LSU Tigers: Lamin Barrow

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: LB

July, 29, 2014
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Editor’s note: This week, we’ll take a quick look at each of LSU’s position groups as the Tigers prepare to open preseason practice next week. Up next are the linebackers.

LINEBACKER

Returning starters: D.J. Welter (80 tackles, 4 tackles for loss in 2013), Kwon Alexander (65 tackles, 6.5 TFL). Defensive coordinator John Chavis complimented Welter’s performance from spring practice -- during which he won the team’s MVP award -- following a mediocre junior season. Meanwhile, Alexander shifted from strongside linebacker to weakside during the spring, which should allow him to become a key playmaker this fall.

Starters lost: Lamin Barrow (91 tackles, 5.5 TFL). Weakside linebacker Barrow led the team in tackles and was one of the more consistent performers on a rebuilding LSU defense in 2013.

Key newcomers: Clifton Garrett (No. 31 overall on the ESPN 300 and No. 2 inside linebacker) was the Tigers’ highest-rated linebacker signee, while outside linebacker Donnie Alexander (No. 261, No. 19 OLB) was also an ESPN 300 pick. Garrett is an immensely talented prospect, but he’s listed on the preseason depth chart as the third-team middle linebacker behind Welter and sophomore Kendell Beckwith (11 tackles). He’s got his work cut out to become a key contributor in 2014.

Player to watch: Kwon Alexander. Alexander and strongside linebacker Lamar Louis (25 tackles) both moved into new starting positions during the spring, and both jobs seem to suit the veterans’ respective skill sets. Alexander, seems to be the player who is poised for a breakout season, though. Taking over Barrow’s old role, he could become one of LSU’s top defensive performers this fall -- as evidenced by his interception return for a touchdown in the Tigers’ spring game.

Overall: This is one of LSU’s most exciting position groups, blessed with substantial athleticism, speed and depth. It’s only a matter of time until Beckwith is a star in the SEC, and he and fellow reserves Deion Jones (15 tackles in 2013, plus an interception return for a 67-yard touchdown in the spring game), Duke Riley (7 tackles) and Ronnie Feist (did not play) are all capable players. Chavis acknowledged after spring practice that he is considerably excited about what the group will add to the defense this fall -- and he should be. Chavis has plenty of weapons at his disposal, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see several of them emerge as reliable performers in 2014.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- The race to become the first quarterback selected in next month’s NFL draft is apparently down to three players: Central Florida’s Blake Bortles, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo, Cal Sport MediaZach Mettenberger will get a chance to show he's 100 percent healthy at LSU's pro day on Wednesday.
But according to quarterback guru George Whitfield, who recently visited LSU to speak at a coaches clinic, there easily could have been another contender had Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger avoided the late-season injury that prevented him from showing off in postseason all-star games and at the pre-draft combine.

“If he was healthy, I think he’s right in this,” said Whitfield, who tutored Manziel and Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas this year, after working with such prospects as Cam Newton and Andrew Luck in previous draft cycles. “I don’t think it’s a conversation of three, it could be a conversation of four if Zach was healthy coming down the back stretch. But I don’t think it’s going to be a shock at all if you see him go in the top couple rounds. Not at all. I think somebody’s going to get a great return on investment.”

At LSU’s pro day on Wednesday, Mettenberger gets his first major opportunity to prove that the knee he injured in the regular-season finale against Arkansas is stable. He already has proven that his arm is NFL caliber, which is why some draft projections have Mettenberger going as high as the second round after a standout senior season.

Mettenberger (3,082 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, eight interceptions) was sixth among FBS quarterbacks with an 85.1 Total Quarterback Rating last season. According to ESPN Stats and Information, he made the biggest jump of any qualified FBS quarterback after ranking 80th out of 122 qualified quarterbacks with a 47.1 Total QBR in 2012.

“I think he’s one of the best quarterbacks in this draft,” Whitfield said. “I thought the year he had and the growth he had this year, especially with [LSU offensive coordinator] Cam Cameron, just getting a chance to get out there and operate in that system -- [and to] have more responsibility. He was better in the pocket. It was just a shame he did take that injury toward the end of the season, but he just looked more confident, and he wasn’t just a big guy [who] was pitching anymore.”

Mettenberger is just one member of a large group of LSU prospects who will work out in front of NFL scouts, coaches and player personnel executives on Wednesday. Among those expected to participate are running backs Jeremy Hill, J.C. Copeland and Alfred Blue, receivers Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Kadron Boone, defensive linemen Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson, linebacker Lamin Barrow, safety Craig Loston and offensive lineman Trai Turner.

ESPN Scouts Inc. rates seven of them among the draft’s top 150 prospects: Beckham (No. 21), Landry (47), Hill (69), Turner (109), Loston (110), Ferguson (120) and Johnson (139).

Let’s take a closer look at three of them -- Mettenberger, Beckham and Hill -- with a statistical assist from ESPN Stats and Info.

ZACH METTENBERGER
In his first season working with Cameron, Mettenberger greatly improved as a downfield passer. He raised his completion percentage on throws of 15 yards or longer 14 points, to 53.4 percent, in 2013. Among ESPN’s top-10 quarterback prospects in this draft, only Clemson’s Tajh Boyd (53.7 percent) completed a higher percentage of long balls. Of the 10, Mettenberger had by far the highest percentage of total completions (67.7) travel at least 10 yards. Bridgewater was next at 57.1.

