LSU Tigers: Ronnie Feist
Returning starters: D.J. Welter (80 tackles, 4 tackles for loss in 2013), Kwon Alexander (65 tackles, 6.5 TFL). Defensive coordinator John Chavis complimented Welter’s performance from spring practice -- during which he won the team’s MVP award -- following a mediocre junior season. Meanwhile, Alexander shifted from strongside linebacker to weakside during the spring, which should allow him to become a key playmaker this fall.
Starters lost: Lamin Barrow (91 tackles, 5.5 TFL). Weakside linebacker Barrow led the team in tackles and was one of the more consistent performers on a rebuilding LSU defense in 2013.
Key newcomers: Clifton Garrett (No. 31 overall on the ESPN 300 and No. 2 inside linebacker) was the Tigers’ highest-rated linebacker signee, while outside linebacker Donnie Alexander (No. 261, No. 19 OLB) was also an ESPN 300 pick. Garrett is an immensely talented prospect, but he’s listed on the preseason depth chart as the third-team middle linebacker behind Welter and sophomore Kendell Beckwith (11 tackles). He’s got his work cut out to become a key contributor in 2014.
Player to watch: Kwon Alexander. Alexander and strongside linebacker Lamar Louis (25 tackles) both moved into new starting positions during the spring, and both jobs seem to suit the veterans’ respective skill sets. Alexander, seems to be the player who is poised for a breakout season, though. Taking over Barrow’s old role, he could become one of LSU’s top defensive performers this fall -- as evidenced by his interception return for a touchdown in the Tigers’ spring game.
Overall: This is one of LSU’s most exciting position groups, blessed with substantial athleticism, speed and depth. It’s only a matter of time until Beckwith is a star in the SEC, and he and fellow reserves Deion Jones (15 tackles in 2013, plus an interception return for a 67-yard touchdown in the spring game), Duke Riley (7 tackles) and Ronnie Feist (did not play) are all capable players. Chavis acknowledged after spring practice that he is considerably excited about what the group will add to the defense this fall -- and he should be. Chavis has plenty of weapons at his disposal, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see several of them emerge as reliable performers in 2014.
If you weren’t paying close attention at the Tigers’ spring game, however, you might not have realized just how much shuffling had taken place.
One of those players was Kendell Beckwith, who is slotted to play middle linebacker after contributing mostly at defensive end in 2013. Another was Deion Jones, who provided the game’s first points when he picked off an Anthony Jennings pass and returned it 67 yards for a touchdown. And a third was Ronnie Feist, who led all tacklers with 14 stops.
This after position switches by presumptive starters Kwon Alexander and Lamar Louis also generated headlines earlier in the spring, with Alexander moving from strongside linebacker to weakside and Louis shifting from middle linebacker to strongside.
“I like to cross-train guys because if you get someone go down, it’s not the guy that’s behind him on the depth chart, but it’s going to be the next-best linebacker we’re going to put in the game,” Chavis said.
Chavis employed that strategy to great effect this spring, putting players like Alexander and Louis in positions that might help them better take advantage of their athleticism. Earlier this month, Chavis said Alexander playing on the weak side -- perhaps the most important playmaking position among the linebackers -- “fits him perfectly” and added that Louis “did a really good job on the strong side” despite a hand injury that kept him in a green no-contact jersey for most of the spring.
He reserved his most glowing praise for D.J. Welter, however, noting that the talented Beckwith’s presence immediately behind him on the depth chart seemed to motivate the senior middle linebacker.
“Believe it or not, we had a senior that had his best spring practice. D.J. by far had the best spring practice that you can easily say that I’ve been around,” Chavis said of Welter, who is LSU’s top returning tackler with 80 stops in 2013. “He was incredible this spring, and I think rightfully so because he’s got a big guy behind him that’s pushing him that’s going to be a great football player and that’s going to play.
“Kendell Beckwith’s going to play a lot of football this year and for a while here at LSU. Competition makes you better and I think he took heed to the competition.”
There should be no shortage of competition among the players at Chavis’ position this fall. Louis said during the spring that LSU will boast its fastest, most athletic group of linebackers in years -- and the talent within the group will only grow when signees Clifton Garrett and Donnie Alexander arrive on campus.
The linebackers probably rank as LSU’s deepest, most experienced defensive position group as the season approaches, placing a burden on Chavis’ group to lead while green players at other positions find their legs. But if the Tigers find the right combinations at positions like defensive tackle and safety, LSU’s defense might continue its progress from late last fall following a shaky start to the 2013 season.
