LSU Tigers: maquedius bain
An obvious point this spring was that Les Miles’ coaching staff was working with an incomplete roster. Seven underclassmen jumped ship to enter the NFL draft and only two of the Tigers’ 23 signees -- quarterback Brandon Harris and defensive back Edward Paris -- enrolled early to participate in spring practice.
That leaves plenty of questions as the team moves into the offseason -- five of which we’ll address now:
5. Do the Tigers have adequate depth in the backfield?
But even when freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams arrive this summer, will that be enough? An injury here or there could cause major problems. For example, look what happened at Georgia last season. When the season opened, it appeared as though the Bulldogs had one of the nation’s top backfields with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall leading the way and freshmen J.J. Green, Brendan Douglas and A.J. Turman serving as backups. But then Gurley suffered a minor injury in the opener against Clemson followed by a serious ankle injury in Game 4 against LSU. The next week, Marshall suffered a season-ending knee injury.
All of a sudden, Georgia was down to a bunch of freshmen -- all of whom were mid-level prospects -- by the first week of October. It’s no mystery why the Bulldogs went 1-2, and very nearly 0-3, in that October stretch before Gurley returned to the lineup. A lack of backfield depth in the SEC can be a season killer when you make a living on the ground like Georgia and LSU typically do.
4. How many players will figure into the Tigers’ plans on the defensive line? And how good can they be this season?
Aside from quarterback play, this might be the most important factor for the 2014 Tigers. Brick Haley’s bunch was a bit erratic last season, and now it must function with youngsters replacing departed juniors Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson in the middle.
The good news is that there is plenty of talent on hand along the interior line. Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas worked as first-teamers, with redshirt freshmen Maquedius Bain, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron chipping in as reserves. There is an extremely high ceiling with that group, but they’re about as green as it gets. It will also bear watching during preseason camp to see whether a signee like Travonte Valentine can crack Haley’s rotation, too.
The end spots are also a bit of a mystery. Jermauria Rasco -- who missed the spring while returning from offseason surgery -- and Danielle Hunter seem locked in as starters, but will they improve upon middling results in 2013? And who fills in the depth chart behind them? Tashawn Bower seems like a safe bet, but who else? We’ll see.
3. Who will start at safety?
Jalen Mills and Ronald Martin seemed to have these jobs locked down during the spring, but Rickey Jefferson and Corey Thompson -- another player who missed spring practice due to injury -- will be in the mix in August.
Keep in mind that nearly every time this position came up in one of his post-practice press gatherings, Miles mentioned how the Tigers’ safety signees -- Jamal Adams, Devin Voorhies and John Battle -- will be part of the preseason competition, too.
2. Will this offense be productive enough to win a championship?
It probably was last season, but for once it was LSU’s defense that was in the middle of a retooling effort. John Chavis’ defense appears to be on the rise now, but Cam Cameron must replace nearly every significant skill player from last season’s offense.
Freshmen like Fournette, Harris and receiver Malachi Dupre don’t just look like serviceable college players, they look like superstars in the making. But it’s a lot to ask of true freshmen to be superstars immediately.
Cameron’s dilemma is that he will almost certainly rely on at least a half-dozen newcomers to make an impact this fall. It’s a tricky proposition, but his getting reliable production out of that group might mean the difference between LSU contending for the SEC West title this fall or having to wait another year or two until they mature and bring the Tigers back to national championship contention.
1. Will Harris overtake Anthony Jennings at quarterback?
We can’t post this list and fail to address the biggest question surrounding the Tigers this spring. After a month of practice, there doesn’t seem to be an answer, although Harris clearly outperformed his sophomore counterpart in the spring game.
LSU’s coaches understandably see no need to declare a starter five months before the season starts. They’ll battle it out this summer in passing sessions and then again in August. Harris looks to be the contender with higher upside, but he must prove he can avoid the decision-making problems that most freshman quarterbacks encounter when the pressure of the season arrives.
Prediction No. 1: Freshmen will contend for playing time
We were hardly going out on a limb here, but it appears as though plenty of redshirt freshmen secured 2014 playing time over the last month. Players worth mentioning from that group include receiver John Diarse and defensive linemen Frank Herron, Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore.
Prediction No. 2: Anthony Jennings keeps the QB job
Outcome: To be determined. Harris clearly outplayed Jennings in last Saturday’s spring game, but LSU’s coaches and players insist the competition is far from over. Jennings etched his name into LSU lore by leading the game-winning touchdown drive against Arkansas last year in relief of an injured Zach Mettenberger, but his mediocre performance in the Outback Bowl and highly average spring game -- he threw two interceptions, both to linebackers who returned them for touchdowns -- leave this race wide open.
Jennings might very well start the opener against Wisconsin, but we can’t claim victory (or accept defeat) on our quarterback prediction at this point.
Prediction No. 3: Right guard isn’t the only offensive line job that’s up for grabs
Outcome: Right guard is the only spot that didn’t return a starter, so it was clearly up for grabs. We were curious as to whether new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes might shake things up along the line, but it doesn’t appear that he did.
