana Tech in 2009 – has the outcome been particularly close.

LSU (2-0) has beaten its various fellow Louisianans by an average score of 43-7 in the 2000s and has not lost to an in-state opponent since falling 31-28 at Tulane in 1982. In other words, there is good reason that the Tigers were favored late this week to beat Louisiana-Monroe (2-0) by 31 points on Saturday. The day is probably not going to end unhappily for the Tigers.

That said, major-conference coaches are apparently required to remind us of the disastrous possibilities, so that is one of the storylines to watch as Saturday’s kickoff approaches.

1. Monroe’s history: One of the first points that Miles made in his Monday news conference was that ULM has knocked off SEC opposition in the past. In fact, the Warhawks have beaten four teams from the conference: No. 8 Arkansas in the 2012 opener, Alabama in 2007, Mississippi State in 1995 and Kentucky in 1994.

“When we invite an in-state team to play us, we think it makes the majority of the state want to come to that stadium, at that time and watch that game and we’re thankful that this opportunity’s here,” Miles reiterated on his Wednesday call-in show. “We think that ULM is a very, very quality team and will challenge any team and certainly will be a difficult team to play this Saturday in Tiger Stadium.”

Miles didn’t happen to mention that the Warhawks are 4-40-1 overall against SEC teams, though. That includes an 0-2 mark against LSU, which defeated ULM 49-7 in 2003 and 51-0 in 2010.

2. Aidin’ Travin: Let’s assume that receiver Travin Dural will play on Saturday, as Miles predicted, despite Dural having suffered a head injury that required stitches in an auto accident late last Saturday night. The Tigers probably will still need other wideouts to take over some of his production as he works his way back to 100 percent.

Through two games, Dural (six catches, 291 yards, four touchdowns) has been far and away the Tigers’ most prolific receiver. His absurd average of 48.5 yards per catch leads the nation, he’s fourth in receiving yards and tied for second nationally in touchdown catches – all despite being targeted on fewer than half as many passes (15) as national leader Amari Cooper of Alabama (32).

Redshirt freshman John Diarse (4-77, TD) and true freshmen Trey Quinn (3-37) and Malachi Dupre (2-23, TD) would probably be the leading candidates for extra looks if Dural isn’t 100 percent on Saturday.
3. Jennings vs. Harris: LSU quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris figure to have their battle for playing time continue on Saturday. ESPN Stats & Information reports that their production is similar, although their workload isn’t particularly comparable.

In 113 plays with Jennings under center, LSU’s offense averaged 6.5 yards per play and scored touchdowns on 35 percent of its possessions. Jennings posted the best single-game Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) of any player this season when he scored a 98.7 last week against Sam Houston State by going 7-for-13 for 188 yards and three touchdowns and rushing eight times for 43 yards.

Harris took 27 snaps last week against SHSU after getting only three (one series) in the opener against Wisconsin. He led five drives and the Tigers scored three touchdowns against SHSU, including one on a 46-yard Harris run.

In Harris’ 30 total plays, LSU averaged 6.9 yards per play and the Tigers have run the ball 83 percent of the time, compared to 70 percent with Jennings under center.

4. Playing the pass: Another interesting matchup pits LSU’s defense, which is third nationally in opponent Total QBR at 5.3 – only Baylor (4.4) and Florida (5.1) are better according to ESPN Stats & Information – against an active ULM passing game.

The Warhawks have already attempted 86 passes with only one getting intercepted. LSU, meanwhile, has picked off four passes out of 52 opponent pass attempts. The Tigers’ pass defense leads the nation by allowing a 32.7 completion percentage and ranks seventh by allowing 3.96 yards per pass attempt. LSU is also tied for 13th with seven sacks, while ULM is tied for fourth with 10.

LSU got all seven of its sacks last Saturday against SHSU, but ULM presents a different challenge for the Tigers. ULM quarterback Pete Thomas (47-85, 573 yards, 2 TDs, INT) runs the Warhawks’ no-huddle spread offense at a brisk pace. He wouldn’t rank 10th in the nation in pass attempts if the Warhawks’ offense moved slowly. ULM has surrendered four sacks, so pass-rushers like Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco will have to move quickly to earn a quarterback takedown.

5. Pounding the run: Thus far, LSU has run the ball on 73 percent of its plays (105 of 144), which creates an interesting matchup for Saturday. ULM is tied for ninth nationally against the run, surrendering just 57.5 rushing yards per game. Opponents Wake Forest and Idaho averaged 1.8 yards per carry (115 yards on 63 attempts) against the Warhawks. Wake Forest actually had 27 attempts for minus-3 rushing yards and finished with just 94 yards of total offense in a 17-10 loss.

Kenny Hilliard leads the Tigers with 165 rushing yards on 29 carries and freshman Leonard Fournette is second with 110 yards on 21 attempts.

LSU notes: Miles talks ULM upsets

September, 8, 2014
Sep 8
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Les Miles is already playing the Arkansas and Alabama card -- as in the two SEC teams that have lost games to LSU's opponent on Saturday, Louisiana-Monroe.

ULM beat No. 8 Arkansas early in the 2012 season that was anything but memorable for a Razorbacks program in post-Bobby Petrino turmoil. And the Warhawks toppled Alabama in 2007, Nick Saban's first season with the Crimson Tide.

As of Monday afternoon, LSU is favored by 31 points against ULM, but Miles said history shows that his team must be prepared for a challenge.

"We are so warned," Miles said at his Monday press luncheon. "We recognize and respect that opponent. We will prepare for their best efforts."

Injury updates: Several Tigers are nursing injuries after the first two games, although Miles offered positive news on that front.

Junior linebacker Kwon Alexander said he will be ready to play Saturday after playing only two defensive series in last Saturday's 56-0 win against Sam Houston State after reaggravating a right neck/shoulder stinger he first suffered in the opener against Wisconsin.

"It's just he was bruised up a little bit and we feel like with some quiet time he'll be fine," Miles said.

