LSU Tigers: La'El Collins

Most important game: LSU

July, 2, 2014
Jul 2
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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.

Video: X factor for LSU

July, 2, 2014
Jul 2
11:05
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video
SEC reporter Edward Aschoff discusses why left tackle La'el Collins is the X factor for LSU's football team in 2014.

SEC lunchtime links

June, 27, 2014
Jun 27
12:00
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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.

SEC lunchtime links

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
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We have recruiting, transfers, injury updates, playbook kerfluffles and much more in Friday's edition of the lunch links. Hope you all have a great day and a great weekend.
Earlier today we ranked all 14 teams based on their offensive line. Now it’s time to look at the top tackles, the top guards and the top centers and determine who will stand out above the rest this fall.

[+] EnlargeCedric Ogbuehi
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherTexas A&M expects big things from Cedric Ogbuehi, who is expected to move over to left tackle this fall.
1. OT Cedric Ogbuehi, Sr., Texas A&M: The recent string of left tackles in College Station has been nothing short of remarkable. Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews each were selected in the top 10 of the NFL draft the past two years, and there’s a strong possibility that Ogbuehi will make it 3 for 3. The 6-foot-5, 300-pound senior played right tackle last fall, but he’s expected to move over and replace Matthews at left tackle this season.

2. OT La'el Collins, Sr., LSU: The Tigers had nine players drafted last month, more than any team in college football, but it could’ve easily have been 10 had Collins opted to leave school early. He was projected to go as high as the second round. Instead, he will return for his senior season, try to improve his draft stock and anchor LSU’s offensive line.

3. OT Laremy Tunsil, So., Ole Miss: The Rebels’ 2013 recruiting class was full of five-star prospects, but none played better than Tunsil last season. He appeared in 12 games, making nine starts at left tackle. He allowed just one sack all year. He was a second team All-SEC selection, a member of the SEC All-Freshman team, and the coaches expect him to only get better as a sophomore.

4. C Reese Dismukes, Sr., Auburn: In a league full of standout centers, Dismukes tops the list. He wasn’t the most talented player on Auburn’s offensive line last season, but you can make the argument that he was the most important during the Tigers' run to the BCS title game. He’s started every game in the past three years, and he’s looking to end his career on a high note.

5. OG A.J. Cann, Sr., South Carolina: The 37 career starts made by Dismukes over the past three seasons is impressive, but Cann has him beaten. The South Carolina senior has made 38 straight starts at left guard since taking over as a redshirt freshman in 2011, and after serving as the captain in 2013, he’ll again be counted on for his leadership this fall.

6. C Ryan Kelly, Jr., Alabama: The transition from All-American Barrett Jones to Kelly shouldn't have been a simple one, but the fact that it occurred without a hiccup is a testament to Kelly's ability not just athletically, but intellectually. Injuries, however, caused him to miss four games last season. Now recovered, he has every shot to to win the Rimington Trophy.

7. OT Corey Robinson, Sr., South Carolina: At 6-foot-8 and 348 pounds, it’s hard to miss Robinson when you watch the Gamecocks play. He has the size that makes everybody, NFL scouts included, take notice. The former defensive tackle has found a home at left tackle and will be in charge of protecting Dylan Thompson’s blind side this fall.

8. C Evan Boehm, Jr., Missouri: What can’t Boehm do? As a true freshman, he started 12 games at left guard, earning freshman All-American honors. He moved to center last season and led an offensive line that paved the way for a stellar Tigers rushing attack. The junior could probably play tackle if he wanted, but he’ll stay at center, where he could have a big season.

9. OG Vadal Alexander, OG, LSU: If going against Collins at left tackle weren't intimidating enough, imagine seeing the 6-foot-6, 342-pound Alexander lining up right next to him on every play. The two of them can open a hole big enough for a truck to run through, and it should be plenty big enough for five-star freshman Leonard Fournette.

10. OT Chaz Green, Sr., Florida: The other nine offensive linemen on this list all played last season, but Green is the wild card of the group. He missed the entire season after tearing his labrum during fall camp. He has all the talent -- he started in 10 games in 2012 and was a freshman All-American in 2011 -- but how will he bounce back?
How important is offensive line play?

Go back and find the last time a team with an average offensive line won the SEC championship. The translation: If you’re going to win a title in this league, you better be good and deep up front offensively.