Returning starters La'el Collins, Vadal Alexander, Elliott Porter and Jerald Hawkins apparently held onto their starting roles, although it wouldn’t be completely untrue to say that some of their jobs were up for grabs had one of the reserves put together a dominant spring. Nonetheless, the right guard battle -- Evan Washington, Fehoko Fanaika and Ethan Pocic all remain in the running for the job -- was the only one that seemed highly competitive this spring.
Prediction No. 4: Rashard Robinson keeps rising at cornerback
Outcome: Another fairly safe prediction here. As long as Robinson remains on the active roster, it seems highly likely that he will build upon his late charge in 2013 and become a star in the secondary.
Harris and Rob Bolden teamed up to beat him on a pretty throw down the sideline in the spring game, but Robinson otherwise held up well last Saturday. After shutting down Texas A&M superstar Mike Evans last season, Robinson has LSU fans excited about his potential -- and he didn’t seem to hurt his cause on the practice field this spring.
Prediction No. 5: Danielle Hunter improves as a pass rusher
Outcome: Anyone who saw Hunter manhandle the second-string offensive line in the spring game -- including back-to-back sacks on one possession -- would say this prediction seems to be sound.
LSU posted just 27 sacks last season, which was a big drop-off after the last few Tigers teams boasted at least one or two scary pass rushers. Jermauria Rasco led the team with just four sacks, and Hunter tied for second with three.
It would be a major upset -- and a big disappointment -- if Hunter fails to exceed that total this fall.
Now let’s take a look at our predictions for five players to watch during the spring: Paris, Jennings, Fanaika, wide receiver Quantavius Leslie and defensive lineman Mickey Johnson.
There were some hits and misses here. Jennings was an obvious choice since he and Harris were clearly going to battle for the quarterback job. Picking either one made sense, but we went with Jennings since he was the more experienced player. Harris was the contender who generated all of the positive buzz in the spring game, however.
Fanaika, Leslie and Johnson are all veterans at positions with major playing time available, so they seemed like good picks. Fanaika is still a leading contender to start at right guard and Leslie had a productive second scrimmage (four catches, 135 yards and three touchdowns), although he was quiet in the spring game. But Johnson dealt with injuries during the spring and was not a factor in the Tigers’ competition at defensive tackle.
The problem with our Paris prediction was that we projected him as a contender at safety, which is where ESPN listed him as a prospect. The early enrollee practiced at cornerback during the spring, so we can’t feel too good about that prediction. But he was working with the second-team defense by the end of the spring, so at least he flashed some potential.
If we could redo the list, we’d place Harris, Washington, Diarse, Bain and sophomore Kendell Beckwith -- who shifted to middle linebacker this spring -- on there.
“Not really to be honest with you. We’re going to watch competition [and] it’s a key scrimmage, but it’s also one of those things where there’s a lot of time left before we get to [deciding] playing time,” Miles said after Thursday’s practice. “It’s one piece, but obviously it’s important and any time we walk into that stadium, we expect our guys to play at a certain level.”
So while Miles indicated it would be a mistake to draw any major conclusions from Saturday’s competition, there are still plenty of areas of intrigue worth observing since this is the last time we’ll see the Tigers do anything competitive until they take the field at Houston’s Reliant Stadium on Aug. 30. Here's what we’ll be keeping an eye on from the press box:
Quarterback play: Duh. It was no surprise at Thursday’s practice, which was open for students to attend, that the vast majority of them gathered around the field where LSU’s quarterbacks were throwing to their wide receivers. The competition between sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris is by far the biggest source of intrigue among Tigers fans, and their performances on Saturday will generate speculation all summer about who is best prepared to lead the offense in the opener against Wisconsin.
Both players have worked with the first- and second-team offenses, although Miles hasn’t been specific about who has done what in practices or scrimmages. Jennings certainly looks to have a better handle on things in the portions of practice that are open to the media. Harris, meanwhile, is all raw potential thanks to a powerful throwing arm. The early enrollee seems more likely to sail a ball over or behind a receiver, but when he does it correctly, it’s a thing of beauty.
Defenders could tackle Harris and Jennings when they ran from the pocket in last Saturday’s scrimmage, but Miles predicted they will likely wear non-contact jerseys in the spring game.
Offensive line development: Obviously one of LSU’s main position battles this spring has been at right guard, where Evan Washington, Fehoko Fanaika and Ethan Pocic have all gotten a look from new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see all three players factor into the Tigers’ plans in the fall, although somebody has to be the starter. Washington seems to be the leader, but we’ll gain some understanding of the pecking order on Saturday.
Overall, a line that returns four starters was effective last season, particularly as run blockers. They want to become a dominant group this season, however, and their experience and apparent depth make that seem like a possibility. Let’s see how they fare against an emerging LSU defensive line on Saturday.
