LSU Tigers: Tredavious White

Top spring storylines at LSU

March, 5, 2015
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- For most LSU fans, there is only one spring storyline that matters: the quarterback battle between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.

Indeed, the competition between junior Jennings (1,611 passing yards, 11 TDs, 7 INTs in 2014) and sophomore Harris (452 yards, 6 TDs, 2 INTs) might determine whether the Tigers re-emerge as legitimate contenders in the SEC West or remain in the middle of the pack like last season’s 8-5 club.

But there are plenty of spring stories to follow at LSU beyond Jennings-Harris. Here are five more that deserve some attention.

What will Kevin Steele’s defense look like? The public likely won’t gain a full understanding of Steele’s defensive modifications until the regular season starts in September, as LSU’s spring practices are open only for short periods of time and the Tigers will probably play it close to the vest in their spring game.

[+] EnlargeKevin Steele
AP Photo/Hilary ScheinukHow new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, left, changes up LSU's schemes will be one of the top storylines to follow in Baton Rouge.
But Steele seems likely to change things around a bit, perhaps incorporating some 3-4 looks into the scheme over time. The Tigers have personnel that is best suited for the 4-3 base scheme and multiple-DB packages that John Chavis coached over the previous six seasons, but the roster is more than versatile enough to try some new things. Steele’s impact will be one of the most intriguing storylines not just this spring, but throughout the 2015 season at LSU.

How will the secondary take shape? The Tigers have a ton of good options at defensive back, so this is hardly a nightmare for Corey Raymond’s crew. It’s a matter of figuring out which pieces fit best at which positions.

The biggest position of interest is the cornerback spot opposite two-year starter Tre'Davious White. With the departures of Jalen Collins and Rashard Robinson, the Tigers lack a proven second option -- assuming that senior Jalen Mills remains at safety. Mills started for two seasons at corner and could move back, but will that be necessary? LSU has numerous options to fill the spot -- including heavily recruited early enrollee Kevin Toliver, sophomore Ed Paris and junior Dwayne Thomas, who is coming off season-ending knee surgery. And other alternatives will arrive this summer in signees Donte Jackson and Xavier Lewis.

Safety is also an interesting position, particularly if Mills works at corner. Sophomore Jamal Adams seems likely to grab a starting spot, but who else claims the top spots in the rotation out of Rickey Jefferson, Corey Thompson, John Battle and Devin Voorhies? Raymond will have his work cut out in distributing the PT to so many capable players.

Will Cam Cameron open up the offense? This is a corollary to the decision on the starting quarterback. LSU’s passing game was woefully unproductive last season, mostly because of underwhelming play at quarterback. How much will offensive coordinator Cameron be able to open up his playbook in 2015 after playing it so conservatively a season ago?

With Leonard Fournette in the backfield, LSU still figures to be a run-heavy offense. But the Tigers might not be able to beat the high-scoring teams on the schedule without getting the ball downfield more effectively. Cameron understands this reality.

Either way, expect him to throw more wrinkles at opposing defenses than he did for most of the 2014 season. Perhaps the regular-season finale against Texas A&M was a template. Cameron mixed things up against the Aggies and a stagnant offense came to life with 491 yards of total offense. Between that game and the bowl loss against Notre Dame, Cameron handed the ball to speedy receiver Travin Dural -- mostly on jet sweeps -- a total of eight times for 110 yards.

Getting more out of the quarterbacks would greatly help Cameron make better use of his skill talent, but it seems likely that he will be more ambitious this season regardless, out of necessity.

What impact will the new assistant coaches have on their positions? We’ve already discussed Steele and how he might juggle different defensive looks. Any shuffling would likely impact how he uses the players at his new position group, linebacker, as well. When the Tigers open spring practice on Saturday, it will be interesting to see where Steele has the various linebackers lining up.

LSU’s other new assistants, defensive line coach Ed Orgeron and receivers coach Tony Ball, both have young groups to develop. They both have obvious candidates for playing time (tackles Davon Godchaux and Christian LaCouture for Orgeron and wideouts Dural, Malachi Dupre, John Diarse and Trey Quinn for Ball), but building depth will be an objective for both coaches.

The Tigers have a boatload of unproven youngsters at both position groups, and LSU would benefit greatly if the new assistants could get some production out of them starting this spring.

Who grabs the last two starting spots on the offensive line? The positions for LSU’s three returning starters on the offensive line -- Vadal Alexander, Jerald Hawkins and Ethan Pocic -- aren’t set in stone, but it’s almost a certainty that all three will start somewhere.

Jeff Grimes’ job this spring will be figuring out where they fit best and which players to slide into the other two openings along his offensive line. Grimes lost two senior starters (left tackle La’el Collins and center Elliott Porter) and two top reserves (seniors Evan Washington and Fehoko Fanaika) from last season, so the Tigers will be young in spots.

Most likely that will be on the interior line, although Alexander could play either guard or tackle and Pocic is capable of playing every position on the line. Guard/tackle Josh Boutte, center Andy Dodd, center/guard William Clapp, tackle K.J. Malone and guard Garrett Brumfield are all players who might get some consideration from Grimes this spring.
With three new assistant coaches and four early enrollees in the fold, LSU is scheduled to open spring practice on Saturday.

As is the case each spring, there are a number of positions that are up for the grabs for the Tigers. The competition between quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris will generate the most attention, but there are several other positions where multiple players are vying for playing time.

Let’s take a look at five LSU position battles of interest this spring.

Offensive line: When last we saw Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins, the two draft-eligible mainstays along the LSU offensive line both announced that they would return for the 2015 season. They also said they expect to man the tackle positions after Alexander played left guard last season and Hawkins played right tackle. If that comes to pass, that leaves three interior line spots up for grabs. Ethan Pocic would fill one of them -- he has started at both center and guard -- and inexperienced youngsters will likely fill the others. A few names to watch this spring: Junior Josh Boutte, sophomores Andy Dodd and K.J. Malone and redshirt freshmen William Clapp and Garrett Brumfield.

Linebacker: It will hurt losing All-SEC weakside linebacker Kwon Alexander, who led the Tigers with 90 tackles, but LSU still has a solid core at the position starting with junior middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith (second on the team with 77 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss). New defensive coordinator Kevin Steele might shift things around a bit, incorporating some of the 3-4 looks that his defenses employed in his previous stop at Alabama. That might create some new roles for Steele’s linebackers. Lamar Louis could conceivably play a larger role, as could 2014 reserves like Duke Riley, Deion Jones and Clifton Garrett. The Tigers have everyone back at the position except for Alexander and D.J. Welter, so this veteran bunch should be a strength once everyone settles into the roles that Steele assigns them.

Cornerback: Jalen Collins and Rashard Robinson -- who combined to start 13 games last season -- are out of the picture, so LSU essentially has one starting position to fill opposite junior Tre'Davious White. It will be interesting to see how Steele and secondary coach Corey Raymond opt to fill that hole. Jalen Mills, who started at cornerback for two seasons before starting at safety in 2014, would be a capable option. But they have plenty of alternatives, including Dwayne Thomas (returning from ACL surgery), Ed Paris and highly touted early enrollee Kevin Toliver. LSU’s secondary is loaded with talent, so this will not be a situation where Steele and Raymond are forced to settle on a lineup. They’ll be able to work through a number of options this spring and decide which personnel combinations they like best.