He was also outstanding against the blitz and on third down -- assets that should help convince a team looking for a pro-style pocket passer to keep him in mind. Mettenberger (57-for-85, 883 yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions against blitzing defenses) had the second-highest completion percentage (67.1) against the blitz of any of the top-10 quarterbacks. And on third down, his 53.7 conversion percentage was the best of the bunch. Mettenberger went 58-for-89 with nine touchdowns and one interception on third down, and his 65.2 completion percentage in those situations was third among the top-10 quarterbacks.

JEREMY HILL
Because of the declining value attached to running backs in the NFL, it seems entirely likely that no running backs will go in the first round of this draft. Last year, the first running back went at No. 37 -- the latest the first running back was picked in the common draft era.

Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde is generally considered the top running back prospect in this draft, although Hill’s physical ability makes him an enticing target.

Hill faced eight or more defenders in a stacked box on nearly half of his carries last season (96 of 203), and yet, he still averaged an AQ-best 8 yards per rush in those situations and scored 15 touchdowns.

He was also a phenomenal between-the-tackles runner, picking up 7.9 yards per carry on runs up the middle, with about one in every five (24 of 118) going for at least 10 yards. On runs outside the tackles, Hill had 16 of 85 attempts go for at least 10 yards.

ODELL BECKHAM
Beckham is one of the draft’s most explosive playmakers, which is why ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. had him going 18th overall to the New York Jets in his most recent mock draft. He and Landry are both among the 15 wideouts who rank among Scouts Inc.’s Top 100 players -- the most receivers in the top 100 since 2005.

Beckham (59 catches, 1,152 yards, eight touchdowns, 178.1 all-purpose ypg last season) had an AQ-high 26 receptions on passes thrown at least 15 yards last season. He had at least two catches that covered such a distance in seven of 13 games in 2013, which certainly speaks to the big-play ability that has him so high on Kiper’s mock draft board.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Chat with Lamar Louis for a minute or two and it will become clear that LSU’s linebackers have plenty of confidence.

One of several Tigers linebackers who will shift to new positions this spring -- Louis spent the first few practices at strongside linebacker after playing in the middle in 2013 -- Louis believes this could be the strongest the position group has been in his three seasons at LSU.

“I would like to think this is the best linebacker group that we’ve ever had,” Louis said. “Most definitely it’s the fastest and most athletic. I was looking at drills today and I was talking to Kwon Alexander, basically telling him that this might be the most talented, athletic group ever, period.”

[+] EnlargeLamar Louis
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsLamar Louis is one of several LSU linebackers who are switching positions to give the defense a bit more of an edge.
They certainly look capable, but still have a lot to prove about their abilities to produce in game situations. LSU’s defense took a step backward last season -- the Tigers ranked 15th nationally in total defense (340.7 ypg) after ranking second (261.5) in 2011 and eighth in 2012 (307.62) -- and the linebackers weren’t a particularly dominant group.

Obviously one of their top goals is to reverse that downward trend.

“As a defense, I think we have to prove a lot. Every year I think we have to prove a lot because LSU defense is top-notch,” Louis said. “We’re known to be tough, and we’re known to be fast. You could say that the past few years, we haven’t had that swagger from the other teams, maybe the national championship contenders and whatnot. Same talent, same great coaching. I just think we were missing that swagger, basically saying that we’re here and we’re knocking down doors. That’s what we’re trying to bring back to the game this spring.”

Perhaps that’s why defensive coordinator John Chavis is trying out some new personnel groups this spring. In the early practices, Louis shifted outside, Alexander switched from strongside linebacker to the weak side -- where he would replace Lamin Barrow -- and touted sophomore Kendell Beckwith is backing up senior D.J. Welter in the middle.

There are a lot of moving pieces in play, but they all relate to Chavis’ philosophy of putting the best three linebackers on the field.

“At LSU, you can be a starter one year, but the coaches preach that every day, you have to give your all every year,” said Welter, LSU’s leading returning tackler with 80 stops a season ago. “So definitely it’s a big-time competition at every linebacker spot, so you have to be on your A-game and just work on the small individual battles every day. If I handle mine and my buddy handles his, then somebody will end up making a play.”

Beckwith was LSU’s highest-rated signee in 2013 and said he was the “happiest man ever” when LSU’s coaches told him he’d move back to linebacker. That’s one of the positions he played in high school and where he wanted to play all along.

Welter has assisted him in learning a new position, even if both players realize that their competition for playing time has already begun.

That’s no different than any of the other linebacker positions, though, where competition is the theme of the spring.

“When you’re competing against each other, we all work hard,” Alexander said. “That’s the first thing we talked about when we were on our break -- just to work hard, go out here and just compete and whoever gets the spot gets the spot. We’re all going to back each other up regardless.”

Welter said the ideal situation for the linebackers would be for each player to prove to Chavis that he deserves a role in some package or a spot in the rotation. The veteran said he sees plenty of potential for such a situation within the group.

“I feel like we have the strongest room since I’ve been here,” Welter said. “Depth-wise we definitely have people at every position in the linebacker room that can play multiple positions.”

LSU’s defense will need to improve across the board if it returns to the dominant form of previous seasons, and the linebackers know they will play a vital role in that improvement. One area of emphasis is developing an attitude, which is why the defense has taken to calling itself the “Legion of Boom” and breaking group huddles during drills by chanting, “L-O-B.”

