LSU Tigers: Ronald Martin

Ranking the SEC safeties

June, 19, 2014
Jun 19
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We could have sold ourselves short with a top 10 comprised of all the league's defensive backs. Instead of leaving out too many talented players, we took the long route and split the secondary in two.

Earlier this afternoon you should have read Chris Low's breakdown of the top-10 cornerbacks in the SEC. Now it's time for the safety rankings entering 2014.

Safety position rankings

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesOle Miss safety Cody Prewitt is the anchor of what could be the SEC's best secondary.
1. Cody Prewitt, Sr., Ole Miss: On a defense loaded with former blue-chip recruits, it was Prewitt, a three-star safety from the tiny town of Bay Springs, Mississippi, who stood out the most last season. The 6-foot-2 junior showed the complete package as he led the SEC with six interceptions and became a near unanimous first team All-America selection. Now a senior, he’s the clear face of a secondary that could be the best in the conference.

2. Landon Collins, Soph., Alabama: It’s scary to think what he’ll do as a starter from Day 1. Alabama fans will remember that Collins was the backup to Vinnie Sunseri at strong safety last season and only became a full-time starter after Sunseri tore his ACL. Despite starting only nine games, Collins led the team in passes defended and finished second in total tackles. A heavy hitter as much as he is a ball hawk, Collins could easily develop into a first-round pick with a strong junior season.

3. Tony Conner, Soph., Ole Miss: Talk about fulfilling on promise. Conner, a four-star safety prospect coming out of high school, was an immediate impact player for Ole Miss, playing in all 12 games and earning Freshman All-America honors for his 66 tackles, one interception and seven passes defended.

4. Braylon Webb, Sr., Missouri: Gary Pinkel’s defense could use a veteran presence now that E.J. Gaines, Matt White and Randy Ponder are all gone. Webb, fortunately, is just the stabilizing force that’s needed. He has 30 career starts, and last season he was the team’s second leading tackler in addition to picking off three passes.

[+] EnlargeBrison Williams
AP Photo/Richard ShiroBrison Williams, who had three INTs last season, hits like a linebacker and adds valuable experience to the South Carolina secondary.
5. Brison Williams, Sr., South Carolina: He may look like a linebacker in a helmet and shoulder pads, but the 5-11, 218-pound Williams is all safety. In the past two years he has started 23 games and racked up 97 tackles and three interceptions. In a secondary lacking experience, his leadership will be vital.

6. Jermaine Whitehead, Sr., Auburn: The Tigers’ secondary was unspectacular last season, but Whitehead wasn’t the problem. The soon-to-be senior finished fourth on the team in tackles (65) and third in passes defended (6), two of which he turned into interceptions. Now with a full year in Ellis Johnson’s system, he and the rest of the defense could take a big step forward in 2014.

7. Brian Randolph, Jr., Tennessee: Count Randolph among the better players you probably don’t hear much of. A year after suffering a season-ending injury, the former SEC coaches’ All-Freshman team selection had the best year of his career in 2013, finishing second in the team with 75 tackles. On top of that, he finished fifth in the SEC with four interceptions.

8. Alan Turner, Sr., Arkansas: You’d be hard pressed to come up with a more productive, experienced safety in the SEC this season than Turner, who has played in more than 30 games for Arkansas. The 6-foot senior was the team leader in tackles last season with 97 and also hauled in two interceptions.

9. Ronald Martin, Sr., LSU: This might be Jalen Mills’ spot had he not been arrested and subsequently suspended indefinitely by coach Les Miles. Martin, nonetheless, is a worthy selection. Though he had a quiet 2013, expect a big senior season from him as he takes over for Craig Loston at strong safety in 2014, a spot where his 6-1, 218-pound frame should come in handy in run support.

10. Justin Cox, Sr., Mississippi State: Cox was admittedly a step behind last season after transferring from a junior college. He was asked to play cornerback and ended up contributing very little. But this spring he came up to speed and was welcomed back with a new position that better suits his 6-3 frame: safety. Now the word from Starkville is what an upside he has at safety, how it’s a more natural fit and how he can really cover some ground. Though he may not start right away, don’t be surprised if he climbs the depth chart quickly.
Today, we continue our break down of each position group in the SEC by looking at an area of defense that has a lot to prove after last season.

We’re talking, of course, about the secondaries.

Maybe it was that they were young and inexperienced. Maybe it was a case of so many quarterbacks being the opposite. But whatever it was, the league’s defensive backs should have a chip on their shoulder after the beating they took in 2013.

With that said, let’s dig into which programs are poised to rebound and sport the best secondaries in the league.

Secondary position rankings

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesOle Miss safety Cody Prewitt is the leader of an experienced, talented Rebels secondary.
1. Ole Miss: Talent and experience. Both are worth their weight in gold, and Ole Miss has loads of each. We’re probably not giving anything away when we say that both Cody Prewitt and Tony Conner will make the list of the league’s top 10 safeties later today. Prewitt led the league in interceptions last season, and Conner, a former four-star recruit, has barely scratched the surface on what he can do. Trae Elston and Senquez Golson, meanwhile, are potential impact players, along with Mike Hilton and Derrick Jones. If C.J. Hampton lives up to the hype, he could be a true freshman to keep an eye on.

2. Florida: The Gators have plenty of issues. Defensive back is not one of them, however. Despite losing Cody Riggs to transfer and Loucheiz Purifoy, Jaylen Watkins and Marcus Roberson to the NFL, Florida has plenty of talent remaining in the secondary. Only a sophomore, Vernon Hargreaves III is arguably the best corner in the SEC. If either Jalen Tabor or Duke Dawson emerges opposite him, you’re talking about a good one-two punch. And with three experienced safeties to lean on -- Jabari Gorman, Marcus Maye and Brian Poole -- coach Will Muschamp should like what he sees from the secondary as a whole.

3. LSU: Getting Jalen Mills to safety would have been huge. But with his status up in the air, LSU must move on. It's still DBU -- Defensive Back University -- and thankfully for coach Les Miles, he’s got plenty more to work with. Ronald Martin has experience at safety, along with Corey Thompson, who missed the spring with an injury. At corner, LSU is in good shape with Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson in position to start, not to mention Jalen Collins, a former Freshman All-SEC choice in 2012. And since this is LSU and someone always emerges from nowhere, be sure to keep an eye on Jamal Adams. The former No. 2-rated safety in the ESPN 300 didn't enroll early but should have every chance to play as a true freshman. If Mills is able to return and some the young talent on LSU's roster develops as expected, the Tigers could have an argument for the top secondary in the league.

