LSU Tigers: La'El Collins

Front seven key for LSU, Wisconsin D

August, 26, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- For all the headlines generated by quarterback battles and freshman superstars, one thing seems abundantly clear about Saturday’s showdown between No. 13 LSU and No. 14 Wisconsin. The team whose defensive front seven has the more effective outing will probably be the victor.

Since both teams have defensive fronts with questions to answer, that only makes this point more clear.

[+] EnlargeLamar Louis
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsLamar Louis and LSU's defense will have their hands full with Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon.
 “We have a young front, they have a young front, so both defenses in general, they’re definitely going to be targeted in this game,” LSU tight end Logan Stokes said. “We’re going to do our best to get after that D-line, and they’re going to do it to us, too. So yeah, both defenses are going to be pressured. Defensive line-wise, it’s going to be a measuring stick for both of them.”

Both offenses return key pieces that will allow them to hammer most opponents into submission. It starts with four returning starters from two offensive lines that frequently had their way in 2013.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, opposing defenders didn’t make first contact with a Wisconsin ball carrier last season until he had already gained an average of 3.95 yards per carry -- an average that ranked fourth in the nation behind only Oregon (4.28), Ohio State (4.28) and Auburn (4.23). LSU finished 23 in that category, with Tiger runners averaging 3.03 yards before contact on each rush.

And with the star power either returning or added to the Badger and Tiger backfields, there is no reason to believe this season will be much different for either team. Freshman phenom Leonard Fournette joins the senior duo of Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard to give LSU what should become a phenomenal running game. And it will have to be exceptional to match what Melvin Gordon brings to Wisconsin’s backfield. The Heisman Trophy candidate ran for 1,609 yards, 12 touchdowns and averaged 7.8 yards per carry last fall.

The key, said LSU strongside linebacker Lamar Louis, is to respect Gordon’s explosive game, but not to be in awe of his abilities. After all, the Tigers have faced plenty of top-tier backs in SEC play and even in their own practices.

“He’s a good back, speedy back, makes good cuts, good decisions. I think he’s up for the Heisman Trophy, so he’s a good back,” Louis said. “I’ll say what [defensive coordinator John Chavis] tells us all the time, it’s not someone who we haven’t faced in these past years. It’s not someone who we don’t practice against in Terrence Magee, Leonard Fournette, Jeremy Hill. So we’ll be ready. But yeah, we’re not taking him lightly.”

The Tigers and Badgers have plenty to prove up front on defense, so they can’t afford to take any opponent lightly.

LSU must replace both starting defensive tackles and will break in new starters at two different linebacker positions after an offseason retooling. And Wisconsin’s roster turnover was even more severe, as it loses every starting defensive lineman and linebacker from a 2013 defense that ranked fifth nationally against the run, surrendering 102.5 yards per game.

That means focusing more on Wisconsin’s general defensive tendencies instead of on specific personnel during game preparation.

 “It’s kind of weird not being able to have any film to really watch on guys that’s new to [starting], but the thing that we have to do is make sure that we prepare ourselves for the scheme that those guys run,” LSU offensive tackle La’el Collins said. “I think we’ve done a great job of that, and I think we’re still doing a great job with it. Just pretty much prepare, when you look at the program and the tradition of the team, nothing really changes.”

Wisconsin must also do the same thing when preparing for Chavis’ defense. The philosophy remains the same, but it’s more difficult for the Badgers to know much about Louis in his new spot at strongside linebacker or how Kwon Alexander fits at weakside linebacker after playing strongside in 2013. And it’s even tougher to know what to expect from the host of redshirt defensive tackles -- most notably Frank Herron -- who will make their college debuts on Saturday.

The possibilities probably excite Gordon if he hopes to build Heisman buzz, Louis admitted.

“I think it’s going to be more big for him than us,” Louis said. “If I’m a Heisman Trophy running back, and I play LSU for the opener, it doesn’t get any bigger than that. So we know what’s at stake for us and for him and what he can benefit from, so we’re going to have our head on a swivel, and we’re going to be ready.”

And it works the other way, as well. Wisconsin boasts what should be a great offensive line and one of the nation’s best backs. Shutting down a bunch like that would legitimize all of the preseason happy talk surrounding an LSU defense that is reportedly on the rise.

