LSU Tigers: Stephen Rivers
Before the Tigers return to the practice field on Tuesday, let’s recap some of the developments thus far this spring.
Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris appear to lead Hayden Rettig in one of the nation’s most-watched spring quarterback battles. With 2013 playing time under his belt -- including a start in the Outback Bowl win over Iowa -- Jennings appears to be the more composed, polished contender on the practice field. But Harris possesses special passing talent. It should continue to be an interesting race throughout the summer and into the season.
The young quarterbacks endured many sloppy moments early in camp, to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Cam Cameron’s displeasure, but Tigers coach Les Miles said both players threw the ball well in Saturday’s scrimmage. Perhaps they are starting to turn a corner toward being ready to face SEC competition.
Receivers are a mess: Between frequent dropped passes and a spate of injuries, it has not been a banner spring for LSU’s receivers. Early in the spring, they seemed to struggle to get on the same page with the quarterbacks. And by the end of last week, they only had a couple of healthy scholarship players available.
Redshirt freshmen Kevin Spears, Avery Peterson and John Diarse have all dealt with injuries, with those setbacks coming at a particularly inopportune time since the youngsters need to establish themselves before a talented group of signees arrives this summer. At last Thursday’s practice periods that were open to the media, the only scholarship wideouts catching passes from the quarterbacks were Travin Dural and Quantavius Leslie.
Miles said last week that he likes what Dural and Diarse have accomplished thus far this spring, and Dural caught a long touchdown pass in Saturday’s scrimmage. But the others still have a lot to prove, which might be why Miles predicted that all four receiver signees will have the opportunity to win playing time in the fall.
Defensive line coming together: Miles seems pleased with the progress that several young defensive linemen have made this spring. In the last week, he has singled out redshirt freshmen Frank Herron, Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore for getting stronger and improving their games since they arrived at LSU last year.
He also complimented sophomores Christian LaCouture and Tashawn Bower after Saturday’s scrimmage. LaCouture and Bain both had sacks in the scrimmage, and Bower had two quarterback pressures.
The defensive line competition won’t generate a fraction of the national interest that the quarterback battle will, but that group’s development might be just as important in gauging LSU’s chances to contend in the SEC West this fall. With Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson both bolting for the NFL, the Tigers desperately needed some players to fill their void -- and Miles makes it sound as if they are developing some good options.
OL battle rages: It’s no surprise that LSU’s coaching staff continues to weigh its options on the offensive line -- particularly at the right guard position.
Seniors Evan Washington and Fehoko Fanaika have worked there, as has sophomore Ethan Pocic. It’s clear that the staff likes what Pocic can do, because he has practiced at guard, center and tackle this spring. Fanaika has been strictly at guard and Washington has worked at both guard and tackle.
With a new offensive line coach, Jeff Grimes, coming on board this spring, it’s obvious that he’s experimenting with different player combinations to see what he likes best. That experimentation will probably continue beyond the spring game.
Linebacker shuffle: As with the offensive line, LSU’s linebackers are also trying some new combinations this spring. Kwon Alexander shifted from strongside linebacker to weakside linebacker, Lamar Louis went from middle linebacker to the strong side and Kendell Beckwith is now backing up D.J. Welter in the middle after playing mostly at defensive end last fall.
LSU’s linebackers were somewhat mediocre for portions of 2013, so defensive coordinator John Chavis shook things up a bit this spring. Miles said Saturday that Beckwith’s move to the middle appears to be a good one and that Welter has improved his play this spring with the talented sophomore now battling him for playing time.
The linebackers themselves seem excited about the speed and athleticism that their group possesses. It will be interesting to see whether the lineup shuffling affects the Tigers’ overall defensive performance.
We theorized that several freshmen (or redshirt freshmen) will win playing time this spring in Monday's first installment. Today we move onto prediction No. 2:
Anthony Jennings holds onto the quarterback job
Not saying this will be permanent. In fact, it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see one of the other contenders push Jennings hard -- and maybe even out of the way -- during the season. But that might be too tall of an order over the next month.
After all, Jennings is the guy who elbowed his way onto the depth chart by enrolling early last year and playing well during the spring. Jennings is the guy who had already appeared in seven games last season when he played in relief of an injured Zach Mettenberger against Arkansas. And Jennings is the guy who, with his team trailing the Razorbacks 27-24 and just 3:04 to play, drove the Tigers 99 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
If he never plays another down at LSU, Jennings' 49-yard scoring pass to Travin Dural with 1:15 to play was enough to secure a permanent spot in Tigers lore. But he still has three years of eligibility remaining -- and our bet is that he will be the first Tiger to line up under center in the 2014 opener against Wisconsin.