4. Alabama: Talent and experience. Alabama has one but not the other, and you can probably guess which. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Deion Belue are all gone. That fourth spot in the secondary? It was never settled to begin with. Getting Landon Collins back at safety, however, is huge, as the former five-star prospect has All-SEC potential. But who starts opposite him is up in the air with Nick Perry coming off an injury, Jarrick Williams entrenched at nickel corner/star and Laurence "Hootie" Jones early in his development. At corner, Alabama’s hopes are pinned to two freshmen -- Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey -- along with a slew of unproven prospects such as Maurice Smith, Jonathan Cook and Bradley Sylve.

5. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen loves his defense heading into this season, and considering what he has at defensive back it’s easy to see why. The Bulldogs are in the enviable position of having five legitimate SEC-caliber players at both safety and cornerback. Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun are two rock-solid corners, and Will Redmond is a good third off the bench. Kendrick Market and Deontay Evans might start at safety today, but Jay Hughes is back from injury and Justin Cox could very well be the most talented of the bunch after transitioning from corner this spring.

6. Auburn: The Tigers secondary was atrocious for most of last season, surrendering 260.2 passing yards per game through Jan. 1 (No. 104 nationally). Really, it wasn’t until the BCS title game that we saw some fight out of them. So was that first half against Florida State a mirage or a glimpse of the future? Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has to hope it’s the latter. With Jonathon Mincy at corner, Jermaine Whitehead at safety and Robenson Therezie playing the star, he’s got some experienced parts to build around. Meanwhile, juco transfer Derrick Moncrief has the look of an impact player at safety. If Joshua Holsey is back to 100 percent, Johnson will have a better deck of cards to play with than last season.

7. Georgia: The good news is that the two main culprits from last season’s heartbreaking loss to Auburn -- Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons -- are gone. The bad news is that those same players were expected to start this season. Throw in the loss of Shaq Wiggins and you’re looking at Georgia, under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, essentially starting over in the secondary. It’s not all bad, though. There might not be much depth at cornerback, but veteran Damian Swann is a good place to start. And the same can be said of safety, where Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger have some experience.

8. Tennessee: The Volunteers have one of the deeper secondaries in the SEC, returning all four starters, but it’s a group that received its fair share of criticism last season after giving up 283 yards per game. There’s still talent back there, though, with safety Brian Randolph and cornerback Cameron Sutton. In particular, Randolph led the team in interceptions (4) and finished second in tackles (75), and though he missed the majority of spring due to injury, he’s expected back for fall camp. At cornerback, freshman Emmanuel Moseley arrived in January and could make a push for playing time after a strong spring.

9. South Carolina: You have to fear the unknown if you’re a Gamecocks fan. Brison Williams is a solid safety, but both of your starting corners from last season -- Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree -- are gone, and the senior you expected to be starting by now, Kadetrix Marcus, is trailing sophomore Chaz Elder on the depth chart. Rico McWilliams, the corner with the most returning experience, isn’t even a sure thing to start. A redshirt freshman, Ali Groves, is in line to start at the second cornerback spot, but keep an eye on two talented true freshmen who could play early: Wesley Green and Chris Lammons.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyDeshazor Everett has all-conference potential, but the Texas A&M secondary is filled with question marks.
10. Texas A&M: The Aggies return plenty of experience in the secondary this season. That's good in the sense that they have a defensive backfield with a lot of SEC football under its belt but make no mistake, this unit has a lot of room for improvement. Cornerback Deshazor Everett is the best player of the group and could be headed for an all-conference season, while junior corner De'Vante Harris continues to grow as a player. The safeties -- Howard Matthews, Floyd Raven and Clay Honeycutt -- must show improvement this season after last year's performance. The nickel position is open and a number of candidates could step in, including sophomore Noel Ellis or junior Devonta Burns.

11. Missouri: Much of the attention has been paid to reloading on the defensive line after the departures of Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, but Missouri should be fine there. The real concern, however, is the secondary, as three of last year’s starters (E.J. Gaines, Randy Ponder and Matt White) are gone. Getting Braylon Webb back at safety is huge, but he’ll need help. Ian Simon and Duron Singleton should vie for the second safety spot, and John Gibson and Aarion Penton are two of the more experienced options at corner. The wild card in all of this, though, is an incoming class that featured seven defensive backs.

12. Kentucky: With two of the better pass rushers in the league, one would think that Kentucky could force the opposing quarterback into throwing some interceptions. That didn’t happen last season. The Wildcats were dead last in the SEC with just three interceptions. Mark Stoops and his staff are hoping to turn that around this season, and they have plenty of capable bodies to work with on the back end. All four starters are back, five if you include nickel back Blake McClain -- who was third on the team in tackles as a freshman -- and junior college transfer A.J. Stamps might be the most talented defensive back on the roster.

13. Arkansas: Depth is going to be a concern for new secondary coach Clay Jennings, who is stressing turnovers this spring after the Razorbacks came in dead last in that category in the SEC in 2013. But in terms of front-line starters, he’s got some experience to work with, as every projected starter at safety and corner is a junior or senior. The most reliable of the bunch is safety Alan Turner, who led the team in tackles last season and should continue to play a pivotal role on defense. Another one to watch is cornerback Tevin Mitchell. It wasn’t that long ago that the 6-foot senior was an SEC All-Freshman selection. For Arkansas to take the next step, he’ll need to fulfill the early promise of his career.

14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores were spoiled last season with four seniors starting in the secondary. You don’t replace the talent and experience of an Andre Hal and a Kenny Ladler overnight. And you certainly will have a hard time doing so when the entire coaching staff has changed. But such is new head coach Derek Mason’s task. The good news for him is that the cupboard wasn’t left entirely bare as the entire second string of the secondary -- Paris Head, Jahmel McIntosh, Andrew Williamson and Torren McGaster -- returns after having played in a combined 50 games last season.
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Safety already ranked among the most unproven positions on LSU’s roster. Jalen Mills' arrest and indefinite suspension on Wednesday only adds to the uncertainty.