Miles said sophomore center Ethan Pocic should also be available Saturday after getting hurt against SHSU, although he added that senior Elliott Porter will be back in the starting lineup following a two-game suspension to start the season. Andy Dodd played most of the second half in Pocic's place on Saturday.

Senior fullback Connor Neighbors entered the SHSU game wearing a club cast covering his entire right hand and left the game with a foot injury, but Miles said he should also be good to go on Saturday.

"He had a very difficult time catching the ball with that club on his hand. So I would think that what that was was a little wrist sprain. That will be replaced by a very mobile and agile hand for this next Saturday," Miles said. "His injuries other than that are improved and we would expect him to play and start."

In addition, senior tight end Logan Stokes was wearing a walking boot on his foot when he arrived at LSU's practice facility on Monday.

Garrett will play: LSU has already played 16 true freshmen, but one of them isn't Clifton Garrett, ESPN's No. 31 overall prospect and No. 2 inside linebacker in the 2014 signing class.

Miles predicted that could change soon.

"We expect that he'll play a good portion of the remainder of the time. We think that he came in … [and] needed an adjustment period with the weather and the heat here," Miles said. "Once he got his feet underneath him, he's really improved and we would expect that he play not only this Saturday, but Saturdays as we go forward."

Alexander said Garrett is still learning what to do behind D.J. Welter and Kendell Beckwith at middle linebacker.

"He should be ready to get in," Alexander said. "He's just learning the plays right now. When he gets the plays down pat, I think he'll get in."

Ranking receivers: Miles included Travin Dural, freshman Trey Quinn and John Diarse among the Tigers' top three wide receivers and added that freshmen Malachi Dupre and D.J. Chark as players who could join that group.

Both Dupre and Chark made their college debuts against SHSU, with Dupre also catching a fourth-quarter touchdown after missing the Wisconsin game with an injury.

Miles predicted Dupre could have an expanded role moving forward.

"There's no question that his skillset fits in very well -- tall, athletic, explosive, great ball skills," Miles said. "We're going to have to get him onto the field and he feels much healthier than he's felt. He's not limited in any way."

Versatile Washington: Senior offensive lineman Evan Washington played right and left guard against SHSU after coming off the bench at right tackle against Wisconsin.

He's actually a backup at every offensive line position, which can make things confusing at times.

"I've got a lot more in my head," Washington said. "I've got like three positions in my head. Sometimes in practice Coach [Jeff] Grimes will be like, ‘Why did you do that?' and I'm like, ‘Oh I forgot, Coach. I thought I was at another position.' "

Predominantly a tackle early in his career, Washington said he started learning all of the line positions from teammate T-Bob Hebert as a freshman and picked up pointers from Trai Turner last season about playing guard.

It took time before he felt comfortable shifting from spot to spot.

"I couldn't have done it my first two years, but after a while I was comfortable enough knowing what everybody was doing," Washington said. "Then just the little technique stuff helped me out."

Freshman spotlight: 'Heisman moment'

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- OK, that had to be a first.

It was definitely LSU freshman Leonard Fournette’s first touchdown of his career. There’s no question about that. But Fournette’s striking the Heisman pose after the 4-yard run against Sam Houston State on Saturday might have made him the first player in college football history to raise his knee and throw the legendary stiffarm pose after his inaugural score.

“I think it’s little premature to launch a Heisman candidacy,” LSU coach Les Miles said after the Tigers’ 56-0 win. “I think that he needs to realize, too, that this is his team and it’s not to do with personal liberty. There were a lot of guys blocking for that run and a lot of effort and energy to help that man score that touchdown."

SEC Network announcer Brent Musberger saying afterwards, “A little early for that pose, young man, but I got your excitement.”

Whatever Miles said to the freshman running back afterward, it was apparently not as forgiving. He was caught on TV giving Fournette an earful immediately after he returned to the sideline following the play.

“I looked at Coach,” quarterback Anthony Jennings said. “He was coming onto the field and I already knew what was going to happen.”

Fournette finished with 92 rushing yards on 13 carries, plus 32 receiving yards on two leaping catches. It was an outstanding Tiger Stadium debut -- even if he might have jumped the gun a bit with his Heisman moment.

“He definitely has the potential to be a Heisman Trophy winner, but as of now I believe he needs to stay humble and keep running the ball like he is,” right tackle Jerald Hawkins chuckled.

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The touchdown run itself was nothing special -- a 4-yard burst up the middle against an FCS defense that barely got a fingertip on Fournette before he entered the end zone. But the play immediately before that was more like what Tigers fans expected to see from the nation’s top overall prospect when he signed with LSU in February.

On second-and-10 at the SHSU 44, Fournette took a handoff left and then cut back toward a huge hole in the middle of the line. He cut right at the 41 to dodge safety Michael Wade, then followed receiver John Diarse’s block on cornerback Mikell Everette at the 29. A Bearkats defender didn’t get to Fournette until he ran through safety Eric Agbaroji’s tackle at the 21 and then dragged cornerback Ernest Payton from the 13 to the 4, where he finally went down.

The highlight-reel 40-yard run set up Fournette’s touchdown burst on the next play.

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There were plenty of firsts to go around on Saturday for members of LSU’s vaunted 2014 recruiting class. In his first substantial playing time, quarterback Brandon Harris also contributed a couple of highlights -- including a 46-yard touchdown run that was much more worthy of the Heisman pose.

With the Tigers already up 27-0 in the second quarter, Harris faked a handoff to Terrence Magee and instead ran up the middle. He first spun through a tackle attempt by linebacker Lance Duran and then backed into cornerback Darion Flowers, who was unable to bring Harris down before he spun toward the LSU sideline and broke into the open field. Then it became a footrace and Harris barely avoided Everette’s diving tackle attempt at the 9 and followed Diarse’s block on Trenier Orr as he bolted into the end zone for his first career score.

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Harris put an exclamation point on the night when he and freshman receiver Malachi Dupre combined for two more firsts -- Harris’ first touchdown pass and Dupre’s first scoring catch -- early in the fourth quarter.

