LSU Tigers: Micah Eugene
We covered the wide receivers, defensive tackles and quarterbacks in the first three installments. Now let's look at the safeties. The Tigers never settled on a starter opposite now-departed senior Craig Loston last season.
Returning starters: None. (No full-time starters, anyway.)
Returning reserves: Jalen Mills (67 tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks, three INTs) slid over from his cornerback position to start in the Tigers' Outback Bowl victory over Iowa. That was his first start at safety, but don't be surprised if he stays there, at least part time. The Tigers worked with seven starting combinations at safety last year, and the other players with starting experience – Corey Thompson (23 tackles, 0.5 TFLs), Ronald Martin (38 tackles, one INT) and Rickey Jefferson (six tackles, 0.5 TFLs) – are all back.
Newcomers: Early enrollee Edward Paris Jr. – ESPN's No. 50 overall prospect and No. 4 safety – is the first member of LSU's star-studded group of safety signees to get a crack at winning some playing time. He is on campus for spring practice, and that might help him win some playing time in the fall. The other new safeties – No. 2 safety and No. 18 overall prospect Jamal Adams, ESPN 300 pick Devin Voorhies and three-star prospect John Battle IV – will get a chance to prove themselves after they arrive in the summer.
What to watch: This position group dealt with regular turnover last fall, so LSU's coaching staff certainly will be looking to develop more consistency at safety starting this spring. Mills' presence could help stabilize the group a bit, but the Tigers need to establish two starters and a solid depth chart at some point. They don't necessarily have to see that happen during the spring, but it would certainly help if position coach Corey Raymond is able to begin narrowing his options after the spring game.
LSU did not list any of the four 2012 signees on its Outback Bowl roster, and Edinburgh and Raymond did not play at all in 2013. Phillips recorded four tackles through the first nine games before sitting out the final four, while Sandolph made one tackle in three games.
Southeastern Louisiana announced on Wednesday that Sandolph and another recent Tiger -- safety Micah Eugene, who left the program prior to the bowl game -- are transferring to the FCS-level program.
The Baton Rouge Advocate reported that Phillips left LSU because of academic problems and enrolled at East Mississippi Community College in hopes of eventually returning to Baton Rouge.
He was the highest-rated member of the foursome when they signed with LSU in 2012. ESPN graded Phillips as a four-star prospect and the No. 135 overall prospect in the nation that year. Edinburgh, Sandolph and Raymond were all three-star signees.
The Tigers come out ready to play: For any of the five Southeastern Conference opponents lined to play LSU before it takes a break from league play at the end of October, a word of warning -- don’t start slowly. The Tigers are fast from the gates. They led 21-0 on Saturday after 15 minutes for the second consecutive week. The Tigers have outscored three opponents 48-3 in the first quarter this season. On Saturday, running back Jeremy Hill took the fourth play from scrimmage for a 58-yard scoring burst through the heart of the Kent State defense. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger connected with Jarvis Landry for a 21-yard score on third and 20 to cap LSU’s second drive. Its third possession covered just 37 yards in four plays after Ego Ferguson’s sack of Kent State QB Colin Reardon to the 1-yard line created fantastic field position. Yes, the Tigers did it with defense, too, allowing 34 yards in the opening quarter. In the first half, LSU accumulated 359 yards to remove all suspense.
The backfield features options aplenty: Even with the sophomore Hill back for another game from his suspension to open the season, the Tigers look determined to play a committee of running backs. Hill started fast and rushed for 117 yards and two touchdowns, but junior Terrence Magee played early and gained 108 yards on nine carries. Alfred Blue got 10 carries, and the Tigers saved four attempts for Kenny Hilliard. According to coach Les Miles, Hill hasn’t reached the top of his game. “Snaps are a great teacher,” Miles said. “He just hasn’t had many.” If the four-headed monster works, why not stick with it? LSU produced 307 rushing yards against the Golden Flashes without so much as tiring one of its backs. Sounds like a great recipe for success in the SEC. Realistically, the Tigers figure to pare it down some. Hill, with some sharpening over the next few weeks, should emerge as the featured guy, but Magee, Hillard and the more compact Blue form a nice complementary trio.
That defense is maturing quickly: Hard to question those who doubted the ability of LSU’s defense to dominate this season after five of its starters -- in addition to cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, who did not play a year ago -- landed in the top three rounds of the NFL draft in April. That’s a record number, by the way, for one defensive unit. And while they’re not dominant yet, the signs are there, especially up front, where ends Jermauria Rasco and Jordan Allen were supposed to anchor the line. They’re good, but tackles Ferguson and Anthony Johnson might be better. Ferguson and Johnson controlled the trenches on Saturday. Then there’s the second level, where linebacker Kwon Alexander continues to blossom and show rare athleticism. In the secondary, freshman cornerback Tre'Davious White stood out early in his first career start. Another first-time starter, safety Micah Eugene, and cornerback Jalen Collins were active with 11 tackles between them.