That said, we take a look today at our offensive line rankings in the SEC for the 2014 season.

1. South Carolina: The Gamecocks are losing some key pieces from last season’s 11-win team, but their offensive line stacks up as the best of the Steve Spurrier era. The left side with senior tackle Corey Robinson and senior guard A.J. Cann is outstanding, and junior Brandon Shell returns at right tackle. All three have NFL potential, while sophomore Cody Waldrop is healthy again and on the preseason Rimington list as the top center in the country.

2. Texas A&M: Talent has flowed through the Texas A&M offensive line the last few seasons, and even with top-10 picks in the NFL draft departing each of the last two years, the Aggies should again be as strong as anybody. Cedric Ogbuehi, moving from right tackle to left tackle, will be the next first-rounder to come out of College Station. It looks like sophomore Germain Ifedi will move from guard to right tackle, and junior center Mike Matthews is the latest gem to come out of that family.

3. LSU: Four starters are back for the Tigers, and they also like their young talent. La’el Collins passed on the NFL draft and returns for his senior season. He’s a franchise left tackle. The left side of the line, period, should be strong with 6-6, 342-pound junior guard Vadal Alexander returning, and sophomore Ethan Pocic is good enough and versatile enough that he could be a factor at a couple of different positions.

4. Auburn: A year ago, Greg Robinson came out of nowhere to be the best offensive lineman in the league and go No. 2 overall in the NFL draft. Avery Young and Shon Coleman are in line to replace Robinson at left tackle, and the other four starters are back. Senior center Reese Dismukes leads a unit that ended last season as the best offensive line in the league and should be right there at the top again in 2014.

5. Missouri: The Tigers are big, experienced and deep. They also have some versatility with a couple of guys who’ve played different positions. Junior Evan Boehm is one of the top centers in the country, and senior Mitch Morse is moving over from right tackle to left tackle to replace Justin Britt. Gary Pinkel’s track record for putting together a strong offensive line speaks for itself.

6. Alabama: For a change, Alabama doesn’t enter the season with one of the top two or three offensive lines in the league, but that doesn’t mean the Crimson Tide won’t get there. Junior Ryan Kelly is All-SEC material at center, and as talented as Cam Robinson is, it’s never ideal to start a true freshman at left tackle. Senior right tackle Austin Shepherd is one of the more underrated players in the league.

7. Mississippi State: The heart and soul of Mississippi State’s line a year ago, mammoth guard Gabe Jackson, is gone, but look for senior center Dillon Day to fill that role in 2014. The Bulldogs also return junior Blaine Clausell at left tackle and senior Ben Beckwith at right guard. One of the keys will be junior Justin Malone staying healthy after missing most of last season with a foot injury. He brings experience, size and talent to the interior of that line.

8. Florida: The Gators should be just fine if they’re able to play most of the season with their starting five. The problem comes if somebody gets hurt, and that’s been a recurring theme. The tackle tandem could be one of the best in the league with junior D.J. Humphries on the left side and fifth-year senior Chaz Green on the right side. Again, though, Green has struggled to stay healthy.

9. Ole Miss: The Rebels have some impressive young talent in their offensive line, including sophomore Laremy Tunsil at left tackle, but they’re precariously thin. Losing right tackle Austin Golson was a blow, and they need returning senior Aaron Morris to stay healthy. He was the Rebels’ best lineman before he got hurt last season. True freshman Rod Taylor also has what it takes physically to come in and play right away.

10. Georgia: Senior center David Andrews is the anchor of the group, but three starters from a year ago are gone. Junior John Theus started eight games at right tackle last season and could move to the left side, but senior Mark Beard started at left tackle in the spring game. Fifth-year senior Kolton Houston is also back and could wind up at right tackle or left guard.

11. Vanderbilt: The deepest position on Vanderbilt’s roster is the offensive line, which has rarely been the case in Nashville. Four-year starter Wesley Johnson will be difficult to replace at left tackle, but talented sophomore Andrew Jelks is poised to move from right to left tackle. The interior of the Commodores’ line is especially stout, led by senior center Joe Townsend.

12. Arkansas: After having no choice but to play a pair of true freshmen last season, the Hogs should see that pay dividends in 2014. Bret Bielema knows what a menacing offensive line looks like, and he has some talented building blocks in sophomore left tackle Dan Skipper and sophomore guard Denver Kirkland. Replacing All-SEC center Travis Swanson will be dicey.