On second-and-goal from the 8, Harris lobbed a pass to the back right corner of the end zone, where a diving Dupre brought it down just beyond cornerback Tevin Creeks’ coverage. It was yet another example of what LSU fans envisioned when Dupre, the nation’s top wideout prospect, and No. 2 dual-threat quarterback Harris joined the Tigers earlier this year.

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BATON ROUGE, La. -- When he and his teammates traveled to Houston last weekend, LSU safety Jalen Mills had no idea whether he’d actually play against Wisconsin.

It wasn’t until the final moments before his team took the field that Tigers coach Les Miles informed the junior safety of his decision.

“Actually right before we came out the tunnel. Coach Miles told me, ‘I hope you’re ready to play,’ ” said Mills, whose offseason arrest led to his banishment from all team activities throughout the summer before Miles reinstated him at the start of preseason practice. “So once he told me that, just a big weight lifted off my shoulders and I was ready.”

Mills made the most of his opportunity, starting at safety and intercepting a pass during the Tigers’ second-half comeback en route to a 28-24 victory. Several of his teammates weren’t as fortunate, with multiple Tigers missing the game because of suspension, injury or simply because they were not quite ready to face a big-time opponent.

That could change soon -- possibly as soon as this Saturday against Sam Houston State in some cases -- as expected contributors like cornerback Rashard Robinson, receiver Malachi Dupre and defensive linemen Frank Herron, Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore start to filter into the lineup.

Like Mills last week, some members of that group -- along with many others who did not play last weekend -- will walk into Tiger Stadium Saturday night not knowing whether this will be their chance to make their season debuts.

Miles said Wednesday evening that “everybody’s ready to roll. We didn’t lose anybody from the [Wisconsin] game” when asked about the health of the team, although he added that senior center Elliott Porter might sit out for a second consecutive game.

Miles would have to improve significantly before anyone would describe his disciplinary practices as transparent, but he responded “Yeah, absolutely” when a reporter on Tuesday asked whether the suspended players would be available this Saturday.

If they are available, and if players like Dupre are able to return from injuries, LSU could have far more firepower at its disposal in the near future -- even if Miles predicted that the starting lineup should mostly remain intact.

“I think it will be very similar,” Miles said after Wednesday’s practice. “There’s some young defensive linemen we’d like to put on the field, but it’s one of those things, you have to develop a level of competency in the call. That’s the issue. We have very talented guys there. We’re just getting them ready to play, hopefully this week. Hopefully they’ll play some time. But I think for the most part, you’ll recognize the same starting lineups.”

Regardless, the youthful Tigers are not the team they will become over the course of this season. Although nine true freshmen and two redshirt freshmen played their first college games, many more -- a group that includes Herron, Bain, Gilmore, receivers D.J. Chark and Avery Peterson, running back Darrel Williams and linebacker Clifton Garrett -- still hope to prove to their coaches that they deserve playing time.

“It’s definitely your coach trusting you and coming out here in practice every day and working hard,” senior middle linebacker D.J. Welter said. “Everybody’s been doing that, but you’ve just got to keep grinding every day to close that space and you’ll get to see the field.”

As Miles mentioned, that is apparently the issue with Herron and the other redshirt freshman defensive tackles. Players complimented Herron throughout the preseason, but Miles said he wasn’t ready to go against Wisconsin. Instead it was true freshman Davon Godchaux who played alongside veterans Christian LaCouture, Quentin Thomas and Lewis Neal against the Badgers.

“To be honest with you, we’d have loved to have gotten Frank in, and some other guys,” Miles said. “But the issue becomes one where when the game’s tight and you want to be able to count on the call, you go with that veteran that kind of understands it a little bit more. We’re hopeful that we can get Frank coached up a little bit better and get him on the field because he is, in my opinion, a very, very talented guy.”

Same with Chark and Williams -- and for that matter the freshmen who did play and didn’t exactly dominate. It’s part of the learning process, Miles cautioned, and that process sometimes requires some patience.

Regarding freshmen like quarterback Brandon Harris and tailback Leonard Fournette, Miles said LSU’s coaches are “thrilled with their performances” even if they didn’t exactly fill up the stat sheet against Wisconsin.

It will come in time, as redshirt freshman John Diarse learned a season ago.

“I had the same expectations coming in last year and Coach Cam [Cameron] just told me, ‘It’s a process. It takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and just relax, stay in it, stay focused, keep working hard,’ ” said Diarse, who caught two passes and scored a 36-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter against Wisconsin.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- After getting by far the heaviest workload of his college career against Wisconsin, Travin Dural was still feeling the aftereffects well after LSU wrapped up its 28-24 win Saturday night.

"[I felt a] big difference. I still felt like that yesterday," Jennings said Tuesday afternoon. "Me and Anthony [Jennings, LSU's quarterback] were talking about it and he was like, ‘Man, my body's hurting,' and I was like, ‘Mine too.' He was like, ‘It's because I ain't played in two years,' and I was like, ‘That's probably it.' "

Dural made the most of his opportunity, finishing with three catches for a career-high 151 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown in the first quarter. But as one of only four Tigers wide receivers who played against the Badgers, Dural definitely got more than his share of playing time.

[+] EnlargeLSU's Travin Dural
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty ImagesTravin Dural had three catches for 151 yards and a touchdown against Wisconsin.
Among SEC teams who played on opening weekend, LSU and Ole Miss played the fewest wideouts with four apiece. Only one other school (Arkansas) played as few as six, while Texas A&M played the most with 10.

Freshman Malachi Dupre, who sat out the Wisconsin game with an injury, hopes to raise the Tigers' number to at least five when the Tigers host Sam Houston State on Saturday night.

"He practiced yesterday," LSU coach Les Miles said at his Tuesday press luncheon. "We'd expect him to compete for playing time in this very next game at home."