Mills was arrested early Wednesday and charged with second-degree battery in connection with an incident last month in which he allegedly punched a woman in the mouth at a Baton Rouge apartment complex. Certainly, Tigers coach Les Miles will allow the legal process to play out before determining Mills’ long-term punishment -- if punishment is necessary once all the facts are in -- but this summer just became enormously important for LSU’s crop of young safeties.

[+] EnlargeJalen Mills
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsThe suspension of junior safety Jalen Mills means a talented but unproven freshman DB class might have to make a significant impact for LSU this fall.
Jamal Adams -- ESPN’s No. 2 safety and No. 18 overall prospect in the 2014 recruiting class -- is the name most LSU fans have circled as the Tigers’ next great safety. Adams, fellow ESPN 300 prospect Devin Voorhies and three-star signee John Battle will attempt to learn the ropes at a position that has plenty of candidates, but little on-field production.

Even during spring practice, Miles was unwilling to name a starter at the position because of the talent who had yet to join the roster.

“I don’t think that decision will be made until the freshman class comes in. We’ll be in two-a-days and kind of decide who the best guys are,” Miles said in March.

Mills led LSU’s defensive backs with 67 tackles and three interceptions last season and has started all 26 games of his college career. The rising junior shifted to safety at the end of the 2013 season to address depth issues that arose when the Tigers suffered a spate of injuries at the position.

The good news for LSU is that those injured safeties -- senior Ronald Martin (38 tackles, one INT) and junior Corey Thompson (23 tackles) -- should be back when the Tigers open camp in August.

Martin started seven games last season and seemed to be in line to reclaim a starting job during spring practice. Thompson -- who started five of his last six games before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Texas A&M -- missed the spring while recovering from the injury.

Sophomore Rickey Jefferson (six tackles) will also figure into the competition after getting a crash course at the position late last fall.

Everyone expected Mills to provide some stability at safety after 2013 senior Craig Loston left the roster. Perhaps Mills will still do that, depending on what happens with his legal case. But since his future remains cloudy for now, veterans like Martin and Thompson have to take charge and be prepared to possibly take over starting jobs while the freshmen settle into their new surroundings.

“It’ll be interesting to see the young guys come in, make a name for themselves,” Thompson said during the spring. “It’ll be fine. We’ll all get together and work out, do some drills together and get into fall camp, teach the young guys how to do it and they’ll be good from there.”

LSU spring wrap

April, 30, 2014
Apr 30
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Three things we learned in the spring about the LSU Tigers:

1. QB race is on: If the spring game made anything clear, it’s that the quarterback race between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris was much closer than we might have anticipated prior to spring practice. Jennings followed a subpar performance in his first start -- LSU’s Outback Bowl win over Iowa -- with a disappointing effort in the spring game, where he threw two interceptions that linebackers returned for touchdowns. Meanwhile, Harris didn’t have a perfect performance, but he flashed a ton of potential and playmaking ability. Their competition will remain as the leading storyline of preseason camp.

2. Defense is on the upswing: LSU’s defense started slowly last fall -- a disappointing shift after ranking among the nation’s best over the previous few seasons -- but was back in fine form by the end of the season. It looks like John Chavis’ athletic bunch was heading back toward that style of physical, fast defense that LSU is known for. The starting defense surrendered just 179 yards, one touchdown and 3.9 yards per play in the spring game -- and that was without key players Jermauria Rasco, Ronald Martin and signees Jamal Adams and Clifton Garrett participating.

3. Not working with a full deck: Speaking of non-participants, it was a fairly ho-hum spring in Baton Rouge because of the number of absent players who will almost certainly play key roles in the fall. Only two of the 23 signees -- Harris and cornerback Ed Paris -- participated in spring drills, leaving LSU with barely more than 50 scholarship players taking part in the practices. Without players such as Adams, Garrett, tailback Leonard Fournette, receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn practicing, we simply haven’t seen what the 2014 Tigers will truly look like yet.

Three questions for the fall:

1. Who fills spots at safety? Apparently converted cornerback Jalen Mills has found a home at safety. But if he holds onto one of the starting spots, who gets the nod at the second safety position? Martin seemed like the favorite during the spring, but he was not healthy for the entirety and Rickey Jefferson took over in his absence. Corey Thompson also sat out while recovering from injury. And then you have Adams and fellow signees Devin Voorhies and John Battle, who will join the team this summer. It’s clear LSU’s coaches plan to fully weigh their options in the secondary once preseason camp opens and all of the candidates are on hand.

2. Can young players handle business early? This will probably be the determining factor in whether LSU contends alongside division heavyweights Alabama and Auburn in 2014 or whether this will be a transitional season ahead of potential title-contending teams in 2015 and 2016. It’s a lot to ask of freshmen to step into the SEC and perform competently right away, but LSU will almost certainly do that with several members of its star-studded signing class. There aren’t a ton of holes in LSU’s roster, but it needs the youngsters to fill a couple of them -- namely at receiver, tailback, defensive tackle and quarterback -- by playing with composure right out of the gate.

3. Who supplies the pass rush? One of the disappointing issues on defense last fall was LSU’s lack of a consistent pass rush. The Tigers finished the season with just 27 sacks in 13 games, which might have seemed like an even bigger drop-off since players like Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo had been such dominant pass rushers in the recent past. LSU operated without one of its top edge rushers (Rasco, who led the team with four sacks last season) during the spring, although Danielle Hunter notched a couple of sacks in the spring game. Hunter seems like the odds-on favorite to become LSU’s next great pass rusher, but he’ll need some help from a largely unproven group of linemen.

One way-too-early prediction:

Honestly it’s difficult to tell whether this is actually going out on a limb, but we believe Harris will become the Tigers’ starting quarterback by midseason if not sooner. Coaches Les Miles and Cam Cameron both said the quarterback competition will carry over into preseason practice, but Harris certainly made his case in the spring game. Although everyone insisted that Jennings performed better during other spring practices than he had in the lone scrimmage that was open for public viewing, he simply didn’t spark the offense the way that Harris did that day. Harris certainly struggled at points and made plenty of bad decisions himself, but he was far and away the more explosive playmaker that afternoon. That has to factor into the coaches’ decision-making process.
LSU’s spring practice ended two weeks ago, leaving a full 15 weeks before the Tigers return to the practice field.

The position battles that started in the spring will continue through summer workouts before resuming in front of coaches in August. Let’s take a look at what happened in a few of those spring battles and what we’ll be watching between now and Aug. 30, when the Tigers open the season against Wisconsin.