13. Tennessee: The Vols are faced with having to replace all five starters. Fortunately for them, junior Marcus Jackson redshirted last season and provides some experience at guard. They need junior college transfer Dontavius Blair to make an immediate impact at left tackle, and true freshman Coleman Thomas may end up being the starter at right tackle.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats’ struggles in the offensive line last season were well chronicled. They gave up a league-worst 37 sacks, but return four starters. They’re hopeful that a season together will lead to more continuity. The veteran of the group is senior Darrian Miller at left tackle, and sophomore Jordan Swindle has a nice future at right tackle.
It’s never too early to look ahead.

The 2014 NFL draft is over. It’s dead to us already. On to 2015.

The SEC had the first pick (Jadeveon Clowney), the most intriguing pick (Johnny Manziel), the most talked-about pick (AJ McCarron) and the most historically significant pick (Michael Sam) in the entire draft this year. The league even had the most overall picks with 49.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAmari Cooper could be a coveted WR for the 2015 NFL draft.
What will it do for an encore in 2015? While it’s hard to imagine SEC players dominating headlines in quite the same way, the league will undoubtably have a strong contingent of players drafted.

With that in mind, the SEC Blog decided to project next year’s top 20 NFL draft prospects. Edward Aschoff picked his 10 from the East earlier. Now it’s time for 10 from the West to keep an eye on, in alphabetical order:

  • La’el Collins, OL, LSU: Collins very well could have skipped school, entered the draft and been taken anywhere from the second to fourth round. But he chose to return to school, which could pay huge dividends if he improves his pass blocking. Already a known road-grader in the running game, he’ll benefit from the versatility to play either guard or tackle.
  • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: He’ll make plays in the passing game. He’ll make plays at the line of scrimmage. And just in case you want an immediate return, he’ll make plays in special teams. The former five-star prospect showed his all-around game this past season with 70 tackles, eight passes defended, four tackles for loss and two interceptions. With a big junior season, his stock could soar.
  • Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: He is silky smooth on the football field. But don’t let that fool you; he’s got all the moves. At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, he can run in the 4.3-second range. He can go get the ball in traffic and has come up big in clutch situations. With his nifty footwork, he’ll remind some of Colts wideout Reggie Wayne.
  • Trey Flowers, DE, Arkansas: A third-round grade from the NFL draft board wasn’t enough to get Flowers to leave school early. After racking up 13.5 tackles for loss and five sacks last season, he returns to Fayetteville with the opportunity to improve upon those numbers. Strong, quick and well-built at 6-foot-4 and 244 pounds, he could turn heads in 2014.
  • C.J. Johnson, DE, Ole Miss: This one might come as a bit of a surprise after he missed more than half of last season to an injury. But the NFL clearly loves pass rushers (23 defensive ends were drafted this year), and Johnson is one of the best in the SEC. He has that quick first step scouts covet. If he can show he’s athletic enough to play both defensive end and outside linebacker, he could make himself attractive to several NFL teams.
  • Bernardrick McKinney, ILB, Mississippi State: The tape doesn't lie. McKinney has been a tackling machine for two years now. He could have entered this year’s draft, but stayed. If Mississippi State makes a run this year, he’ll get noticed. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, he can run in the 4.6 range, which will catch scouts’ eyes.
  • Jalen Mills, DB, LSU: You just know the Tigers are going to produce an NFL defensive back, and Mills has all the tools to develop into that guy. The former Freshman All-American has played both cornerback and safety, which will help him at the next level.
  • Cedric Ogbuehi, OL, Texas A&M: It will look familiar -- another Aggies offensive lineman going in the first round of the NFL draft, and Ogbuehi has all the tools to do it. He has played guard and right tackle already, but this year will star at the big-money position of left tackle.
  • Gabe Wright, DL, Auburn: It’s easy to forget that Wright was once a top-30 prospect in the country. Playing in the interior of the defensive line can get you lost. But with a big season, we could see Wright catch the attention of scouts and make a Dee Ford-like rise up draft boards.
  • T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama: It’s not a good time to be a running back coming out of college. And leaving early seems strange, but after all the carries Yeldon has racked up and the pressure behind him on the depth chart, it might be time to leave. He might not have great top-end speed, but scouts will love his vision, blocking and general all-around game.
BATON ROUGE, La. – LSU football assistants Cam Cameron, John Chavis and Frank Wilson were among six Tigers coaches -- a group that also included men’s basketball coach Johnny Jones, women’s basketball coach Nikki Caldwell and gymnastics coach D-D Breaux -- who spoke at the school’s Tiger Tour stop on Wednesday.