On-field results allow such a motto to evolve from idle chatter to a defensive identity -- just ask the inspiration for the L-O-B label, the Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks -- but the process has to start somewhere. It might as well be with a linebacker group that’s trying to bring some fire back to LSU’s defense.

“We look at the Seahawks and we’re just trying to resemble them in what we do and the swagger that we approach the game with,” Louis said. “We’re all competing with each other and the thing about it is we’re all trying to be great. We’re all practicing like we’re the No. 1 guys and we’re developing great relationships outside of football at the same time.”

LSU NFL draft combine primer

February, 20, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. – The NFL draft combine has begun, and LSU is well represented with 11 former Tigers on the list of invited players.

Here's a look at the Tigers who are scheduled to be in attendance and when their position groups will take the field for workouts in Indianapolis.

Saturday: Tight ends, offensive line, special teams
Trai Turner will be the first Tiger to take the stage. The right guard surprised some by entering the draft after his redshirt sophomore season. This is his chance to prove that decision wasn't a mistake. If Turner shows up in good shape and excels in the workouts and positional drills, perhaps he can work his way up some teams' draft boards.

Sunday: Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers
This is the showcase day for LSU talent, with five former Tigers set to take the field for workouts. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger would have made it six, but he is still rehabilitating an ACL tear suffered in LSU's Nov. 29 win against Arkansas.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Hill
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesAt the NFL combine, Jeremy Hill will try to prove any off-the-field issues are in the past.
Nonetheless, tailbacks Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue, fullback J.C. Copeland and receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham are scheduled to participate in workouts on Sunday, so the NFL Network announcers should spend plenty of time talking Tigers.

Hill is one of the more intriguing running backs in the draft because of his physical abilities, but his off-the-field issues will probably come up, as well. Hill will be fine in the workouts. The most important part of his trip to Indy won't air on television. He must satisfy at least one team that his disciplinary issues are behind him and that he can be a reliable professional. Performing well in these job interviews is essential for a player with a checkered past.

Meanwhile, it wouldn't be much of a surprise to see Blue perform well in the drills and positional workouts and elevate his draft stock. He was overshadowed by Hill at LSU, but Blue has the tools to be an NFL player and he might just emerge on some radars if he's healthy and has an impressive afternoon.

Landry can help himself with a solid time in the 40-yard dash, should he choose to run in Indy. Dependable hands are his best asset, but he will wear the possession receiver label unless he surprises scouts by flashing some top-end speed. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. wrote this week that a strong combine workout might help Landry work his way into the first round. Conversely, Beckham could help his cause by catching the ball consistently and displaying some polished route-running skills. He's electric with the ball in his hands – and ESPN's Todd McShay is hyping him as one of the draft's fastest prospects – so his biggest hurdle is proving that he's more than a raw athlete.

Monday: Defensive linemen, linebackers
All three of LSU's Monday participants – defensive linemen Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson and linebacker Lamin Barrow – have something to prove to NFL scouts.

At 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, Barrow is not the biggest guy in the world, so most teams likely view him as a situational linebacker and special-teams performer instead of an every-down player. He's athletic and has some intangibles that will probably help him interview well, but he needs to flash some physical tools during the workouts that might help him stand out a bit more.

On the other hand, Johnson and Ferguson should excel in the workouts. After all, Johnson's nickname is “Freak” and he possesses the raw athleticism to back up the hype. The problem for both players is that scouts question their motors. They look the part, but must convince teams that they can refine their games and become more consistent performers at the pro level than they were in college.

Tuesday: Defensive backs
Craig Loston closes out LSU's long list of combine participants when he competes with the defensive backs on the final day of workouts. Loston projects as an inside-the-box safety who is best as a hitter and run stopper. He was a bit brittle in college, which might affect his draft stock, but Loston can probably help his cause in Indy by flashing some fluidity and ball skills during the defensive back drills. If teams determine he can play coverage the way he can run and hit, Loston will rise as a prospect.

LSU position groups to improve: No. 2

February, 13, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- With more than three weeks to go until LSU opens spring practice on March 7, we'll use some of the down time to preview the upcoming series of team workouts.

After discussing the tight ends, defensive tackles and safeties in the first three installments of this week's series on position groups that can improve this fall, today we move to the linebackers, who disappointed a bit last season and now must replace starter Lamin Barrow.

[+] EnlargeSteven Clark
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertDuke Riley (No. 40) could be poised to make a big impact for the Tigers in 2014.
2. Linebacker

Battling for No. 1: Barrow, one of the leaders of the 2013 LSU defense, is a likely NFL draft pick and tied for ninth in the SEC with 91 tackles. He, rising senior D.J. Welter (80 tackles, four tackles for a loss) and rising junior Kwon Alexander (65 tackles, 6.5 TFLs) hardly set the world on fire, however, as the Tigers' typical starters. When spring practice opens, Welter probably starts as the middle linebacker and Alexander could remain at the strongside linebacker spot. There could be a competition between rising junior Deion Jones (15 tackles, 1 TFL) and sophomore Duke Riley (seven tackles, 0.5 TFLs) for the starting spot on the weak side.