Granted, Jennings didn't do much to help his cause in his lone start, the Tigers' 21-14 win against Iowa in the Outback Bowl. He went 7-for-19 for 82 yards and an interception, ran for 31 yards and a score and was sacked four times. In short, he looked like what he was: a freshman making his first college start.
To be fair, it was an awful day in Tampa -- cold, windy and damp. LSU's coaches clearly had no interest in relying on the freshman to sling it around, as evidenced by the Tigers running the ball on their first 12 offensive plays before Jennings attempted his first pass. And give Iowa credit, it fielded an outstanding defense -- the Hawkeyes finished sixth nationally in total defense (303.1 ypg) and ninth in scoring (18.9 ppg) -- that represented a tremendous challenge for a first-time starter.
That said, many LSU fans entered the offseason wondering whether Jennings deserved to be Mettenberger's successor after all, and Brandon Harris had signed with the Tigers and enrolled in January.
It seems clear that LSU's coaches want a dual-threat quarterback leading the offense -- former Tigers backup Stephen Rivers said as much when he announced plans to transfer -- and Jennings and Harris seem to be the players who can best fill that run-pass role. The majority of Jennings' offensive touches last season came on running plays before Mettenberger tore his ACL against Arkansas. And Harris was ESPN's No. 2 dual-threat quarterback and No. 37 overall prospect thanks to a combination of excellent passing skills and explosiveness as a runner from zone-read offensive looks.
Many LSU recruiting insiders believe Harris is the Tigers' quarterback of the future, but he's just a freshman preparing for his first spring camp. He has a lot to learn from offensive coordinator Cam Cameron before we predict that he'll leap past more experienced players like Rob Bolden and redshirt freshman Hayden Rettig, much less Jennings.
Bolden has yet to play in two years at LSU after starting 17 games at Penn State in 2010 and 2011. Rettig, meanwhile, is coming off a redshirt season where he enrolled early alongside Jennings. But both players at least have a year under Cameron's guidance, which is more than Harris can say at this point.
Add up all of those factors and it seems as if Jennings carries a clear advantage into the spring. Now will he maintain that advantage throughout the next month and beyond the Tigers' spring game? Our crystal ball starts getting murky there, but we'll say yes for now. The other quarterbacks will certainly have their chances, and if Harris picks up Cameron's offense at a rapid pace, this race might be wide open once the Tigers open preseason camp in August.
We covered the wide receivers and defensive tackles in the first two installments. Now let's look at quarterback, where the Tigers must replace Zach Mettenberger, who as a senior enjoyed one of the best single seasons for a passer in school history.
Returning starters: None
Returning reserves: If anything positive came out of Mettenberger's season-ending knee injury suffered in the regular-season finale against Arkansas, it's that his absence allowed freshman Anthony Jennings to gain some valuable experience. Jennings entered the Nov. 29 game against the rival Razorbacks and led the Tigers on a game-winning, 99-yard touchdown drive in the closing minutes -- a possession that he capped with a 49-yard touchdown pass to Travin Dural. Jennings (13-29, 181 yards, one TD, one INT in 2013) earned his first start in the bowl win against Iowa, although that was hardly an impressive performance. Rising senior Rob Bolden also returns -- although he has not appeared in a game. Bolden, however, did appear in 20 games at Penn State before transferring south, passing for 2,045 yards, seven touchdowns and 14 interceptions with the Nittany Lions.
Newcomers: Hayden Rettig – ESPN's No. 17 pocket passer and No. 217 overall prospect in 2013 -- enrolled early last year before redshirting in the fall. He and the others will be joined by exciting freshman Brandon Harris – ESPN's No. 2 dual-threat quarterback and No. 37 overall prospect -- who enrolled last month in order to compete in spring practice.
What to watch: This will perhaps become the most-watched LSU spring position battle. Quarterback generally attracts the most attention since it's the most important position on the field. LSU's coaches have made it clear that Jennings is the man to beat here, even if his lone start against Iowa (7-19, 82 yards, one interception) left a lot to be desired. He and Harris both have the run-pass skills that the coaching staff likes so the competition between them could continue through this season and into the next few fall seasons. If Harris struggles this spring and fails to mount much of a challenge in August, he could be staring at a redshirt season while Rettig or Bolden tries to wrestle the starting job away from Jennings. It definitely looks like his job to lose at this point.