“Obviously we take a lot of pride in being good up front,” Chavis said. “If you’re going to win championships, you need good players everywhere and that’s what we’re here for: to compete for championships. Certainly I think we made some steps in that direction.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do. I’m proud of those guys that I coach personally, but I kind of keep a big eye on the entire defense. Hopefully if we mature at a couple positions, hopefully we can create some special things.”
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.
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.
We’ve discussed plenty of LSU’s key spring position battles here in the last few weeks and speculated about who might become the starters at those spots. But what about some younger players who haven’t played much or at all? There are several who made an impression during the Tigers’ spring practice and, even if they don’t become starters, we should see them make an impact in the near future.
Here are five of those spring movers:
Maquedius Bain: Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas mostly handled the first-team snaps at defensive tackle this spring, but Bain was among the youngsters who made it seem likely that the Tigers will utilize a deeper rotation in the middle this fall. Bain, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron -- all redshirt freshmen -- sat out last season while veterans Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson played most of the important snaps. We should hear all three players’ names quite a bit in 2014, particularly Bain, who tied with Herron for most tackles (four) among second-team defensive linemen in the spring game.
Brandon Harris: The big question entering spring practice was whether Harris could threaten Anthony Jennings for the starting quarterback job. The big question afterward concerns how quickly he will overtake his sophomore competitor. An early enrollee, Harris is understandably raw and mistake-prone. He’s extremely talented, however, blessed with an outstanding arm and impressive quickness. Harris will become LSU’s starting quarterback and, based on what we saw from Harris and Jennings this spring, it might happen sooner rather than later.
Melvin Jones: Is he going to play tailback at LSU? No. But a shortage of scholarship tailbacks this spring gave Jones a chance to learn a bit more about how to function in the running game. The sophomore switched from linebacker to fullback last season and even caught a touchdown pass against Furman. He has yet to record a carry in a game yet, however, so the opportunity to carry the ball some during the spring will be helpful when he splits time with senior Connor Neighbors at fullback this fall. Jones led the backup offense with 38 rushing yards on 12 carries in the spring game.
DeSean Smith: After catching just one pass last season (for 14 yards against UAB), Smith seems primed to play a much larger role in 2014. The sophomore tight end possesses valuable pass-catching skills and is nimble enough to split out wide as a receiver. If he proves himself as a capable blocker, Smith’s three catches for 45 yards in the spring game -- including a 19-yard touchdown catch from Harris -- should be only the tip of the iceberg in terms of his offensive production.
As Les Miles’ club wraps up its 15 spring workouts, here are five things we took away from the last month on the practice field:
Whichever quarterback wins the starting job, it’s a certainty that his playing style will differ wildly from predecessor Zach Mettenberger, who stood like a stone in the pocket. With either Jennings or Harris under center, defenses will have to respect that he can take off and make big plays with his legs.
“Oh boy, isn’t that fun to see?” Miles asked, referring to a 41-yard run that Harris made in the second quarter. “You go back in there and the defense makes a mistake and let me tell you what happened: One of those linebackers went over there to the other side with one of those backs and did not stay home. And so that quarterback came out the back side and suddenly 41 yards later, he’s run out of bounds.
“That’s something you can’t do, either, so when you line up against a quarterback with that kind of ability -- and both of our guys have it -- you’d better keep that linebacker home.”
Jennings still seems to have a tendency to hold on to the ball too long while looking to pass. Iowa sacked him four times in the Outback Bowl, and his defensive teammates got to him four times in the spring game. Harris seemed to have a better idea when to tuck it and run, which doesn’t seem to be a terrible idea for either of them, as they can both be dynamic runners when they leave the pocket.
2. Linebackers will be strong: Saturday was a great day for LSU’s linebackers. Not only did Kwon Alexander and Deion Jones both intercept Jennings' passes and take them to the house for touchdowns, but Ronnie Feist (14 tackles) and Lamar Louis (seven tackles, 0.5 tackle for a loss) were their respective teams’ leading tacklers.
Feist seemed to be everywhere, continuing what Miles said was an impressive spring from a physicality standpoint.
“When he hits you, you’re hit,” Miles said of Feist. “There’s no pretend to it.”
Senior middle linebacker D.J. Welter apparently left a major impression on his coaches this spring as well. Not only was he among the defense’s honorees in awards for leadership and for outstanding performance, but he was the lone winner of the Jimmy Taylor Award, the team’s comprehensive spring award for outstanding leadership, effort and performance.
3. Offensive playmakers still must emerge: It seemed like a foregone conclusion even before spring practice started that some of the team’s top offensive players for 2014 weren’t on campus yet. Spring didn’t do much to change that perception.
Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee -- who dealt with a sprained ankle for much of the spring -- were adequate at tailback, but freshman Leonard Fournette will inject some star power to the position once he arrives on campus. Likewise, Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn and the new receivers will add explosiveness at a position that was riddled with injuries throughout the spring. The receivers were nearly nonexistent in the spring game.
