LSU Tigers: Mickey Johnson
Perhaps no position group at LSU progressed more over the course of the 2014 season than the defensive line.
That group was a problem early in the season when opponents like Mississippi State and Auburn rolled up two of the biggest yardage totals ever accumulated against the Tigers in the Les Miles era. But by the time the season ended, the line was a strength.
The biggest question facing the group in 2015 will be whether the Tigers' front can do a better job pressuring the quarterback, particularly without Hunter and Jermauria Rasco. The Tigers did not record many sacks -- they had just 19, second-to-last in the SEC -- even with those two ends, but now it might fall on younger players like Tashawn Bower, Sione Teuhema and Deondre Clark to make quarterbacks sweat.
"It would be great to get all the sacks, but we definitely got a lot of QB pressures and a lot of quarterback hits and things of that nature," Bower said. "So we're definitely happy with where we're at, but we're not content."
New position coach Ed Orgeron also has work to do in developing depth. Predecessor Brick Haley got a lot out of interior linemen Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux, but the Tigers have a number of heavily recruited tackles who struggled to make much of a difference.
Entering their redshirt sophomore seasons, tackles Maquedius Bain, Frank Herron and Greg Gilmore could help Orgeron build better depth, as could redshirt freshmen Travonte Valentine and Trey Lealaimatafao.
The two redshirt freshmen might be able to make an immediate impact, in fact.
"Trey Valentine, he's a true run-stopper," Rasco said. "He's got some juice in him in the pass rush. You'll see him in a game and you won't be expecting him to be able to move as good as he moves. And also with Trey Lay, for a guy to be so little, he's real powerful and he brings a lot to the table. Those are going to be the secret weapons for next year as long as they do what they have to do on and off the field."
It will be a huge benefit that LaCouture and Godchaux both return after locking down starting jobs last fall. That should help LSU's front seven remain strong against the run while Orgeron nails down the ends he can rely on to generate a better pass rush.
Some of those players might not even be on the roster yet. LSU continues to pursue several top-tier end prospects, some of whom would be capable of providing an immediate lift should they sign with the Tigers on Feb. 4.
"Those guys, I don't see no letdown," Rasco said during bowl practice. "The only thing that'll happen, I don't know who they're bringing in, but they'd better get with the program early if they want to play. That's the only thing I can say."
Returning players: DT Davon Godchaux (42 tackles, 1.5 TFL), DT Christian LaCouture (40 tackles, 4 TFL, 2.5 sacks), DE Tashawn Bower (16 tackles, 2.5 TFL), DT Quentin Thomas (9 tackles, 0.5 TFL), DE Deondre Clark (9 tackles, 0.5 TFL), DE Sione Teuhema (7 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 sacks), DT Maquedius Bain (6 tackles), DT Greg Gilmore (4 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks), DE Lewis Neal (3 tackles, 1.5 TFL), DT Mickey Johnson (3 tackles), DT Frank Herron (3 tackles), DE M.J. Patterson (1 tackle), DT Trey Lealaimatafao (redshirted), DT Travonte Valentine (redshirted).
Departed players: DE Danielle Hunter (73 tackles, 13 TFL, 1.5 sacks), DE Jermauria Rasco (71 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 4 sacks), DE Justin Maclin (3 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks).
Committed prospects: Isaiah Washington (No. 72 DE, three stars)
Outlook: Orgeron will need to fill holes at defensive end after Rasco and Hunter left -- a position battle that should rank among the most intriguing for LSU in the spring and preseason. The good news is that tackles LaCouture and Godchaux developed into solid starters, which should help the line be more stout against the run than it was early last season. If Orgeron can help the Tigers' front produce more sacks and negative-yardage plays, 2015 should be a solid season for the line.
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.
In previous weeks, we've broken down several players and position groups to watch this spring. As we lead up to Saturday's first team workout, this week we'll make five predictions related to the Tigers' upcoming practices.
Prediction: The freshmen will contend
Obviously this subject matter begins with early enrollees at quarterback, Brandon Harris, and safety, Edward Paris Jr. (whose position battles we discussed here and here). But there are multiple players coming off a 2013 redshirt whose names could figure prominently into the Tigers' spring competition.
We see many of them playing supporting roles once the season opens, and even leading roles in some cases. That will start with solid spring performances by the youngsters.