Strength in numbers: Kendell Beckwith -- the highest-rated prospect in LSU's 2013 signing class -- made a small impact as a freshman. He totaled 11 tackles and one TFL but has the ability to play a larger role at strongside linebacker, in the middle, or at defensive end. Rising junior Lamar Louis (25 tackles) might also be a candidate for a bigger role in the middle. Sophomore Ronnie Feist is also coming off a redshirt season and might figure into the rotation somewhere.

New on the scene: Clifton Garrett is clearly one of the stars of LSU's newest signing class, ranking as ESPN's No. 31 overall prospect, No. 2 inside linebacker and top prospect in the state of Illinois. He looks like exactly the type of downhill run stopper who will fit in well in Baton Rouge, but it's rarely a great idea to project immediate greatness for freshmen who arrive in the summer. Perhaps he, or ESPN 300 outside linebacker Donnie Alexander, will be able to crack the rotation sometime during the fall, but it's probably best to temper expectations early on in preseason practice.

Season wrap: LSU

January, 15, 2014
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With new coordinator Cam Cameron leading a revitalized offense and senior Zach Mettenberger making major strides at quarterback, LSU finished with double-digit wins for a school-record fourth straight season.

The Tigers (10-3) fell out of the national championship hunt with a midseason loss to Ole Miss and suffered a lopsided defeat at Alabama but rallied to win their final three games -- including impressive defensive outings against Texas A&M and in the Outback Bowl against Iowa -- and finish with a No. 14 national ranking.

Offensive MVP: Mettenberger combined with wideouts Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham and running back Jeremy Hill to make LSU the first SEC team ever to have a 3,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard rusher. They would all make good choices, but Mettenberger's emergence helped turn LSU into a much more effective offensive club.

Defensive MVP: Senior linebacker Lamin Barrow was one of the few veterans on a defense that lost seven underclassmen to the draft a year ago. He served as a steadying force for coordinator John Chavis, leading the team with 91 tackles -- tied for ninth in the SEC -- and finishing as a second-team All-SEC selection.

Best moment: Freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings came off the bench when Mettenberger suffered a torn ACL against Arkansas and led the Tigers on a 99-yard, go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. Jennings hit Travin Dural with a 49-yard touchdown pass with 1:15 to play to help LSU win 31-27.

Worst moment: The sloppy outing at Ole Miss was LSU's worst loss of the season, but the most painful was the 38-17 loss against heated rival Alabama, where the top-ranked Crimson Tide scored the game's final 21 points. The Tigers blew early chances to take control of the game and got dominated late.

Three takeaways from Outback Bowl

January, 2, 2014
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Aside from notching a 10th win for four consecutive seasons, LSU's 21-14 win over Iowa in Wednesday's Outback Bowl didn't mean a great deal. However, it gave us a glimpse into the future -- one that will become a bit clearer over the next few days.

Let's examine three takeaways from the Tigers' bowl win and what the coming week might hold for the LSU program.

Next few days are huge: This is shaping up as a roller coaster couple of days for LSU's 2014 roster. It starts today with the Under Armour All-America Game, where the Tigers could wind up as the day's biggest winner. ESPN will air the all-star game at 4 p.m. ET, and LSU targets Leonard Fournette, Speedy Noil and Gerald Willis will announce their college decisions.

The biggest prize is tailback Fournette, whom ESPN rates as the nation's No. 1 overall prospect. LSU commits Garrett Brumfield, Brandon Harris and Jacory Washington are also competing in the game. The Tigers could make a huge jump from their current No. 12 spot in the ESPN's class rankings with a big day today.

Landing some combination of the elite prospects in today's all-star game will help absorb the roster hit that is almost certainly coming. Nobody officially announced a decision after Wednesday's game, but it seems likely that the Tigers will lose a number of underclassmen to the NFL draft. Receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, tailback Jeremy Hill, offensive tackle La'El Collins and defensive linemen Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson are all names to watch -- and their decisions should come shortly.

Defense made strides: This was a maddeningly inconsistent season for an LSU program that prides itself on stifling defense. But Wednesday's finale provided glimpses of what this group can be. Iowa totaled just 233 yards, went 6-for-19 on third down (1-for-9 in the first half) and twice tossed interceptions inside the LSU 10-yard line.

There were only two seniors among LSU's bowl starters -- linebacker Lamin Barrow and safety Craig Loston -- and we'll see what Johnson and Ferguson decide to do, but this defense will return the bulk of its two-deep, regardless. For a group that will finish the season ranked in the nation's top 20 in total defense (they were 21st entering the bowl game and end it by surrendering an average of 340.7 ypg), that seems like a sign that 2014 will be a big year for the defense.

Jennings has work to do: After his remarkable performance in leading LSU to a comeback win against Arkansas when Zach Mettenberger went down with an injury, expectations were high for first-time starting quarterback Anthony Jennings on Wednesday. Jennings played like a freshman against Iowa, though.

On an unusually cold, nasty day in Tampa, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron initially took the game out of Jennings' hands, calling 12 straight running plays to open the game. The freshman was mostly shaky once he started putting the ball in the air, finishing 7-for-19 for 82 yards and an interception (he also ran for a touchdown).

That wasn't terribly surprising against an Iowa defense that is considerably more effective than Arkansas', but it served notice that this will be an enormous offseason for Jennings -- particularly with Harris, the No. 58 overall prospect on the ESPN 300 and No. 3 dual-threat quarterback, planning to enroll this month and participate in spring practice.