Defensive end: This will be only the first chapter of this battle. It will truly get interesting in the summer once signees Arden Key and Isaiah Washington arrive on campus, but somebody has to take the first step in replacing starters Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco for now. Hunter (13 TFLs and 1.5 sacks) and Rasco (7.5 TFLs and 4 sacks) were LSU’s top pass-rushers a season ago, although the Tigers left a lot to be desired in that department. Only South Carolina (1.08 sacks per game) averaged fewer sacks per game than LSU (1.46) among SEC defenses. Junior Tashawn Bower seems like an odds-on favorite to take over a starting job, but Sione Teuhema and Deondre Clark also played a bit as freshmen last season. New defensive line coach Ed Orgeron will certainly make it an objective to build a line that generates more sacks this season, and it will start with more consistent pressure off the edge. But who will Orgeron identify as the players who can handle that duty?

Quarterback: We can’t do a list like this and not touch on the quarterbacks. No position got more attention last season -- largely because Jennings and Harris were so inconsistent -- and it will continue to draw the most speculation until somebody nails down the job. Early enrollee Justin McMillan joined the team in January, but this remains a two-man race. Jennings has started 13 of the last 14 games, but he was underwhelming in his first season as a starter, completing 48.9 percent of his passes for 1,611 yards, 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions last fall. Harris had a few impressive moments as a freshman, but bombed in his starting audition against Auburn and failed to earn the trust of the coaching staff. LSU’s coaches insist, however, that he has every opportunity to win the job between now and September.
Editor's note: We broke down LSU's need to improve at quarterback as part of our SEC blog's positional series three weeks ago. Today we conclude our position-by-position look at the 2015 Tigers.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- When a school advertises itself as "Defensive Back University," something special is obviously going down there.

Even while it has been a couple of years since LSU had a DB who jumped off the screen like Tyrann Mathieu, the Tigers still could make a case as the nation's top secondary. That shouldn't change in 2015.

"The tradition of DBU is going to still be here," rising senior defensive back Jalen Mills said. "We're looking forward to next year and not just being a dominant defense as a whole, but a dominant, just us as a whole secondary."

[+] EnlargeLSU defense
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY Sports"The tradition of DBU is going to still be here," rising senior defensive back Jalen Mills said. "We're looking forward to next year and not just being a dominant defense as a whole, but a dominant, just us as a whole secondary."
Only two defenses (San Jose State at 117.8 ypg and Clemson at 157.4) allowed fewer passing yards per game than LSU's average of 164.2 in 2014. The Tigers lost three valuable veterans from that pass defense in All-SEC safety Ronald Martin and cornerbacks Jalen Collins and Rashard Robinson, but there is a ton of talent still on hand.

Any conversation about the secondary starts with cornerback Tre'Davious White and three-year starter Mills, who is capable of playing either safety or corner. But the Tigers' next superstar-in-waiting at DB might be Jamal Adams, who made a big impression last fall as a true freshman.

"He probably might not know what to do, but he's going to give tremendous effort as a freshman," Martin said while assessing Adams' rookie season. "You don't see too many guys come in as a freshman and give tremendous effort like that. That's what I give him the most. He has a lot of potential, very athletic and I think that's what stood him apart from a lot of the freshmen."

The Tigers should also get Dwayne Thomas and Corey Thompson back from injury, plus junior Rickey Jefferson, whom teammates point to as one of the group's vocal leaders after his role expanded as a sophomore in 2014.

"I already put it in my head that I'm going to be hard on the guys coming in and I'm going to be hard on the guys that were in because I see what we've got here," Jefferson said. "I know we've got a great opportunity to be amongst the best, and DBU, and we're going to bring that tradition back and keep it alive. So that's really my focus and what I'm planning to do next year."

Speaking of the guys coming in, LSU is in position to clean up at defensive back on national signing day. Cornerback Kevin Tolliver -- ESPN's No. 10 overall prospect -- is already on campus as an early enrollee and could immediately help address LSU's slight depth concerns at the position. The Tigers also landed commitments from four-star DBs Xavier Lewis, Donte Jackson and Jeremy Cutrer.

And they also return underclassmen Ed Paris, Devin Voorhies, Russell Gage and John Battle, who could compete for bigger roles after getting limited playing time in 2014.

Overall, there will be a few youngsters filling key roles and some depth-chart questions to answer at cornerback, but 2015 looks to be another potential-packed season for LSU's secondary. Take it from departing senior Martin.

"Those young guys, those guys have got to prepare and be stepped up for the spring," Martin said. "I think those guys are going to have a pretty good spring because they'll learn from the fall. Especially Jamal. I think he's going to step up and be a leader for those guys next year, him and [Tre'Davious White]. Basically I think Jamal and Tre'Davious and Corey Thompson coming back, I think those guys are going to be great."

BREAKDOWN

Returning players: CB Tre'Davious White (33 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 interceptions), DB Jalen Mills (62 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 INT), S Jamal Adams (66 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 sack), S Rickey Jefferson (23 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 2 INT), DB Dwayne Thomas (24 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT), CB Ed Paris (3 tackles), CB Russell Gage (2 tackles), S Devin Voorhies (5 tackles), DB John Battle (0 tackles), S Corey Thompson (DNP).

Departed players: CB Jalen Collins (38 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 INT), S Ronald Martin (73 tackles, 2 INT), CB Rashard Robinson (17 tackles, 1 TFL).

Committed prospects: Kevin Tolliver (No. 10 overall prospect, No. 2 CB, five stars, early enrollee), Xavier Lewis (No. 150 overall, No. 13 CB, four stars), Donte Jackson (No. 176 overall, No. 15 athlete, four stars), Jeremy Cutrer (No. 26 on ESPN JC 50, No. 2 S).

Outlook: Despite the losses of Martin, Collins and Robinson -- who combined to start 26 games in 2014 -- the secondary is still in good shape. The Tigers will be short on experience at cornerback behind White and potentially Mills, but adding several future stars on signing day -- led by five-star early enrollee Kevin Tolliver -- is an outstanding answer to those concerns. This group looks more than capable of continuing the DBU tradition this fall.

LSU freshman tracker

October, 19, 2014
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Terrence Magee and the defense were the stars of LSU’s 41-3 win against Kentucky on Saturday, but several of the Tigers’ true freshmen still played key roles in the victory.

Here is a recap of some of their performances:

S Jamal Adams
What he did:
Statistics don’t adequately explain the ways Adams impacts a game, but he had his best statistical performance against Kentucky. He finished with eight tackles, one sack and 1.5 tackles for loss and also starred on special teams – particularly with a bone-crushing block on Tre’Davious White’s 67-yard punt return for a touchdown.

What it means: Adams continues to play a valuable role when the Tigers bring extra defensive backs onto the field and is developing into an exciting playmaker. Coach Les Miles described him as "electric" after the game. He still hasn’t started a game yet, but it seems clear that he’s a future star for the LSU defense.

RB Leonard Fournette
What he did:
Fournette ran nine times for 31 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter alone, but took off most of the second half with the game well in hand and Terrence Magee (9-127, 2 TDs) running the ball effectively. Fournette finished with 15 carries for 40 yards.

What it means: After he ran 27 times last week against Florida, LSU seemed prepared to hand Fournette another heavy workload on Saturday. Once the Tigers easily took command in the second quarter, it became unnecessary to feed Fournette, and the Tigers were able to save their star freshman for next week’s showdown with Ole Miss.

DT Davon Godchaux
What he did:
Godchaux started for the fourth straight game -- and fifth time in six games -- and posted two tackles.