- As usual, Johnny Manziel is at the center of the football universe. His height and hand size were all the talk after Friday's measurements at the NFL scouting combine. Manziel reached out to Tom Brady last week for advice on handling the combine spotlight. Brett Favre weighed in and said Johnny Football reminds him of "a young Brett Favre." Count San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh among those in the NFL who are similarly impressed with Manziel.
- Arkansas coach Bret Bielema is optimistic the the pace of play rule will pass. Many detractors, including Georgia coach Mark Richt, have demanded hard evidence that the rule is necessary. Bielema on Thursday cited the recent death of Cal's Ted Agu during a training run as such evidence. Of course, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier weighed in, calling it the "[Nick] Saban Rule." Spurrier said on Thursday that the rule "looks like it's dead now, hopefully."
- LSU quarterback Stephen Rivers plans to graduate, transfer and play for a new team this fall.
- Alabama has a school-record 12 players invited to the NFL scouting combine. Quarterback AJ McCarron is among those who will participate in full workouts.
- After having 11 players at the combine a year ago, Georgia will be represented by just one -- TE Arthur Lynch -- this weekend. QB Aaron Murray, who had surgery to repair a torn ACL less than three months ago, will be there just to chat.
- Florida's medical and strength staff is helping its many injured players making strides in their return to full health.
- Mississippi State and Ole Miss have a total of three prospects at the NFL combine.
- Relaxed, focused Missouri tailback Henry Josey is among the players at the NFL combine.
Anthony Jennings (Quarterback, So.)
2013 review: Jennings enters his sophomore season having already created a lasting memory for LSU fans. He came off the bench when Mettenberger suffered a season-ending knee injury against Arkansas and led a game-winning, 99-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. Jennings' lone start -- the Outback Bowl win against Iowa -- wasn't as memorable, but he has considerably more on-field experience than his competition. The 2013 early enrollee finished his freshman season having completed 13 of 29 passes for 181 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
Why spring is important: Jennings' performance in the comeback win against Arkansas raised expectations, but his outing against Iowa (7-for-19, 82 yards, one interception) in a rainy, nasty afternoon in Tampa left plenty to be desired. He and Mettenberger were the only quarterbacks to attempt a pass last fall, but the Tigers have no shortage of options at the position -- including early enrollee Brandon Harris, freshman Hayden Rettig and redshirt junior Rob Bolden -- so Jennings needs to take advantage of the early advantage he carries into the spring. The number of competitors did decrease earlier this week, however, when the school revealed that quarterback Stephen Rivers plans to transfer.
Best case/worst case: Jennings impressed at this time last year, claiming playing time as a freshman by accommodating himself well in the spring. The dual-threat performer hadn't done much all season when he entered the Arkansas game and promptly tossed the game-winning touchdown pass to Travin Dural. Perhaps that was a sign of great things to come, starting this season with a completely different set of offensive skill players. LSU's coaches seem to have made it clear that the job is Jennings' to lose, but it's not out of the realm of possibilities that he loses it. The worst case for Jennings would have him struggling to claim the job during spring practice, leaving open the competition into August and even September and eventually losing game snaps to the other quarterbacks on the depth chart as LSU's coaches evaluate their options.
Spotlight: Quarterback Anthony Jennings, 6-2, 211 pounds, rising sophomore
2013 summary: Jennings threw for 181 yards and a touchdown with one interception on 13 of 29 passing. He replaced starter Zach Mettenberger (ACL) in the fourth quarter of the season-finale against Arkansas, leading the Tigers on a game-winning, 99-yard touchdown drive that was capped with his 49-yard touchdown pass to Travin Dural with 1:15 remaining. He then started in place of Mettenberger in the Tigers' 21-14 win over Iowa in the Outback Bowl, where he threw for 82 yards with an interception.
The skinny: Now that Mettenberger is gone, the Tigers are searching for their quarterback of the future, and Jennings is currently No. 1 on that list. He wasn't perfect during his time on the field in 2013, but he guided the Tigers well enough for them to pull out two close wins at the end of the season. With LSU's offense shifting to accommodate a more dual-threat quarterback, Jennings should feel comfortable running things under center this spring. While he didn't show tendencies to be a run-first quarterback during his limited time on the field last season, Jennings can make plays with his feet if needed. What he needs to focus on is his accuracy and decision-making, which will come with more reps and more time with his receivers, a group that will look totally different with the loss of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. to the NFL draft. The athletic Jennings can now call LSU his team, but it's not like he won't have competition. Even with reserve Stephen Rivers deciding to transfer, Jennings is expected to get major push from true freshman Brandon Harris, who was rated the No. 2 overall dual-threat quarterback in the 2014 recruiting class by ESPN's Recruiting Nation. Harris is currently on campus, so he's already had his opportunities to push Jennings before spring ball even begins. LSU had such stability with Mettenberger at quarterback and is coming off a season in which the Tigers boasted one of the SEC's best offenses. With inexperience now littering the receiver spot, LSU needs that stability back in order to keep the offense going, and that starts with Jennings.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- As August camp has continued at LSU, position battles have emerged, some expected, some not so much. Here are five worth keeping an eye on as the Aug. 30 season opener against TCU looms.