Tale of the tape: LSU-Iowa

December, 10, 2013
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These programs gave us one of the most memorable finishes in bowl history nine years ago, and now they return to sunny Florida on New Year's Day for the Outback Bowl. Let's take a closer look at the matchup between No. 16 LSU (9-3) and Iowa (8-4) when they meet at 1 p.m. at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium.

Who's under center?: This was something of a question for both teams before their coaches cleared it up in the last few days. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Jake Rudock should be “absolutely fine” to play against LSU after leaving the regular-season finale against Nebraska with a right knee injury. Meanwhile, LSU's Les Miles said freshman Anthony Jennings will take over for the injured Zach Mettenberger as the Tigers' starter. Mettenberger suffered a season-ending knee injury in the finale against Arkansas, but Jennings came on to complete the Tigers' comeback, hitting Travin Dural with the game-winning, 49-yard touchdown pass with 1:15 to play.

When last we met: Iowa fans will never forget how the 2005 Capital One Bowl ended, when Drew Tate hit little-used receiver Warren Holloway with a 56-yard touchdown pass to beat LSU as time expired. That 30-25 loss marked an ugly end to Nick Saban's LSU tenure, as he left to coach the Miami Dolphins immediately afterward. Within hours of the game's end, Miles was named as Saban's successor.

What's at stake: Not much, really. Fresh off an awful 4-8 record in 2012, Iowa started the season with a loss to Northern Illinois. But it's certainly possible that Ferentz's Hawkeyes can finish the season as a ranked team if they beat LSU. Meanwhile, the Tigers have already bid farewell to Mettenberger and could be featuring some of their top draft-eligible skill players for the final time as well. A win in the bowl would give LSU its fourth straight season with at least 10 wins, a school record.

Hit the ground running: It would not be a surprise to see this become a run-heavy game. Without Mettenberger -- who was one of the nation's most effective passers -- LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron might opt to lean heavily on Jeremy Hill (1,185 rushing yards, 14 TDs) and Terrence Magee (614-8) against the Hawkeyes. The problem there is that Iowa's defense is no pushover. The Hawkeyes rank seventh nationally in total defense (303.2 ypg) and are 17th against the run (120.8 ypg). On the other hand, all Iowa wants to do is run. The bruising Mark Weisman (937-7) and slippery duo of Damon Bullock (467-1) and Jordan Canzeri (451-2) take most of the carries for Iowa, which ranks 41st nationally in rushing (188.6 ypg).

Back to the Outback: This will be LSU's second visit to the Outback (formerly Hall of Fame) Bowl, having last played in Tampa at the end of the 1988 season when it lost 23-10 to Syracuse. Iowa has played an SEC club in this bowl three times in the previous 11 seasons, beating Florida 37-17 in 2003, losing 31-24 to the Gators in 2005 and blasting South Carolina 31-10 in 2008.

Best wins: It didn't seem like much at the time, but LSU was the only team to beat No. 2 Auburn, jumping out to a 21-0 lead and winning 35-21 on Sept. 21. LSU also posted a memorable 34-10 victory over Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M near the end of the season. Iowa closed with a three-game winning streak to secure its first winning record (5-3) in league play since 2009. That run included a 24-21 win over Michigan and a decisive 38-17 victory at Nebraska to conclude the season.

Worst losses: Iowa's four losses are all respectable, particularly since three of the teams that beat the Hawkeyes -- Northern Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan State -- finished with 12-1 records, and the other was to 9-3 Wisconsin. LSU's worst loss was certainly its 27-24 defeat against Ole Miss, although the 38-17 loss at Alabama also felt like a low point.

[+] EnlargeJake Rudock
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsWith LSU's Zach Mettenberger out with a knee injury, Iowa has the edge at QB with Jake Rudock.
Offensive stars: He doesn't generate as many headlines as Rudock or the running backs, but All-Big Ten left tackle Brandon Scherff certainly ranks among Iowa's most valuable players. Scherff announced on Monday that he will return for his senior season. Receivers Odell Beckham Jr. (57 catches, 1,117 yards, 8 TDs) and Jarvis Landry (75-1,172, 10 TDs) will both go down as two of the most dangerous wideouts in LSU history.

Defensive stars: All-Big Ten linebackers Anthony Hitchens (102 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss) and James Morris (98 tackles, 14.5 TFLs) are the headliners for Iowa's stingy defense along with defensive back B.J. Lowery (55 tackles, three interceptions, 16 pass breakups). Linebacker Lamin Barrow leads LSU's defense with 86 tackles, while defensive linemen Anthony Johnson (32 tackles, 7 TFLs) and Ego Ferguson (58 tackles, 3.5 TFLs) lead the defensive front and safety Craig Loston (51 tackles, two interceptions) and cornerback Jalen Mills (61 tackles, three sacks, three interceptions) anchor the back end of the defense.

X-factor: Even if both teams run and run some more, quarterback play could be the determining factor. Jennings will surely need to get the ball to Beckham, Landry and company -- and do so without many costly turnovers -- to force the Hawkeyes to respect the pass. And Rudock will have to prove he can get the job done against a strong opponent. In Iowa's eight wins, he hit 64 percent of his passes for 11 touchdowns and six interceptions. But in the Hawkeyes' four losses -- against the only four ranked teams on their schedule -- he completed 55 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns and six picks.