Defensive tackle: The spring was as much a feeling-out process as anything for defensive line coach Brick Haley. He mostly rode two departed veterans last fall while using youngsters Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas in spot duty. LaCouture and Thomas jumped into leading roles during the spring, and Haley also tested Maquedius Bain, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron (at times) in the middle. Haley has probably established a mental pecking order with the group, but August and the early-season games will certainly play important roles in cementing the coach’s opinions. It will also be worth watching how signees such as Travonte Valentine perform once they arrive on campus, as they might allow Haley to utilize a true rotation in the middle.

[+] EnlargeKendell Beckwith
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsSophomore linebacker Kendell Beckwith moved inside and was impressive this spring.
Linebacker: This should be a fun bunch to watch in the fall. While Kwon Alexander, Lamar Louis and D.J. Welter seemed to rank among John Chavis’ first options during the spring, it’s apparent that the Tigers’ defensive coordinator has no shortage of talented options. One of the intriguing spring storylines was Kendell Beckwith’s transition to middle linebacker behind Welter. The linebackers as a group had an excellent spring game, with Ronnie Feist leading all tacklers with 14 stops and both Alexander and Deion Jones picking off Anthony Jennings passes and returning the interceptions for touchdowns. Clifton Garrett is one of the Tigers’ highest-rated 2014 signees, and he could add even more intrigue to the competition for playing time once practice resumes.

Quarterback: Surely you’ve heard by now that the battle between Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris appears to be wide open entering the summer months. Jennings has a slight experience advantage, but Harris was the more effective performer in the spring game. Both players made plenty of mistakes, however. Their offseason preparation in the next few months will be enormously important once August arrives.

Right guard: This is another battle that the coaches said was wide open once the spring concluded. Evan Washington shifted from tackle to guard and seemed to take the leading role in the competition. Fellow senior Fehoko Fanaika and sophomore Ethan Pocic are lurking, however. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see all of them play some scrimmage downs against Wisconsin -- or in Weeks 2 and 3 against Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Monroe -- as new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes weighs his options. Coach Les Miles complimented all three players after the spring game, so it seems that the coaches would be comfortable playing any of the candidates.

Safety: Injuries caused this position to remain as a bit of a mystery during the spring. Jalen Mills remained in a starting role, and Ronald Martin seemed to be faring well in a return from a fractured right foot. He was injured again by the end of the spring, however, joining Corey Thompson (knee surgery) on the sideline by the time the spring game rolled around. Mills and Rickey Jefferson were the top options in the spring game, but the Tigers could use any number of combinations when the season arrives -- especially once highly-rated safety prospect Jamal Adams and the other signees make it to Baton Rouge this summer. Once the Tigers are back to full strength in August, this should make for one of the most intriguing position battles.

Tight end: This will be a fun position to track in the fall. They had plenty of playing time last season, but barely made a blip as receivers. They seem to be confident that they will make a more well-rounded contribution in 2014. Sophomore DeSean Smith and signee Jacory Washington possess intriguing receiver skills, and Dillon Gordon, Travis Dickson and Logan Stokes worked this spring to prove that they are well-rounded players at the position. It’s a big group, but all of them should have roles to fill during the season.

Wide receiver: They were the walking wounded for much of the spring, with Avery Peterson, Kevin Spears, John Diarse and Quantavius Leslie all spending time in non-contact jerseys. That was a tough blow for a group that has a lot to prove after Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Kadron Boone and James Wright all left the roster after last season. Travin Dural -- who had an outstanding spring game with five catches for 130 yards and two touchdowns -- seemed to solidify his spot as the No. 1 receiving option for now. But this will become one of the Tigers’ most interesting position battles in August once a star-studded signing class, led by Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, arrives to challenge the returning wideouts.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU held its final spring practice this week, officially sending the Tigers into a crucial offseason.

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?

[+] EnlargeKenny Hilliard
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsOutside of Kenny Hilliard, there is not a lot of returning depth in the backfield and the Tigers will need to rely on incoming freshman.
The answer to this question during the spring was a resounding no -- Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard were the only scholarship tailbacks on the roster, and Magee missed a portion of the month after spraining an ankle in a scrimmage -- but that’s irrelevant. You don’t win or lose a game in March or April.

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.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- He probably thought he was prepared to compete at the time, but Corey Thompson can now admit that it blew his mind when he first set foot on LSU’s practice field as a freshman.

He had been an all-state safety and certainly has athletic genes -- both of his parents were college athletes -- but the speed of the players around him, the increased complexity of the playbook and the intricacies of playing safety in college initially made life rough for Thompson.

[+] EnlargeCorey Thompson
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesCorey Thompson will have to overcome a late-season knee injury as well as some talented incoming safety prospects.
“Sometimes it was a little bit overwhelming,” Thompson said. “I got tired, I got frustrated, questioned myself a few times, but I’m good now.”

He eventually made the transition in fine fashion. Thompson played in all 13 games in 2012 as a true freshman, mostly covering kicks on special teams, and had claimed a starting spot by the midway point of his second season.

He had started five of the last six games in 2013 when he suffered a season-ending knee injury against Texas A&M -- an ailment that has kept him out of the Tigers’ spring practice while he recovers from offseason surgery.

Now Thompson and his fellow veterans must help a new class of freshman safeties overcome the natural frustration and self-doubt that almost always accompanies their first taste of life in the SEC. That group, which includes ESPN’s No. 2 safety and No. 18 overall prospect for 2014, Jamal Adams, along with Devin Voorhies and John Battle, is one of the nation’s top collection of safety signees and will almost certainly compete for playing time in 2014.

Les Miles confirmed as much after Saturday’s scrimmage, when a reporter asked whether any safeties had earned a starting spot yet.

“I don’t think that decision will be made until the freshman class comes in. We’ll be in two-a-days and kind of decide who the best guys are,” Miles said.

Competition suits Thompson fine, and LSU’s coaching staff will have plenty of options since Jalen Mills, Ronald Martin and Rickey Jefferson also started at safety at least once last fall.

“It’ll be interesting to see the young guys come in, make a name for themselves,” Thompson said. “It’ll be fine. We’ll all get together and work out, do some drills together and get into fall camp, teach the young guys how to do it and they’ll be good from there.”