Beckwith vs. Welter: We could expand this to the performance of the entire reshuffled linebacker corps, with Kwon Alexander at weakside linebacker and Lamar Louis at strong. But let’s narrow our focus on the play of senior D.J. Welter and sophomore Kendell Beckwith in the middle. Both players have reportedly enjoyed productive springs and both will likely factor into coordinator John Chavis’ plans in the fall. But who will be the starter? Saturday won’t decide that outcome, but it will be interesting to observe how the two players function in a game-like situation.
Interior defensive line: Miles has said a time or two this spring that the competition between the offensive and defensive lines has been encouraging. It will be fun to watch them duke it out on Saturday. One group has a decided experience advantage, particularly after starting defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson both bolted for the NFL draft. But there are some up-and-comers along the defensive line who could shine on Saturday.
By all accounts, sophomore Christian LaCouture has had a strong spring. Sophomore end Tashawn Bower, redshirt freshman tackles Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore and end/tackle Frank Herron are among the youngsters we’ll be watching, as well.
Secondary play: This is a group that simply has to play better in 2014. All of the contenders at safety haven’t been practicing lately, so it’s unclear whether we’ll get a clear idea of where that competition stands on Saturday. But how smooth will Jalen Mills look at safety? What does early enrollee Ed Paris look like after a month of practices at cornerback? Who fills the various defensive back roles if the Tigers line up in their nickel and dime packages? Will Rashard Robinson and Tre’Davious White continue to develop into the lockdown cornerbacks LSU fans hope they will become? Those are all questions to keep in mind as you watch the scrimmage.
Who are the playmakers?: Freshmen who could become some of the Tigers’ most dangerous 2014 offensive skill players -- such as tailback Leonard Fournette and receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn -- won’t arrive until the summer. But there are several players already on campus who could use a confidence-building performance at Tiger Stadium to catapult themselves into the offseason.
Senior receiver Quantavius Leslie had such an outing at last Saturday’s scrimmage, catching four passes for 135 yards and three touchdowns. Who else might pull off that kind of feat? Receivers Travin Dural or John Diarse? Tight end DeSean Smith? Tailbacks Terrence Magee or Kenny Hilliard? Somebody else? Stay tuned.
The blessing is that the Tigers’ coaching staff has attracted loads of NFL-caliber talent to Baton Rouge. Just check the stats. Eight LSU defensive linemen have been drafted since Haley joined the staff in 2009, a number that would grow to 10 if defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson are selected this year.
The curse is that continuity is nearly impossible to maintain, particularly at defensive tackle. This is Haley’s sixth spring practice at LSU and the third where both of his starting defensive tackles -- whoever they might be in 2014 -- will be new to starting roles.
“That’s LSU,” said Christian LaCouture, who is attempting to take over one of the starting jobs after Johnson and Ferguson both bolted for the NFL after finishing their junior seasons. “That’s something where guys, we want to win a national championship, we want to win an SEC championship and a lot of the guys go to the league. You’ve got to prepare. It’s the next man in here and you’ve got to produce.”
LaCouture is perhaps LSU’s most experienced interior lineman, having appeared in all 13 games last season as a true freshman. But he faces plenty of competition for a starting job from junior Quentin Thomas and redshirt freshmen Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore. Redshirt freshman Frank Herron also took some practice reps at defensive tackle earlier this spring, but he appears to be playing end for now.
While LSU coach Les Miles said after Saturday’s scrimmage that there’s a chance that the defensive tackles “could be as successful as any group that we’ve had,” the dynamics in play this fall could be significantly different from a season ago. Ferguson and Johnson played the vast majority of scrimmage downs in 2013, but the workload might be spread more evenly between players this season.
“They definitely were the impact players of our defensive tackles. They definitely were, and it’s all good,” Gilmore said. “I think that was a good year for us to sit back, learn the plays, learn the techniques. So I think this year now we have everybody that’s equal, trying not to have a drop-off in the twos and try to rotate in.”
By redshirting Bain and Gilmore -- both of whom ranked among ESPN’s top 130 overall recruits in 2013 -- Haley put a particularly heavy burden on his two starters, and Bain said the effect of that workload was noticeable.
“Last year they were kind of tired between Ego and Freak [Johnson],” Bain said. “They were kind of tired and we told Coach Brick, ‘You wore them guys a little bit more. You can trust us.’ So now that he trusts us, he’s putting us out there in the spring and now he sees that we can do what Freak and Ego did.”
Of course, the candidates must prove to Haley that they deserve to share some of those snaps -- which is the same responsibility that signees such as Travonte Valentine, Trey Lealaimatafao and Davon Godchaux will face when they arrive in the summer.
Valentine, according to fellow Floridian Bain, could be a candidate for early playing time if he competes well in August.
“Hopefully when Tra Valentine gets in here, he’ll be the fifth man,” Bain said of the freshman signee fitting in with himself, LaCouture, Thomas and Gilmore. “But right now, it’s just a four-man rotation and that’s what we’re going with.”