“We have great players on our defensive line, maybe guys that didn’t play last year, but I think we’re going to get a chance to see them on Saturday,” Stokes said. “Frank Herron and guys like that didn’t play last year and were redshirted and have been doing nothing but making plays since fall camp started. So we’re going to get a chance to see those guys. I’m looking forward to it.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Because of their smaller rosters, NFL clubs love versatility among their offensive linemen. That being the case, pro scouts will probably take long looks at LSU’s line, as several linemen have the position versatility they like to see.

But that could come in handy now, not just when they try to find homes on NFL rosters. Just as in the pros, should anyone go down with an injury, it will be extremely helpful that Tigers such as La'el Collins, Vadal Alexander, Ethan Pocic and Evan Washington are all capable of working at multiple positions.

“It’s not easy to know how to snap, play guard and play tackle and play left side, play right side,” senior center Elliott Porter said. “It’s confusing to know the right side of the play and the left side. It gets confusing, so it gets hard. But we do hard things, and in the NFL that’s what they do, so you have to prepare for it. I have to prepare to play guard. If I don’t, you don’t know how long you’re going to make it.”

[+] Enlarge Jeremy Hill
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsRunning behind Vadal Alexander and his linemates can be an uplifting experience.
Porter said he, too, has worked in multiple spots, but he apparently has a fight on his hands for the center job. LSU coach Les Miles has hinted several times lately that sophomore Pocic will play a lot in the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin, if not start.

At 6-foot-7, Pocic seems awfully tall for a center -- the average SEC starting center last season was 3 1/2 inches shorter -- and he might eventually land at guard or tackle, but Pocic’s impressive athleticism allows him to fit well at any position along the line.

“When you bend like Ethan Pocic bends, it’s easier for him,” Porter said. “He has great hips. He’s a phenomenal athlete. You ain’t hearing me, he’s phenomenal. He does everything right, and I expect him to be a great player and nothing less.”

Pocic said he started working at multiple positions this spring after Jeff Grimes came on as the Tigers’ new offensive line coach. He said his time at center made shifting to other spots an easier proposition.

“At first [it was tough]. And then as you mature and get older, you learn to do it,” Pocic said. “I think just playing center, you’ve got to know what everyone’s doing and that’s what’s helped me the most.”

Collins and Alexander are entrenched at left tackle and left guard, respectively, but they provide excellent insurance policies in that they have started at other positions in their careers. Collins started at left guard as a sophomore before moving over one spot to tackle last season. And Alexander started nine games at right tackle as a freshman before moving to left guard in 2013, clearing the way for Jerald Hawkins to enter the starting lineup at right tackle.

It helps to be able to do both, but tackle is the most lucrative professional position. That was one factor in Collins’ decision to return for his senior season -- to prove that he can play tackle in the NFL -- and it’s part of the reason why Alexander wouldn’t mind moving back out to the edge someday.

“I’d love to play tackle again,” Alexander said. “If the opportunity presents itself, I think I can still play it. I played my freshman year, so I know every position. I’ve actually been taking some snaps, so I can play center, too. I can snap the ball. But I’m more of a guard-tackle guy. So I think I can play. If the opportunity presents itself, I can definitely do it.”

Likewise, Washington played both guard and tackle in games last season and, while he’s competing with Fehoko Fanaika for the starting spot at right guard, Miles hinted this week that LSU’s coaches are willing to play him at any position except center.

“The one thing about it is Washington is going to play in four spots, so it’s still … both guys will play,” Miles said of the right guard battle after Tuesday’s team scrimmage.

That’s the name of the game with this group. Not only does LSU return four starters and a couple of reserves from a solid 2013 offensive line, but the group’s improving versatility will be a great insurance policy for Grimes if injuries occur -- as they inevitably do on the line.

Combine that with the group’s collective experience and it’s clear why LSU’s coaches seem to feel comfortable with the line as the opener approaches.

“It’s critical,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said of the line’s experience. “Now if we didn’t have it, I’d be sitting here saying we’ll find a way. And we would. We really would. I think the best friend of any young quarterback, freshman or sophomore, any young running back, any young receiver, the best friend is a running game. And there’s nobody running the ball out there week in and week out against good teams, much less in the SEC, without a dominant offensive line. So we’re excited about our offensive line.”

High five: Five items from Week 3

August, 22, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. – Each week during LSU’s preseason practice, we will review five things we learned that week.