What it means: Another freshman whose stat line isn’t a great indicator of his value, Godchaux continues to progress as an interior lineman. There is a correlation between his improvement and the Tigers’ effectiveness up the middle. Let’s see what happens against Ole Miss, though, before we declare the Tigers’ problems solved.

QB Brandon Harris
What he did:
Harris entered the game with a little more than 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter and LSU up 41-3. On his first drive, Harris floated a pass to John Diarse that Marcus McWilson intercepted in the end zone, and the Tigers ran repeatedly to milk the remaining time on the clock on his second drive. The interception was Harris’ only pass attempt, and he ran once for an 8-yard gain.

What it means: Harris didn’t play last week against Florida and only entered the Kentucky game once it was well in hand. It’s obvious which way LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has been leaning since Harris’ disastrous starting debut against Auburn. Anthony Jennings has not been particularly effective as the starting quarterback, but it’s obviously his job for now.

RB Darrel Williams
What he did:
Williams got most of his playing time in the fourth quarter and ran 10 times for 61 yards as the Tigers worked to run the remaining time off the clock in their blowout win.

What it means: Prior to the fourth quarter, Williams had only one carry for 5 yards. He did a nice job with his garbage-time carries, running nine times in the fourth quarter for 56 yards, but he’s obviously on the lower end of the tailback pecking order.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU's punt coverage team surrendered 59 return yards in the entire 2012 season. That total dropped to 47 yards last fall. In fact, LSU's punt team hadn't allowed 100 return yards in a season since 2008.

The Tigers' streak ended last Saturday, however, when Florida's Andre Debose scorched LSU for 115 yards on two punt returns -- one of which went for a 62-yard touchdown.

That begs an obvious question: Was the problem simply that LSU was trying to corral one of the best return men in SEC history -- Debose is tied for third in the conference's career record book with five kick returns for touchdowns -- or was something lacking on the coverage units?

[+] EnlargeFlorida's Andre Debose
Rob Foldy/Getty ImagesAndre Debose has 115 punt-return yards against LSU, including a 62-yard touchdown.
“It was a combination of both,” said LSU cornerback Tre'Davious White, one of the Tigers' punt coverage team members. “He's a great returner, not to take nothing away from him, but watching film there were definitely some things that we did wrong. There were some wrong angles that we took and did some things that we need to clean up.”

As White mentioned, the Tigers' issues were twofold. Punter Jamie Keehn accepted some of the blame for Debose's long returns, saying that he should have kicked the ball higher in order to give his teammates more time to sprint downfield. But White and fellow coverage man Deion Jones admitted that the group should have done a better job of defending the areas they were assigned to cover.

“It was just the little things about our lane integrity, and stuff that we worked, but we didn't really stress, and it wound up showing when we took the field,” Jones said. “We saw this could hurt us, and it almost did.”

The Tigers still managed to win 30-27 despite Debose's two long returns, but those runbacks were a blow to the collective ego of an LSU punt coverage team that hadn't allowed a touchdown since Ole Miss' Marshay Green's 44-yard score in 2007.

“It hurt us. We didn't know what it was at first,” Jones said. “We'd been getting by with it each week and then somebody exposes it and it's like, ‘Oh, this is what it was.' ”

As for Keehn, his numbers are actually up from last season, when he averaged 41.0 yards per punt and the Tigers ranked eighth in the SEC in net punting (punting average minus opponent return average) at 38.1 ypp.

After Debose's long returns inflated opponents' punt return average against LSU from 1.47 yards per return to 4.0, the Tigers are currently the only SEC team to have surrendered at least 100 punt returns yards in 2014 (177 yards on 44 punts). LSU ranks fourth in the league in net punting, however, at 41.1 ypp and Keehn is third in the league with an average of 45.6 ypp.

“We have got a weapon there, we've just got to make sure that our guys recognize their responsibility to cover,” LSU coach Les Miles said.

Keehn said he should have punted the ball higher against Florida, but in his defense, LSU was backed up against its own end zone on both punts that Debose returned. LSU's offense stalled at its own 10-yard line before Keehn launched a 52-yard punt that Debose returned for an early touchdown, and LSU was on its own 11 when Debose later returned a 51-yard Keehn punt to the Tigers' 9.

Those are hardly ideal circumstances when punting to one of the conference's all-time most dangerous return men.

“The direction was good, distance was good. [We needed] a bit more hangtime from me, give my guys a little more of a chance to get down there,” Keehn said. “The hangtime probably didn't match the distance. I probably outkicked the coverage a little bit there, but when I'm backed up in my own end zone, I'm trying to hit the biggest ball I can and trying to flip the field.”

Nonetheless, LSU is typically the team that creates huge momentum swings with explosive returns, not the one that surrenders them. Those lapses caught the Tigers off guard, and were the focus of extra attention when they returned to the practice field on Monday.

Saturday's opponent, Kentucky, isn't nearly as dangerous in the return game -- the Wildcats are 10th in the SEC in punt return average at 8.4 -- but the Tigers know they can't afford to remain sloppy while defending their coverage lanes.

“I feel like going into Saturday, it'll show because we practiced it hard [Monday],” White said. “Debose, he's a great returner, not to take anything away from him, but I feel if we do those things right that we did wrong, it could have probably limited some of those yards that he got.”

Third-down busts painful for LSU defense

September, 25, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- In the first, second and fourth quarters last Saturday, Mississippi State’s offense converted just one out of nine third downs. But in the Bulldogs’ key third-quarter run – a stretch where they pushed their lead from 17-10 to 34-10 – State’s offense didn’t just convert on third down, it made some of its biggest plays of the entire game.

The Bulldogs converted four out of five of their third-down situations in that third quarter and averaged 30.8 yards per play. That included a pair of long touchdowns -- a 56-yard run by quarterback Dak Prescott and a 74-yard pass from Prescott to Jameon Lewis -- where the Bulldogs exploited huge holes in the LSU defense.

[+] EnlargeJameon Lewis
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsLSU defenders say that many of Mississippi State's big plays last Saturday -- like Jameon Lewis' TD reception -- were the result of mental breakdowns.
“We had the momentum at the start of the third quarter,” LSU middle linebacker D.J. Welter said, referring to the Tigers’ defensive touchdown on the first play of the second half. “That kind of hurt us throughout the whole second half was not getting off the field on third down. And when they started moving the ball, it kind of got their momentum back and it really hurt us.”

We examined Mississippi State’s third-down success during the quarter in a post earlier this week. Today let’s look at it from an LSU perspective. Prescott’s improvisational skills and his running ability were key factors in several of those big plays, which is relevant since the Tigers will soon face other quarterbacks with similar run-pass ability.

If there is a silver lining to the many big plays LSU surrendered in the game, it’s that player after player insisted that their biggest problems against State – like aligning improperly or failing to make the proper pre-snap adjustments – were correctable mental errors instead of physical issues.

“I’m not taking anything away from Dak as a quarterback. The dude’s impressive, he’s a good athlete, you see him on film and he makes big plays,” Welter said. “But [if] we definitely played our techniques, it could have helped us out a lot in that game in not giving up those big busts that he had. When we gave it to him, he took it from us -- and give props for that -- but it definitely was a mistake in our technique.”

Take Prescott’s long touchdown run, for example. The Bulldogs spread out LSU’s defense with five receivers and Welter oddly lined up in a gap between right defensive tackle Davon Godchaux and right end Tashawn Bower, leaving nobody in the center of the field. When Prescott broke through a hole between defensive linemen Christian LaCouture and Deondre Clark, State’s quarterback needed only to break a tackle attempt by safety Jalen Mills in order to find himself with acres of running room on his way to the end zone.