Planning for success: LSU

November, 27, 2013
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The Golden Boot will be on the line this weekend when Arkansas visits LSU in an SEC West clash. The Tigers are coming off an impressive win over Texas A&M, but Friday’s game is more about the senior class who will be playing their final game in Death Valley.

Head coach Les Miles expects his seniors to be ready for Senior Day, but it’s his job to prepare the rest of the team.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsZach Mettenberger and the LSU seniors are looking for a win over Arkansas in their final home game.
“I’ve never come to this game where the seniors didn’t play best, that they recognized that this is their last time,” Miles said. “I have always really challenged the underclassmen to play to that level, to play alongside the seniors -- the ones that will lead you. You play like they play.”

It’s a group of seniors who know how to win. To put it in perspective, the LSU senior class has been a part of 42 wins, an SEC championship, a 13-0 regular season and played in the BCS title game. The fifth-year seniors have been a part of 51 wins during their tenure.

What LSU needs to do to win: Seven of the last eight games in this rivalry have been decided by eight points or less, so it’s important for LSU not to overlook Arkansas even if the Razorbacks are still in search of their first SEC win. The Tigers need to bring the same type of energy they showed against Texas A&M, and it starts up front. Running backs Terrence Magee and Jeremy Hill combined for 225 yards last week, and the duo should find similar success against an Arkansas defense that’s ranked in the bottom half of the league against the run. LSU’s defense will face a more physical style of play, but the Hogs don’t have a Johnny Manziel.

Players to watch

QB Zach Mettenberger: All eyes were on Manziel last weekend, but the reigning Heisman winner was outplayed by Mettenberger, a talented NFL prospect in his own right. The LSU signal caller has seen his share of ups and downs in his career, but he has a chance to finish on a high note beginning with Friday’s game, his last in Tiger Stadium.

LB Lamin Barrow: The LSU defense is relatively young with the exception of Barrow and safety Craig Loston. Both will be playing their final home against Arkansas, and both will be sorely missed. Barrow currently leads the team with 80 tackles, and that number could rise significantly against a run-heavy Razorbacks squad.

Quotable
“I have to be honest -- I think it’s definitely the turkey with a warm gravy. Maybe it’s the last spoon or fork of food on the plate, you know, that has a little bit of salt and pepper and maybe a little bit of the turkey and gravy and some of the stuffing that would be there and maybe just a smidgen of that cranberry stuff.” -- Miles on his favorite Thanksgiving dish

Video: LSU LB Lamin Barrow

November, 25, 2013
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Chris Low talks to LSU linebacker Lamin Barrow following the Tigers' 34-10 win over Texas A&M.

LSU does a number on Manziel ... again

November, 24, 2013
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Only now, with two games remaining (unofficially, of course) in Johnny Manziel's short but captivating college football career, do we have a handle on what it takes to make Johnny Football look mortal.

Put him on a field with LSU’s defense on the other side.

The Tigers swarmed, suffocated and effectively snuffed out Manziel’s quest for a second consecutive Heisman Trophy on the kind of wet, windy and cold day that made Texas A&M’s 34-10 loss all the more miserable.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsJohnny Manziel couldn't find much room to operate as LSU frustrated the Heisman winner once again.
They say it never rains in Tiger Stadium. But it sure rained Saturday, and it rained the hardest on the No. 12 Aggies, who had no answers for an LSU team that put together its most complete game of the season.

“You could sort of see it coming with the way we practiced last week,” said LSU receiver Jarvis Landry, who had a pair of touchdown catches in the first half to help stake the Tigers to a 21-10 halftime lead.

“We’ve flirted with this a few times this season and always knew we were capable. I mean, we might have lost a lot of players to the NFL last year, but there’s still a lot of NFL-caliber talent on this team. We went out and played like it tonight in every phase of the game.”

But LSU’s defense stole the show.

It was obvious early that Manziel wasn’t real comfortable in the nasty weather conditions, and that was a factor.

A much bigger factor, though, was LSU’s energy, speed and discipline on defense, not to mention a scheme that veteran defensive coordinator John Chavis has obviously perfected against these Aggies.

It was also a defense that had grown increasingly tired this past week of hearing about what Manziel was going to do to the Tigers.

“Everybody was talking about how this game was going to be a shootout,” LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson said. “Coach Chavis told us, ‘It ain’t going to be no shootout.’ We weren’t going to let that happen.”

In many ways, it was a carbon copy of what happened a year ago when these two teams met in College Station. LSU won that game 24-19 and held Manziel without a touchdown -- rushing or passing. He managed just one Saturday, that coming on a 51-yard pass to Derel Walker with 1:08 left in the first half when LSU cornerback Tre'Davious White fell down.

Chavis’ goal was simple: Make Manziel beat the Tigers throwing the football.

“I have great respect for him and know what happens when he’s able to get outside, run around and make plays,” Chavis said. “As a coach, it’s all about putting your kids in a position to make plays. We had to throw some of our younger kids to the fire this year. You don’t like to do that, but we didn’t have any choice.

“What’s so pleasing about this game is to see a lot of those same kids go out against a great player and a great offense and show how far they’ve come. We needed this. We needed it for our psyche, and we needed to get this done.”

Johnson could sense that frustration was starting to set in Saturday with Manziel, who finished 16-of-41 for 224 yards and two interceptions. He was also sacked twice and held to just 54 rushing yards on 12 carries.