Martin intercepted two passes in Saturday’s scrimmage and Jefferson had one, causing Miles to remark afterward that he thinks the safeties are playing better. If that’s the case, that would be a good sign -- since safety was a fairly inconsistent position for the Tigers in 2013. Senior Craig Loston was an old hand at safety by then, but Martin was the only other experienced starter -- and he had started just once prior to last fall.

It was a rocky learning experience for all involved, which was part of the reason that Mills finally shifted from cornerback to fill in at safety against Arkansas and then start there in the Outback Bowl against Iowa.

“It was a curve, just trying to be more of a vocal leader and stepping up in a position, trying to be a first-time starter and getting to know the defense more from changing positions,” Martin said. “Because when I first got here, I was playing strong and I mixed in free safety. So it’s all about knowing the defense.”

That last part will probably be the biggest hurdle for the newcomers once they arrive this summer. Adams is LSU’s highest-rated safety signee in the ESPN prospect rankings since Loston (the No. 1 safety in 2009), so clearly he has the physical tools to excel in college. It might be only a matter of time until he cashes in on that star potential, but it’s no simple task catching on to the job that awaits him at LSU.

“One thing is the speed of the game, but the next is really just knowing your plays, knowing how to mix in different calls and stuff like that because you’re the quarterback of the defense at safety,” Thompson said. “I’m making calls every play, so I have to know what’s going on, where people are lining up at and give them different calls and stuff.”

The veterans plan to help teach the newcomers from the moment they arrive on campus. Once they learn the intricacies of the position, that’s when the competition will truly begin -- and there will be plenty of that.

“That’s what football is all about,” Mills said. “It’s about that competitive area, the competitive nature. You have to be competitive whether it’s on the field, off the field, in practice, wherever you are.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- A senior receiver who has yet to enjoy much success in the fall was one of the stars in LSU’s final scrimmage before next Saturday’s spring game.

Quantavius Leslie -- who joined the Tigers as a hyped junior college transfer last year only to record just one reception during the season -- led LSU’s offense with four catches for 135 yards and three touchdowns in Saturday’s scrimmage at Tiger Stadium.

“This was important for him to get on and understand the system and figure out what you have to do and how you run the route,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “And then it was read correctly, the quarterback made nice throws and he did the things that he can do. He made some really nice grabs.”

The scrimmage was closed to the media and Miles didn’t divulge the stats that would surely generate the most interest, the passing numbers of quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. But Miles noted that both quarterbacks worked with the first- and second-team offenses and faced live contact once they ran from the pocket.

“I think it’s going to be a very competitive situation,” he said.

“I think both quarterbacks showed skill. I think there’s some opportunities to change things and improve and I think that’s what both quarterbacks are working to do. It’s going to be interesting.”

Among the statistics that Miles shared:
  • The Tigers passed for 295 yards and rushed for 231 in a scrimmage that covered 120-plus plays.
  • Kenny Hilliard was the leading rusher with 57 yards. Terrence Magee, who sprained an ankle in last week’s scrimmage, did not carry the ball. Miles said he should return to practice next week.
  • In addition to Leslie’s 135 yards, Travin Dural had four catches for 36 yards and a touchdown, John Diarse had two catches for 14 yards and tight end DeSean Smith had one catch for 17 yards. “I honestly think the ball was thrown pretty much where it was supposed to,” Miles said. “I think there was really some great plays made. It’ll be interesting to see how the film looks.”
  • Safety Ronald Martin intercepted two passes and Rickey Jefferson had one on what was a productive day for the secondary. “We kind of feel like our safety position is going to be manned well,” Miles said. “I think they’re playing better. I think there may have been some coverage mistakes in this go. We’ll have to see who that was. I think our safeties are improved. I think our corner play was really good today. I think [Tre’Davious] White and Rashard Robinson both played extremely hard.”
  • Linebacker Kendell Beckwith had six tackles, two tackles for a loss and “made a nice play down on the goal line,” Miles said.


Overall, Miles seemed to feel the scrimmage was most productive because of the physicality displayed -- particularly along the line of scrimmage.

“It was a very, very quality scrimmage. We’re improved,” Miles said. “We’re not ready to play a game yet, but we are much improved and I think the offensive and defensive line really kind of teed off and worked in a very competitive manner. You get what you earn and it looked that way today.”

Mills helps steady LSU's safeties

March, 19, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Jalen Mills doesn’t view himself as a safety. He doesn’t view himself as a cornerback, either.

He views himself as both -- which is coming in handy for LSU’s defense these days.

“When you come in, you call yourself a defensive back,” said Mills, a rising junior who started at safety for the first time in the Tigers’ Outback Bowl win against Iowa. “That means you can play corner to nickel to safety to dime. You want to be able to play all positions. You don’t want to be a single-position type of guy if you’re a defensive back.”

[+] EnlargeJalen Mills
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJalen Mills is helping out at safety this spring after playing the position in LSU's Outback Bowl victory over Iowa.
That’s an ideal attitude because Mills is several of those things -- particularly now, when the Tigers must replace starting safety Craig Loston and are without part-time starting safety Corey Thompson, who is still recovering from offseason knee surgery. Mills is a starting safety in LSU’s base defense, remains as the starting nickelback and still finds time to practice in a traditional cornerback role at points.

The Tigers need him most at safety for the time being, which was the message that defensive backs coach Corey Raymond imparted prior to spring practice.

“Him and Chief [defensive coordinator John Chavis], they kind of talked to me or whatever and they were like, ‘Right now we need help at safety. You played a pretty good job those last two games of the season. Can you play it for us?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah,’ ” Mills said. “And he said, ‘But we’re still going to need you at corner and you’re still going to be our starting nickel when we go Mustang package.’ ”

With Thompson on the shelf and a group of talented safety signees -- led by ESPN’s No. 18 overall prospect and No. 2 safety Jamal Adams -- not yet on campus, the Tigers are primarily using Mills and Ronald Martin with the first-team defense.

Rickey Jefferson and Dwayne Thomas are also working at safety, and thus far the foursome is pleased with what it has accomplished.

“Rickey, if he keeps coming along, he’s going to help us out a lot. Jalen Mills is doing a good job back there, also. And Dwayne Thomas, he’s doing a good job,” Martin said. “That’s the only other ones that we’ve got working in right now in the spring, just us four. Us guys, we’re doing a pretty good job so far, so we’re just trying to keep it going.”