On several of the Bulldogs’ other third-quarter conversions, defenders showed their concerns about State’s running game by either chasing Prescott or biting on run fakes, which created holes for the Bulldogs to exploit.

“Most of the key third downs, it wasn’t so much what they did, it was so much things that we didn’t do well,” cornerback Tre’Davious White said. “They played a great game – not to take things away from them – but if we just do the little things, the things that we’re taught to do, we don’t put ourselves in that position.”

Tiger Stadium’s legendary decibel level actually hurt, as well, the players said. There were times where it was so loud in the stadium that all of the defenders failed to hear the Tigers’ pre-snap calls. Several LSU defenders admitted that they must do a better job communicating between plays in order to prevent future busts.

“While it’s being so loud in our stadium, the loudest crowd out there, it’s kind of hard to be yelling at each other, so we’ve got to get our signals down pat so everybody’s on the same play before they snap the ball and get there faster,” defensive back Dwayne Thomas said.

This was LSU’s first big game in expanded Tiger Stadium, so perhaps some growing pains were inevitable as the defense adjusts to the noise created by 10,000 extra people in the stands. But while that might have been a factor, it’s hard to imagine that a home-field disadvantage was a major reason for so many defensive lapses.

With several high-scoring spread offenses fast approaching on the schedule, the Tigers must clean up their missed assignments, play tougher along the line of scrimmage and tackle more effectively in the future or this will not be their last rocky defensive outing. LSU has actually been effective on third down overall -- opponents have converted 16 of 57 attempts, with LSU's 28.1 percent conversion rate ranking fourth in the SEC -- but it probably can't afford to surrender so many big plays in those situations again.

“I feel like we could be a whole lot better all around as far as communicating, tackling, all that,” linebacker Kendell Beckwith said. “We’ve just got to get back to the old LSU way, being a dominant, dominant defense, and that starts in practice.”

LSU's coverage issues exposed in loss

September, 24, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Would the real LSU secondary please stand up?

Entering last Saturday’s game against Mississippi State, the Tigers boasted arguably the nation’s most dominant defensive backfield. They hadn’t allowed a completion of more than 15 yards in the first three games. (Opponents were 0-for-17 on throws of at least 15 yards.) The Tigers had held opposing quarterbacks to a Total QBR of 11.2, which was the best among all FBS defenses.

Against Mississippi State and quarterback Dak Prescott, however, the Tigers were anything but dominant. Prescott hit a 25-yard completion on Mississippi State’s first play from scrimmage and finished the night 4-for-8 on throws of 15-plus yards with an average of 20.6 yards per attempt.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertDak Prescott's ability to freelance outside the pocket gave the Tigers fits on Saturday.
The Bulldogs finished with 570 yards of total offense, including 268 passing yards and two touchdowns by Prescott, which represented the highest yardage total allowed by an LSU defense since 2001.

“It doesn’t sit with none of us pretty good,” LSU safety Jalen Mills said after the game. “Going into practice, we kind of wish that we could skip Sunday and go straight to Monday. Going into practice, if you don’t want to practice on Monday and bring full intensity, don’t come out there at all."

No. 17 LSU (3-1) will most likely improve to 4-1 after a visit from New Mexico State (2-2) on Saturday, although oddly enough, the Aggies have the exact same passing yardage total (1,067 yards) through four games as Mississippi State. But defending quarterback Tyler Rogers (264 passing yards per game, nine touchdowns six interceptions), receiver Teldrick Morgan (116 receiving ypg, four TDs) and NMSU’s spread passing attack will be good practice for some of the SEC offenses the Tigers will face down the road.

Several of them will look to air it out against LSU, and the Tigers’ secondary for the first time looked vulnerable last weekend. Mississippi State had five pass plays that went at least 20 yards, although the good news for LSU is that only one of those completions was a downfield throw where a receiver beat man-to-man coverage. Even on that play -- a 26-yard back-shoulder completion to De’Runnya Wilson in the first quarter -- LSU cornerback Tre’Davious White provided tight coverage, but Prescott simply made a good throw to a receiver with a serious size advantage who made the stronger play for the ball.

One of the other long completions was a misdirection screen pass to H-back Malcolm Johnson, and two others -- a 44-yard pass to Wilson in front of safety Ronald Martin and a 21-yard connection with Jameon Lewis before cornerback Jalen Collins' big hit failed to dislodge the ball -- came against zone coverage.

The most painful completion of the night (a 74-yard touchdown pass to Lewis) came when Prescott extended the play by scrambling once the pocket collapsed. Bulldogs receivers Wilson and Lewis were both in Martin's zone along the sideline, and Martin broke toward Wilson instead of Lewis as Prescott started to throw. With the LSU safety out of the picture, Lewis caught the ball at the Mississippi State 45 and went untouched for a score that put State up 31-10 in the third quarter.

Prescott also proved that the Tigers needed extra practice on coverages when quarterbacks begin to improvise.

“When you’re in man-to-man and it’s a scramble drill, it’s quite easy because you can just lock on your man and just run whatever he runs,” White said. “But when we’re in a zone coverage and you’re forced to do a scramble drill, it’s quite tough. You’ve got to grab whoever’s in your zone.

“If two people are in your zone at the same time, it’s hard to cover two guys. That’s probably what happened on some of the scramble drills, so we were basically in zone coverage and two guys were in one guy’s zone.”

That doesn’t explain all of LSU’s coverage breakdowns, nor does it provide much solace with dual-threat quarterbacks such as Texas A&M’s Kenny Hill, Auburn’s Nick Marshall, Alabama’s Blake Sims and Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace ahead on the schedule.

Those players will also be able to freelance with their feet once the pocket collapses, and if LSU’s secondary doesn’t solve its coverage issues between now and then, Prescott won’t be the last quarterback to make the Tigers look bad.

“We’re going to see a guy like him again -- probably not as big, but we’ll see a guy [with] probably the same kind of skill set that he has,” White said. “But it’s just a learning curve for us. We just want to move forward and just try to improve.”

That was a theme in LSU coach Les Miles' Monday press luncheon. Whether it was scheme, personnel or coaching, Miles said it was all under review this week as the Tigers attempt to correct their problems. On defense, one of their biggest concerns, both last Saturday and moving forward, is doing a better job against quarterbacks who can create while on the move.

“We recognize what just happened, and we don’t want it to happen again,” Miles said.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- When it comes to turnovers and sacks, it's not a chicken-or-the-egg equation for LSU's defense.

It's a chicken-AND-the-egg thing -- because without one, the Tigers likely won't have the other.

"If you're covering and they're not getting that pressure, you can only cover for so long before somebody gets open," cornerback Tre'Davious White said. "But if you have both going at the same time, it's hard to get beat."

[+] EnlargeLSU's Dwayne Thomas
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanDwayne Thomas nabs one of LSU's two interceptions against Sam Houston State.
Last season was a down year for LSU in both categories, with the Tigers registering 27 sacks and 11 interceptions -- their fewest sacks since 2009 and interceptions since 2008. It was also the first time since 2008 that the Tigers had fewer interceptions than touchdown passes allowed (15).

Improving in both categories was an area of offseason emphasis for LSU's defense, and the Tigers seem to be showing marked improvement. Through two games, LSU leads the SEC in pass-efficiency defense (50.6), is tied with Arkansas for the league lead in sacks (seven) and ranks second with four interceptions (Ole Miss has five).