It was the first time in Manziel’s career that he’d been held to fewer than 300 yards of total offense.

“He wasn’t used to not being able to run around and get those plays that he’s used to making,” Johnson said. “Everybody stayed disciplined. Our defensive backs stayed back on their routes and didn’t try to come up and help on the run.

“We stayed true to the scheme, and you saw the results.”

The Tigers were successful most of the game in not allowing Manziel to roll right, and their defensive ends did an excellent job of staying home and not giving him any room to scramble outside.

“There’s a lot of pride on this defense, and we've haven’t always played the way we wanted to this year,” LSU linebacker Lamin Barrow said. “But we went out there today and took our pride back.

“That’s the way LSU defense is supposed to be played.”

Manziel, to his credit, wasn’t offering any excuses. There was talk of a thumb injury during the television broadcast, but he said it was more a case of the Tigers hitting the Aggies in the mouth and the Aggies never really responding.

“They came out and mixed a lot of things up,” Manziel said. “They kept us guessing, and it really took us a while to figure it out.”

That makes it two years in a row. The Aggies have now scored just three touchdowns in the past eight quarters against the Tigers.

Until Saturday, they’d scored at least 40 points against everybody they’d played this season.

The Tigers’ secret?

“No secrets,” Barrow said with a smile. “It’s playing LSU football.”

LSU's D looks to make stand vs. Manziel

November, 20, 2013
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Nobody on LSU’s defense went into this season with his eyes closed.

That goes for everybody from veteran defensive coordinator John Chavis to senior linebacker Lamin Barrow to the horde of younger players the Tigers have played on that side of the ball.

[+] EnlargeBarrow
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesLinebacker Lamin Barrow leads LSU in tackles but feels both he and the Tigers' defense as a whole can improve.
When you lose as many talented football players as LSU did to the NFL draft a year ago, there’s going to be a drop-off.

That drop-off has been glaring at times this season, but don’t think for a minute that anybody on LSU’s defense is feeling sorry for themselves.

They can’t afford to, not with Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M coming to Tiger Stadium on Saturday.

“It’s important for us to end on a good note and get our respect back,” said Barrow, who leads LSU and is seventh in the SEC with 75 total tackles.

“This year, we knew we were going to have a younger defense, but that’s never an excuse here at LSU. That doesn’t change the pride we have here on defense. The experience we got this year is going to help next year, and so will the growing pains. It hasn’t been what we’re used to, but we also know we’re not that far away from being the kind of defense we want to be. We just have to be more consistent.”

Chavis said those growing pains have been more pronounced than he expected and have lasted longer. Part of that is that he’s playing two true freshmen and two sophomores in his defensive backfield rotation, not to mention the fact that the Tigers are without eight of the defenders that held Manziel to no touchdown passes, intercepted him three times and sacked him three times a year ago in LSU’s 24-19 win over Texas A&M.

Of those eight, six were underclassmen who were taken in the NFL draft.

Even with that mass exodus to the pros, it hasn't been a complete disaster for the Tigers on defense. They're still fourth in the SEC in total defense. But the frustrating thing for them is that they simply haven't been able to get off the field this season in too many critical situations.

“It’s not just the young guys. It’s myself included,” Barrow said. “We just haven’t made some of the plays we know we can make. I put a lot of pressure on myself coming back for my last year to do a lot of things, and I haven’t always played the way I wanted to. But there’s still time with these last couple of games to get it right and put it all together.

“We’ve done it in spurts. We just need to do it for a whole game.”

One of the biggest differences with this LSU defense is that it hasn’t stopped the run, which has been a staple under Chavis. The Tigers are 10th in the SEC in rushing defense, allowing 152.9 yards per game. That’s after giving up just 101.6 yards per game on the ground last season and 90.1 yards in 2011.

Big plays have also been a problem for this LSU defense. The Tigers have already given up 39 plays of 20 yards or more this season with three games to play (counting the bowl). Over the previous three seasons, they averaged giving up 39 “big plays” for the entire season.

“A lot of that has been communication breakdowns, a lack of focus on our part and something we’ve been dealing with all season,” Barrow said. “But we’ve had fewer mistakes as the season’s gone on, and having the extra week to get ready for this game, I think we’ll cut down on them even more.”

The Tigers smothered Manziel a year ago and never really allowed him to scramble. He was held to 27 yards rushing on 17 carries and threw it a career-high 56 times in the game.

But where he has carved teams apart this season is finding receivers open down the field when he’s on the move or simply buying time in the pocket.

“He’s a passer first, and people underestimate that about him,” Barrow said. “He does a great job getting out of the pocket and scrambling and making a play when he has to, but he can beat you throwing the ball. He draws the defense to him, and that helps his receivers get open, and then he does a great job of finding those open receivers no matter where he is on the field.”

The Tigers plan to rotate players two and even three deep at some positions to stay fresh and help combat the Aggies’ breakneck pace.

Against Alabama two weeks ago, LSU wore down in the second half on both sides of the ball after tying the game at 17-17 in the early minutes of the third quarter. The Crimson Tide responded with three consecutive touchdown drives of 70-plus yards.

“Coming off the loss to Alabama and already having a three-loss season, the only thing on our mind is coming out and showing everybody that we’re still the same Tigers and still a team to reckon with,” Barrow said.