LSU wide receivers totaled seven catches for 200 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday. Sounds pretty good, right? But five of the catches, 130 yards and both touchdowns came from one player: Travin Dural.
Otherwise, the group frequently dropped passes and misplayed catchable balls, proving that they need every bit of the available practice time this summer to develop chemistry with their quarterbacks. Dural looks like a star in the making, but the others have a lot to prove from a consistency standpoint.
4. Tight end talk seems legit: DeSean Smith and the Tigers’ other tight ends expressed hope this spring that they would get more opportunities to catch passes in 2014 than they did last season, when wideouts Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham got most of the looks from Mettenberger.
They said that’s how things had been going in practice, and Saturday looked to continue that trend. Smith led the way with three catches for 45 yards and a touchdown, but Dillon Gordon (2-32), Logan Stokes (1-26), John David Moore (1-20) and Travis Dickson (1-8) also made receptions. In all, the tight ends accounted for eight of the Tigers’ 21 catches in the final spring scrimmage, and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron seems pleased with the weapons he has at his disposal at the position.
“Every year, with different personnel, creates a whole new set of opportunities, and I think the opportunities for our tight ends are going to be critical,” Cameron said. “I was thrilled -- for the most part -- I thought they made the most of it.”
5. Defense is on the comeback: Judging by the way the White team (which featured the starters) throttled the Purple team’s offense on Saturday, it looks like LSU’s first-team defense has the potential to rank among the SEC’s best this fall.
The Purple team accounted for 179 yards of offense on 46 plays -- 53 rushing on 27 carries and 126 passing on 6-for-19 attempts. The Purple converted for a first down just once out of 11 third downs.
After saying earlier in the week that he overthought things in his first season as a starter, defensive end Danielle Hunter seems to have cut loose now. He recorded two sacks on Saturday and was a regular presence in the Purple team’s backfield.
He was only one member of a sizable group of defensive players on both teams who flashed major potential in the scrimmage. Things seem to be looking up for defensive coordinator John Chavis’ bunch.
After discussing the tight ends, defensive tackles and safeties in the first three installments of this week's series on position groups that can improve this fall, today we move to the linebackers, who disappointed a bit last season and now must replace starter Lamin Barrow.
Battling for No. 1: Barrow, one of the leaders of the 2013 LSU defense, is a likely NFL draft pick and tied for ninth in the SEC with 91 tackles. He, rising senior D.J. Welter (80 tackles, four tackles for a loss) and rising junior Kwon Alexander (65 tackles, 6.5 TFLs) hardly set the world on fire, however, as the Tigers' typical starters. When spring practice opens, Welter probably starts as the middle linebacker and Alexander could remain at the strongside linebacker spot. There could be a competition between rising junior Deion Jones (15 tackles, 1 TFL) and sophomore Duke Riley (seven tackles, 0.5 TFLs) for the starting spot on the weak side.
Strength in numbers: Kendell Beckwith -- the highest-rated prospect in LSU's 2013 signing class -- made a small impact as a freshman. He totaled 11 tackles and one TFL but has the ability to play a larger role at strongside linebacker, in the middle, or at defensive end. Rising junior Lamar Louis (25 tackles) might also be a candidate for a bigger role in the middle. Sophomore Ronnie Feist is also coming off a redshirt season and might figure into the rotation somewhere.
New on the scene: Clifton Garrett is clearly one of the stars of LSU's newest signing class, ranking as ESPN's No. 31 overall prospect, No. 2 inside linebacker and top prospect in the state of Illinois. He looks like exactly the type of downhill run stopper who will fit in well in Baton Rouge, but it's rarely a great idea to project immediate greatness for freshmen who arrive in the summer. Perhaps he, or ESPN 300 outside linebacker Donnie Alexander, will be able to crack the rotation sometime during the fall, but it's probably best to temper expectations early on in preseason practice.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- D.J. Welter struggled as a student so much that he missed all of the 2012 season because he was academically ineligible.
That has not stopped him from progressing so much as a student of the game of football that he might end up being LSU's starting middle linebacker.
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.
Lamin Barrow, the weakside linebacker, will anchor the defense next season coming off a strong junior season where he had 104 tackles, a performance somewhat overshadowed by the often-dominant Minter.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
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.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
What's particularly interested is watching the linebackers, where true freshmen Ronnie Feist, Lamar Louis and Deion Jones, all true freshmen, have often worked together as a second-team unit behind first-teamers Kevin Minter, Tahj Jones and Lamin Barrow. That doesn't necessarily mean a veteran like Luke Muncie, who was competing with Barrow for the starting spot on the weak side, has completely fallen out of favor, but it is interesting to see the young players get early looks.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
Sam Montgomery told media members Thursday after the first day of August camp that he has gained 30 pounds in the off-season, pushing his weight over 270 pounds without sacrificing any of his speed.