"We've been working on a lot of ball skills and a lot of strip drills and a lot of fumble-recovery drills. As far as getting it done at practice, it's coming easier to us in the game," said defensive back Dwayne Thomas, who halted Sam Houston State's opening drive last week with an interception at LSU's 6-yard line.

Clearly it's too early to pronounce LSU's problems in either area solved. The Tigers notched three takeaways and all seven sacks in last Saturday's 56-0 rout of Sam Houston State, an FCS opponent that isn't up to the competitive level of some of the teams waiting on LSU's schedule.

And yet the Tigers picked off multiple passes for the third straight game -- their longest such streak since an all-star secondary intercepted at least two passes in each of the final four games of the 2010 season -- and recorded LSU's best single-game sack total since getting seven in a 2007 win against Alabama.

There have been other Sam Houston States on the schedule in the last several years, but LSU didn't post numbers like that against any of them. Perhaps the offseason work is actually starting to pay dividends.

"[SHSU's] offensive line, they were pretty good and we had to run our stunts perfectly. By doing that, you saw a bunch of sacks," said linebacker D.J. Welter, who accounted for one of the sacks and also stripped Bearkats quarterback Jared Johnson on the play for a fumble that Deion Jones recovered at the SHSU 1. "That definitely helps going into the next couple of games to have more confidence in the pass rush."

Saturday's game against Louisiana-Monroe will provide a further test of their progress -- the Warhawks have surrendered four sacks and have had just one of their 86 passes intercepted through two games -- but the truth will truly come to light starting the next week against Mississippi State.

In eight SEC games last season, the Tigers recorded 15 sacks and seven interceptions. Those numbers weren't pitiful, but they definitely weren't up to LSU's previous standards, either.

LSU's 2014 defense intends to function more like its dominant predecessors, and in a shutout streak that stretches over the last 87 minutes, 24 seconds of action, the Tigers have offered regular glimpses of such play.

"We kind of struggled a bit last year as a secondary," White said, "and I feel like us having two big games, going down the road that'll give us so much confidence when we get into the big-time games that we can make those plays, too."

LSU WRs an odd mix of young and old

August, 25, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- John Diarse chuckled when he described himself as a veteran. He realizes how silly that sounds since he has yet to play in a college game, but it’s the truth.

The funny thing is, having participated in two sets of spring and preseason practices, Diarse is actually one of the longest-tenured wide receivers on No. 13 LSU’s roster.

“Seeing that I am a redshirt freshman, in some ways it does [feel absurd],” admitted Diarse, whose team opens the season against No. 14 Wisconsin on Saturday. “But I think I’m a vet in my mind, mentally, because I’ve been through the program and I know what it takes and the hard work that has to be done on and off the field. So in my mind I’m a vet, but as far as stats-wise and playing time, not really.”

[+] EnlargeDural
AP Photo/Bill HaberLSU's most experienced receiver is Travin Dural, who has all of seven career catches.
Take a gander at LSU's wideout depth chart. Travin Dural is the most experienced player, by far. He’s a redshirt sophomore with all of seven catches for 145 yards to his credit. There is only one scholarship senior -- junior college transfer Quantavius Leslie -- on the roster. There are no scholarship juniors.

Once 2013 star juniors Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry decided to enter the NFL draft, the Tigers’ wideout depth chart now features that couple of inexperienced veterans and a host of guys like Diarse, who either redshirted last season or who will be enrolled in college for the first time this fall.

“We always joke about that in the receiving room about me being the oldest, but I take pride in being an older guy,” said Leslie, who finished with one catch for 11 yards last season. “I just tell them what’s right. I’ve been through this, so this is not my first year going through it.”

But Leslie is unique in that regard at LSU. Many Tigers, like arguably the nation’s top group of 2014 wideout signees, have only been on campus for a few months and still have plenty to learn.

Leslie and some of the older players like Diarse have learned all three wideout positions by now, but they only played one in their first seasons at LSU. That’s a common trajectory for a newcomer, so a true freshman like Trey Quinn, Malachi Dupre or D.J. Chark -- all of whom are in the Tigers’ plans for 2014 according to coach Les Miles -- would be well ahead of the curve if he becomes functional at more than one spot this fall.

“We’ve got a lot of smart guys,” Diarse said. “Once these younger guys kind of catch the feel for it, they’ll be able to do both inside and out.”

Although he missed a portion of preseason practice, one skill that Dupre -- RecruitingNation's No. 1 wideout prospect for 2014 -- believes will help him contribute this season is his blocking ability. He played in a run-first offense at John Curtis in New Orleans, so clearing a path for running backs will be nothing new, even if the Tigers figure to put the ball in the air more frequently than what he’s accustomed to seeing.

“I think that made me better coming into a situation like I am now where the ball will be in the air more,” Dupre said. “But still remembering where I came from and thinking I had to make the best out of any opportunity I got in high school because I might not get another opportunity will definitely help now because I’ll get more opportunities.”

The greatest factor in the newcomers’ development, though, will be time. They’ve had the summer and preseason practices to get a taste against all-conference-caliber defenders like Tre'Davious White, Rashard Robinson and Jalen Collins. Producing in games will be a different achievement.

That said, the freshmen have their veteran teammates excited about what they can accomplish in the future.

“All of them make plays. I was surprised at all of them,” Leslie said. “They’re not playing or practicing like no freshmen. They’re practicing like they’ve been here.”

And don’t forget about Diarse’s fellow redshirt freshmen Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears. Between those three and the Tigers’ four true freshman wideouts, LSU has a huge group of pass-catchers preparing for their first college games on Saturday.

With that in mind -- plus the still-unannounced starting quarterback adding further uncertainty to the Tigers’ passing game -- it would not be a surprise if offensive coordinator Cam Cameron plays it close to the vest on Saturday. But LSU’s wideouts believe their summer practice time against a solid group of defensive backs has prepared them for this first test, even against a Wisconsin secondary that largely remains intact from a season ago.

“Everyone says that we’re a young group and we have a young quarterback, whoever it’s going to be, so it’s like everyone says we’re not going to be able to pass the ball,” Dural said. “Being able to pass it in camp against our defense is exciting to us. We’re moving the ball.”

BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU's reputation as "Defensive Back University" might have slipped a bit in the last couple of years. Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson are intent on restoring the Tigers' secondary to its previous glory.

Last season marked only the second time in Les' Miles nine seasons at LSU that the Tigers did not have a defensive back make the coaches' All-SEC team. And safety Eric Reid was the only Tiger picked in 2012, ending a streak of three straight seasons when LSU had two DBs make the all-conference squad.

White and Robinson, who along with safety Corey Thompson all made the preseason all-conference team picked at SEC media days, could help LSU end that dry spell. And not only that, the sophomore cornerbacks have the potential to become the top cornerback tandem in the SEC.

"Everybody was thinking that the DBU tradition really was gone, but it really hasn't," Robinson said. "We're here. Our time is now."

White and Robinson had wildly different experiences as freshmen in 2013.

One of the most heavily-recruited cornerbacks in the nation last year, White entered the starting lineup in Week 3 against Kent State and never left. He started 11 times, finished the season with 55 tackles and two interceptions and led the Tigers in both pass breakups (seven) and passes defended (nine).

Robinson, meanwhile, waited all summer to gain academic eligibility. He was finally cleared to enroll at LSU on the week of the opener against TCU, but played only a minor role for much of the season despite appearing in 12 games. He made an enormous splash in his first start, however, pestering Texas A&M's Mike Evans -- an eventual first-round NFL draft pick - throughout an afternoon when the Tigers held A&M's prolific offense to its worst point (10) and yardage (299) totals of the season.