Practice dates: March 14, 15, 16, 19, 21, 23 (scrimmage), 25, 26 and 28. After spring break, resumes April 9, 11, 13 (scrimmage), 16, 18 and 20 (spring game).
What's new: Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will install his new offense, and four new starters will man the defensive line.
What's old: The Tigers have eight returning starters on offense, led by quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
Starters returning (8): QB Mettenberger, RB Jeremy Hill, FB J.C. Copeland, WR Jarvis Landry, WR Odell Beckham, LT La'el Collins (moved from left guard), LG Josh Williford (moved from right guard), RG Trai Turner, RT Vadal Alexander.
New starters: TE Dillon Gordon or Logan Stokes, C Elliott Porter. Key reserves -- QB Stephen Rivers, RBs Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard and Terrance Magee, FB Connor Neighbors, LT Jerald Hawkins, RG Fehoko Fanaika, RT Ethan Pocic, WR James Wright, Kadron Boone, John Diarse and Travin Dural, TE Travis Dickson.
His end of the bargain held up, Reid announced his decision Friday to leave LSU for the NFL. He wasn't the only one.
In a mild surprise, junior cornerback Tharold Simon also declared for the draft after leading the team with four interceptions and 13 passes defended. A first-year starter in 2012, he was a key piece to the LSU secondary in 2011 as the fifth defensive back whose presence allowed the Tigers to use Mathieu as a nickel back.
With their departures, all six of LSU's primary defensive backs on the 2011 team -- Simon, Reid, Mathieu, cornerback Morris Claiborne, safety Brandon Taylor and dime back Ron Brooks -- probably will be on NFL rosters next season.
Regardless, LSU looks to be in better shape next season than it was entering 2012. Where only two of the top six DBs returned for the 2012 season, the Tigers should still have four of their top six back next season.
Junior strong safety Craig Loston probably will return for his senior year and starting cornerback Jalen Mills, nickel back Jalen Collins and dime back Micah Eugene were all freshmen.
That bodes well for the Tigers' secondary, which outperformed expectations most of the year, given that Mathieu's departure forced LSU to have to start a true freshman, Mills, in his place. The Tigers did struggle down the stretch, allowing four straight 300-yard passing games to finish the season.
Developing young talent will be crucial this offseason. Ronald Martin, Eugene, Corey Thompson and Jerqwinick Sandolph are young safeties who might vie for Reid's free safety spot. LSU has one 2013 recruit committed, Jeremy Cutrer. But LSU is pursuing more, including ESPN 150 safety Priest Willis.
At cornerback, Collins figures to replace Mills and LSU also returns Dwayne Thomas and Derrick Raymond and has a talented class of cornerbacks coming on signing day, including three four-star prospects -- Jeryl Brazil, Tre'Davious White and Rickey Jefferson -- and three-star Rashard Robinson.
Bain, the No. 6 defensive tackle in the ESPN 150 and the highest-rated of the Tigers' 24 commitments, figures to play at LSU early. And he'll play a position where the Tigers have a tremendous recent track record for getting players to the NFL. Part of the reason there is a need for defensive tackles in this LSU class (Bain is one of four DT commitments in the class) is the presumed early departure of junior Bennie Logan to the NFL.
If Bain does play immediately, it will continue an LSU trend: Tiger freshmen should come ready to play because many of them will play. LSU used 15 true freshmen in the 2012 season, including four who started and a fifth who was a special-teams starter.
The starters: Tharold Simon, Eric Reid, Craig Loston, Jalen Mills
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Freshman corners Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins have stepped into the void left by Mathieu and performed admirably in helping the Tigers boast the No. 6 passing defense in the nation this season.
What's been missing is Mathieu's ability to provide a big-play spark. Rarely this season have plays emerged like his 2011 highlights -- the strips returned for touchdowns against Oregon and Kentucky, the bat-down interception return against West Virginia or the punt-return touchdowns against Arkansas and Georgia.
The Tigers will reload. Mills and Collins will continue to progress. Youngsters such as safeties Micah Eugene (three sacks) and Ronald Martin (two interceptions) are developing talents.
LSU also has commitments from a bevy of talented recruits in the 2013 recruiting class -- several of whom have experience in Mathieu's areas of expertise.
Keep an eye on versatile cornerbacks such as Jeryl Brazil (Loranger, La./Loranger), Tre'Davious White (Shreveport, La./Green Oaks) and do-everything athlete John Diarse (Monroe, La./Neville).
