Editor's note: We broke down LSU's need to improve at quarterback as part of our SEC blog's positional series two weeks ago. This week on the LSU blog, we continue our position-by-position look at the 2015 Tigers.
La'el Collins sat down to review LSU practice film late last season and eventually noticed something familiar. When his backup K.J. Malone got reps at left tackle, he was using many of Collins' blocking techniques.
"He's going to be a great player. He's learned a lot," said Collins, who won the SEC's Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the conference's top blocker in 2014. "I watch film on him in practice and I see some of the stuff on his tape, I can tell that he's been watching my film. I asked him, 'Karl, have you been watching my film? Where'd you get that from?' [And he said], 'Yeah, I watched it.'
"That makes me feel good to know that I'm able to impact a player. That's all I'm trying to do."
Collins leaves an enormous void at left tackle, but he is confident that LSU's offensive line will remain strong thanks to youngsters like Malone and Andy Dodd. And it doesn't hurt that right tackle Jerald Hawkins and left guard Vadal Alexander decided against entering the NFL draft, giving LSU three returning starters along with center/guard Ethan Pocic.
'Y'all haven't gotten a chance to see the young guys, really, at all, and y'all will be pretty shocked at how athletic and strong and talented the guys are coming up on the offensive line, from Garrett Brumfield to Josh Boutte, K.J. Malone," Alexander said.
Alexander started at right tackle as a freshman before shifting to left guard for 2013 and 2014. After announcing he would return for his senior season, he said he expected to move back to tackle this fall -- although he didn't know which side he or Hawkins might play. He predicted that rising junior Pocic and other young players would fill in the interior spots.
As for Hawkins, he definitely has earning the starting job at left tackle on his mind.
"I definitely see it as my objective," Hawkins said. "Any lineman, when we play as tackles, always wants to play left tackle."
A possibility at one of the interior spots is Dodd at center. Dodd said he spent 95 percent of his time at the position during practice last season and the other 5 percent at guard, although he played only center during games.
Dodd said knowledge of the playbook is one of the most important factors at center – a lesson that his time behind departed starter Elliott Porter reinforced.
"You have to be confident. You've got to know your stuff," Dodd said. "You just have to be able to think during the game. Like whenever something's not exactly how it is in practice, you have to be able to adjust to it. It's not really hard. You just have to focus."
Pocic is capable of playing any position on the line, which will give second-year position coach Jeff Grimes plenty of flexibility. With Boutte, Malone, Brumfield -- ESPN's No. 1 guard prospect in 2014, who redshirted last season -- Jevonte Domond, Will Clapp and Jonah Austin all back, Grimes will also have multiple lineup options.
"It's going to be a lot of room for learning," Malone said. "We're going to be really young because we're losing a lot of veterans, maybe. La'el, he's going to be a great loss to the O-line. But I think learning from all the veterans right now, I think we'll be ready for it."
Entering his third season as a starter, Hawkins agrees with Malone's assessment. He said he has been impressed by the potential he sees from the group of players who will begin fighting to grab starting spots this spring.
"All our young guys -- from Garrett Brumfield to K.J. Malone, William Clapp, especially Andy Dodd -- they're just coming up like they want it," Hawkins said during bowl practice. "I can see it in their eyes like they really want it. They want to play, and you can tell in practice. They're going after it each and every day."
Returning players: Starters: LG Vadal Alexander, RT Jerald Hawkins, C/RG Ethan Pocic. Reserves: OG Jonah Austin, OG Garrett Brumfield, OL Josh Boutte, C/OG Andy Dodd, OT K.J. Malone, OL Will Clapp, OT Jevonte Domond.
Departed players: Starters: LT La'el Collins, C Elliott Porter. Reserves: RG Fehoko Fanaika, OL Evan Washington.
Committed prospects: Maea Teuhema (No. 2 OG, No. 71 overall on ESPN 300, four stars), Adrian Magee (No. 41 OT, four stars), George Brown Jr. (No. 67 OT, three stars).
Outlook: LSU got welcome news in mid-January when Alexander and Hawkins announced they would return next fall, giving the Tigers three returning starters. No doubt, it hurts losing star left tackle Collins, but the Tigers have some promising youngsters waiting for their shot. It will be interesting to see where Pocic lands during spring practice -- either guard or center, most likely -- and which players get the first shot at the other two starting jobs on the interior line, assuming Alexander and Hawkins occupy the tackle spots. The ground should remain a strength for LSU in 2015.