"A lot of people really were thinking that it was probably not even going to be a great matchup, so I just had to go and show the world what I was capable of doing," Robinson said of the matchup against Evans.

Robinson finished the season with just 16 tackles and one interception, but gained a late foothold at cornerback, allowing Jalen Mills to shift to the injury-depleted safety position. That cleared the way for White and Robinson to team up as starting cornerbacks in two of the final three games, building upon a bond that started to form as high schoolers who camped together at LSU.

"I actually met Rashard at a 7-on-7 camp back going into my senior year of high school," White said. "We met there and he was a guy, we sort of chopped it up and talked a little bit. He was telling me that it was between LSU and a couple more schools, and I was already committed to LSU, so of course I tried to persuade him to come here."

White continued, "Once we came to camp, we saw the bond we had and the chemistry we had to be great together. So I think that played a role in him coming."

Not that they didn't run into some growing pains. Like most freshmen, they needed time to figure out LSU's defensive scheme and to adapt to the speed of the college game.

The Tigers' defensive statistics were OK -- LSU actually improved from 28th nationally in pass defense in 2012 (206 yards allowed per game) to 13th in 2013 (197.5) -- but anyone who watched LSU's defense play last season knows that it experienced its share of breakdowns in the secondary, especially early in the fall.

It was the first season since 2008 when LSU's defense had fewer interceptions (11) than touchdown passes allowed (15).

"It was [an issue] with all of us last year. Me and Rashard, too," White said. "It was confidence in knowing the scheme and knowing different concepts of the defense. So with that confidence in Year 2, we're more confident in everything and we don't have to think. We just play football."

Miles has recently singled out both players in post-practice comments -- White for his leadership skills and Robinson for his play in the secondary during Saturday's first full scrimmage -- so the arrow seems to be pointing upward for the duo.

"I think that they just can't wait for the fall, to be honest," Miles said. "I think they're looking forward to making the plays that they came to make."

If they successfully make those plays, the All-SEC team should once again feature at least a couple of LSU names in the secondary at the end of the season -- and the Tigers might once again have the best cornerback pairing in the league.

"I feel that we have a great chance of doing that, living up to that, with the help of our front seven," White said. "The pressure that it gets on the quarterback, that'll make our jobs so much easier."

High five: Five items from Week 2

August, 15, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. – Each week during LSU’s preseason practice, we will review five things we learned that week.

Here are five items from the Tigers’ second week of preseason camp:

1. Quinn, Chark getting ready at WR: Neither player was the No. 1 receiver prospect in the nation -- that was Malachi Dupre, who also signed with LSU in February but has been slowed recently by an undisclosed injury -- but freshmen Trey Quinn and D.J. Chark might be more prepared to contribute.

[+] EnlargeDural
AP Photo/Bill HaberTravin Dural is among the group of players competing to be one of LSU's return men.
When asking LSU’s veteran receivers (or defensive backs) which freshmen have impressed them, it doesn’t take long before Quinn and Chark’s names arise. Especially Quinn’s. And don’t try to pigeonhole him as a possession receiver, either. The kid’s got good hands, yes, but he’s got the wheels and route-running ability to make plays all over the field. It sounds like we’ll see that happen sooner rather than later.

2. Good news at defensive tackle: LSU coach Les Miles named Frank Herron as a starting defensive tackle alongside Christian LaCouture once Quentin Thomas went down with an injury last week.

As it turns out, the Tigers might have both Herron and Thomas at their disposal at some point. Some within the program expected the worst when Thomas injured his arm in practice last week, but the team medical staff said he can rehabilitate the injury without surgery and might not miss the season after all.

Herron looked like was going to play a major role on the defensive line regardless, but it certainly won’t hurt for the Tigers to have their eldest veteran back in the fold. Miles said this week that he believes LSU has a potentially outstanding defensive line, and Thomas’ presence can only make it that much better.

3. Playing it coy about quarterbacks: If the Tigers are as disciplined on the field this fall as they are about discussing their quarterback competition, they’ll never commit a penalty. They’re definitely not tipping their hands when it comes to the QBs.

No matter who you ask, the general message is always the same: “Whoever the coaches choose, we can win with him. They’re both playing great right now. I don’t have a preference,” referring to quarterback contenders Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.

Asked who threw the two touchdown passes in a scrimmage earlier this week, Miles replied, “A quarterback. I’m not going to share that if you don’t mind.”

This is nothing new. Miles pulled the same cloak-and-dagger routine in the spring, when he refused to reveal the quarterbacks’ passing stats after each of the Tigers’ scrimmages. Clearly this is just how Miles is going to handle it. With a tough opening matchup ahead against Wisconsin, there's no good reason to discourage one of the contenders yet.

4. Knowing their roles: LSU has established a reputation for playing freshmen -- and the Tigers will probably use somewhere around their normal 15 signees at some point this season.

But some Tigers newcomers display a mature understanding that this is probably not the fall where they make much of an impact.

Clifton Garrett -- one of the team’s highest-rated defensive signees -- showed that attitude, acknowledging that senior D.J. Welter and sophomore Kendell Beckwith are much better prepared to play at middle linebacker. So for now, he’s focusing on playing special teams and learning the intricacies of defensive coordinator John Chavis’ defense.

“I envision my role being a special teams kind of guy and just whenever coach feels like I’m able to get the plays down and everything, I’m going to be at [middle linebacker], so I’ve got to get the guys lined up,” Garrett said. “When Coach Chavis tells me I’m ready for that position, go out there and play on the field in primetime, then I’m going to do it and I want to be ready for that.”

Same with offensive lineman Jevonte Domond, who arrived from junior college just before the Tigers opened camp. This is probably a learning season, Domond acknowledged. The Tigers have a veteran offensive line and he still has three seasons of eligibility remaining, so the opportunity to learn LSU’s blocking schemes behind an established starter such as right tackle Jerald Hawkins will be incredibly valuable for him in 2015.

Plenty of LSU’s 2014 signees could make similar statements. Most recruits arrive and want to play immediately -- and some Tigers freshmen will do so this fall -- but it’s often good for them to bide their time behind experienced players without the pressure of learning in front of 102,000 people on fall Saturdays. It’s refreshing to see some newcomers possess the maturity to acknowledge that reality.

5. Kick return competition continues: The Tigers reportedly worked on kickoff returns in Wednesday’s first team scrimmage and will likely practice them again in Saturday’s first full scrimmage. But it’s difficult to predict who will handle kicks when the Tigers open the season Aug. 30 against Wisconsin.

Receiver Travin Dural said he’s practicing as a punt returner and kickoff returner and listed Tre'Davious White, Jamal Adams, Leonard Fournette, Quinn and Dupre among the other contenders. Dural said it’s difficult to detect a pecking order yet, however.

“As I see it, whoever lines up first gets the first punt or whoever gets there first gets the first kickoff,” Dural said. “There isn’t really a set order. It isn’t set in stone who’s the punt returner or who’s the kick returner.”

That could be a fun competition to watch over the next couple of weeks, as the players Dural listed have the skills to continue the LSU tradition of excellent return men.

LSU has 'productive' first scrimmage

August, 13, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Les Miles didn’t offer many specifics about LSU’s first preseason scrimmage on Wednesday -- particularly about which quarterbacks completed the two touchdown passes -- but the Tigers’ coach described the 26-play scrimmage as “pretty productive.”