The prime competitors: D.J. Welter, Lamar Louis
Darkhorses: Lamin Barrow, Kendell Beckwith
Outlook: There was a huge assumption out there that Barrow would move to middle linebacker during August camp, creating a spot at outside linebacker for talented young Kwon Alexander while getting the best of the Tigers' linebackers to the most important position. As of this week, that hasn't happened. Instead, Welter, the starter at the end of spring, remains in a battle with sophomore Louis for the spot, with talented freshman Beckwith looming in the background, biding his time. And there's still time for LSU to move Barrow to the middle if defensive coordiantor John Chavis sees fit.
Opening day starter? Our guess is Welter.
The prime competitors: Jordan Allen, Danielle Hunter.
Darhorses: Lewis Neal, Tashawn Bower.
Outlook: Hunter is a huge talent who many feel has the potential to be a double-digit sack guy and could form an imposing pass-rushing duo opposite Jermauria Rasco. But Les Miles often rewards older, hard-working players (see Josh Downs last year starting over Anthony Johnson at defensive tackle), and Allen seems to fit that bill. And make no mistake, he's talented in his own right. Also, look out for Neal and Bower, two bright young true freshmen who have impressed during summer workouts and have continued to do so in camp.
Opening day starter? The guess is Allen, though Hunter will see plenty of snaps.
The prime competitors: Alfred Blue, Jeremy Hill, Kenny Hilliard
Darkhorse: Terrence Magee
Outlook: With returning starter Hill reinstated following an offseason suspension the question is, will he resume his role, or will he suffer more repercussions for his off-field issues? History tells us players who find trouble at LSU don't necessarily get booted but often find themselves somewhat marginalized. That could be the case here. Blue was the opening day starter last year before suffering a knee injury, and he looks better than he did a year ago.
Opening day starter? We like Blue, and we also think Hill might not see the field in the opener as part of his punishment.
The prime competitors: Colby Delahoussaye, James Hairston
Darkhorse: Trent Domingue
Outlook: Delahoussaye handled most of the field goals in the spring game and seems to have the edge to replace the departed Drew Alleman as the primary kicker. But Hairston, the only scholarship kicker on the team, remains in the competition, and with his stronger leg he might be the man for longer field goals. He will retain his role as the kickoff specialist.
Opening Day Starter? Delahoussaye.
No. 2 Quarterback
Prime candidates: Anthony Jennings, Stephen Rivers
Darkhorses: Rob Bolden, Hayden Rettig
Outlook: We know Zach Mettenberger is the starter, but the burning question at LSU camp is who will back him up and thus become the heir apparent to replace him in 2014? Coaches have indicated Jennings, the talented true freshman, has a slight edge over Rivers, the sophomore younger brother of Philip Rivers. But don't discount Bolden, a former starter at Penn State who is coming off injury.
Opening Day No. 2? We still like the more seasoned Rivers to come in if Mettenberger gets banged up agianst TCU, but look for Jennings to make his presence felt as the season progresses.
1. The offensive line might shuffle: Right tackle Vadal Alexander was hobbled in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and rumors were, he was being seriously challenged for his starting spot by redshirt freshman Jerald Hawkins.
Little has happened at camp that would suggest otherwise after Alexander missed Tuesday and Wednesday’s practices and Hawkins was running with the starters at right tackle. The Hawkins-as-a-starter scenario is looking more and more plausible.
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From Georgia Tiger Fan (from Tuesday's chat): How close is LSU to winning another national championship?
Gary Laney: A nice broad question. LSU is going to be in a position in the next two years where, if it plays well and catches a couple of breaks, it could put itself in position to be in the serious national championship conversation in mid November, which is all anybody can ask for.
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU finished its spring drills Saturday, capping 15 practices spread out over six weeks, and while a lot of the big names performed as expected, other names emerged.
Zach Mettenberger is solidly entrenched at quarterback, as is Jeremy Hill at running back. Linebacker Lamin Barrow has stepped into a leadership role on defense, as has defensive tackle Anthony Johnson.
But who took the biggest steps in the spring? Let's look at five.