Perhaps that’s a good sign, as safety was a problem area for much of 2013. Loston was the one constant when healthy, but the starting spot opposite him was a revolving door partially because of inconsistency. The Tigers used seven different starting combinations at safety, with Martin, Thompson, Mills and Jefferson all starting at least once.

Once Adams, Devin Voorhies and John Battle IV arrive on campus this summer, Raymond will have even more safety options from which to choose. And Tigers coach Les Miles said the newcomers will indeed get a long look from the coaching staff.

“We’ll have guys back, but I think we’ll be looking at some of these young guys that are coming in,” Miles said.

Thompson will also be back by then. The rising junior missed the final two games of 2013 after injuring his left knee against Texas A&M and undergoing surgery in December. He said after Tuesday’s practice that the knee is back to about 80 percent, but he will not attempt to test it during spring practice.

“I aim to be 100 by May,” Thompson said. “I don’t want to rush it, get back too early. But then I feel like May is a good time to be 100 and do everything to get in shape and be ready for the season.”

So for now, the Tigers will continue to function with the four available safeties -- a group attempting to prove that last season’s lapses were only a temporary hiccup for a program known for solid defensive back play. LSU’s pass defense totals actually improved slightly (from 206.0 ypg in 2012 to 197.5 last season), but the Tigers’ overall defensive slide continued, with Chavis’ group dropping from second nationally in total defense in its 2011 SEC championship run (261.5 ypg) to eighth in 2012 (307.6) to 15th last fall (340.7).

That’s an 80-yard increase in just a two-year span, and the safeties know they must perform more consistently in order to improve those numbers.

“We’ve just got to show that we can be leaders out there -- show that we can lead the defense just like those guys in the past like Eric [Reid], Brandon [Taylor], LaRon [Landry] and so on and keep the pedigree going,” Martin said.

Continued progress from Mills at the position would offer a big boost, just as he did in his first-ever attempt at playing safety when he intercepted a pass during a comeback win against Arkansas.

Mills still has nuances of the position to learn, such as how to make new reads that are different at safety from those at cornerback, but he believes he is making the transition smoothly.

“I really didn’t have a problem with [shifting positions],” Mills said. “Just coming from corner, you know where you want your safety to be sometimes in different types of checks. So just going from cornerback to safety, I know what the corner wants, so I just try to do it.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- In the weeks leading up to Saturday’s first spring practice, we offered our best guesses -- some on the mark and some off -- on how LSU’s lineup might look when the Tigers took the field.

Nothing is settled yet, but at least we now have an idea of what the coaches are thinking.

Coach Les Miles addressed some of the Tigers’ biggest position battles and lineup alterations after Saturday’s initial team workout -- starting with the quarterback battle that will likely be the talk of this camp. Here is where things stand at the positions that are in flux as the Tigers enter today’s second practice:

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Jennings is the early favorite to start for the Tigers in 2014, but two freshmen remain in the competition.
Quarterback: Miles said Saturday that “I think I have a good idea, anyway” about who the Tigers’ starting quarterback will be, but the competition for the job still figures to be fierce. By all accounts, the early leader is rising sophomore Anthony Jennings, but redshirt freshman Hayden Rettig and immensely talented early enrollee Brandon Harris could challenge Jennings for the job.

This competition is only beginning, however. Miles said the coaching staff is in no rush to settle on a starter now, preferring to allow the competition to progress over the next few months before making any decisions.

“The idea that you make the decision early is foolish,” Miles said. “I think there’s always going to be that point in time where a young guy gains speed late or an injury makes the decision or the old guy, the more veteran [player], just shows that he’s worthwhile.”

Wide receiver: We learned Saturday that there is one less contender in the quarterback battle since Rob Bolden has shifted to wideout. Bolden actually “made a couple nice catches today” after making what “appears to be a pretty good move,” Miles said.

Bolden’s position change made for an interesting side note, but he isn't the headliner at receiver. Who among the returning players is the headliner? That’s still to be determined.

It apparently starts with Travin Dural and redshirt freshman John Diarse. Candidates such as Quantavius Leslie, Kevin Spears and Avery Peterson need to use this spring to solidify their spots in the rotation before a star-studded freshman class led by Malachi Dupre -- who attended Saturday’s practice -- and Trey Quinn arrives this summer.

“Travin Dural and John Diarse are both guys that really look good. We’re going to have the ability to put those guys on the field and go,” Miles said. “Q. Leslie and Kevin Spears and those guys that are really behind that group need to come on. This is the time for that. This is an opportunity for those guys. But those first two guys, we would look forward to them playing a lot.”

Right guard: Miles emphasized that for new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes, “playing the best player is obviously the key.”

Four offensive line jobs have clear leaders, with returning players who started nearly every game a season ago. But the right guard position is wide open, and Evan Washington is shifting from tackle to try to grab the job.

Fehoko Fanaika and Ethan Pocic -- who can also play center -- are among the other candidates at right guard, Miles said, but “we’re going to have to see how that all goes.”

Linebacker: It looks like the Tigers will do some juggling at these spots. Kendell Beckwith, a utility player last season, worked at middle linebacker on Saturday. Kwon Alexander shifted from strongside linebacker to the weak side. Lamar Louis practiced on the strong side after playing in the middle in 2013.

“We’re really taking the time to multi-train these linebackers so we can put the best three guys on the field,” Miles said. “Kwon has moved from his starting spot to the other side, so we think this spring will allow them to be put in either side.”

The quarterback battle will attract most of the headlines, but this might wind up becoming the Tigers’ most interesting competition this spring. Lots of moving pieces here.

Safety: We know this much: Jalen Mills is a safety and early enrollee Edward Paris Jr. -- who is working at cornerback -- is not. Beyond that, we’ll see where this battle goes.

Mills and Ronald Martin might be the top options here for now, but this is a competition that will begin in earnest when signees Jamal Adams, Devin Voorhies and John Battle IV arrive on campus this summer.

“We’ll have guys back, but I think we’ll be looking at some of these young guys that are coming in,” Miles said. “Ed Paris is lined up at corner right now and getting some corner work and then some of these young guys coming in will get opportunities to fit in there.”