Miles confirmed that freshmen Leonard Fournette and Malachi Dupre are both dealing with injuries, adding that tailback Fournette ran a handful of times in “thud” drills (not full contact) and that he should participate in a greater role in Saturday’s full scrimmage.

“He really could have been involved today, but [with] a little bruise, we decided not to,” Miles said.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsCoach Les Miles said that QBs Anthony Jennings, left, and Brandon Harris are both grasping LSU's offense.
He made similar comments about wide receiver Dupre, who already missed a couple of practice days with an undisclosed injury.

“He’s really nicked and on the heal and they don’t think it’s anything major in any way, but we’ve just got to continue to treat and get him going,” Miles said.

He didn’t say which quarterbacks threw the passes, but Miles did reveal that Avery Peterson and Travin Dural caught touchdowns in the scrimmage.

Speaking generally, he said that quarterback contenders Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris are in command of the offense most of the time. The rest remains a work in progress.

“They’re young, they’re both engaged in leadership and want to have command of the offense -- and they do for the most part,” Miles said. “They don’t know what command is. They don’t necessarily understand exactly what has to be communicated to make this thing go easy. They’re learning.

“I’d say 70 percent of today was just very, very well done and 30 percent’s probably not enough for anybody that sits in the stands to even notice. And yet that 30 percent we expect from our quarterbacks.”

Miles said defensive tackle Quentin Thomas -- initially thought to be lost for the season with a torn bicep -- worked in individual drills on Wednesday and might still play this season.

“Today he went through individual and moved and used his hands. It’s one of those things when you have a big old arm and you get it nicked, you can’t quite tell what it is and what it isn’t initially. Frankly he’s as fortunate as he could be.”

Miles added that the Tigers’ occupational therapist, “looked at it and he says there’s absolutely no reason to do anything else than rehabilitate and let him play.”

Thomas’ versatility: One of the primary benefits of LSU’s “Mustang” defense is that it’s difficult to tell which rushers will attack the line of scrimmage on any given play. So perhaps it fits that one of the Tigers’ key players in that package is Dwayne Thomas, since you never know where he might play.

Thomas said he has learned the duties of every position in the secondary, joining Jalen Mills as the only Tiger defensive backs who can do that.

“Corner, safety, nickel and dime -- I pretty much know the entire defense,” Thomas said. “Wherever Coach [Corey] Raymond needs me, I just go fill in. It’s a great opportunity to do that. Being able to be in the mix of any position is good for the next level.”

Thomas said he added safety to his repertoire since the end of last season, having worked at the position throughout spring practice.

“Once I got safety down pat, that was like the last position I had to learn for the entire defense,” Thomas said. “I had already been doing nickel and dime and corner. After the spring passed, getting all the safety reps down pat was just fantastic.”

But it’s that Mustang role where Thomas might make the biggest impact. Because of his speed off the edge -- aided by his ability to jump the snap count, work with assistant coach Brick Haley on the finer points of pass rushing and film study of former Mustang standouts Tyrann Mathieu and Ron Brooks -- Thomas could be even more valuable in that role this season.

“Dwayne really gives us what we’re looking for at that position. He does a great job there,” defensive coordinator John Chavis said when asked about who will play the rushing positions in the Mustang. “Jalen Mills has played a lot at that position. I’m not ready to say anything other than we expect Thomas to be one of those guys.”

Kick returners: Dural said one factor will probably determine who eventually wins LSU’s kickoff and punt return jobs.

“We’re battling every day to see who’s going to drop the ball first,” Dural chuckled.

Dural listed a half-dozen candidates who are contending for the return jobs when they catch balls before and after practice each day.

“It’s just me, Tre White, Leonard, Jamal [Adams], Malachi, Trey Quinn. We’re all back there battling for a spot,” Dural said. “Everybody wants to be that dynamic player. Everybody wants to be the kickoff guy or [punt].”

LSU had one of the nation’s best return men last year in Odell Beckham, who entered the NFL draft after winning the Paul Hornung Award as college football’s most versatile player. Dural said it won’t be easy to replace the explosive Beckham, but he believes the Tigers have plenty of promising candidates.

“It’s hard to replace someone like that, but we have a lot of guys who have the ability to make those plays,” Dural said. “Tre White, he’s a guy that can return punts and return kickoffs as well as Leonard. Leonard’s back there returning both of them. So as the season goes on, whoever that guy may be, you’ll start to see him make those types of plays that Odell did.”

Cam Cameron: More than one quality QB

August, 11, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Maybe he doesn't want to give away anything to Wisconsin, maybe it truly is a tight battle -- and maybe it's both -- but LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said the quarterback race between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris is too close to call.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsFreshman Brandon Harris made a heck of a first impression during LSU's spring game.
"The competition is so stiff every day in practice," Cameron said. "You can improve in two, two and a half hours like you wouldn't believe because the pressure you're under here every day. I've seen as much improvement in our quarterbacks this week as I've ever seen in a group of quarterbacks in that small a timeframe.

"And that has nothing to do with me as it does with the attitude of the guys, No. 1, but the amount of pressure John [Chavis, LSU's defensive coordinator] and his defense put on them. Any flaw a guy has is going to get exposed and get exposed in the first 30 minutes of practice."

LSU's assistant coaches, quarterbacks and freshmen spoke with reporters on Sunday for the first and possibly only time this preseason, so Jennings, Harris and Cameron were among the day's busiest participants.

Head coach Les Miles said he is not rushing yet to name a starter between sophomore Jennings and freshman Harris as he wants to allow a competitive environment to thrive.

"I think the naming of a starter will be when one separates himself from the other. And when it's a real advantage to name him as a starter because he needs to recognize as does the team that this is where we're going," Miles said. "We're not there."

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsCan sophomore Anthony Jennings secure the starting quarterback job out of preseason training?
Also the Tigers' quarterbacks coach, Cameron agreed with that philosophy. The longer true competition exists, the better off Jennings and Harris will be, he said.

"My job is to make this decision as tough on Les as possible," Cameron said. "What do you mean by that? Well, we've got two guys that we feel confident we can win with -- if not three, if not four. We're not coaching one guy more than the other hoping he's the guy."

Cameron might even find roles for both quarterbacks to fill.

He's best remembered for leading the game-winning touchdown drive against Arkansas after replacing injured Zach Mettenberger last season, but Jennings played in nine games -- including contests against TCU, Florida, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and his first start in the bowl win against Iowa -- in 2013.

Using him in spot duty made more sense because the dual-threat Jennings possesses a different skill set from Mettenberger, a prototypical dropback passer. However, Jennings and Harris are much more similar players.

Regardless, Cameron expressed confidence that whoever wins the competition will be ready to be successful once the opener against Wisconsin arrives on Aug. 30.

"I would say this confidently: we're going to have more than one quality starter here at LSU," Cameron said. "That's what we're charged with and we'll get that done."

Linebacker rotation?: Defensive coordinator John Chavis has rarely enjoyed the luxury that a deep group of linebackers might provide this season. Beyond starters Kwon Alexander, D.J. Welter and Lamar Louis, Chavis' position group runs two and three deep with quality players across the board -- and that might help not only on defense, but on special teams.

"If they're ready to play, we're going to play them. There's no question about that," Chavis said. "They're not any different than anybody else on our field. In an ideal situation, you'd like to have six starting linebackers and then they all could go play special teams and we could rest them on defense. Unfortunately we haven't been that way with depth.

"Is this a year that we can reach that? We're closer than we've been in the past."