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1. Mettenberger adjusts: Quarterback Zach Mettenberger completed 12 of 19 passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns, all in the first half, after he evidently adjusted his own game plan.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron came up with the idea of allowing the quarterbacks to call their own plays in the spring game, so Mettenberger had some adjustments to make to his own calls.
"It was tough out there," the quarterback said. "Coach Cameron allowed us to call our own plays and it was the first time I've ever done that. It was kind of a slow start to get going, but we turned it around and had a pretty good day."
LSU coach Les Miles said the idea was to allow coaches to get a better feel for each quarterback's preference in certain situations and to allow the quarterbacks to gain a respect, and some insight, in the play-calling process.
"It allows you to see how the quarterback thinks," Miles said. "It allows you to see how he views the game plan, what he would call. I think it was a tremendous exercise."
It didn't get off to a rip-roaring start. Playing against a depleted second-team defense, the White offense managed a single field goal in its first three possessions before threw touchdown passes of 15 and 79 yards from Mettenberger to tight end Dillon Gordon and receiver Odell Beckham on consecutive possessions.
"We turned it around and had a pretty good day," Mettenberger said.
That goes especially for Beckham, who had two touchdown and 202 receiving yards on six catches, and Jarvis Landry, who added 132 yards on six catches.
2. Left out: LSU was without six injured first team players, as the secondary was depleted by injuries that kept out Jalen Collins, Jalen Mills and Ronald Martin. Offensive linemen Elliott Porter and Vadal Alexander also missed the game, as did defensive end Jermauria Rasco.
On the other hand, it looks like the six freshmen who entered college early might already be reaping some rewards from their early entry.
Here is a look at how LSU's eight new players have done after three weeks of spring.
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Practice dates: March 14, 15, 16, 19, 21, 23 (scrimmage), 25, 26 and 28. After spring break, resumes April 9, 11, 13 (scrimmage), 16, 18 and 20 (spring game).
What's new: Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will install his new offense, and four new starters will man the defensive line.
What's old: The Tigers have eight returning starters on offense, led by quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
Starters returning (8): QB Mettenberger, RB Jeremy Hill, FB J.C. Copeland, WR Jarvis Landry, WR Odell Beckham, LT La'el Collins (moved from left guard), LG Josh Williford (moved from right guard), RG Trai Turner, RT Vadal Alexander.
New starters: TE Dillon Gordon or Logan Stokes, C Elliott Porter. Key reserves -- QB Stephen Rivers, RBs Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard and Terrance Magee, FB Connor Neighbors, LT Jerald Hawkins, RG Fehoko Fanaika, RT Ethan Pocic, WR James Wright, Kadron Boone, John Diarse and Travin Dural, TE Travis Dickson.
It looked, however, like it might have been something else, like a symbolic black eye that came from a jab thrown by Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, or from a hook fired by a couple of surprisingly early departures from his team to the NFL, part of a whopping 13 NFL departures after a 10-3 season.
At any rate, Miles looked ready to put the pink eye, and any symbolic black eye, behind him as LSU begins drills on Thursday.
Here is what we learned from Miles on Wednesday:
Miles confirmed that Collins, now a junior, will get his chance to slide over to tackle, but added that redshirt freshman Jerald Hawkins will get a look at the position as well. If Hawkins proves to be the better tackle candidate, Collins would move back inside.
Miles said if Collins indeed wins the left tackle spot, senior Josh Williford would be the likely choice to start at left guard. Junior college transfer Fehoko Fanaika came to LSU at 370 pounds, Miles said, and is more likely to play on the right side, where Trai Turner returns as the starting guard, Miles said.
2. Lamin Barrow gets first shot at MLB: Miles also indicated that Barrow would get the first shot at the vacant starting middle linebacker role, a spot vacated by Kevin Minter's early NFL departure.
Miles said Barrow " can do the job outside," where he excelled with 107 tackles at weak-side linebacker last season. If one of LSU's six Class of 2012 linebacker recruits or another veteran -- Miles mentioned junior D.J. Welter -- steps up at middle linebacker, Barrow can easily move back to his weak side spot.
3. Bolden, Maclin out: Miles said quarterback Rob Bolden, who made news when he transferred from Penn State to LSU last summer following the NCAA fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, will not participate in spring practice after undergoing knee surgery in the off-season.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Spring practice can be looked at as simply 15 extra practices.
The reality is, there's more to it than that. Where August practice is focused more on preparation for a season opener, spring practices are more about evaluation and improvements. There are always areas where new players need to step up. Here are four with something to prove this spring:
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