We’ll flesh out some of what the football coaches had to say in future stories, but here are some of the highlights from their conversations with the media before the booster function.

• Cameron, LSU’s offensive coordinator, was clearly chapped over the validity and timing of recent reports that former Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger’s drug test results were flagged at the NFL combine. Mettenberger’s drug sample was diluted, but his reps claimed that it was because he was drinking extra water to combat dehydration while recovering from offseason knee surgery.

“That information -- which tells you a little bit about the guy who released the story, No. 1, and the way the media works today -- that information’s been out 30 days. It’s been out for a while,” Cameron said. “And then to strategically, I guess, announce it at this time just goes to show what the motive was. It was either selfish motivation individually for that person or it was a message sent by somebody that wanted to see their quarterback above him. We know Zach. I’m pretty worked up over that, by the way.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsCam Cameron sees plenty of potential for improvement in Anthony Jennings.
“Zach Mettenberger is our guy, one of the great quarterbacks to ever play here, and he’s got my and Les [Miles’] and our program’s backing 100 percent. So we’ve been in contact. The guys that were really interested and are looking for that kind of quarterback have already done their homework, contacted us a long time ago, talked to Jack [Marucci, LSU’s head trainer], talked to all our people, and the teams that know, it’s a non-issue. The teams that didn’t do their homework, then they’re scrambling now to try to clarify some things.”

• Cameron said he was encouraged by the progress made by quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris in spring practice, particularly because they were still so raw.

“I’m really excited about where we’re headed at the quarterback position, and here’s the reason: We’re doing some good things and we still don’t have the fundamentals down yet,” Cameron said. “I’ve always found that to be a good sign: When you’re doing good things but you haven’t mastered the fundamentals – whether it be quarterback-center exchange, taking the proper first step, getting the exact first read – and you’re still being productive, that’s a great sign for LSU football, vs. a guy who’s doing everything right and he’s really well coached and very coachable and not getting a lot done; that’s not good.”

• Wilson, LSU’s recruiting coordinator, said the offensive line will be one priority in the 2015 signing class. The Tigers might start three seniors in center Elliott Porter, left tackle La’el Collins and either Evan Washington or Fehoko Fanaika at right guard, plus a draft-eligible junior in left guard Vadal Alexander.

“We’re top-heavy in this upcoming class at some positions: at the center position with Elliott Porter, with La’el Collins, with Vadal Alexander. That’s the way we want it,” Wilson said. “See that’s the catch. In one sense, we’re saying, ‘What are y’all going to do now?’ And then in the other sense, it’s like, ‘Get them to stay.’ Do we want them to stay or do we want them to leave? We want them to stay, of course, and have the problem that we have, which is a good problem, to be top-heavy so that the influx of incoming freshmen or junior college transfers can come in and contribute to our team.

“So our plan is just to be conscientious of what we’re losing and we have a plan in place to replace those guys that we foresee leaving.”

• Chavis, the Tigers’ defensive coordinator, listed defensive tackle Christian LaCouture and end Danielle Hunter as linemen who should make a bigger impact this season.

[+] EnlargeKendell Beckwith
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsSophomore linebacker Kendell Beckwith was LSU's highest-rated signee in the Class of 2013.
“There’s several guys, with Christian being one of those guys obviously inside [now], that we’ve got two guys to replace,” Chavis said. “I think Danielle Hunter will take his game to a different level even though he played extremely well for us last year. He’s capable of going to a different level. So there’s some good leadership there. You get Jermauria Rasco back out there and get him healthy and we get a chance to see him play healthy for a full season. We’ll be fine.”

• Chavis added that senior middle linebacker D.J. Welter – who won the Tigers’ Jimmy Taylor Award, which goes to the player who showed the best leadership, effort and performance in spring practice – was truly outstanding in the spring, in part because of the presence of talented sophomore Kendell Beckwith.