In addition to players such as Deion Jones, Duke Riley and Ronnie Feist, Chavis has talented sophomore Kendell Beckwith trying to surpass Welter as the starting middle linebacker and one of the Tigers' top 2014 signees, Clifton Garrett, behind them.

It might be difficult to juggle, as there are only so many snaps to go around between the three linebacker spots. But Chavis seems confident that everyone who deserves to play will be on the field in some capacity.

"If you can go two deep and you don't have a drop-off, then that just makes your special teams even better," Chavis said.

No decisions on return men: Speaking of special teams, coach Bradley Dale Peveto said he is considering six candidates for the punt return and kickoff return jobs, but wasn't ready to identify them yet.

Tre'Davious White and Travin Dural are among the players known to be working at punt returner and Terrence Magee is among the kickoff return men.

"We had four great days in evaluating a lot of our team, got it down to six guys at each spot," Peveto said. "I don't really want to talk about that yet because we've got a great competition going on, but I'm going to tell you we've got enough. We've got some really good guys, some really talented young men who might compete for those positions."

Miles said earlier that Trent Domingue has taken over as the Tigers' kickoff specialist.

Right guard competition: Offensive line coach Jeff Grimes chuckled when asked how the right guard competition is shaking out.

"It's still shaking," Grimes said. "We'll let it go until somebody lays claim to it."

Seniors Fehoko Fanaika and Evan Washington have battled for the starting job at right guard, the lone spot where the Tigers lost a starting offensive lineman from 2013.

LSU position breakdown: CB

July, 30, 2014
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Editor's note: This week, we'll take a quick look at each of LSU's position groups as the Tigers prepare to open preseason practice next week. Up next are the cornerbacks.

CORNERBACK

Returning starters: Tre'Davious White (55 tackles, two interceptions, team-high nine passes defended) and Jalen Mills (67 tackles, three sacks, three interceptions). The White-Mills tandem started at corner for most of the fall before Mills shifted to safety at the end of the season. He stayed there this spring and projects as a starting safety for 2014 assuming that his legal issues clear up following a summertime arrest. The second starting corner is presumably Rashard Robinson (16 tackles, one interception), who took over Mills' starting spot in the bowl win against Iowa.

Starters lost: None.

Key newcomers: Among the newcomers is Ed Paris, who enrolled in January and participated in spring practice. That advantage could place Paris -- whom ESPN rated as the nation's No. 50 overall prospect for 2014 -- in line for playing time ahead of fellow signees John Battle and Russell Gage.

Player to watch: Keep an eye on Robinson's development. White is getting more preseason love, which is understandable since he started the last 11 games of 2013 and had an outstanding freshman season. Robinson came on late, however, and is aiming to build off what he accomplished in shutting down Texas A&M's star wideout Mike Evans in November. He's less of a known quantity than White, but at 6-foot-1, his ceiling might be even higher. If he approaches his potential, LSU will have a pair of sophomore stars in the making at corner.

Overall: The Tigers look to be in great shape at the position. Not only do they have two of the SEC's better young corners in White and Robinson, but they have a solid third option in Jalen Collins (22 tackles), a swingman in Dwayne Thomas (10 tackles, four tackles for a loss, three sacks), a talented freshman like Paris and a heck of an emergency fill-in in Mills.

It's unclear how playing time might shake out when the Tigers are in their various defensive packages, so it's highly likely that we'll see more than just the starting corners once the season begins. The depth chart is full of talent, and because of the youth present on the depth chart, cornerback figures to be a strength -- and a source of continuity -- in 2014 and beyond.
From time to time, our SEC reporters will give their takes on a burning question facing the league. They will both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We will let you decide which reporter is right.

With the start of the 2014 season a little more than a month away, we are still trying to figure out who will be in position to capture the league title this fall. But there are a few teams we are still trying to get a good read on.

Today’s Take Two topic: What is the toughest SEC team to get a handle on in 2014 -- Missouri or LSU?

Take 1: Edward Aschoff

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonMaty Mauk returns, but Missouri has several question marks on both sides of the ball.
To me, the Missouri Tigers are the toughest team to figure out in 2014. After last season's special run through the SEC, there is plenty of confidence in Columbia, Missouri, but there is also a lot of uncertainty in some areas on this team. I could see this group of Tigers continuing to ride the momentum they created last season, but I could also see Mizzou take a nosedive this fall.

I do like that Mizzou has a confident, talented quarterback returning in Maty Mauk. He went 3-1 as a starter last season in place of an injured James Franklin. Mauk threw for more than 1,000 yards and had 11 touchdowns to just one interception. He lost almost nine pounds this summer because of a viral infection, but he thinks it has made him lighter, faster and quicker. He has a stacked backfield to work with and an experienced offensive line in front of him. The defense will again be anchored by a stout defensive line, starting with potential All-SEC defensive end Markus Golden.

But there are plenty of questions. Who is Mauk going to throw to? How will reshuffling affect the offensive line? Are there true playmakers at linebacker? How is an inexperienced secondary going to hold up this season? Who's going to replace all those proven leaders?

Receivers Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White have good field experience, but one of them is going to have to stand out as the guy for Mauk to rely on. Are any of them ready? Can any of them be dynamic enough playmakers to force defenses to adjust? Not having someone like Dorial Green-Beckham could really hurt this offense.

Two starters are gone at linebacker, and this unit dealt with injuries this spring. Not great. Mizzou’s secondary was one of the SEC’s worst last season, and three starters are gone. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? There is depth in the secondary, but not a lot of proven guys, and that concerns me.

The biggest thing might be finding new vocal leaders. Who can carry this team like Franklin, Michael Sam and L'Damian Washington did last season? Is Mauk up to the task? Golden? I don’t think we really know what the locker room scene is like for this team.

Take 2: Greg Ostendorf

Let’s start with the fact that LSU lost nine players to the NFL draft this past year, more than any other team in college football. The team’s starting quarterback, its top two running backs, top two wide receivers and its top offensive lineman have all moved on to the next level. Time to rebuild, right? Not in Baton Rouge. Not under Les Miles.

Since Miles took over in 2005, LSU has had 60 players taken in the NFL draft, yet the Tigers have managed to win at least 10 games in seven of Miles’ nine seasons as head coach.

So don’t expect this season’s LSU team to fall off completely, but with so many unknowns and a stacked SEC West, the Tigers could finish anywhere between first to sixth in their own division. They are talented enough to reach the inaugural College Football Playoff, but they could just as easily end up in the Music City Bowl.

Where this team goes will be dependent on its incoming recruiting class. Between Brandon Harris, Leonard Fournette and Malachi Dupre, LSU could have three true freshman starting on offense by the time the season opener rolls around.

Fournette might be the closest thing to a sure thing. The 6-foot-1, 224-pound running back was the No. 1 recruit in the country and has already drawn comparisons to Adrian Peterson. He was one of the top stories at SEC media days, and he has yet to record a carry. But can he handle the pressure and the rigors of a college football season? Can Harris and Dupre handle it? All three were playing high school football in Louisiana less than a year ago.

As for the defense, there are even more question marks. Linebacker Kwon Alexander and cornerback Tre'Davious White are good players, potentially All-SEC, but what is the status of Jalen Mills after his arrest this offseason? Who will fill the big shoes left by Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson on the defensive line? Who are the leaders going to be?

This might be the toughest coaching job yet for Miles, but don’t be surprised if LSU is in the playoff conversation when it travels to Texas A&M on Thanksgiving.

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