Junior safety Corey Thompson (knee) might participate at some point this spring, but Miles said did not sound particularly optimistic on that front. Incidentally, he shared a similar spring-time prognosis for defensive end Jermauria Rasco (shoulder).
Setting up the spring in the SEC West:

ALABAMA

Spring start: March 15

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Succeeding McCarron: The Crimson Tide must find the person who will step into AJ McCarron’s shoes. There are several quarterbacks on campus: Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman. The person most have pegged as the favorite, however, won’t be on campus until the summer: Jacob Coker. A transfer from Florida State, Coker is finishing his degree before enrolling at Alabama. But new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will get a chance for a long look at the others this spring.
  • What’s next for Henry?: Running back Derrick Henry has the fans excited after his Allstate Sugar Bowl performance (eight carries, 100 yards), and he brings great size to the position (6-foot-3, 238 pounds). T.J. Yeldon is a returning starter who is more experienced and battle-tested, and there are still other talented backs on the roster, such as Kenyan Drake. But plenty of eyes will be on the sophomore-to-be Henry.
  • Replacing Mosley: Linebacker C.J. Mosley was a decorated star and leader, so his presence will be missed. Alabama has plenty of talent in the pipeline; it’s just not tremendously experienced. Watch for Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland.
ARKANSAS

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Keeping it positive: It’s been rough around Fayetteville, Ark. The Razorbacks closed their season with nine losses in a row; coach Bret Bielema is a focal point in the unpopular NCAA proposal designed to slow down hurry-up offenses; and leading running back Alex Collins served a weeklong suspension last month for unspecified reasons. The Hogs could use some positivity.
  • A new DC: The Razorbacks will be working in a new defensive coordinator, Robb Smith. He came over from the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he was the linebackers coach. Smith made a significant impact at his last college stop, Rutgers, where he led the Scarlet Knights' defense to a No. 10 ranking in total defense in 2012.
  • Year 2 progress: Making a drastic change in scheme isn’t easy to do, which is what the Razorbacks tried to accomplish in Bielema's debut season. In the second spring in Fayetteville for Bielema, things should come a little more easily as the Razorbacks continue to institute Bielema's brand of power football.
AUBURN

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Picking up where they left off: The Tigers put together a memorable, magical 2013, and with eight starters returning on offense, keeping that momentum going is key. Replacing running back Tre Mason and O-lineman Greg Robinson won't be easy, but there is still plenty of talent on offense to aid quarterback Nick Marshall.
  • Marshall's progress: Marshall’s ascent last year was impressive, but can he continue it? He’s great with his feet and made some big-time throws last year. As he continues to progress as a passer, it should add another facet to the Tigers’ explosive, up-tempo, multifaceted attack.
  • Improving the defense: The Tigers lost five starters from a group that was suspect at times last season. But defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has a history of improving defenses from Year 1 to Year 2, and it should be interesting to see if he can do that at Auburn.
LSU

Spring start: March 7

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
MISSISSIPPI STATE

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • All eyes on Prescott: With some strong performances to close out the season in the Egg Bowl and in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, quarterback Dak Prescott certainly played the part of an elite SEC quarterback. He'll enter the season with more national attention after putting together some gutsy performances while pushing through some personal adversity last season after the death of his mother.
  • Malone stepping in: Justin Malone was on pace to start at right guard last season, but was lost for the year with a Lisfranc injury in his foot in the season opener against Oklahoma State. With Gabe Jackson gone, the Bulldogs need another solid interior lineman to step up, and a healthy 6-foot-7, 320-pound Malone could be that guy.
  • Offensive staff shuffle: The Bulldogs added some new blood on the offensive coaching staff, bringing in young quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, a former Utah quarterback. Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy were promoted to co-offensive coordinators, though head coach Dan Mullen will continue as the playcaller in games.
OLE MISS

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
  • Wallace’s development: Coach Hugh Freeze believes quarterback Bo Wallace will be helped by having more practice this time around; last year, January shoulder surgery had Wallace rehabilitating most of the offseason, and Freeze believes it affected Wallace's arm strength later in the season. A fresh Wallace going into the spring can only help, and as he’s heading into his senior season, the coaching staff will look for more consistency.
  • Status of Nkemdiche and Bryant: Linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant were arrested last month and suspended. Ole Miss is investigating the situation, but their status remains undecided.
  • A healthy Aaron Morris: During the season opener against Vanderbilt, Morris tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. The offensive guard was recently granted a medical hardship waiver to restore that season of eligibility. Getting Morris back healthy for 2014 is important for the Rebels as he is a key piece to their offensive line.
TEXAS A&M

Spring start: Feb. 28

Spring game: None (final practice is April 5)

What to watch:
  • Life after Johnny Manziel: Texas A&M says goodbye to one of the best quarterbacks in college football history and must find his successor. Spring (and fall) practice will be the stage for a three-way battle between senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen. Only one of those three has started a college game (Joeckel), and he played in just one half last August. Whoever wins the competition will be green, but all three have the ability to run the Aggies’ offense.
  • Retooling the defense: The Aggies were pretty awful on defense last season, ranking among the bottom 25 nationally in most defensive statistical categories. They have to get much better on that side of the football if they want to be a real factor in the SEC West race, and that starts in the spring by developing the young front seven and trying to find some answers in the secondary, particularly at the safety positions.
  • New left tackle: This spring, the Aggies will have their third different left tackle in as many seasons. Luke Joeckel rode a stellar 2012 season to the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. Senior Jake Matthews made himself a projected top-10 pick for this year's draft while protecting Manziel last season. This season, Cedric Ogbuehi gets his turn. Ogbuehi has excelled throughout his Texas A&M career on the right side of the offensive line (first at right guard, then at right tackle last season) and is looking to follow in the footsteps of Joeckel and Matthews.

Key spring position battles: Safety

February, 27, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. – We're closing in on the start of spring practice at LSU, so this week let's take a look at five position battles worth watching this spring.

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.)

[+] EnlargeJalen Mills
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJalen Mills started at safety in the Outback Bowl.
Departures: Loston was one of the team's defensive leaders when healthy. He started 10 games, registering 57 tackles, four tackles for loss and tying for the team lead with three interceptions. The Tigers also lost Micah Eugene, who started twice early last season before leaving the program in December.

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.

Players to watch in spring: Ed Paris

February, 17, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- We're only a couple of weeks away from LSU's first spring practice on March 7. With that in mind, let's take a look at some players who have the opportunity to help their cause by stringing together a strong month of practices.