Ideally other youngsters like redshirt freshman Avery Peterson and true freshman D.J. Chark will also prove this week that they deserve some playing time in order to decrease the demands on those who played against Wisconsin -- a group that also includes senior Quantavius Leslie, redshirt freshman John Diarse and true freshman Trey Quinn.

"In our receiving room, we have a good bit of people who can play," Dural said. "It's just gaining the trust of the coaches and actually them feeling like on game day they're not going to be too nervous. Because no one has really played in the receiving room.

Dural continued, "[We'd like to] actually let those guys get their feet wet, let guys who haven't taken the field, guys who are fresh out of high school, actually get a chance to see what that feels like and see how they react. It's going to be a big thing. That way before we get into conference play, we can know who we can count on."

The next two games should be ideal in that regard, as Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Monroe are nowhere near the same caliber opponent as Big Ten power Wisconsin. With what could be a difficult SEC opener against Mississippi State approaching on Sept. 20, now is the time for receivers coach Adam Henry to begin solidifying his depth chart.

"I think this week we're just going to do our best to get guys in," Diarse said. "We're going to expect a great game from Sam Houston. Looking at the film, those guys are really, really fast. They really play hard no matter who they play. It just depends on who the game plan is. We may rotate six in this game and we may rotate in three, I'm not sure. But every guy in that receiving room is ready to go. I trust and believe that."

Diarse played his first college game against Wisconsin and made two huge catches. The first was a 12-yard completion on a third-and-7 that kept a third-quarter field-goal drive alive. The second reception was even bigger, as he broke four tackles on a third-and-21 completion and not only bolted past the first-down marker, but streaked all the way to the end zone for a touchdown that helped cut Wisconsin's lead to 24-21.

Diarse said he doesn't remember anything between making the catch and crossing the goal line, but fans and friends have made him well aware of what happened since then.

"Many people have sent it to me. A lot of people tweeted it to me, Instagram, all over the place," Diarse said. "So I'm very shocked at what happened, seeing that I don't really recall doing all of that. But I've watched it over 1,000 times. It feels even better every time I watch it."

You can't get any more efficient than Diarse was against Wisconsin. Jennings targeted him with two passes and both went for either a first down or a touchdown. Likewise, although Dural caught just three of the seven passes where he was the intended target, all three went for a first down or touchdown and a fourth target earned a pass interference penalty and another first down.

In fact, dating back to last season all 10 of Dural's college receptions achieved either a first down or a touchdown -- and the stat would be even better if you include his five catches for 130 yards and two scores in an outstanding spring game where he seemed to establish himself as the Tigers'go-to wideout.

"Travin Dural kind of went back to some of the things that he did in the Arkansas game [when Dural caught the game-winning, 49-yard touchdown pass with 1:15 to play] and it's become more expected in who he is," Miles said. "We're excited at his growth. He had a couple of huge catches."

Now it's a matter of getting more Tigers wideouts near his level of production. Preferably as soon as possible.

"We're going to need everybody," Dural said. "It's going to take more than four receivers. We might need five or six. So just come out every day and practice hard and show the coaches that they can trust them and they can put them in the game."

LSU freshman tracker

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
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So it wasn’t a Heisman Trophy-caliber debut for LSU freshman Leonard Fournette. The Tigers’ coaches understandably rode the defense and veteran running back Kenny Hilliard late as No. 13 LSU scored 21 unanswered points to beat No. 14 Wisconsin 28-24 on Saturday night.

But the Tigers did get Fournette and eight other true freshmen -- receiver Trey Quinn, quarterback Brandon Harris, defensive backs Ed Paris and Jamal Adams, defensive linemen Davon Godchaux and Deondre Clark, linebacker Donnie Alexander and kicker Cameron Gamble -- on the field Saturday in Houston during the comeback win. Here’s a quick recap of the top three.

RB Leonard Fournette

What he did: Fournette looked tentative on both kickoff returns and runs out of the backfield. He returned five kickoffs for 117 yards, with a long of 33 yards, and ran eight times for 18 yards. The explosive running everyone expected was nowhere to be found, although the offensive line didn’t give him much room to run, either. Fournette and Terrence Magee (6-8) took a backseat to Hilliard (18-110, TD) in the second half as the Tigers mounted their comeback.

What it means: Because of the hype built around the nation’s top overall prospect, anything less than 100 yards and a couple of touchdowns would have been a letdown. Fournette’s time will come, but he didn’t make much of an impact in his college debut. Perhaps he’ll find more of a groove over the next couple of weeks when he should have more room to run against Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Monroe.

WR Trey Quinn

What he did: Quinn was the only LSU true freshman to start on Saturday. The record-setting receiver caught one pass for 11 yards and ran 2 yards on a reverse. But easily his biggest play of the night came when he went in motion on a two-point conversion attempt and was wide open when he caught Anthony Jennings’ pass to cut Wisconsin’s lead to 24-21 with 12:08 left in the game.

What it means: It was clear coming in that Quinn would play a big role after he generated a lot of buzz during preseason camp. He made one of the Tigers’ biggest plays during their comeback. They played only four receivers all night – sophomore Travin Dural (3-151, TD) and redshirt freshman John Diarse (2-48, TD) also made some huge catches – so it’s clear that we should expect Quinn to rank among LSU’s top wideouts moving forward.

QB Brandon Harris

What he did: Harris played one series in the second quarter and the Tigers went backward, literally and figuratively. They lost 9 yards on the possession – Harris ran once for a loss of a yard and later was sacked for a 10-yard loss on third down – and also had to burn a timeout when Harris was unable to get the play in quickly enough from the sideline. Jennings returned on the next possession and played the rest of the game at quarterback.

What it means: As with Fournette, this was an unimpressive debut for Harris. He looked a bit lost on the field, in a game where the Tigers couldn’t afford to fall much further behind. Jennings floundered a bit early, but he hit a couple of huge passes and gave LSU enough in the second half to mount a comeback. You can’t say Jennings completely solidified his position as LSU’s full-time quarterback – he finished 9-for-21 for 239 yards and two touchdowns – but Harris certainly didn’t do anything to prove that he deserves the job yet.