Here are five items from the Tigers’ third week of preseason camp:

1. Both QBs will play: Les Miles has been incredibly tight-lipped about LSU’s quarterback battle between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. But this week he offered a few nuggets about the Tigers’ plans for the quarterbacks.

For one thing, Miles said on his weekly radio show that he expects both of them to play in the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin. A day earlier, Miles said after a team scrimmage that he expects to inform the contenders who will start against the Badgers when the coaching staff nails down the specifics of the game plan next Thursday.

2. Pocic makes a move: Miles hasn’t out and out said Ethan Pocic will start at center against Wisconsin, but it’s evident that Miles believes that he could. Each time the versatile sophomore’s name has come up in news conferences in the last two weeks, Miles has said something along the lines of, “I think Pocic is looking forward to playing a lot of football in the first game.”

Even if he he splits time with senior Elliott Porter, the more Pocic plays this season, the better. The Tigers will lose a ton of experience from this line after the season. Porter, La’el Collins, Fehoko Fanaika and Evan Washington are all seniors and underclassmen Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins will be eligible for the NFL draft after the season.

It would be highly beneficial for what could be an explosive 2015 team if offensive line coach Jeff Grimes can get players such as Pocic and some of the other linemen who will play next season on the field this fall.

[+] EnlargeKenny Hilliard
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsKenny Hilliard will get his share of touches, even with Terrence Magee and Leonard Fournette around at LSU.
3. Good camp for Hilliard: Leonard Fournette mania is in full effect – and for good reason, as the freshman tailback is going to be a star – but Kenny Hilliard’s name has consistently been the first one Miles mentioned when discussing the running backs lately. The senior has been something of an afterthought for much of his LSU career, rushing for a total of 1,100 yards and 21 touchdowns in his first three seasons, but he has trimmed down and reportedly has run the ball well in scrimmages.

We probably won’t see a perfectly even time-share in the Tigers’ backfield, but it seems clear that both Hilliard and freshman Darrel Williams will get their touches, too, alongside Fournette and senior Terrence Magee.

4. Highlight of the week: Have you ever wondered whether teams practice the crazy lateral plays that sometimes occur at the end of games when one team is aiming for a last-second, desperation score? They do. In fact, LSU worked on that very scenario in practice this week. I off-handedly talked to a handful of players after Thursday’s practice about memorable events from the week, and one that came up was how quickly an offensive lineman motored with the ball after catching one of those laterals. The lineman whose speed caught teammates’ attention? Mr. Pocic. All 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds of him.

5. Valentine on his way?: Defensive tackle signee Travonte Valentine’s eligibility case might finally wrap up in the next several days. He told The (Baton Rouge) Advocate that he tentatively plans to arrive at LSU on Saturday, pending clearance from the SEC office. He hinted that another SEC program might have presented a case to the league office that delayed his enrollment, even after the NCAA recently cleared him academically. Miles said after Tuesday’s scrimmage that he expected the big defensive lineman – the No. 164 prospect in the ESPN 300 and the No. 11 defensive tackle – to be on campus within the next several days, so perhaps the case will be resolved shortly.
BATON ROUGE, La. – La'el Collins took a risk in returning for one more season at LSU. That much is certain. But the senior offensive tackle believes that the potential payoff outweighs the chance he took by remaining in college.

Yes, returning will help him graduate from college. And yes, he’ll have one more chance to help the Tigers compete for championships. But perhaps the biggest payoff would be if he manages to improve his NFL draft stock from possible first-round pick to surefire first-round pick.

“It was a lot of things in my game that I feel like I could get better at,” Collins said. “I had so much more room to grow as a left tackle in this league, so why would I want to enter the draft and know I didn’t reach my full potential in this league first?

[+] EnlargeLa'el Collins
Patrick Green/Icon SMILa'el Collins is returning to LSU to show the NFL he's the total package.
“So I wanted to come back and work on those things -- just being more consistent, just working on technique things and just coming out here and really just giving my all in practice. Practicing like it’s a game and putting myself through that so when it’s game time, I’m ready.”

That’s a unique attitude anywhere in college football, and especially at LSU, which has seen 18 players with eligibility remaining opt to enter the draft in the last two years.

It’s a sport-wide problem, however, as a staggering number of underclassmen enter the draft only to discover too late that they weren’t ready for the pros. Many of them, such as LSU defensive lineman and early draft entrant Anthony Johnson, aren’t even among the 256 picks in the seven-round draft.

