LSU Tigers: Jonah Austin
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.'
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.
We covered the wide receivers, defensive tackles, quarterbacks and safeties in the first four installments. We conclude this week's series with the offensive line, which will break in a new position coach, Jeff Grimes, and at least one new starter this fall.
Departures: Right guard Trai Turner (13 starts) entered the NFL draft after a redshirt sophomore season where he became a second-team all-SEC pick. ESPN Scouts Inc. ranks him as the No. 5 guard and No. 113 overall prospect in the upcoming draft.
Returning reserves: Although Grimes could always elect to shake up the lineup, the most intriguing position at this point is the one that lost a starter: right guard. We recently wrote about how this will be a big spring for Fehoko Fanaika to prove that he deserves to inherit Turner's starting spot. Fanaika was an early enrollee after transferring from the College of San Mateo junior college last January and played in 12 games as a backup. The 6-foot-6, 348-pound mauler must now prove he deserves a starting spot. Other reserves of note are Ethan Pocic, Porter's backup at center who could play other positions if necessary, and rising sophomore tackle Josh Boutte. Tackle Evan Washington and guard Jonah Austin also played last season, with Washington earning a start against Furman.
Newcomers: Guards K.J. Malone and Andy Dodd both redshirted last season after arriving at LSU as four-star prospects. The Tigers signed just two offensive linemen in this class, both of whom will arrive in the summer. One of them, Garrett Brumfield, was ESPN's No. 1 guard prospect for 2014, so he might make the guard competition interesting in August if Fanaika doesn't nail down the job this spring. The other signee is four-star guard William Clapp.
What to watch: Beyond the candidates for the right guard spot, it's worth watching how Grimes decides to use his returning players. He said in a local radio interview last week that LSU's line was good, but rarely great in 2013, adding that he hadn't evaluated individual players too closely yet, so that he could give them all a fair shake when they start practicing together. The four returning starters have a decided experience advantage, but Grimes hasn't developed any preferences yet. This will be a valuable evaluation time for the Tigers' new assistant coach.
As LSU prepares to begin spring practice March 14, GeauxTigerNation will take daily looks at aspects of the spring camp. This is the third in the series:
BATON ROUGE, La. -- If you watched the NFL combine, you saw former LSU defensive linemen and defensive backs lining up to take their turns in drills.
So you want to know the areas of need as we head to the spring?
The combine gave you most of the answers.
Experience returning: Jermauria Rasco
Outlook: LSU won't have all of its candidates until August, when a trio of true freshmen arrive. But it'll be interesting to see who emerges out of the four veterans. Rasco worked his way into the top four last season and Hunter was a nice special teams player. Allen is coming off a knee injury. Any strong play from these four would be great news in the spring.
Outlook: LSU is a little more solid here than at end because Johnson and Ferguson have seen plenty of snaps. Ferguson needs to step his game up though. There's a lot of talk that Thomas is a guy who might step up and earn significant playing time, possibly even challenging Ferguson for a starting spot. True freshman Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore will arrive in August. Another freshman, LaCouture, is already on campus.
Player lost: Kevin Minter
Experience returning: Lots of players, but are there any natural MLBs?
Outlook: This position is more a matter of finding the right guy than finding a guy. Does LSU move weak linebacker Lamin Barrow there? Does D.J. Welter, who was second team in the Chick-fil-A bowl after missing the season for academic reasons, get a shot? How about young Ronnie Feist? There are no shortage of candidates. It's just a matter of finding the right fit.
Outlook: Like middle linebacker, there are candidates here, but which one is the best fit? Collins was a highly-regarded prospect coming out of high school, but he got comfortable at left guard as a sophomore and there could be a reluctance to move him. Hawkins is a talented redshirt freshman, but do you really want a redshirt freshman blocking quarterback Zach Mettenberger's blind side? Alexander, last year's starter at right tackle, could be an option as well, but that would leave the Tigers having to find a new starter for two positions.
Similarly, with a veteran stable of running backs returning, few saw true freshman Jeremy Hill emerging as a primary running back for LSU this year. Yet, it took only one injury -- to original starter Alfred Blue -- to get Hill the break he needed to start getting carries and eventually become the starter and the Tigers' leading rusher.
John Chavis Suing Texas A&M, LSU
TBD Bowling Green Tennessee TBD Wisconsin Alabama TBD UTEP Arkansas TBD Louisville Auburn TBD New Mexico State Florida TBD Louisiana-Monroe Georgia TBD Louisiana-Lafayette Kentucky TBD McNeese State LSU TBD Southeast Missouri State Missouri TBD Tennessee-Martin Ole Miss TBD Mississippi State Southern Miss TBD Arizona State Texas A&M TBD Western Kentucky Vanderbilt