LSU WRs an odd mix of young and old

August, 25, 2014
Aug 25
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- John Diarse chuckled when he described himself as a veteran. He realizes how silly that sounds since he has yet to play in a college game, but it’s the truth.

The funny thing is, having participated in two sets of spring and preseason practices, Diarse is actually one of the longest-tenured wide receivers on No. 13 LSU’s roster.

“Seeing that I am a redshirt freshman, in some ways it does [feel absurd],” admitted Diarse, whose team opens the season against No. 14 Wisconsin on Saturday. “But I think I’m a vet in my mind, mentally, because I’ve been through the program and I know what it takes and the hard work that has to be done on and off the field. So in my mind I’m a vet, but as far as stats-wise and playing time, not really.”

[+] EnlargeDural
AP Photo/Bill HaberLSU's most experienced receiver is Travin Dural, who has all of seven career catches.
Take a gander at LSU's wideout depth chart. Travin Dural is the most experienced player, by far. He’s a redshirt sophomore with all of seven catches for 145 yards to his credit. There is only one scholarship senior -- junior college transfer Quantavius Leslie -- on the roster. There are no scholarship juniors.

Once 2013 star juniors Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry decided to enter the NFL draft, the Tigers’ wideout depth chart now features that couple of inexperienced veterans and a host of guys like Diarse, who either redshirted last season or who will be enrolled in college for the first time this fall.

“We always joke about that in the receiving room about me being the oldest, but I take pride in being an older guy,” said Leslie, who finished with one catch for 11 yards last season. “I just tell them what’s right. I’ve been through this, so this is not my first year going through it.”

But Leslie is unique in that regard at LSU. Many Tigers, like arguably the nation’s top group of 2014 wideout signees, have only been on campus for a few months and still have plenty to learn.

Leslie and some of the older players like Diarse have learned all three wideout positions by now, but they only played one in their first seasons at LSU. That’s a common trajectory for a newcomer, so a true freshman like Trey Quinn, Malachi Dupre or D.J. Chark -- all of whom are in the Tigers’ plans for 2014 according to coach Les Miles -- would be well ahead of the curve if he becomes functional at more than one spot this fall.

“We’ve got a lot of smart guys,” Diarse said. “Once these younger guys kind of catch the feel for it, they’ll be able to do both inside and out.”

Although he missed a portion of preseason practice, one skill that Dupre -- RecruitingNation's No. 1 wideout prospect for 2014 -- believes will help him contribute this season is his blocking ability. He played in a run-first offense at John Curtis in New Orleans, so clearing a path for running backs will be nothing new, even if the Tigers figure to put the ball in the air more frequently than what he’s accustomed to seeing.

“I think that made me better coming into a situation like I am now where the ball will be in the air more,” Dupre said. “But still remembering where I came from and thinking I had to make the best out of any opportunity I got in high school because I might not get another opportunity will definitely help now because I’ll get more opportunities.”

The greatest factor in the newcomers’ development, though, will be time. They’ve had the summer and preseason practices to get a taste against all-conference-caliber defenders like Tre'Davious White, Rashard Robinson and Jalen Collins. Producing in games will be a different achievement.

That said, the freshmen have their veteran teammates excited about what they can accomplish in the future.

“All of them make plays. I was surprised at all of them,” Leslie said. “They’re not playing or practicing like no freshmen. They’re practicing like they’ve been here.”

And don’t forget about Diarse’s fellow redshirt freshmen Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears. Between those three and the Tigers’ four true freshman wideouts, LSU has a huge group of pass-catchers preparing for their first college games on Saturday.

With that in mind -- plus the still-unannounced starting quarterback adding further uncertainty to the Tigers’ passing game -- it would not be a surprise if offensive coordinator Cam Cameron plays it close to the vest on Saturday. But LSU’s wideouts believe their summer practice time against a solid group of defensive backs has prepared them for this first test, even against a Wisconsin secondary that largely remains intact from a season ago.

“Everyone says that we’re a young group and we have a young quarterback, whoever it’s going to be, so it’s like everyone says we’re not going to be able to pass the ball,” Dural said. “Being able to pass it in camp against our defense is exciting to us. We’re moving the ball.”

BATON ROUGE, La. -- With LSU opening preseason practice today, the Tigers will have no shortage of position battles to watch over the next 26 days until the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin.

Let’s take a glance at five positions that should feature considerable competition this month.

Quarterback: This one will attract the most attention, just as it did during spring practice. Sophomore Anthony Jennings or freshman Brandon Harris will be the starter. That was all but certain during the spring and is guaranteed now that backups Stephen Rivers, Hayden Rettig and Rob Bolden have all transferred from the program since the end of last season. But which of the youngsters will it be?

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsFreshman Brandon Harris made a heck of a first impression during LSU's spring game.
The Tigers got an outstanding season out of Zach Mettenberger in 2013, but he played almost every important down before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the regular-season finale against Arkansas. The opportunity to lead the offense to a win against the Razorbacks surely benefited Jennings, but he didn’t show as much composure in the Outback Bowl win against Iowa. And that was before his performance in the Tigers’ spring game was a complete flop.

Harris, meanwhile, overcame a sloppy start that day to show off a strong arm and impressive wheels. The day belonged to him, but the competition isn’t over. Jennings will still have a chance this month to convince offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to let him start against Wisconsin, but Harris is going to be tough to hold off.

Wide receiver: This is going to be a fun position to watch over the next couple of seasons since LSU signed arguably the top class of receivers in the country in February. It started with the No. 1 and 3 prospects at the position, Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, and continued with two more ESPN 300 honorees in D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch.

Since the Tigers lost two extremely productive wideouts from last season -- Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry -- the receiver spots are wide open entering camp. Sophomore Travin Dural and senior Quantavius Leslie are the only LSU receivers with any game experience, and they occupy the starting spots on the preseason depth chart. But the Tigers probably need several of the true and redshirt freshmen -- John Diarse appears to be the most likely contributor out of that group -- to prove themselves in August and beyond for this to be a productive season for the receiving corps.