That would not have been Collins’ fate, but when it was time to make a decision, he heeded LSU coach Les Miles’ call not to give an NFL team a bargain. Collins said he received a mix of first- and second-round draft grades from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, which helps underclassmen understand how NFL teams view their readiness to play in the league, but he felt he could do better.

He believes a second season starting at left tackle, unquestionably a premium salary position in the NFL, is well worth the injury risk that accompanies another college season -- and Collins has impressed his coaches in many ways since making that decision.

“I think leadership is evident in La’el Collins, a guy that’s really not eligible to wear 18 [a jersey number handed to a team leader each season, but offensive linemen can't wear such a low number], a guy that really turned down what was certain wealth at some level to get his degree, play championship ball here and put himself in position to move his draft status up,” Miles said. “So that kind of guy is a leader in every huddle that we break.”

Collins’ leadership came up again and again as one of his strengths, as he steadies an offense that could be heavy on freshmen at the skill positions.

“La’el Collins is a man and a great leader,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “I’ve been so impressed with him. He chose to come back and he did it for all the right reasons and he’s never looked back and he’s becoming a great, great leader. He’s impressive and I think that’s rubbing off on the other guys and he’s setting high expectations for this offense.”

Now about that draft stock.

Collins worked relentlessly since the end of his All-SEC junior season, improving his physique and working on the technical aspects of his position in order to become a more consistent blocker. New offensive line coach Jeff Grimes has noticed a difference in Collins even since they first worked together in spring practice.

[+] EnlargeLa'El Collins
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesLa'el Collins is putting in the work to be even better than he was in an All-SEC junior season.
“The first thing I would say about La’el is he has improved as much if not more than anybody on the line since I’ve been here, which I think is quite a statement given his experience and success that he’s had,” Grimes said. “So he is really working to get better. The other thing I can say is he’s really stepped up his leadership, which is important for a guy in his position, important for our team because he definitely has a strong voice in the locker room. Guys will follow him.”

From a technical perspective, Grimes said the keys for Collins are to play with sound technique and stay under control.

“I think the things that he’s had to do is just really refine his footwork and his hat placement and realize he’s an aggressive kid, and sometimes the most aggressive kids are the ones that may get a little out of control just wanting to whack somebody on the line of scrimmage,” Grimes said. “He’s had to realize that sometimes you have to start the block right in order to finish the play with the defender on his back."

It’s a cliché, but Collins knows improving at those little things can add up -- perhaps literally if a strong senior season results in a lucrative NFL contract. He feels he has something to prove, and that’s a big reason why he’s still a Tiger.

“You have to have the technique and that’s something that I feel like I have to be more consistent on,” Collins said. “That’s things that I really feel like I need to really put myself in it and work and come out and practice each and every day and make sure I take the correct steps, make sure I get my hat on the right side, make sure I get my hands in the right place.

"Those little things right there can carry me from now to however long I play football in my life. I just felt like I needed to work on those things.”

High five: Five items from Week 1

August, 8, 2014
Aug 8
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Each Friday during LSU’s preseason practice, we will review five things we learned that week.

Here are five things we learned about the Tigers since LSU opened preseason camp on Monday.

1. Jalen Mills will play: When he’ll play remains a mystery -- it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him receive a similar punishment to that of Jeremy Hill, who sat out last season’s opener against TCU -- but LSU coach Les Miles reinstated safety Jalen Mills this week, so we at least know he will return to the field at some point.

Mills had been indefinitely suspended since June, when he was arrested for allegedly punching a woman and knocking her unconscious. Mills’ attorney maintains that his client is innocent of the accusation -- which potentially could have led to a felony charge -- and the East Baton Rouge district attorney instead charged the junior safety with a misdemeanor this week, leading Miles to reinstate him to the team.

2. Leonard Fournette looks the part: Veteran teammates aren’t always quick to heap praise on new freshmen immediately, but running back Leonard Fournette earned compliments before the Tigers even put on the pads.

All-SEC left tackle La'el Collins' tweet after Wednesday’s practice, when Fournette worked with the starters for the first time:

.

The nation’s No. 1 overall prospect in 2014, Fournette practiced alongside senior Terrence Magee both Wednesday and Thursday, first working with the starters on Wednesday afternoon and then with mostly reserves and freshmen on Thursday afternoon. As Magee said of the freshman class this week, practicing in pads will start to "tell the tale," but it’s clear optimism about Fournette’s capabilities is as high within the locker room as it is in the LSU fan base.