“D.J. by far had the best spring practice that you can easily say that I’ve been around,” Chavis said. “He was incredible this spring, and I think rightfully so because he’s got a big guy behind him that’s pushing him that’s going to be a great football player and that’s going to play. Kendell Beckwith’s going to play a lot of football this year and for a while here at LSU. Competition makes you better and I think he took heed to the competition.”

• Cameron, who returned to the college game last year after more than a decade in the NFL, said he has thoroughly enjoyed the recruiting aspect of his job.

“There’s no better joy I get than recruiting for LSU, I can tell you. You walk into a school and everybody takes notice. You walk into a school and every kid’s eyes light up. And every airport you walk through, I walked through the Dallas airport and it’s ‘Geaux Tigers’ at every gate I go by. Houston, ‘Geaux Tigers.’ I was in New Jersey recently, ‘Geaux Tigers.’ It’s a joy to recruit for LSU.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU has a chance to break its year-old program record of nine players selected in the NFL draft this week. If the Tigers fail to set a new milestone, thank La’el Collins.

No really, Tiger fans, thank him. Collins’ decision to return for his senior season might wind up benefiting both player and program.

[+] EnlargeLael Collins
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesLa'el Collins came back to LSU to improve as a player and earn his degree.
Had the All-SEC offensive tackle opted to enter the draft, he would have been a lock to become an NFL pick, raising the number of sure-fire LSU draft picks to 10. Instead, he chose to remain in order to elevate his draft stock, obtain his degree and help the Tigers compete for an SEC championship.

“Just being able to put that [decision] behind me any way it kind of went, just being able to start back focusing on whatever it was I needed to focus on -- and that was staying in school and coming back and getting better -- it feels great because I’m able to come here every day and just work hard and know that in a few months that my time is going to come,” Collins said toward the end of spring practice. “I’m just going to focus on helping my team win football games here.”

It’s obviously early, but Collins’ time will almost certainly come this time next year. He ranks among the top offensive tackle prospects for 2015, and another season playing left tackle -- he shifted there from guard last season -- will provide an opportunity to sharpen his skills and rise in the rankings.

He’ll also serve as the centerpiece of a veteran offensive line that should become the strongest point in a reloading offense.

“I feel like we’re better off because everybody is back, not just La’el,” said center Elliott Porter, one of three probable starting linemen who will be seniors. “We’re one as an offensive line. It’s not just one person, because you can’t do it with one person. La’el ain’t out there blocking everybody by himself, so La’el’s a great player, but like I said Vadal [Alexander] is back, I’m back, [Jerald] Hawkins is back. The only one we’re missing is Trai [Turner, who entered the draft], but he had to do what he had to do.

“But we have some guys coming in that can play, too, so I feel like it’s never one guy, it’s all of us. We’re coming in as one and we’re blocking people as one.”

OK, but ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. observed last season that Collins “has as much upside as any left tackle in the country,” and he’s the guy who will protect the LSU quarterback’s blind side. There is a premium on such players at any level of football, and if he continues to develop at tackle, Collins might have premium draft value in 2015, as Tigers coach Les Miles noted when he said: “I don't think there's any question that he has the potential to be a very early draft pick at left tackle.”

Now it’s up to Collins.

“Coming back is part of the equation, but the second part of that is coming back with the right approach so you don't second guess yourself every day,” said LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, formerly a veteran NFL coach. “You just move forward and try to be great and help this team win. His approach is the approach you want a young man to take.”

If his springtime comments were any indication, that certainly appears to be the case.

LSU’s roster has been shredded by the NFL draft over the last two years, with a total of 18 underclassmen deciding to turn pro. Collins is one of the few recent Tigers who opted to wait when a possible NFL paycheck beckoned.

Collins said it was a long-term decision, not just because he should complete his degree before leaving LSU, but because an additional season should help him become a better player -- potentially raising his draft stock and earning a more lucrative rookie contract next year.

He said the decision sends a message that might benefit other LSU underclassmen.

“I think it’s telling a lot of guys that maybe you might not get it in three years, maybe you might need that fourth year to really set yourself apart from a lot of guys and let people [see] what kind of player that you really want to be,” Collins said. “Be good to this program, at least, because they’ve been good to you.”
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.
The SEC has long been a line-of-scrimmage league. It's no coincidence that the team winning the title going back a decade or more has almost always been outstanding in the offensive line.