Safety: This was one of the team’s bigger question marks in the spring and it’s still a question now in part because of Jalen Mills’ uncertain status following an offseason arrest.

Injuries hit the Tigers hard at safety last season, forcing starters Corey Thompson and Ronald Martin out of the lineup and eventually clearing the way for Mills to shift from cornerback to safety for the Iowa game. The good news now is that all those injuries helped plenty of LSU safeties get on-field tryouts, and now Thompson, Martin, Mills, Rickey Jefferson and Dwayne Thomas are all back in the mix.

Freshmen Jamal Adams and Devin Voorhies are in the picture, too, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a freshman -- particularly the heavily recruited Adams -- participating in some capacity early in the season.

Defensive tackle: Like running back, where freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams will join seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, this is a spot where a group of players should have an opportunity to contribute.

Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas are the closest things the Tigers have to seasoned veterans, having played behind Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson last season. They’ll be joined this season by redshirt freshmen Maquedius Bain, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron -- all of whom earned a mention from position coach Brick Haley last week on local radio for having strong summers in LSU’s conditioning program.

Signee Travonte Valentine was once thought to have a chance to contribute immediately as well, but the NCAA has yet to clear him to enroll at LSU, meaning he also missed out on the Tigers’ valuable summer workouts. If he makes it to Baton Rouge sometime this month, he might still make it onto the field in 2014, but it appears Valentine is behind the 8-ball for now.

Right guard: The offensive line should be an area of strength in 2014 since it must replace only one starter, right guard Trai Turner. Unlike some of the other open jobs, this one won’t go to a freshman since both of the leading candidates to take over the job are seniors: Fehoko Fanaika and Evan Washington. This is another battle that started in the spring, but if new line coach Jeff Grimes has made a decision, he hasn’t made it publicly. Fanaika and Washington are listed as co-No. 1s on LSU’s preseason depth chart.

LSU position breakdown: WR

July, 30, 2014
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Editor's note: This week, we'll take a quick look at each of LSU's position groups as the Tigers prepare to open preseason practice next week. Up next are the wide receivers.

WIDE RECEIVER

Returning starters: None.

Starters lost: Jarvis Landry (77 catches, 1,193 yards, 10 TDs) and Odell Beckham (59-1,152, 8 TDs). For all intents and purposes, Landry and Beckham WERE the Tigers' receiving game last season, combining for 136 of their 205 receptions, 2,345 of their 3,263 yards and 18 of their 23 touchdowns. Nos. 3 and 5 on the 2013 receiving chart, running back Jeremy Hill (18-181) and wideout Kadron Boone (7-129, 2 TDs) are also gone.

Key newcomers: True freshman receivers are often difficult to project, as it can be a difficult transition from high school to the more discipline-oriented game they must play in college. Over the long term, though, this year's freshmen should be an extremely valuable crop of talent. In fact, it's arguably the best group of receivers that any school signed in 2014. It includes ESPN's No. 1 and 3 wideout prospects Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, plus another pair of ESPN 300 honorees in D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch.

Don't forget about the group of receivers who redshirted last season, either. John Diarse seemed to be a frontrunner for playing time after spring practice, particularly since both Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears missed portions of those practices with injuries.

Player to watch: Dupre and Quinn are the obvious choices here. It's evident that Travin Dural (7-145, 2 TDs) completed the spring as the Tigers' go-to wideout. In fact, he's the only returning wide receiver who made more than one catch a season ago. But it's the potential of those blue-chip youngsters -- and the curiosity about how quickly they can catch onto the college game -- that will generate the most intrigue.

Overall: With a new starting quarterback and nearly a complete turnover at wideout, LSU's passing offense is a bit of a mystery as preseason practice approaches. Dural punctuated his spring with a 130-yard, two-touchdown effort in the spring game, so he looks like a reliable contributor. After that, who knows? Quantavius Leslie (1-11) had one big spring scrimmage and is the only scholarship senior, so he might be in line for a bigger role. More than likely, though, the receivers will need several freshmen to contribute -- and that can be a risky proposition.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- In April, we broke down how LSU's offense led the nation in third-down efficiency last season by converting for a first down or touchdown 57.1 percent of the time.

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

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

Quarterback efficiency, running ability

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

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

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

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

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

Filling Landry's shoes

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

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

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

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

But who will get those chances?

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

Using veterans at TE, RB in passing game

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who handles the backfield workload?

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

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

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

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

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

With inexperience at quarterback and receiver and a next-level talent like Fournette joining the backfield, conventional wisdom indicates that LSU will lean heavily on its veteran offensive line and the ground game, especially on third downs. The previously mentioned factors will certainly play an enormous role in LSU's attempt to remain effective on third down, but this might be a season where the rushing attack is the most important element in keeping the chains moving.
When a football coaching staff signs one of the top few recruits at any position, it's cause for celebration. Therefore, grabbing two of the top three prospects at that position might warrant an Animal House-style party.

Between 2006, when ESPN began assembling recruit rankings, and 2013, individual programs managed to sign at least two of the top three players at a position 16 times. In many cases, one -- and sometimes both -- of those players became instant stars as true freshmen. Think Taylor Mays and Joe McKnight at USC, De'Anthony Thomas at Oregon, Laremy Tunsil at Ole Miss and Sean Spence at Miami.

This was a relatively unique occurrence up until 2014, when it happened five times -- with four of the five instances occurring in the SEC: twice at Alabama, which signed the top two players at both center (No. 1 Josh Casher and No. 2 J.C. Hassenauer) and outside linebacker (No. 1 Christian Miller and No. 2 Rashaan Evans), plus at LSU (with No. 1 and 3 wide receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn) and Florida (with No. 2 and 3 defensive tackles Gerald Willis and Thomas Holley).

Clemson was the other school to accomplish the feat in 2014, signing No. 2 and 3 receiving tight ends Milan Richard and Cannon Smith.