3. Suitable depth at defensive tackle: Perhaps the key to this season for LSU’s defense will be the performance of its line. The Tigers need to generate a better pass rush off the edge -- the burden likely falls on Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco to get that done -- and at least a few young tackles must perform consistently.

Miles said Thursday that he is satisfied so far with the Tigers’ depth in the middle and singled out sophomore Christian LaCouture and Frank Herron, whom he described as "a beast."

Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore are also in the picture, but LaCouture is the only member of the group who have appeared in an actual game. With the Tigers practicing today for the first time in full pads, it’s time for the youngsters to pressure the veterans and prove to line coach Brick Haley that, if nothing else, he has strong options to utilize in a rotation if he wants to spell or replace LaCouture.

4. Freshman wideouts are legit: Multiple older receivers said this week that the Tigers’ four freshman wideouts -- led by Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn -- showed up brimming with confidence and ready to compete.

"If you didn’t know those guys and you walked out there to practice, you wouldn’t know if they were a freshman or a senior," senior Quantavius Leslie said Wednesday.

They look impressive to reporters, too. Dupre, ESPN’s No. 1 receiver signee for 2014, practiced with the starting offense all week and didn’t seem out of place.

5. Expect QB option: Sure, we expected it prior to this week, but it’s clear from its work in position drills that LSU will incorporate quarterback options and runs into the offensive scheme.

Only small portions of the practices were open to the media, but essentially every media period thus far has featured position drills where quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris worked on zone-read handoffs with the running backs and other option plays that utilized their mobility.

Several Tigers said this week that the basics of the offense will remain the same, but that they will add wrinkles to take advantage of the quarterbacks’ running ability. That assessment looks to be on the money.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- By now it's no secret that LSU's offense will be loaded with freshmen and inexperienced underclassmen. Perhaps that's why offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has emphasized since spring practice that his veterans have to do more than lead by example.

"There's no room for quiet leaders anymore. It's time for people to step up and start talking," said running back Terrence Magee, an understated senior who admitted that vocal leadership does not come naturally. "And if that's what I've got to do, then I'm willing to do it."

That's a theme that has resonated throughout the offensive roster. A crew of future stars like Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupre and Brandon Harris joined the team this year, and the older players understand that the rookies need to see -- and hear -- things being done the right way.

Many older players already wanted to mentor the youngsters through their actions, but the verbal portion of leadership is new to some. Magee and senior left tackle La'el Collins both identified right tackle Jerald Hawkins as a naturally quiet starter who has become more verbal since Cameron sent that message in the spring. Collins added running back Kenny Hilliard and quarterbacks Harris and Anthony Jennings to the list of burgeoning vocal leaders.

"It's definitely more natural to me because that's just the way it was when I got here," Collins said. "That's something that I picked up on and it kind of died down a little bit, but it's just something that Coach Cam is kind of reinstating."

If Cameron's efforts are successful, they can have an impact far beyond the 2014 season as the young players continue to mature, Collins said.

"Guys around here and our younger guys especially, they need to see that. They need to see that is what sets the trend," Collins said. "That's what gets the young guys on one accord with us, makes sure we're moving in the same direction and when they become veterans, they'll be able to pass that along."

Moving around: As Coach Les Miles indicated before camp, quarterbacks Harris and Jennings switched practice groups in Monday and Tuesday's split-squad workouts. And they weren't alone.

Jennings practiced with the varsity on Monday -- a group largely composed of starters with a handful of freshmen mixed in -- and shifted to the reserves/freshmen group on Tuesday afternoon, and vice versa for Harris. That gives both players a chance to work with a full range of personnel.

"This is designed so that everybody's getting maximum reps, and it may be as deceptive as we want this linebacker to be with that linebacker so he can see it being done extremely well," Miles said. "So don't spend a lot of time saying, ‘Why's he here, why's he there?' It is fully for a teaching purpose and for everybody to get really great reps."

In addition to the quarterbacks, several other players switched from the afternoon to the morning group on Tuesday. Among Tuesday's morning newcomers were tight ends DeSean Smith and Logan Stokes, after Dillon Gordon and Travis Dickson worked with the first-teamers on Monday, and safety Jalen Mills. Backup quarterback Jared Foster also practiced with the morning group after working in the afternoon Monday.

Right guard competition: LSU has four starters back along the offensive line, but the competition for the vacant starting position could last well into the season.