SportsNation

Which of these teams will have the SEC's best offensive line in 2014?

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    14%
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    16%
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    23%
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    13%
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    34%

Discuss (Total votes: 17,611)

It's not absolute. The team with the best offensive line doesn't always win the title, but good luck in finding a recent SEC champion that was just average in the offensive line. Case in point: Was anybody better up front offensively last season than Auburn?

Looking ahead, we're asking you (the fans) to tell us who in the SEC will carry the banner in the offensive line this fall. So go vote in our SportsNation poll, and we'll break down the results later this week.

We've come up with five choices, including Auburn. The Tigers lost star left tackle Greg Robinson, who's being projected as a top-5 pick in May's NFL draft. But they're still plenty salty up front, led by All-SEC center Reese Dismukes.

The other four choices -- Alabama, LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M -- also have a chance to be really good. And that's not to say that one of the other nine teams in the league could end up with the SEC's top offensive line by November. After all, how many people were touting Auburn as the best offensive line in the league this time a year ago?

Auburn, LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M all return four starters. Alabama returns three.

Of note, the SEC returns an extremely talented crop of centers. The tackle position is equally loaded with LSU's La'el Collins, Florida's Chaz Green, Texas A&M's Cedric Ogbuehi, South Carolina's Corey Robinson and Brandon Shell, and Ole Miss' Laremy Tunsil.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Brick Haley faces the blessing and the curse of coaching LSU’s defensive line each year around this time.

The blessing is that the Tigers’ coaching staff has attracted loads of NFL-caliber talent to Baton Rouge. Just check the stats. Eight LSU defensive linemen have been drafted since Haley joined the staff in 2009, a number that would grow to 10 if defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson are selected this year.

The curse is that continuity is nearly impossible to maintain, particularly at defensive tackle. This is Haley’s sixth spring practice at LSU and the third where both of his starting defensive tackles -- whoever they might be in 2014 -- will be new to starting roles.

“That’s LSU,” said Christian LaCouture, who is attempting to take over one of the starting jobs after Johnson and Ferguson both bolted for the NFL after finishing their junior seasons. “That’s something where guys, we want to win a national championship, we want to win an SEC championship and a lot of the guys go to the league. You’ve got to prepare. It’s the next man in here and you’ve got to produce.”

LaCouture is perhaps LSU’s most experienced interior lineman, having appeared in all 13 games last season as a true freshman. But he faces plenty of competition for a starting job from junior Quentin Thomas and redshirt freshmen Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore. Redshirt freshman Frank Herron also took some practice reps at defensive tackle earlier this spring, but he appears to be playing end for now.

While LSU coach Les Miles said after Saturday’s scrimmage that there’s a chance that the defensive tackles “could be as successful as any group that we’ve had,” the dynamics in play this fall could be significantly different from a season ago. Ferguson and Johnson played the vast majority of scrimmage downs in 2013, but the workload might be spread more evenly between players this season.

“They definitely were the impact players of our defensive tackles. They definitely were, and it’s all good,” Gilmore said. “I think that was a good year for us to sit back, learn the plays, learn the techniques. So I think this year now we have everybody that’s equal, trying not to have a drop-off in the twos and try to rotate in.”

By redshirting Bain and Gilmore -- both of whom ranked among ESPN’s top 130 overall recruits in 2013 -- Haley put a particularly heavy burden on his two starters, and Bain said the effect of that workload was noticeable.

“Last year they were kind of tired between Ego and Freak [Johnson],” Bain said. “They were kind of tired and we told Coach Brick, ‘You wore them guys a little bit more. You can trust us.’ So now that he trusts us, he’s putting us out there in the spring and now he sees that we can do what Freak and Ego did.”

Of course, the candidates must prove to Haley that they deserve to share some of those snaps -- which is the same responsibility that signees such as Travonte Valentine, Trey Lealaimatafao and Davon Godchaux will face when they arrive in the summer.

Valentine, according to fellow Floridian Bain, could be a candidate for early playing time if he competes well in August.

“Hopefully when Tra Valentine gets in here, he’ll be the fifth man,” Bain said of the freshman signee fitting in with himself, LaCouture, Thomas and Gilmore. “But right now, it’s just a four-man rotation and that’s what we’re going with.”