In some of these cases -- particularly at LSU, which lost the vast majority of its receiving production from 2013 -- expectations are high that the star signees can immediately become valuable contributors as true freshmen. The Tigers have multiple alternatives at receiver, including Travin Dural and John Diarse, but Dupre and Quinn might rank among the leading contenders for playing time.

Judging by the long list of Freshman All-America and freshman all-conference honors won by those who previously signed as part of such a dynamic duo, perhaps it's not such a long shot that at least one of the newcomers will make a similar instant impact.

2006

Safety | USC
No. 2 Taylor Mays, No. 3 Antwine Perez

Mays appeared in all 13 games -- starting the last 12 at free safety after Josh Pinkard suffered a season-ending injury in the opener -- in 2006 and led the Trojans with three interceptions. Mays was fifth on the team with 62 tackles and tied for second with six passes defended, ending the season as Pac-10 Co-Freshman of the Year and as a member of multiple Freshman All-America teams. Perez played in seven games and recorded three tackles.

2007

Center | Auburn
No. 1 Ryan Pugh, No. 3 Chaz Ramsey

Pugh started six of Auburn's final nine games at left tackle and appeared in eight games overall. He also backed up Jason Bosley at center and earned Coaches' All-SEC Freshman team honors after the season. Like Pugh, Ramsey appeared for the first time in Week 4 and went on to start nine of the Tigers' last 10 games at right guard. He also made the Coaches' All-SEC Freshman team.

Running back | USC
No. 1 Joe McKnight, No. 2 Marc Tyler

McKnight played in all 13 games in 2007, ranked third on the team with 540 rushing yards and scored three touchdowns. He also caught 23 passes for 203 yards and a touchdown and served as the Trojans' primary punt returner, with his 8.4 yards per return helping him earn a All-Pac-10 honorable mention nod. Tyler redshirted in 2007 while recuperating from a high school leg injury.

2008

Inside linebacker | Ohio State
No. 1 Etienne Sabino, No. 2 Andrew Sweat

Sabino played in all 13 games and notched six tackles. He notched the only touchdown in the Buckeyes' 16-3 win against Purdue by returning a blocked punt 20 yards for a score. Sweat appeared in the last nine games and recorded five tackles, also contributing mostly on special teams.

Outside linebacker | Miami
No. 1 Arthur Brown, No. 2 Sean Spence, No. 3 Ramon Buchanan

Not only did Miami sign ESPN's top three outside linebacker prospects in 2008, it also signed No. 5 Jordan Futch. That's an outstanding haul for one year. At any rate, Spence emerged as the key member of this group from the get-go, ranking third on the team with 65 tackles and leading the Hurricanes with 9.5 tackles for a loss in 2008. He was ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and made multiple Freshman All-America teams. Brown (who later transferred to Kansas State) played in 11 games as a freshman, notching four tackles and shifting from outside to inside linebacker. Buchanan had six tackles in nine games, playing mostly on special teams and also contributing at safety and linebacker.

Offensive tackle | Ohio State
No. 2 Michael Brewster, No. 3 J.B. Shugarts

Brewster played in 12 of the Buckeyes' 13 games in 2008 and started the last 10 at center, earning Freshman All-America honors in the process. Shugarts appeared in seven games at offensive tackle and missed six other games with a shoulder surgery that required offseason surgery.

Safety | Florida
No. 1 Will Hill, No. 2 Dee Finley

Hill played in 13 games and ranked sixth on the team with 48 tackles. He also picked off two passes and notched 1.5 sacks. He made the SEC All-Freshman team and led the Gators with 22 tackles on special teams. Finley did not qualify academically and spent the 2008 season at Milford Academy prep school. He eventually enrolled at Florida and shifted from safety to linebacker, but transferred away from Gainesville in 2011.

2009

Safety | South Carolina
No. 2 Stephon Gilmore, No. 3 DeVonte Holloman

Early enrollee Gilmore started all 13 games at cornerback, ranking fifth on the team with 56 tackles. He tied for the team lead with nine passes defended and ranked second with eight pass breakups, adding six tackles for a loss, three sacks, two fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and an interception. The Freshman All-SEC and Freshman All-America honoree also averaged 10.1 yards per return as a punt return man. Another early enrollee, Hollomon also played in every game, notching 30 tackles, an interception (which he returned 54 yards against rival Clemson) and a tackle for a loss.

2010

Athlete | Florida
No. 1 Ronald Powell, No. 2 Matt Elam

Powell played in 13 games at strongside linebacker and recorded 25 tackles, three tackles for a loss and a sack en route to winning Freshman All-SEC honors. Elam also played in all 13 games, mostly on special teams and at defensive back, and notched 22 tackles, two tackles for a loss and a sack.

Defensive tackle | Florida
No. 1 Dominique Easley, No. 3 Sharrif Floyd

Easley recorded four tackles in six games. Floyd played in all 13 games, earning Coaches' Freshman All-SEC honors by making 23 tackles and 6.5 tackles for a loss.

Wide receiver | Texas
No. 2 Mike Davis, No. 3 Darius White

Davis ranked second on the team with 478 receiving yards and 47 receptions (a record for a Texas freshman). He became one of only three receivers in Longhorns history to post multiple 100-yard games as a freshman. White appeared in 10 games in 2010, but caught just one pass for 5 yards and eventually transferred to Missouri after two seasons, citing a need for a fresh start.

2011

Athlete | Oregon
No. 1 De'Anthony Thomas, No. 2 Devon Blackmon

The speedy Thomas earned Pac-12 Co-Offensive Freshman of the Year honors and was named an All-Pac-12 kick returner and a Freshman All-American. He was the only player in the nation to post at least 400 yards rushing, receiving and kick returning in 2011, ranking as the Ducks' second-leading receiver (595 yards on 46 catches) and third-leading rusher (608 yards and seven touchdowns). His 983 kickoff return yards ranked second in school history. Blackmon redshirted in 2011 and appeared in two games in 2012 before announcing his plan to transfer. He played at Riverside City College before signing with BYU as a juco transfer in 2014.