Hoko Fanaika was the first to line up at right guard with the starting offensive line Tuesday, but he and fellow senior Evan Washington know their battle will truly renew once the team begins practicing in pads on Friday.

"We've been getting pretty much equal reps," Fanaika said after Tuesday morning's practice.

Miles and offensive line coach Jeff Grimes -- both former right guards in college -- have individually worked with the guards in practice this week, and Fanaika said their instruction has been helpful.

"[Miles] just pretty much sharpens up my technique," Fanaika said. "Whatever Grimes teaches me, he just adds on, so he's just helping me better my craft."

Plenty of reps for RBs: LSU has only four scholarship tailbacks on the roster -- Magee and fellow senior Hilliard, plus Fournette and fellow freshman Darrel Williams -- so there have been plenty of carries to go around for the backs in the split-squad workouts.

That's a major change for the veterans, who encountered a significantly different depth-chart situation when they first became Tigers. Hilliard was a reserve who rushed for 336 yards and eight touchdowns for the 2011 SEC championship club, while Magee played much less, totaling 27 carries for 133 yards that season as Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue and Hilliard played bigger roles.

"When I got here, it was about six or eight of us and we were fighting for reps. You might get one or two a day," Magee chuckled on Monday. "But me and Kenny, we're getting our share of them right now, and Darrel and Leonard, they're going to get their share of them this afternoon. We'll be glad when we all come together and it's all four of us so we don't have to take the whole load."

Quote of the day: Miles on watching freshman tailback Fournette practicing Monday for the first time at LSU in helmet and shorts, since the team doesn't practice in full pads until Friday: "That's kind of like having Tiger Woods on a golf course with a putter. You just want to see him tee off, don't you? Well, we have to put pads on before we can see him tee off."
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Anthony Jennings got the first chance to work with LSU's starting offense when the Tigers opened preseason practice on Monday.

Now he must somehow retain that honor once the full team begins practicing together later this week -- and that won't be easy with freshman quarterback Brandon Harris breathing down his neck.

"Anthony threw the ball real well. He knew the offense like the back of his hand," wide receiver Travin Dural said after working with Jennings and the first-team offense in Monday morning's practice. "I'm not sure how Brandon's going to do, but I have a lot of confidence that he's going to do real well in the afternoon. And then when we come together, it's going to be pretty good. They're going to show that ability and one of them's going to emerge as the starter."

LSU's team split into two groups on Monday, as it will for each of the first four days of practice, with one group composed largely of starters and a handful of freshmen working out in the morning, while a collection of mostly reserves and the remaining freshmen practices in the afternoon.

LSU coach Les Miles said on Sunday that LSU's two quarterback contenders, sophomore Jennings and early enrollee Harris, will practice with both groups in the first four days before the Friday's first full-squad practice.

Neither quarterback was available to speak to media members on Monday.

Harris practiced with the afternoon group on Monday -- as did several other blue-chip signees in the nation's No. 2 recruiting class like tailback Leonard Fournette and receiver Trey Quinn. Among the freshmen who practiced with the varsity group in the morning were safety Jamal Adams, linebacker Clifton Garrett and receiver Malachi Dupre.

"Once they come in and they do 7-on-7 [in summer workouts], they kind of get a feel for things, but this is really what's going to tell the tale," running back Terrence Magee said. "We're just as intrigued at seeing them play as the coaches are, and to get out there and teach them and help them because we had guys before us that were the same way, ready to see us play and bring [us] along. For me, when I leave, I want to be able to look back at some of those young guys and say, ‘I helped him get to where he's at.' "

New No. 18: With that attitude in mind, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Magee was wearing a new jersey number, 18, when he practiced with the varsity on Monday morning.

LSU made it official on Sunday night that the senior running back would be the next recipient of the coveted number, following a vote to determine the most deserving player. The Tigers have a tradition each year in which they select a leader who best represents the team on and off the field to wear No. 18, and this year, it will be Magee.

"The No. 18 really isn't significant of all the leaders that we have on this team, from every senior that we have on the team, from La'el Collins to Jermauria Rasco to even some of the younger guys like Kwon Alexander," Magee said. "They wear their number and they're still leaders on this team. It's not going to change my mindset or how I do."

Magee breaks a streak of three straight seasons where a defensive player had worn No. 18. Linebacker Lamin Barrow wore it last season, following defensive tackle Bennie Logan and safety Brandon Taylor in previous years.