Last season, Haley made the best of the hand he’d been dealt. Starting tackle Bennie Logan had eligibility remaining when he entered the 2013 NFL draft. Johnson and Ferguson were the returning linemen with whom Haley was the most comfortable, and he decided that the Tigers would be better off riding them as far as possible without relying on the raw freshmen.
Now nobody is particularly proven, and the resulting competition reduces any possibility of complacency within the group. That’s what their counterparts on the offensive line have noticed, anyway.
“They know they have less experience than the guys that left, so of course they’re out there trying to get better each and every day and they’re giving us their all,” senior offensive tackle La'el Collins said. “Last year we had a lot of veteran guys and those guys were just out there going through whatever they needed to go through. But these guys are giving a little bit more effort because they understand that it’s their time to play, so they’re really trying to focus on getting better.”
Center Elliott Porter added that “it’s a grind every day to block them,” which has created worthwhile practice competition for both LSU lines this spring. Although LSU’s offensive line carries a serious experience advantage over its defensive opponents, Miles indicated Saturday that the competition between the two groups has been close -- with two weeks of spring practice left to declare a victor.
“I think that these [defensive tackles] can be dominant players. I think improvement needs to take place,” Miles said. “Again, I think the offensive line and defensive line, they’re measured in the spring. It’s going to be interesting to see that competition as it plays out the next two weeks.”
Before the Tigers return to the practice field on Tuesday, let’s recap some of the developments thus far this spring.
Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris appear to lead Hayden Rettig in one of the nation’s most-watched spring quarterback battles. With 2013 playing time under his belt -- including a start in the Outback Bowl win over Iowa -- Jennings appears to be the more composed, polished contender on the practice field. But Harris possesses special passing talent. It should continue to be an interesting race throughout the summer and into the season.
The young quarterbacks endured many sloppy moments early in camp, to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Cam Cameron’s displeasure, but Tigers coach Les Miles said both players threw the ball well in Saturday’s scrimmage. Perhaps they are starting to turn a corner toward being ready to face SEC competition.
Receivers are a mess: Between frequent dropped passes and a spate of injuries, it has not been a banner spring for LSU’s receivers. Early in the spring, they seemed to struggle to get on the same page with the quarterbacks. And by the end of last week, they only had a couple of healthy scholarship players available.
Redshirt freshmen Kevin Spears, Avery Peterson and John Diarse have all dealt with injuries, with those setbacks coming at a particularly inopportune time since the youngsters need to establish themselves before a talented group of signees arrives this summer. At last Thursday’s practice periods that were open to the media, the only scholarship wideouts catching passes from the quarterbacks were Travin Dural and Quantavius Leslie.
Miles said last week that he likes what Dural and Diarse have accomplished thus far this spring, and Dural caught a long touchdown pass in Saturday’s scrimmage. But the others still have a lot to prove, which might be why Miles predicted that all four receiver signees will have the opportunity to win playing time in the fall.
Defensive line coming together: Miles seems pleased with the progress that several young defensive linemen have made this spring. In the last week, he has singled out redshirt freshmen Frank Herron, Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore for getting stronger and improving their games since they arrived at LSU last year.
He also complimented sophomores Christian LaCouture and Tashawn Bower after Saturday’s scrimmage. LaCouture and Bain both had sacks in the scrimmage, and Bower had two quarterback pressures.
The defensive line competition won’t generate a fraction of the national interest that the quarterback battle will, but that group’s development might be just as important in gauging LSU’s chances to contend in the SEC West this fall. With Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson both bolting for the NFL, the Tigers desperately needed some players to fill their void -- and Miles makes it sound as if they are developing some good options.
OL battle rages: It’s no surprise that LSU’s coaching staff continues to weigh its options on the offensive line -- particularly at the right guard position.
Seniors Evan Washington and Fehoko Fanaika have worked there, as has sophomore Ethan Pocic. It’s clear that the staff likes what Pocic can do, because he has practiced at guard, center and tackle this spring. Fanaika has been strictly at guard and Washington has worked at both guard and tackle.
With a new offensive line coach, Jeff Grimes, coming on board this spring, it’s obvious that he’s experimenting with different player combinations to see what he likes best. That experimentation will probably continue beyond the spring game.
Linebacker shuffle: As with the offensive line, LSU’s linebackers are also trying some new combinations this spring. Kwon Alexander shifted from strongside linebacker to weakside linebacker, Lamar Louis went from middle linebacker to the strong side and Kendell Beckwith is now backing up D.J. Welter in the middle after playing mostly at defensive end last fall.
LSU’s linebackers were somewhat mediocre for portions of 2013, so defensive coordinator John Chavis shook things up a bit this spring. Miles said Saturday that Beckwith’s move to the middle appears to be a good one and that Welter has improved his play this spring with the talented sophomore now battling him for playing time.
The linebackers themselves seem excited about the speed and athleticism that their group possesses. It will be interesting to see whether the lineup shuffling affects the Tigers’ overall defensive performance.
The Tigers are nowhere near installing the more complex schemes that fans will see during the fall, but Saturday's competition should provide a good measuring stick for what the team has accomplished in the first two weeks of spring workouts.