“There’s a lot of tradition and a lot of pride here on defense, and we don’t want to be known as the defense that didn’t meet that standard," he added. "We’re going to step out on the field like men, and everybody on this defense is going to take it upon themselves to step it up to another level.”

Given the way Johnny Football is mowing through defenses in this league, they might want to take it up a few levels.

Midseason report: LSU

October, 15, 2013
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Talk about a role reversal.

It was a changeup from the usual LSU narrative, which typically has the Tigers winning games with a dominant defense. For the first six games of the season, the talk was more about the offense, while the defense didn't quite resemble what Tigers fans have become accustomed to. The point totals looked more like something you'd expect from Oregon or Texas A&M: 37, 56, 45, 35, 41, 59.

But in Saturday’s win over Florida, the Tigers showed they still can win the old-fashioned way, their old-fashioned way. Against the Gators, the offense wasn't nearly as explosive as it had been but the defense was physical and dominating, staying in Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy's face virtually all day en route to a 17-6 victory.

So the Tigers, it appears, can win multiple ways. And that can only bode well for the future.

There are weapons all over the place on offense, from quarterback Zach Mettenberger, to running back Jeremy Hill to perhaps the SEC's best receiving tandem of Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has employed them beautifully.

On defense, there were struggles, and the improvement is ongoing. The defensive line and linebacker Lamin Barrow had impactful performances against the Gators. In recent weeks, Kwon Alexander continued to show why he's considered to be special. Defensive coordinator John Chavis showed pride in the way his unit responded against the Gators.

At 6-1 (3-1 in the SEC), and with No. 1 Alabama and No. 7 Texas A&M still on the schedule, LSU still controls its own destiny in the SEC West. Win and the Tigers can get where they want to go.

But now, the Tigers at least know there is more than one way that they can win football games.

Offensive MVP: Zach Mettenberger
If you were told before the season that Mettenberger would be leading the SEC in passing yards this deep into the year, would you have believed it? Mettenberger leads the league in not only that category, but in yards per attempt and passing efficiency. He's completing 66.7 percent of his passes for 1,890 yards, 15 touchdowns and just two interceptions and has been the lynchpin in the emergence of LSU's offense.

Defensive MVP: Anthony Johnson
It's hard to single out one player because A) the Tigers haven't played up to their defensive standards until recently and B) once they have, several players have shined. But we'll give the nod to Johnson who had strong performances against Mississippi State and Florida. Johnson leads the team in tackles for loss (5.5) and tied for the lead in sacks (two) and has a memorable interception in the first half of the loss to Georgia.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 7

October, 13, 2013
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It was just another day in the SEC on Saturday. It got started with Missouri's upset win at Georgia and finished with Texas A&M's game-winning field goal to hold off Ole Miss. Now it's time to hand out the helmet stickers for Week 7's top performers.

L'Damian Washington, WR, Missouri: If it hadn't been for the injury, Missouri's James Franklin might have been the one on this list, but it was Washington who stepped up when his quarterback went out. With the lead cut to two and the Tigers in need of a big play, coach Gary Pinkel called on a trick play. Backup quarterback Maty Mauk threw a lateral to wide receiver Bud Sasser who then heaved it toward the end zone. Who was waiting on the other end? Washington. The 6-foot-4 receiver outfought the defender and hauled in the 40-yard touchdown pass. He finished with seven catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns on the day.

Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina: The Gamecocks had struggled in recent weeks, not putting teams away, but that wasn't the case Saturday against Arkansas. They thrashed the Razorbacks to the tune of 52-7, and Shaw played his best game of the season. The South Carolina quarterback finished 19-of-28 for 219 yards and three touchdowns through the air and tallied his fourth score on a 10-yard run in the third quarter. Shaw has been lights out since returning from a recent shoulder injury. He now has 10 touchdown passes on the season, but more importantly, he has yet to throw an interception after throwing seven a year ago.

The LSU defense: It has been only two weeks since LSU gave up 44 points in a loss to Georgia, but coach Les Miles never gave up on his defense. That confidence paid off Saturday. The Tigers defeated Florida, 17-6, in a good, old-fashioned slugfest, rare for the SEC this season. LSU didn't force a single turnover, but the Tigers held the Gators to just 240 yards of total offense. Tyler Murphy had looked impressive since taking over as Florida's quarterback, but he could get nothing going in Death Valley. The Tigers finished with four sacks and eight tackles for loss. Linebacker Lamin Barrow led the team with 13 tackles.

T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake, RB, Alabama: It wasn't much of a start for Yeldon or Drake. Both running backs fumbled early, and the Crimson Tide failed to score in the first quarter against Kentucky as a result of the miscues. However, instead of dwelling on the fumbles, they both redeemed themselves in a big way Saturday night. Yeldon led the way with 124 yards on 16 carries, while Drake gained 106 on 14 carries. They each scored two touchdowns. As a team, Alabama rushed for 299 yards against the Wildcats. Freshman running back Altee Tenpenny got into the mix late with a 7-yard touchdown run, the first of his career.

Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: It wasn't pretty at times. It was downright ugly with the two second-half turnovers, but in the end, Johnny did what he always does. He made just enough plays to win the football game. The Aggies gave up a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, but Manziel led them back and answered with a 6-yard touchdown run. After Ole Miss went three-and-out, Manziel orchestrated a flawless two-minute drill that resulted in the game-winning field goal. The Texas A&M quarterback finished 31-of-39 for 346 yards through the air and rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns.

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