"They really showed me what it means to wear the No. 18," Magee said. "They represented it well and laid the foundation for me to continue the tradition. It's a tremendous honor and I'm very excited that the coaches thought enough of me to pick me."

Fournette's debut: Believe it or not, Fournette didn't take his first handoff at LSU 99 yards for a touchdown -- although maybe it's just because that first handoff came in a simple position drill.

Seriously, though, the heavily-hyped tailback -- as well as the other members of the touted recruiting class -- had even the veterans curious about how they'd look in practice.

"I might go out there and peek when they practice this afternoon ... just see what I'm going to be going up against in a couple days," linebacker D.J. Welter said with a grin.

Thompson, Rasco back; Mills practices: Safety Corey Thompson and defensive end Jermauria Rasco both practiced Monday with the starting defense after missing spring practice while recovering from offseason surgeries.

Thompson wore a brace on his surgically-repaired left knee, but seems to have recovered most of his mobility.

"He looks good. He's doing better," safety Ronald Martin said. "Hopefully he gets back up to 100 percent sometime during camp, but today he looked great out there."

A surprise from the afternoon workout was safety Jalen Mills' presence on the practice field. Mills has been indefinitely suspended since June following an incident where he allegedly punched a woman. East Baton Rouge district attorney Hillar Moore informed the Baton Rouge Advocate early Monday that he plans to charge Mills with misdemeanor simple battery, which is punishable with up to six months in prison or up to a $1,000 fine.

An LSU spokesman said Miles will address the junior safety's status with the team when he meets with reporters Monday evening. Running back Jeremy Hill sat out the first five quarters of the 2013 season after pleading guilty to a simple battery charge prior to the season.

"We've just got to keep getting better, keep helping each other get better as a whole, keep trying to [be] cohesive and get better as a unit like we are," Martin said. "And once [Mills] comes back, if he comes back, I hope he does come back, he just steps back into what we were doing this spring and just continue to grind."

LSU position breakdown: OL

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
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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 is the offensive line.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Returning starters: LT La'el Collins (12 starts in 2013), LG Vadal Alexander (13 starts), C Elliott Porter (12 starts), RT Jerald Hawkins (13 starts). With all but one starter back from last season’s line, this figures to be an area of strength for the Tigers. Collins is an All-SEC tackle and one of the nation’s better players at his position. He and Alexander should give LSU a dominant pairing to run behind on the left side.

Starters lost: RG Trai Turner (13 starts) prevented the line from returning intact when he decided to enter the draft after his redshirt sophomore season. The decision seemed a bit strange at the time, but the Carolina Panthers validated Turner’s choice when they picked him in the NFL draft's third round.

Key newcomers: Garrett Brumfield (ESPN’s No. 54 overall prospect) is the headliner, ranking as ESPN’s top guard prospect of 2014. He and William Clapp (four stars, No. 22 guard) were initially LSU’s only offensive line signees. But junior college transfer Jevonte Domond became a late addition to the class when he learned he would not have to attend Glendale (Ariz.) Community College if he completed coursework for an associate degree in order to enroll at LSU in time for preseason camp. He can play either guard or tackle, but LSU lists him as a tackle.

Players to watch: Fehoko Fanaika (No starts) and Evan Washington (one start). With only one starting job seemingly open, naturally the players to watch are the contenders at right guard. Seniors Fanaika and Washington battled for the job in the spring and the fight will continue in August. They are listed as co-starters on the Tigers’ preseason depth chart. Keep an eye, also, on sophomore Ethan Pocic (one start). He’s listed as Porter’s backup at center, but it’s apparent LSU’s coaches like his chances to eventually become a starter.

Overall: The goal under first-year offensive line coach Jeff Grimes is to go from good to great. The pieces are there for that to happen. Collins could become one of the best offensive linemen LSU has had under Les Miles, and the Tigers have no shortage of depth or experience. In fact, since all of the projected starters will be eligible for the draft after this season, it's entirely possible that should players like junior Alexander (who started 22 games in his first two seasons) and redshirt sophomore Hawkins excel, the Tigers might have to replace all five starters next season. That will make it important for Grimes to develop the aforementioned newcomers and other youngsters such as K.J. Malone, Andy Dodd and Josh Boutte in order to soften the possible blow in 2015.

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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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
12:00
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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.

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