The quiet but persistent chatter this season had been that, after a rehab stint, Mathieu might have been able to rejoin the Tigers next season. Thursday's arrest makes that unlikely.
And the special teams? Last season was near perfection for a unit that routinely flipped the field. This year, the Tigers are missing field goals, getting penalties on returns and at times are just plain sloppy.
The defense, however, is vintage.
In Saturday's 12-10 win over Auburn, No. 2 LSU allowed the Plainsmen's offense a season-low 183 yards. It was another dominant performance from a unit that entered the night leading the SEC in total defense at 205 yards a game.
"We were tested," said defensive end Sam Montgomery, who was at his disruptive best with 3.5 tackles for loss, including his second sack of the season. "I loved this. I loved the challenge."
The LSU defense kept answering challenges, even when other parts of the team struggled. The offense shot itself in the foot with a fumble in the red zone and another fumble that set Auburn up for a short field on its only touchdown. LSU has now failed to score in red zone possessions more times in four games this season (5) than it did in 14 games last season (4).
The special teams had destructive moments, including one punt return where the return team was flagged for not only a hold on the return, but a dead ball personal foul. There was also a missed field goal late in the game.
"Sloppy," head coach Les Miles called the performance.
Maybe he should leave the defense out of that critique. The defense was even turning the failures of the other phases of the game into positives. When quarterback Zach Mettenberger fumbled a snap on a third-and-goal in the first quarter, giving Auburn the ball at its own 3, Montgomery dumped Auburn running back Tre Mason in the end zone on the very next play for a safety, giving LSU a 2-0 lead and what was eventually the final margin of the game.
LSU's offense took the ensuing free kick and marched down for its only touchdown of the night. Montgomery's play had turned the negative of the first turnover into nine points for LSU.
It was one of those nights where the defense had to carry the load and make it hard for the opposing offense to carry its load
Auburn had to earn all nine first downs (none by penalty). Quarterback Kiehl Frazier ran for his life most of the night and often didn't get away. Safety Micah Eugene, who has found a niche as a blitzing dime back in long-yardage packages, had two of LSU's four sacks of Frazier. Montgomery was in his face all night and Barkevious Mingo had three of LSU's five quarterback hurries.
How disruptive was LSU? Of Auburn's 52 plays, 14 resulted in negative yards and two in interceptions.
"We played a great team," said Frazier, who threw for just 97 yards, completing 13 of 22 passes. "We have to give them all their credit. There's a reason why they're No. 2 in the country."
LSU was at its best in the second half.
After halftime, LSU got both of its interceptions of Frazier, including an interception of his last-play desperation heave by Tharold Simon, his first of the season. Linebacker Luke Muncie picked him off and often blanketed Frazier's favorite and most reliable target, tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen.
Most importantly, LSU shut out Auburn in the second half after a late AU field goal on its only sustained drive of the night -- 9 plays, 42 yards -- gave the home team a 10-9 lead shortly before halftime.
It started with an impassioned plea by Montgomery at halftime -- "He told them to 'play like me,' Miles said," -- and continued with inspired play. With the offense, which got off to a strong start, sputtering after halftime, the defense stayed under pressure, but kept playing sound football.
Auburn tried to beat LSU with misdirection, but often those plays would result by a disciplined LSU lineman staying home and dumping the Auburn ball-carrier for a loss. Auburn coach Gene Chizik said that running inside on LSU was "extremely difficult" and thought the best bet was to use misdirection to get to the perimeter.
With the Tigers usually not biting on the misdirection, a third of Auburn's 30 run plays resulted in lost yardage. And six of 26 pass plays ended in interceptions and sacks. Almost a third of Auburn's plays were disasters for the offense.
LSU had its disasters too, just not by a defense that was too busy carrying a Tigers team that, otherwise, looked vulnerable in its first real test of the season.
LSU had four sacks of Kiehl Frazier in Saturday's 12-10 win over Auburn, including two by dime back Micah Eugene, who leads LSU with three sacks on the season.
For the season, LSU has eight, all against its two opponents from BCS automatic-qualifier conferences. The first four came in the Tigers' 41-3 win over Washington. In wins over Idaho and North Texas, LSU was held without a sack.
Defensive end Sam Montgomery had his second sack to go with 3.5 tackles for loss. Anthony Johnson also got his first sack of the season.
The same can't be said of the Washington defense. With the Huskies helpless to stop the LSU running game most of the night, LSU's play breakdown was much like it was against North Texas, with 55 of 71 plays coming out of the I formation and 52 of 71 plays staying on the ground. The Tigers did throw downfield more, finding openings on intermediate routes. In the North Texas game, the Tigers were primarily a short-passing team.