LSU held a partial scrimmage last Saturday and will return to Tiger Stadium again next Saturday for its final scrimmage before the April 5 spring game. For the most part, each of those outings emphasizes competition and fundamental techniques.
Coach Les Miles said the offense worked on first-and-10 situations last week and will practice third-and-short and third-and-medium scenarios -- to “put us in position where we have to be pass rushed and be able to execute the passing game under pressure” -- plus special teams Saturday.
But as Welter said, it will be mostly basic situational work where both sides run vanilla schemes and the coaches can evaluate how younger players, in particular, hold up against more seasoned competitors.
“I can say one of the main things is it's for the young guys -- for guys who haven't established themselves to establish themself as a playmaker and just show that they want to play, whether it's on special teams or whether it's on offense or defense, just standing out and leaving your mark,” linebacker Lamar Louis said.
“So I can say that first spring [scrimmage] has a lot to do with that because it's not much scheme, not much put in from the playbook or whatever. You're just showing the coaches you can execute small things that they've given you already.”
Many eyes, then, will be on players like quarterback Brandon Harris and cornerback Edward Paris Jr. -- early enrollees who are getting their first taste of college competition -- and a host of redshirt freshmen expected to play larger roles this season.
Harris’ development is one of the most intriguing storylines of LSU’s spring, although he and fellow quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Hayden Rettig might face a competitive disadvantage Saturday. The receiving corps -- another group that has plenty to prove -- has been short-handed for a portion of the spring.
During the open media periods at Thursday’s practice, the only scholarship receivers catching passes from the quarterbacks were Travin Dural and Quantavius Leslie. Kevin Spears, John Diarse and Rob Bolden were absent and Avery Peterson was wearing pads but watching from the sideline. Spears and Peterson have dealt with hamstring injuries this spring and Miles said Diarse “was limited because of a small procedure that he had done,” adding that he could return to practice next week.
The limited numbers make the passing game look like even more of a work in progress.
“With John back, it’s really a pretty good group,” Miles said. “With John out, it takes some work -- plus you have new quarterbacks that are having to run the drill for the first time, so there’s a little inexperience that’s being served by practicing.”
On the other side of the ball, 2013 redshirts like Greg Gilmore, Maquedius Bain and Frank Herron could all figure heavily into the defensive line plans this fall, and they’ve yet to play a college down. But there are multiple positions throughout the roster where the Tigers have holes to fill, and scrimmages will provide the coaches with some game-like insight.
“From a defensive perspective, you just want to see how people react to the calls, that they do their assignments, how they do their techniques,” Welter said. “Specifically at linebacker, getting your pads dropped or fitting in your gap and reading the flow of the ball, fitting right. So it's all about just fitting right in the defense that's called and going out there and playing and being loose and executing.”
Miles said last week that the defense was ahead of the offense this spring, and he repeated that opinion on Thursday. That’s understandable given the turnover that has taken place at LSU’s offensive skill positions, and it’s part of the developmental process as new players fill departed veterans’ roles.
Such a transition forces the offensive Tigers to take a longer view of what’s taking place on the practice field and in competitive scrimmages like Saturday’s rather than dwell on present-day shortcomings.
“The main thing that we want to do [in scrimmages] is we want to show that we got better. Because by the end of the spring, we want to be 15 practices better than when we started,” left guard Vadal Alexander said. “So I just want to improve on something. That's my main thing.”
“There’s no question, if they had not been here in January and moved and advanced in their knowledge of what we’re doing, then they’d have a very difficult time competing,” LSU coach Les Miles said.
If not for the valuable experience he gained last spring, Anthony Jennings -- one of two quarterbacks who early enrolled last year, along with Hayden Rettig -- almost certainly wouldn’t have catapulted up the depth chart the way he did, much less completed a game-winning comeback against Arkansas in place of injured senior Zach Mettenberger. And Jennings and Rettig wouldn’t be as far along as they are now in learning the nuances of Cam Cameron’s offense if not for that low-pressure springtime learning environment, since the Tigers already had an established starter in Mettenberger.
Quarterback being the high-profile position that it is, perhaps it’s the most noticeable place where the Tigers benefited from last year’s big group of early enrollees. But LSU is actually better off at several positions because of those eight players who early enrolled last January -- a group that also includes defensive tackle Christian LaCouture, tight end Logan Stokes, offensive linemen Fehoko Fanaika and Ethan Pocic and receivers John Diarse and Avery Peterson.
Nearly all of those players are in the thick of the competition to grab a starting spot this spring.
“Think about Ethan Pocic. He was our second-team center last year. He shows up here in January or he doesn’t finish at center. He’s not there,” Miles said of Pocic, who played offensive tackle throughout high school, but backed up Elliott Porter at center last season and could contribute at a number of different positions this fall.
“It’s a tremendous advantage for these guys that show up early. There’s no question,” Miles continued. “And it’s a tremendous advantage for us. We get to see what they look like, how they think and is there somebody that we should count on other than them, short term, or do we say, ‘No, move him in because he’s got it.’”