At receiver, sophomore Travin Dural (seven catches, 145 yards, two TDs last season) and senior Quantavius Leslie (1-11) are the two most experienced veterans, and we use that expression loosely. Three redshirt freshmen -- John Diarse, Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears -- will enter the mix this spring and one or two of them will almost certainly become valuable targets by August. For now, thin positional depth leaves the Tigers with no alternative, but that will change in the summer when freshmen Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn arrive. Don't be surprised if the redshirt freshmen who are already on campus make the depth chart appear much more solid by the end of spring practice.
The defensive tackles at least have Christian LaCouture (11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss) and Quentin Thomas (nine tackles, 0.5 TFLs) back along with junior Mickey Johnson (three tackles). As with the wideouts, the Tigers have several freshman signees who could contribute immediately at tackle. But this spring we'll be watching redshirt freshmen Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain inside and Frank Herron either inside or out. Plenty of observers thought that trio -- or at least a portion of that trio -- would see the field last fall, but none did. LSU doesn't have that convenience this year following Johnson and Ferguson's departures.
Paris should have a chance to compete at safety, too, although there are several players with starting experience returning at what was an often volatile position group in 2013. It will help his cause that he's already on campus, but don't be surprised if this position battle extends beyond the spring and into the season once the other freshman signees -- led by Jamal Adams -- arrive in the summer.
Harris has LSU fans excited about the dual-threat aspect of his game, but he would need to have a ridiculous spring to jump all the way to the top of the depth chart. Anthony Jennings was an early enrollee last season and performed well enough that he claimed the backup spot behind Zach Mettenberger, and eventually replaced him when Mettenberger suffered a season-ending knee injury against Arkansas. Harris has the game to make a similar ascent -- eventually -- but it's only fair to temper one's expectations considering he's a freshman with two months on campus getting his first taste of running Cam Cameron's offense.
There are others -- including offensive linemen Andy Dodd and K.J. Malone and quarterback Hayden Rettig -- who will also compete this spring to become the next Tigers who make a name for themselves as freshmen. That has quickly become a tradition among the Tigers, and we fully expect it to continue in 2014.
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.
Anthony Jennings (Quarterback, So.)
2013 review: Jennings enters his sophomore season having already created a lasting memory for LSU fans. He came off the bench when Mettenberger suffered a season-ending knee injury against Arkansas and led a game-winning, 99-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. Jennings' lone start -- the Outback Bowl win against Iowa -- wasn't as memorable, but he has considerably more on-field experience than his competition. The 2013 early enrollee finished his freshman season having completed 13 of 29 passes for 181 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
Why spring is important: Jennings' performance in the comeback win against Arkansas raised expectations, but his outing against Iowa (7-for-19, 82 yards, one interception) in a rainy, nasty afternoon in Tampa left plenty to be desired. He and Mettenberger were the only quarterbacks to attempt a pass last fall, but the Tigers have no shortage of options at the position -- including early enrollee Brandon Harris, freshman Hayden Rettig and redshirt junior Rob Bolden -- so Jennings needs to take advantage of the early advantage he carries into the spring. The number of competitors did decrease earlier this week, however, when the school revealed that quarterback Stephen Rivers plans to transfer.
Best case/worst case: Jennings impressed at this time last year, claiming playing time as a freshman by accommodating himself well in the spring. The dual-threat performer hadn't done much all season when he entered the Arkansas game and promptly tossed the game-winning touchdown pass to Travin Dural. Perhaps that was a sign of great things to come, starting this season with a completely different set of offensive skill players. LSU's coaches seem to have made it clear that the job is Jennings' to lose, but it's not out of the realm of possibilities that he loses it. The worst case for Jennings would have him struggling to claim the job during spring practice, leaving open the competition into August and even September and eventually losing game snaps to the other quarterbacks on the depth chart as LSU's coaches evaluate their options.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"Hopefully, I'll see a win [for LSU]," said the Dallas/Kimball four-star defensive tackle who will make LSU his fourth official visit. "For some reason, all the schools I visit lose while I'm there."
Indeed, he visited Texas A&M when LSU won there, 24-19. He was at TCU when the Horned Frogs were upset by Iowa State, and he visited Oklahoma when the Sooners lost to Kansas State. So next weekend he'll be looking for a win -- just as LSU is looking for a win in its efforts to land a quality defensive tackle like Manning.
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