We begin this week's list with a look at an early enrollee who hopes to seize some playing time at a position that struggled for much of the 2013 season, safety.

[+] EnlargeEdward Paris Jr.
Max Olson/ESPN.comEnrolling early can give ESPN 300 safety signee Edward Paris Jr. a leg up in the battle to replace Craig Loston.
Edward Paris Jr. (Safety, Fr.)

2013 review: The native Louisianan ranked among the nation's top safety prospects at Mansfield Timberview High School in Arlington, Texas. The U.S. Army All-American was ESPN's No. 50 overall prospect and No. 4 safety when he enrolled at LSU in January.

Why spring is important: The Tigers experienced their share of upheaval at safety last season, experimenting with seven starting combinations at the position. Now they move forward without 2013 senior Craig Loston, who started 10 of the 13 games last year. Jalen Mills shifted to safety for the bowl game against Iowa and seems likely to remain there this spring, but the other safety spot just might be up for grabs. The other safeties who started in 2013 -- Corey Thompson, Ronald Martin and Rickey Jefferson -- remain on the roster, so there are plenty of candidates. Several other well-regarded prospects, led by No. 2 safety Jamal Adams, will arrive this summer. But Paris has the advantage of already being on campus, meaning he will have a leg up on his fellow 2014 recruits by participating in spring practice and could carve out a niche at an unproven position if he gets off to a quick start.

Best case/worst case: Getting a spring under his belt, before the arrival of the high-pressure circumstances that accompany preseason practice, obviously will benefit Paris. Look at what a strong spring did last year for early enrollee Christian LaCouture, who became one of the Tigers' top reserves at defensive tackle after arriving on campus months ahead of more heralded recruits. If Paris starts strong this spring and follows it up with another solid camp in August, he might just find himself in contention for a starting spot in the fall -- or at least a spot on the safety depth chart. If he struggles, he might be limited to special teams duty or even a possible redshirt while other freshman signees get a chance to play scrimmage downs.

LSU position groups to improve: No. 3

February, 12, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- With more than three weeks to go until LSU opens spring practice on March 7, we'll use some of the down time to preview the upcoming series of team workouts.

In the first two days of this week's series listing five position groups with room to improve in the fall, we discussed the tight ends and defensive tackles. Now we move onto the safeties, where LSU must replace starter Craig Loston, though the Tigers have added some excellent young players in the most recent signing class.

[+] EnlargeJalen Mills
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJalen Mills started at safety in the Outback Bowl.
3. Safety

Battling for No. 1: For a school that prides itself on its defensive back legacy, LSU's secondary was far too erratic in 2013. Of course, there was a lot to replace -- Eric Reid made the Pro Bowl as an NFL rookie, for instance -- but it was certainly a transitional season for the Tigers. The transition continues this season with senior Craig Loston leaving for the NFL. It appears that Jalen Mills -- whose transition to safety was eased by the emergence of Rashard Robinson and Tre'Davious White at corneback -- might be in the running for a starting spot. Mills (who had 67 tackles last fall and tied for the team lead with three interceptions) started for the first time at safety in the Outback Bowl win over Iowa after starting the first 12 games at corner. That was the last of seven different starting safety combinations for LSU in 2013, and Corey Thompson (40 tackles), Ronald Martin (38 tackles) and Rickey Jefferson (six tackles) also return among safeties who started at least once last season. But it wouldn't be much of a surprise to see some talented new safety signees immediately enter the mix this fall -- and in the case of early enrollee Edward Paris Jr., this spring.

Strength in numbers: LSU's coaches did a superb job of not only replenishing the depth chart at safety last week, but in adding players with the potential to play early. Jefferson could play a larger role this season after he was only a minor factor last fall as a true freshman -- one who most recruiting services graded as a wide receiver. Rising junior Thompson also seems like a candidate to occupy a prominent spot on the depth chart, if not start.

New on the scene: This is the area that has to excite LSU fans. There might have been a program that signed a better crop of safeties last week, but the Tigers' group looks about as good as it gets. In Jamal Adams and Paris, LSU added ESPN's Nos. 2 and 4 safeties in this class. The Tigers also landed ESPN 300 athlete (and likely safety) Devin Voorhies and three-star safety John Battle. Finally, late addition Russell Gage has multiple-position ability, but safety could be his eventual landing spot as well. With that collection of talent joining the roster, don't be surprised if freshmen challenge veteran players for spots on the depth chart this fall.

Week 8 helmet stickers

October, 20, 2013
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OXFORD, Miss. -- It wasn't the result LSU was hoping for Saturday, losing 27-24 to Ole Miss, but there were still some individual performances worth noting for the Tigers.

RB Kenny Hilliard: There were times when LSU looked dominant rushing the football against Ole Miss. Jeremy Hill led the team in yards, but it was Hilliard who played as well as, if not better than, the Tigers' starter. The junior rushed for a season-high 58 yards on just 11 carries. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry and put LSU on the board with a 3-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Hill is still the primary running back on this football team, but no coach has ever complained about having too many backs. Coming into Saturday's game, Hilliard was fourth on the team in rushing, but he's quickly emerging as the Tigers' No. 2 running back

DB Ronald Martin: The return of Martin was big for LSU. He missed the Florida game due to injury, but he came back in a big way against Ole Miss. The junior safety led the Tigers with 12 tackles, including eight solo stops. In the third quarter, Martin stripped running back I'Tavius Mathers and recovered the fumble on the same play. The turnover led to an LSU touchdown. Both Martin and Craig Loston have battled injuries throughout the first half of the season, but when healthy, they form one of the top safety tandems in the SEC. Cornerback Jalen Mills also has played well in the secondary. He had two sacks on Saturday.

The special teams: LSU never would have had a chance to tie the game late if not for the efforts of its special teams. The first big play was more of a mistake by Ole Miss when Korvic Neat muffed a punt, but Alfred Blue was there to jump on it for the Tigers. Later in the game, Ego Ferguson got his big paw in the air to block a chip-shot field goal attempt by the Rebels. The block kept it a one-score game and allowed LSU to tie it on the ensuing drive. Freshman kicker Colby Delahoussaye remained perfect on the season, making his only attempt from 41 yards out, and although Odell Beckham didn't break a big kickoff return he averaged more than 20 yards per return.

Honorable mention: WR Jarvis Landry

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