Take Diarse for example. The redshirt freshman probably would have played last season but for an ankle injury he suffered during preseason camp. But he wouldn’t have been in position to back up Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry in 2013 -- much less occupy the starting position he currently enjoys -- if not for his experience last spring.
Louisiana’s 2012 Mr. Football, Diarse was a star dual-threat quarterback at Neville High School in Monroe. He admits that he had a lot to learn about playing his current position, receiver, when he arrived last January.
“It blew my mind the first couple of months into it -- it blew my mind how much detail and technique that it takes to be a receiver,” Diarse said. “Just coming in last spring kind of put me ahead of the 8-ball and now I’m just picking up tidbits here and there to better myself every day.”
Three of the five 2013 early enrollees who played last season -- Stokes, Jennings and Pocic -- all started at least one game. LaCouture played in all 13 games as one of the top reserves on the defensive line, while Fanaika played behind Trai Turner at right guard in several games and worked on the Tigers’ field-goal unit in 12 contests.
All five players are either the leading candidate to start at their position this fall or to play in some sort of a rotation, thanks in no small part to the head start they got this time a year ago.
“You’ve got to learn quick,” LaCouture said. “Spring ball is something that really helped me out -- coming in and knowing the pace of the game, knowing the plays right off the bat. That way when we hit fall ball, it was quick and we were rolling and we were getting ready for that.”
Now he’s in position to help guide less experienced teammates at a position where LSU desperately needs leadership. NFL draft early entrants Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson played the vast majority of the key snaps at defensive tackle last season, thrusting 2013 signees LaCouture, Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain into position where they might play much bigger roles this fall.
LaCouture is the only member of the trio who played last season, so if LSU’s line performs anywhere near a championship-caliber level -- which might be one key in whether LSU becomes more than an also-ran in the SEC title chase -- the knowledge and experience he gained last year could become even more valuable.
“It was an awesome experience,” LaCouture said. “It was something for me that I’ve always grown up wanting to do. I wanted to come in here [and] it was so great for me having spring ball and preparing myself to do that with the help of Coach Brick [Haley, LSU’s defensive line coach] and the older guys, [defensive coordinator John] Chavis also and Coach Miles.
“Having Ego, Freak [Johnson] and all the guys that left for the draft helped me build my way up for now where I can lead the team this year, just do as much as I can to produce a national championship.”
We started Monday with the wide receivers and move today to the defensive tackles, who must replace both starters from a season ago. Here are some players worth watching in what might be the most important position battle on the team this year:
Returning starters: None
Departures: Juniors Anthony Johnson (35 tackles, nine tackles for a loss, three sacks) and Ego Ferguson (40 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, one sack) played the vast majority of important downs last fall, but both players opted to enter the 2014 NFL draft.
Returning reserves: Freshman Christian LaCouture (11 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, one sack) earned immediate playing time last season after enrolling early, but he and then-sophomore Quentin Thomas (nine tackles, 0.5 TFLs) were the only reserves who contributed much behind the starters. Mickey Johnson played in four games and recorded three tackles while being plagued by injuries. The rising junior will be one of the oldest players in the mix this fall.
Newcomers: This could be a group worth watching. Not only are there some promising linemen who are coming off redshirt seasons -- including Greg Gilmore, Maquedius Bain and possibly Frank Herron, who last season was listed as a defensive end -- but the Tigers also signed three recruits earlier this month who could potentially be plug-and-play candidates in the fall. Signing day was big in that regard as Travonte Valentine (6-foot-3, 325 pounds) announced that he would sign with LSU over hometown Miami, Trey Lealaimatafao (6-0, 300) revealed that he would join the Tigers and Davon Godchaux (6-4, 271) stuck with his LSU commitment after making some late visits to other campuses. Getting all three was huge. They won't arrive until the summer, which puts them at a disadvantage compared to the players who have spent at least a season on campus. But very few of the contenders at tackle have much -- if any -- on-field experience. The rookies will get a chance to win some playing time.
What to watch: The exciting thing about this group is that it almost certainly has a bright future. There is plentiful talent and depth here. The question is whether the group can perform well enough this fall to live up to LSU's exceptional tradition up front. Johnson and Ferguson are just the latest Tigers whose size and athleticism made them appealing defensive tackle prospects for the NFL. But the group is in rebuilding mode, searching for the right combination of starters -- and perhaps a few more reserves -- to slide into what was a fairly thin rotation a year ago. It seems like a safe bet that LaCouture and Thomas will figure into the mix, but how many of the young guys will prove that they deserve playing time? And can they steal a starting spot from one of the more established players? The developments in spring practice will help answer that question -- and it would be helpful if at least a couple of them make some good things happen in the next few weeks in order to develop some continuity heading into summer workouts and preseason practice.
So far this week we've discussed freshman safety Edward Paris Jr., receiver Quantavius Leslie and offensive guard Fehoko Fanaika. Today we move onto one of the few veterans at the rebuilding defensive tackle position.