"I think Sam is in position to have a great year," said LSU coach Les Miles of the junior, who was projected as the No. 5 player in the 2013 NFL draft by Mel Kiper. "I think he's more veteran, more seasoned, maybe more of a want this fall. He looks bigger and stronger to me."
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
As will be the case for the first three practices of August, Thursday morning was a varsity practice, so there was no sign of any incoming freshmen or transfers. Thus, much to the dismay of media everywhere, Penn State transfer Rob Bolden was not on hand.
Instead, reporters caught 25 minutes of initial veteran workouts, with a few notes worth mentioning.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
Returning starters: Six on offense, six on defense and the place-kicker, punter and top return man on special teams.
Star power: Junior cornerback Tyrann Mathieu was a Heisman Trophy finalist last season. He tied for the team lead with 76 total tackles and led the SEC with six forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries. He also returned two punts for touchdowns.
New faces: Lamar Louis and Ronnie Feist, a pair of true freshmen, went through spring drills and showed enough that that they’re going to be in the rotation at linebacker this season. Also keep an eye on incoming true freshman Kwon Alexander. In the secondary, redshirt freshman Jalen Collins could end up being the Tigers’ third cornerback, while redshirt freshman Micah Eugene is expected to push Craig Loston for the starting strong-safety spot.
Don’t forget about: Sixth-year senior Josh Dworaczyk didn’t go through the spring and missed all of last season with a knee injury. The NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility, and he adds a wealth of experience to an already-talented offensive line. Dworaczyk started at left guard in all 13 games of both the 2009 and 2010 seasons, but will have to beat out promising sophomore La'El Collins if he’s going to return to the starting lineup.
Big shoes to fill: Morris Claiborne picked up right where Patrick Peterson left off the year before and took away one whole side of the field at cornerback last season. He was an eraser back there for the Tigers and also contributed a key 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against West Virginia. Next in line is junior Tharold Simon, who has the size, skills and drive to be the next great corner to come out of LSU.
Key battle: LSU coach Les Miles likes to play a lot of running backs, but he can’t play five, and the Tigers have five who could start for a lot of teams. The new kid on the block is 6-foot-2, 225-pound freshman Jeremy Hill, who might be the most complete package physically. Juniors Michael Ford and Spencer Ware combined for more than 1,450 rushing yards last season, and 240-pound sophomore Kenny Hilliard came on toward the end of the season. There’s also junior Alfred Blue, who averaged 6.9 yards per carry a year ago. The competition at running back should be fierce over the next month.
Rising star: After starring on special teams last season and blowing up a few opposing return men, sophomore Jarvis Landry is ready to make his mark at receiver. He runs excellent routes and catches everything. He’ll be a vital part of the Tigers’ passing game this fall.
Bottom line: The Tigers came up one game short a year ago after winning 13 in a row against a brutal schedule and then laying an egg in the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama. They lost three talented underclassmen to the NFL draft, but the defense has a chance to be even better in 2012. Good luck in finding a deeper, more talented defensive line this side of the NFL. The secondary won’t be too far behind. If quarterback Zach Mettenberger can have success throwing the ball down the field, it’s going to open up all sorts of things on offense for the Tigers. Their running game will be as potent as ever. The schedule is also much easier, and Alabama has to come to Baton Rouge this season. When you add it all up, it has the feel of another national-championship run for the Tigers, who are still smarting from what happened to them in New Orleans last season.
The consensus about LSU coach Les Miles for a long time was that he'd always favor experience over youth. For years the argument about the Tigers' head man was that he wouldn't give newcomers a fair shake against established players.
That doesn't hold much water these days -- not after the past two seasons. LSU is 24-3 in the past two seasons, and green players have played a role of their own in setting that mark. In 2010 it was defensive backs Tyrann Mathieu, Tharold Simon and Eric Reid reaching the field early to make an impact.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
Blue Chip Battles: ESPN 300 Update
6:00 PM ET Texas A&M South Carolina 8:00 PM ET Boise State Ole Miss 9:15 PM ET Temple Vanderbilt
12:00 PM ET Tennessee-Martin Kentucky 3:30 PM ET West Virginia Alabama 3:30 PM ET South Dakota State Missouri 4:00 PM ET Arkansas Auburn 5:30 PM ET Clemson Georgia 7:00 PM ET Idaho Florida 7:30 PM ET Southern Miss Mississippi State 9:00 PM ET Wisconsin LSU