Last season, Haley made the best of the hand he’d been dealt. Starting tackle Bennie Logan had eligibility remaining when he entered the 2013 NFL draft. Johnson and Ferguson were the returning linemen with whom Haley was the most comfortable, and he decided that the Tigers would be better off riding them as far as possible without relying on the raw freshmen.

Now nobody is particularly proven, and the resulting competition reduces any possibility of complacency within the group. That’s what their counterparts on the offensive line have noticed, anyway.

“They know they have less experience than the guys that left, so of course they’re out there trying to get better each and every day and they’re giving us their all,” senior offensive tackle La'el Collins said. “Last year we had a lot of veteran guys and those guys were just out there going through whatever they needed to go through. But these guys are giving a little bit more effort because they understand that it’s their time to play, so they’re really trying to focus on getting better.”

Center Elliott Porter added that “it’s a grind every day to block them,” which has created worthwhile practice competition for both LSU lines this spring. Although LSU’s offensive line carries a serious experience advantage over its defensive opponents, Miles indicated Saturday that the competition between the two groups has been close -- with two weeks of spring practice left to declare a victor.

“I think that these [defensive tackles] can be dominant players. I think improvement needs to take place,” Miles said. “Again, I think the offensive line and defensive line, they’re measured in the spring. It’s going to be interesting to see that competition as it plays out the next two weeks.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- There are distinct differences between the coaching style of LSU’s new offensive line coach, Jeff Grimes, and the methods of his predecessor, Greg Studrawa. Perhaps the most obvious for an outside observer is that the decibel level on the practice field has dropped several notches.

Hard-nosed and extremely vocal, Studrawa -- whom Les Miles did not retain after the 2013 season, and who has since accepted the same job at Maryland -- could have come straight from Central Casting to play the role of an offensive line coach. Grimes, on the other hand, does his teaching without all the yelling.

[+] EnlargeJeff Grimes
Jeff Lack/Icon SMIFormer Hokies O-line coach Jeff Grimes has brought an "attention to detail and technique" to LSU, according to coach Les Miles.
“If [Grimes is] on the practice field, you probably wouldn't even notice him. You notice Stud because he was out there yelling and doing all those things and being passionate like that,” left guard Vadal Alexander said. “Grimes is just a guy that just wants everything to be perfect. He's kind of like Coach Miles. They're both kind of the same in that facet. So I can tell you right now, we're better this week than we were last week just because of Coach Grimes.”

That’s not to say that Grimes lacks an edge. It’s there when necessary -- just not as loud.

“He’s upfront. He won’t sugarcoat anything. He’ll just tell you how it is,” said senior Fehoko Fanaika, who is battling for the Tigers’ starting right guard spot.

LSU’s offense relied heavily on a foursome of NFL-caliber skill players in quarterback Zach Mettenberger, tailback Jeremy Hill and receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry -- a group that helped the Tigers become the first SEC team to boast a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers.

However, the Tigers’ offense was fairly average overall, ranking in the middle of the SEC pack in both total offense (seventh, 453.3 ypg) and scoring offense (sixth, 35.8 ppg). The offensive line’s play certainly factored into those middling results, ranking 57th nationally with an average of 1.92 sacks allowed per game.

Miles, however, believes Grimes’ focus on “attention to detail and technique” will help a line that returns four starters become a more effective group this fall.

“I think we’ll be better. I really do,” Miles said. “But it has to do with the duality of veteran offensive linemen getting to a point in their career where they’re making the final adjustments and Jeff coming in with a real nice focus for them there. I think it should be pretty quick.”

Just because Alexander, left tackle La'el Collins, center Elliott Porter and right tackle Jerald Hawkins are all back doesn’t mean Grimes has guaranteed starting roles to the returning starters. The Tigers have at least seven linemen whom the coaches like -- throw Fanaika (guard), Evan Washington (guard or tackle) and Ethan Pocic (center, guard or tackle) into the mix -- and want to evaluate as potential starting combinations.

“Everyone’s been moving around a lot. Coach Grimes has been moving us around. He’s trying to see where he likes people at,” Pocic said.

That type of experimentation is fairly common during the spring even among coaches who didn’t just arrive on campus. But in this case, Grimes is simply getting a feel for his personnel -- and they’re getting a feel for him, which they quickly noticed does not include the in-your-face tactics one might expect from an offensive line coach.