2013 review: An ESPN 150 prospect in 2011, Johnson played a minor role as a redshirt sophomore and was affected by injuries throughout the season. He appeared in just four games -- lopsided victories over UAB, Kent State, Mississippi State and Furman -- and recorded just three tackles.
Why spring is important: Both of LSU's starting defensive tackles, Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson, entered the NFL draft after the season, so this feels like now-or-never time for Johnson. He faces spring competition from talented players coming off a redshirt such as Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain and the competition will only grow this summer when Travonte Valentine, Trey Lealaimatafao and Davon Godchaux arrive on campus.
Best case/worst case: Johnson must prove that he can stay healthy and produce or he faces the prospect of being left behind by the young upstarts who enter the mix during the spring and summer. He's been on campus for three seasons and has only appeared in five games, so Johnson has hardly established himself as a go-to player. He can start doing that this spring and could play alongside players such as Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas, who ranked among the Tigers' top line reserves a year ago. The worst case would be that he continues along the trend that marked his first few seasons on campus and fails to carve out a niche at a position that could use a veteran's presence.
Today we continue this week's series listing five position groups with room to improve in the fall. Yesterday we discussed the tight ends, who could develop a more active presence in the passing game in Year 2 under offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Now we move onto the defensive tackles, who were good but rarely dominant last season and now must replace both starters.
Battling for No. 1: High-profile departures on offense will draw the most attention between now and the season, but this position is every bit as important as who will replace the likes of Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Jeremy Hill. Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson bolted for the NFL after their junior seasons, leaving a great deal of inexperience at a key position. Rising sophomore Christian LaCouture (11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss and one sack last fall) and junior Quentin Thomas (nine tackles, 1.5 TFL, one fumble recovery) have the most experience, but that isn't saying much.
Strength in numbers: Rising junior Mickey Johnson (three tackles in four games) was a top 150 recruit when he signed with LSU in 2011 but has yet to make a major impact. Not only must LSU's coaches pick from a large group of signees and players coming off a redshirt season to fill out the depth chart, but they need some of them to push for starting positions. At this point, however, it's tough to predict which members of the group will earn a role in the rotation -- a traditional element of LSU defense that barely existed last year since Johnson and Ferguson played the majority of downs and LaCouture and Thomas handled most of the reserve snaps.
New on the scene: The good news here is that LSU defensive line coach Brick Haley has some talented players to add to the mix this fall. They're just young. Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain were both among LSU's highest-rated signees a year ago, and both are ESPN 300 prospects are coming off a redshirt season. So is Frank Herron, whom LSU lists as a defensive end, but who could develop into an interior lineman. Finally, the Tigers signed three players last week who they list as defensive tackles. Four-star, 300-pound tackles Travonte Valentine and Trey Lealaimatafao both announced on signing day that they were LSU-bound. Davon Godchaux -- whom ESPN graded as a four-star defensive end -- stuck with his LSU commitment and is also listed as a tackle.
The Tigers lost seven players who had eligibility remaining -- five of whom came from the offense, a year after seven of LSU's 11 early entries were defensive players. That puts the onus on offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to quickly determine his top options after losing the only foursome in SEC history that featured a 3,000-yard passer (senior Zach Mettenberger), two 1,000-yard receivers (juniors Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry) and a 1,000-yard rusher (sophomore Jeremy Hill).
Let's take a position-by-position look at some of the possible replacements for the Tigers who opted to enter the draft:
Departing: Juniors Landry (77 catches, 1,193 yards, 10 TDs in 2013) and Beckham (59-1,152, 8 TDs). LSU passed for 3,263 yards in 2013. Landry and Beckham combined to accumulate 2,345 of those yards (plus departing tailback Hill and senior Kadron Boone were third and fifth on the team with 181 and 129 yards, respectively). In other words, LSU has a ton of receiving production to replace and no proven options.
Contenders: As the only returning receiver with more than 100 yards in 2013, Travin Dural (7-145, 2 TDs) is the most obvious choice here. He made a game-winning, 49-yard touchdown catch in the closing minutes against Arkansas, so perhaps he will be one of the Tigers' next receiving playmakers.
Otherwise, who knows? LSU would love to get more out of former junior college transfer Quantavius Leslie (1-11), but he didn't do much in 2013. And then you have Avery Peterson (brother of former LSU cornerback Patrick) and John Diarse, both of whom were big-time prospects before redshirting last season.
Additionally, the Tigers already have verbal commitments from Trey Quinn -- ESPN's No. 3 receiver and No. 29 overall prospect -- fellow ESPN 300 picks D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch, and are still pursuing No. 1 wideout Malachi Dupre. If Les Miles' staff lands some of these top-tier prospects, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them crack the depth chart as freshmen.
Departing: Sophomore Hill (203 carries, 1,401 yards, 16 TDs) and senior Alfred Blue (71-343, 1 TD). Hill posted the second-best rushing totals in school history in 2013 and was an absolute force when he stayed out of trouble. Blue missed his chance to be the No. 1 tailback when he suffered a season-ending injury early in the 2012 campaign. Hill had two years of eligibility remaining, while Blue was granted a fifth season by the NCAA but elected not to use it.