2012

Defensive end | Florida State
No. 1 Mario Edwards, No. 3 Chris Casher

Edwards became the only freshman to start all season for a loaded FSU defense when he replaced the injured Tank Carradine in the ACC Championship Game. He also started in the Orange Bowl win over Northern Illinois. In all, Edwards finished the season with 17 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks. Casher played in two early games before suffering a season-ending injury and taking a redshirt in 2012.

2013

Offensive guard | Michigan
No. 2 David Dawson, No. 3 Patrick Kugler

Dawson and Kugler both redshirted in 2013. Dawson practiced during the spring at left guard and left tackle, while Kugler is among the candidates to start at center this fall.

Offensive tackle | Ole Miss
No. 1 Laremy Tunsil, No. 3 Austin Golson

Tunsil immediately became one of the better offensive tackles in the SEC, earning second-team All-SEC and Freshman All-America honors in 2013. He played in 12 games and started nine at left tackle, making him one of only two true full-time freshman starters at the position in the FBS. Tunsil allowed just one sack all season. Golson played in 12 games, mostly at guard, before missing the Rebels' bowl game because of shoulder surgery. He transferred to Auburn this summer, citing a family illness as the reason he wanted to move closer to his Alabama home.

Safety | USC
No. 1 Su'a Cravens, No. 3 Leon McQuay III

A 2013 early enrollee, Cravens started 13 games at strong safety, ranked eighth on the team with 52 tackles and tied for second with four interceptions. He made multiple Freshman All-America teams and earned an All-Pac-12 honorable mention nod after the season. McQuay played in all 14 games, picked off one pass and recorded 19 tackles.

Most important game: LSU

July, 2, 2014
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We continue our series looking at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. Today we take a look at LSU.

Most important game: Nov. 8 vs. Alabama

Key players: Let's start with the offensive line, where the Tigers return four starters and expect to have a solid group, led by tackle La'el Collins and guard Vadal Alexander. They'll have to do better against Alabama's front line than they did last year in giving up four sacks. LSU's ground game also must be better than last season, when the Tide outgained the Tigers 193-43 in rushing yards. Running back Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard have the experience, but touted true freshman Leonard Fournette, the nation's No. 1 recruit in the 2014 class, could very well take over as the starter by November.

No matter who is toting the rock, the biggest key for LSU will be the play of its new quarterback, regardless of whether it's sophomore Anthony Jennings or true freshman Brandon Harris. Neither has played in a game of this magnitude, but there won't be time for jitters. Alabama's reloaded defense will be more than capable of stuffing the run and putting all the pressure on LSU's young signal-caller, whoever it is, to make a difference through the air. The Tigers lost a lot of talent to the NFL from their wide receiving corps, but Travin Dural and John Diarse have the skills to rise to the occasion. LSU also signed two of the top three wideouts in the 2014 class -- Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn.

On defense, the Tigers have few question marks at linebacker and in the secondary but must regroup on the line, where they had an uncharacteristic 9.5 sacks last season. End Jermauria Rasco had one of them against Alabama, but it was the only sack of the game for LSU. With only two other tackles for loss in that game, the Tigers simply didn't generate enough pressure. Rasco and fellow starter Danielle Hunter will have the usual challenge against Alabama's O-line, which returns three starters and loads of talent. LSU could certainly use more of a push from its defensive tackles, where youngsters like Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain have the talent to emerge this fall.

Why it matters: We could have easily chosen Auburn to be LSU's most important game of 2014, since LSU was the only SEC team to beat Auburn last season. But the most important game -- and rivalry -- remains with Alabama. Maintaining an edge over Auburn is important, but LSU-Alabama continues to be one of the nation's biggest annual games. The Tide are the standard against which LSU measures itself, and vice versa. These schools also love recruiting in each other's territory, so the Tigers can't afford to slip. Last season saw LSU lose to Bama for the second straight season. The Tigers lost two fumbles, two turnovers on downs and basically let the game get out of hand in the second half, losing 38-17. It was the the most points LSU had given up in the rivalry since 1947. This year, LSU will face Alabama in Baton Rouge, presumably under the lights of Tiger Stadium. With both teams breaking in new QBs and several new players on defense, there's a chance this game won't have the national title implications it usually does. But it's a safe bet the SEC West race will loom large. All that aside, this is a down-and-dirty Southern grudge match. It's the Hatfields and McCoys of the SEC. The Tigers simply can't afford to lose a third straight game to their most-heated rival.

SEC lunchtime links

June, 27, 2014
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Strange seeing legions of soccer fans cheering about losses and ties, but that's World Cup group play for you. Next up in the knockout rounds, they'll settle any ties with a penalty-kick shootout. Seems only slightly more fair. At least college football has the Kansas tiebreaker and not some kind of punt, pass and catch exhibition.

Second-year stars: LSU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also watch for: Aside from Robinson and White, Smith is another top candidate for the “second-year star” honor from LSU. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron typically utilizes the tight end, and Smith’s receiving skills could make him a major weapon this fall. In addition, Beckwith generated headlines by switching to middle linebacker during spring practice, and he seems ready to challenge D.J. Welter for playing time there. Keep an eye, also, on LaCouture, Tashawn Bower and the previously mentioned redshirt freshman defensive linemen, who will almost certainly all play key roles this fall. Any of these players would make sense as the LSU pick for this series, but Robinson’s potential pushed him to the top of the list.
Editor’s note: On Thursday, we examined LSU’s success on third down last season (the Tigers led the nation by converting 57.1 percent of the time) and the importance the quarterbacks will play in remaining successful. Today we explore how much production the Tigers must replace at the skill positions in order to remain effective on third down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freshman tailback Leonard Fournette will be another player to watch here, as the nation’s top overall prospect will certainly earn some carries when the Tigers need to move the chains or hammer the ball into the end zone. Fournette and fellow signee Darrel Williams aren’t on campus yet, but the Tigers’ lack of backfield depth means they must be ready to perform once the season arrives.

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