“Coach Grimes is one of the most specific, technical guys you'll meet in your life. Automatically, right off the bat, he got us better,” Alexander said. “Coach Stud was a great coach and I love him. He got us better, as well, but just Coach Grimes has a different way of approaching things. He's more mellow.”

In Grimes’ profession, results are what matter, not coaching methods. He has been successful in that regard, most notably during Auburn’s 2010 BCS championship run, but also in stops at Virginia Tech, Colorado, BYU, Arizona State and Boise State.

Starting with his first practice on campus, Grimes’ reputation as a technician caught his head coach’s attention. Miles said last week that it was paying off, with linemen picking up the finer points of their positions that can lead to an overall more productive performance from his group.

“I think our guys are responding to it,” Miles said. “I think the guys are really in position to do so in other words. It’s pretty much a veteran group and there’s always the final footwork, if you will, or the final course, the head placement. I think Jeff’s coming in at the right time for these guys and making that point.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- A brand-new version of LSU's football team will take the field this week for its first spring practice.

In previous weeks, we've broken down several players and position groups to watch this spring. This week, leading up to Saturday's first team workout, we'll make five predictions related to the Tigers' upcoming practices.

Today's prediction: Right guard isn't the only offensive line job up for grabs

[+] EnlargeLa'el Collins
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsLa'el Collins is one of four starters back on the LSU O-line, but that doesn't mean their jobs are safe.
Take a look at LSU's depth chart and it's clear that experience isn't an issue among the starters. Left guard Vadal Alexander and right tackle Jerald Hawkins started all 13 games last season while rising seniors at left tackle, La'el Collins, and center, Elliott Porter, both started 12.

So that means the Tigers only have one offensive line spot that is open for true competition, right? Maybe, but I'm not sure that will be the case.

Les Miles hired a new offensive line coach, Jeff Grimes, during the offseason and the message he will undoubtedly send this spring is that everyone has a clean slate. He made that very point two weeks ago in a local radio interview, noting that he watched only enough film of the group to get a general idea of what the individual players can do. He wants to see them earn their jobs, starting now.

Now you can comfortably assume Collins will remain as the starting left tackle. He's widely considered one of the nation's better senior offensive tackles and could conceivably become a first-round NFL pick in 2015. Hulking junior Alexander (LSU lists him at 6-foot-6 and 342 pounds) has a similar pedigree among 2016 guard prospects.

So where will the most competition occur? Right guard is obvious since the Tigers must replace Trai Turner, who seems to have impressed NFL scouts since deciding to leave after his redshirt sophomore season.

Massive senior Fehoko Fanaika (6-6, 348) might be the answer there, but there are other candidates. One of them might be Ethan Pocic, who could also push Porter -- whom he backed up at center last season as a true freshman -- for playing time. Another might be Evan Washington, who is officially listed as a tackle.

As a sophomore Hawkins naturally had his ups and downs in his first season as a starter, so Grimes will certainly look for more consistency out of him this season before handing him the starting spot once again. But the Tigers shifted Alexander from right tackle to left guard last season to make way for Hawkins, so clearly they liked the athletic Hawkins' potential.

The safe money is on experienced players holding onto their starting spots. And it wouldn't be much of a surprise if Collins, Alexander, Porter and Hawkins man four of the five line spots when the Tigers open the season against Wisconsin.

Grimes has been around the block a time or two, though. This is his eighth different coaching stop since grabbing his first college job coaching the offensive line at Hardin-Simmons in 1998. He knows that the best way for a new coach to motivate players is to give everyone a fair shot and then let them earn their jobs.

That's what he'll do with his new players and, even if the starters remain the same, it's safe to predict that a fresh competition might help the line improve this fall.

Key spring position battles: OL

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BATON ROUGE, La. -- We're closing in on the start of spring practice at LSU, so this week let's take a look at five position battles worth watching this spring.

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.

[+] EnlargeFehoko Fanaika
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesThis will be a big spring for Fehoko Fanaika, who hopes to earn LSU's starting right guard spot.
Returning starters: Left tackle La'El Collins (second-team All-SEC and 12 starts in 2013), left guard Vadal Alexander (13 starts), center Elliott Porter (12 starts) and right tackle Jerald Hawkins (13 starts) are all back, helping the line rank among the most experienced position groups on the Tigers' roster.

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.

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