Contenders: Perhaps it's unfair to 2014 seniors Terrence Magee (86-626, 8 TDs) and Kenny Hilliard (68-310, 7 TDs) to discount their roles -- and they will certainly play roles next season -- but Leonard Fournette is the guy who will attract the most attention between signing day and the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin. ESPN rates Fournette as the nation's No. 1 prospect and he is often compared to Adrian Peterson thanks to a rare combination of size (he's listed at 6-foot-1 and 226 pounds), slippery moves and breakaway speed. Magee and Hilliard will both contribute, but LSU's running game can be great if Fournette quickly establishes himself alongside the veterans.
Departing: Juniors Anthony Johnson (35 tackles, 9 tackles for a loss, 3 sacks) and Ego Ferguson (58 tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss, 1 sack). Johnson and Ferguson anchored the middle of the Tigers' line, but their early departures create a big hole for position coach Brick Haley to fill.
Contenders: Christian LaCouture (11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss, 1 sack) is the first name to mention. An early enrollee last year, LaCouture jumped into the rotation as a freshman and served as a decent third option behind the veterans. Meanwhile, Quentin Thomas (9 tackles, 0.5 tackles for a loss) entered the starting lineup against Iowa in the Outback Bowl when Ferguson didn't travel to the bowl site. Beyond those two, it's a bit of a mystery. Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain -- both of whom redshirted in 2013 -- were big gets for LSU on the recruiting trail at this time a year ago, so they could enter the mix as well.
Departing: Sophomore Trai Turner (Started all 13 games in 2013). Turner was a second-team All-SEC pick as a draft-eligible sophomore, prompting him to jump to the pros earlier than many would have expected. His departure creates an opening at right guard -- the lone spot to fill on what could be an outstanding offensive line.
Contenders: On the day left tackle La'El Collins announced he would return for his senior season, he lobbied for Fehoko Fanaika to fill Turner's spot. At 6-foot-6 and 348 pounds, the junior college transfer -- who appeared in 12 games in 2013 -- certainly has the girth to handle the job. Other options include a pair of ESPN 300 selections from 2013, Ethan Pocic (also Elliott Porter's backup at center) and Andy Dodd, along with ESPN's No. 1 guard for 2014, Garrett Brumfield, who has already committed to the hometown Tigers.
With eight newcomers having already enrolled in the spring semester and gone through spring practice, that means 18 new scholarship faces joined the program. Here are the 10 most likely to make a quick impact:
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Here's how we see them fitting in.
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As LSU prepares to begin spring practice March 14, GeauxTigerNation will take daily looks at aspects of the spring camp. This is the third in the series:
BATON ROUGE, La. -- If you watched the NFL combine, you saw former LSU defensive linemen and defensive backs lining up to take their turns in drills.
So you want to know the areas of need as we head to the spring?
The combine gave you most of the answers.
Experience returning: Jermauria Rasco
Outlook: LSU won't have all of its candidates until August, when a trio of true freshmen arrive. But it'll be interesting to see who emerges out of the four veterans. Rasco worked his way into the top four last season and Hunter was a nice special teams player. Allen is coming off a knee injury. Any strong play from these four would be great news in the spring.
Outlook: LSU is a little more solid here than at end because Johnson and Ferguson have seen plenty of snaps. Ferguson needs to step his game up though. There's a lot of talk that Thomas is a guy who might step up and earn significant playing time, possibly even challenging Ferguson for a starting spot. True freshman Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore will arrive in August. Another freshman, LaCouture, is already on campus.
Player lost: Kevin Minter
Experience returning: Lots of players, but are there any natural MLBs?
Outlook: This position is more a matter of finding the right guy than finding a guy. Does LSU move weak linebacker Lamin Barrow there? Does D.J. Welter, who was second team in the Chick-fil-A bowl after missing the season for academic reasons, get a shot? How about young Ronnie Feist? There are no shortage of candidates. It's just a matter of finding the right fit.
Outlook: Like middle linebacker, there are candidates here, but which one is the best fit? Collins was a highly-regarded prospect coming out of high school, but he got comfortable at left guard as a sophomore and there could be a reluctance to move him. Hawkins is a talented redshirt freshman, but do you really want a redshirt freshman blocking quarterback Zach Mettenberger's blind side? Alexander, last year's starter at right tackle, could be an option as well, but that would leave the Tigers having to find a new starter for two positions.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- By signing day, defensive line coach Brick Haley had to feel like the star of the show for LSU.
When the Tigers got Tashawn Bower to flip from Auburn to LSU on signing day, it wrapped up a banner recruiting season for LSU on the defensive line, with seven new faces signed to help replenish an area hit hard by the NFL draft.
With the Tigers needing at least four more defensive linemen in the 2014 class, who might they target?
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Kevin Toliver II Climbs New ESPN 300
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