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LSU was pretty vanilla and limited with what it showed against the Mean Green on both sides of the ball. One can expect much more going forward, starting with the Tigers' toughest test in a relatively light non-conference schedule Saturday against Washington at Tiger Stadium.
How basic did the Tigers keep it?
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But head coach Les Miles insisted it was the defense that carried the day in the 120-play scrimmage held inside Tiger Stadium.
"We had about five drives that started in the red zone, so there were a number of opportunities for us to score," Miles said. "I think the defense probably won the day."
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Months after proclaiming he was changed, humbled and ready to lead, Mathieu’s selfishness cost him his LSU career, as Les Miles announced his player's dismissal at a news conference Friday.
One of the best game-changers and playmakers -- regardless of position – that the game had to offer claimed to have learned from his mistakes, but he is now leaving a team capable of making back-to-back national championship runs.
The face of LSU’s program, who went with the celebrity flow by posing for preseason magazine shots this year and showed off his punt-returning skills to the nation on ESPN, let his team and its fan base down by once again thinking of himself first.
Miles didn’t give details as to what Mathieu did to earn a one-way ticket out of Baton Rouge, but from the way Miles sounded during his press conference, Mathieu had run out of chances. And Miles had run out of patience with the Honey Badger.
“This is a very difficult day for our team,” Miles said. “We lose a quality person, teammate and contributor to the program. However, with that being said, we have a standard that our players are held to, and when that standard is not met, there are consequences.
“It’s hard because we all love Tyrann. We will do what we can as coaches, teammates and friends to get him on a path where he can have success. We are going to miss him.”
What they’ll miss on the field is his unbelievable playmaking ability. Mathieu had a true nose for the ball, constantly locating and flying to it no matter where he lined up, and amazing vision. He wasn’t the biggest player or the best cover man, but he just had a way of disrupting things that few could mimic. And on special teams, he proved he could completely change the landscape of a game with one cut.
During his two years at LSU, he totaled 133 total tackles (16 for loss), grabbed four interceptions and forced 11 fumbles (most in school history). He also recovered eight fumbles and averaged 15.59 yards per punt return (with two scores) last year.
The Tigers will now look to a committee of players to replace Mathieu. Redshirt freshman Jalen Collins could get work at corner, while true freshmen Dwayne Thomas, Deion Jones and Corey Thompson could get work at nickel. Redshirt freshman safety Micah Eugene could also get some work there.
But none are the Honey Badger.
In January, Mathieu sat at a podium inside the Marriott Convention Center in New Orleans just days before the national championship expressing his feelings about his celebrity status and how it transformed him.
He admitted to getting carried away with his Honey Badger persona that took the Internet and college football by storm. The T-shirts, signs, videos and slogans that made him so captivating and famous slowly began to inflate his ego. He went from playing with a chip on his shoulder to playing like he owned the world.
Then, just as he was sitting on top of the world, he was suspended halfway through the season for reportedly failing a drug test. Mathieu later said his one-game suspension helped him realize he wasn’t as invincible as he thought. It helped bring him back to reality and made him truly cherish his time with his team.
But the past caught up with Mathieu, who leaves a team poised to be better in 2012. The offense is expected to take off with quarterback Zach Mettenberger, and the defense, which ranked second nationally last year, had a chance to be even better, too. But Mathieu won’t be around to help.
LSU has met distractions before, but to lose someone with so much talent and status is a real shot to a team hungry to make up for last year’s championship failure. This team will regroup, but it has to feel betrayed.
The childlike smile, blonde hair and charismatic play that made Mathieu so endearing in Baton Rouge are all gone. And Mathieu has no one to blame but himself.
We also saw the first look at the "Big Cat" drill, the one-on-one trench battle that is a staple of LSU camps. Seeing wide receiver James Wright lose his helmet in a collision and wide receiver Jarvis Landry and cornerback Corey Thompson get tangled right into the crowd of gathered players and cameras were nice reminders that the physicality of August camp is here.
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Stadium upgrades spike SEC attendance
11:00 AM ET Nevada Louisiana-Lafayette 2:20 PM ET Utah State UTEP 3:30 PM ET 22 Utah Colorado State 5:45 PM ET Western Michigan Air Force 9:15 PM ET South Alabama Bowling Green
6:00 PM ET Marshall Northern Illinois 9:30 PM ET Navy San Diego State
12:00 PM ET Central Michigan Western Kentucky 8:00 PM ET Fresno State Rice
1:00 PM ET Illinois Louisiana Tech 4:30 PM ET Rutgers North Carolina 8:00 PM ET North Carolina State UCF
1:00 PM ET Cincinnati Virginia Tech 2:00 PM ET 15 Arizona State Duke 3:30 PM ET Miami (FL) South Carolina 4:30 PM ET Boston College Penn State 8:00 PM ET Nebraska 24 USC
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State