On LSU Football…

Most of the Hayride’s readers are aware that my journalistic roots originally come from forays in the LSU sports media world. While I am thankfully clear of that fishbowl, I do, however, maintain a fervent interest in subjects related to Tiger football.

And since it’s a Sunday, and since it’s now August and camp is about to begin, and since we have a little breathing room before the next federal assault on our freedom and prosperity, I thought I’d wander home to an extent and offer a thought or two about the coming season.

As many of our readers might know, I have no particular reason for fondness of LSU’s head football coach. At the end of last season I became as exasperated as any fervent observer of the program and expressed grave doubts at Les Miles’ ability to maintain the program at an elite level. I stand by those sentiments; Miles no longer rates a high degree of trust among LSU fans thanks to a mundane 17-9 record over the past two seasons. If our readers approach this coming year with apprehension about the head man’s leadership, I will not quibble.

That said, since the unmitigated cockup of the Ole Miss game last season, I do see green shoots worthy of note. And while Miles may be LSU’s Philip Fulmer, it should be understood that once in a while Fulmer was able to elevate Tennessee from also-ran status to championship contention when the right mix of coaches and players were on offer to him.

And this could be the year where the sun shines on LSU’s posterior. I will happily – and not without reason – maintain optimism until justification for it evaporates.

After all, this has been a good offseason for LSU Football. Among the factors worthy of notice:

  1. There have been no major criminal or disciplinary issues on the Tiger team this summer. Teams which lack offseason focus generally are replete with episodes of bar fights, DWI incidents, dalliances with agents and the like. Other than fullback Dominique Allen being bounced from the roster for an undisclosed violation of team rules (a violation which can often be found at a Phish concert), this offseason has thus far been fairly mundane.
  2. LSU’s offseason program has, by all accounts, yielded sensational results. Strength and conditioning coach Tommy Moffitt spent the previous two years recovering from health problems, but Moffitt’s energy and attention has returned and the word is his program has rebounded with a vengeance. LSU’s players have broken team record after team record in the various weightlifting classes, and with an 88 percent pass ratio on the murderous conditioning test (an amalgam of torturous sprints) given the team, the 2010 Tigers are in a better position to physically dominate opponents than they have been since the 2007 national championship year.
  3. Having a couple of new coaches on the staff is a definite plus. While Larry Porter earned a strong reputation as a quality assistant for LSU, D.J. McCarthy was nothing short of horrid as the wide receivers coach – and McCarthy’s effect on team chemistry and the mechanics of bringing plays in from the pressbox were widely reputed to be major problems for LSU. Replacing McCarthy with Billy Gonzales, who earned two national championship rings coaching wide receivers at Florida, is an upgrade of significant proportions – how big that move actually turns out to be will likely have an impact on the offense’s performance and perhaps the won-lost record.
  4. Perhaps best of all, this LSU team enters the season as the hunter rather than the hunted. Yes, LSU is ranked by most pundits and polls heading into the season, but not as a Top 10 team. Few are discussing the Tigers as a national championship contender, or even as a favorite to win the SEC. The disrespect shown the team is so profound that at SEC Media Days last week the media ranked LSU a pathetic fourth in the SEC West. This is a good thing, as since Miles came on the scene LSU has been the media darling of the division, the league and even the country. That LSU was ranked so poorly by the league’s media is almost purely a reflection on the doom and gloom being spread on internet message boards and talk radio in Louisiana; sportswriters are not known for independent research or reliance on empirical facts, and when they see the herd stampeding in a particular direction they usually follow suit. So when LSU fans take to griping about Miles, the ink-stained wretches who converge on Birmingham in July will measure that against giddy fans of 7-5 Auburn and Arkansas teams and conclude LSU must be worse. This is a benefit for Miles’ team, which can now take on an “us against the world” mentality. No Tiger team of recent vintage enters a season with as much motivation.

So there are good intangibles for the team, certainly better this year than in the previous two. And furthermore, this looks like an LSU club with a very talented, even star-studded roster.

QUARTERBACK – I’ll admit that based on what I’ve seen so far of him, I’m not a big Jordan Jefferson fan. Certainly he looks the part, and his measurables are excellent. Jefferson is 6-5, he has a strong arm and can make all the throws on the field, once he gets going he’s fleet of foot and he’s as athletic as any quarterback in the league.

But Jefferson seems to lack a good trigger. Though he had a solid 17-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio last year and completed over 60 percent of his passes, he was slow to make decisions in the pocket – which manifested itself in far too many sacks. And that languid pocket presence was exacerbated by a painfully slow release once he did begin his motion. Even when Jefferson decided to run he seemed to lack vision. It all added up to a sense that he was not a good instinctive quarterback at all.

But as a junior, Jefferson is now an experienced quarterback, and it’s reasonable to expect some of these weaknesses to be overcome. Reports from offseason workouts have it that he has shown a lot more maturity, work ethic and leadership than before, and if those reports are true it’s entirely possible that Jefferson might blossom. If he does, the LSU offense has a chance to be exponentially better than the torpid sludge last year’s unit all too often devolved into.

RUNNING BACKS – LSU doesn’t have Charles Scott and Keiland Williams anymore, which strangely might be a good thing.

Scott had become typecast as a pure inside runner, and defenses seemed to stack the area between the tackles when he was in the game. Williams, by contrast, was seen as a pure outside runner and was keyed on accordingly. LSU’s offense became somewhat predictable based on who the running back was. But with those two gone, a trio of backs will now take over along with a new coach in Frank Wilson. The shakeup could prove interesting.

Michael Ford might not start the season as LSU’s featured back, but  the guess here is he’ll end it that way. A redshirt freshman who probably should have seen the field last year, Ford has more versatility than any back LSU has had since Joe Addai, and he seems to have more speed than Addai. At 5-10, 207, Ford isn’t a particularly big back, but he’s low to the ground and runs with authority. He also has great vision, something that LSU running backs since Domanick Davis haven’t had as a particular strength, and finishes runs extremely well. Ford has the potential to be a true marquee runner for LSU; it has been some time since that has been the case even though Scott racked up over 1100 yards in 2008. Stevan Ridley gives LSU a more versatile version of Scott’s inside power game as a complement to Ford, while Richard Murphy is a dangerous open field threat and an excellent receiver out of the backfield. Spencer Ware and Jakhari Gore add a pair of freshman hopefuls who could punch through into the playing rotation should the veterans falter. A fullback must be found; with Allen’s suspension it looks like converted linebacker Kellen Theriot and frightening physical specimen Brandon Worle, a true freshman, are the top possibilities.

RECEIVERS – If Jefferson’s improvement is significant and Gonzales’ coaching makes a difference from McCarthy’s performance, this could be the area on LSU’s team which stands out more than any other. LSU has a mind-boggling array of talent here.

Start with senior Terrence Toliver, who had a very good season last year with 53 catches for 735 years. Toliver has the size and strength NFL teams pine for in a marquee receiver, and his speed is more than enough to get open deep as well. He has the look of a first-day NFL draft pick, though his development into a truly dominant receiver and a first-round pick is largely a factor of how well he works with Gonzales and Jefferson. Nothing is stopping Toliver from becoming a major star this year. That he’s going to be paired with sophomore Rueben Randle, who was very poorly used last year and yet still showed himself to be a major talent in the 11 passes he did catch, means that Toliver – and Randle – will face single coverage all season. Both have enormous height advantages against virtually any cornerback they’ll face, meaning that if worst comes to worst Jefferson can just hang a pass high with the reasonable hope his receivers can elevate to get it.

And then there’s Russell Shepard, who has the ability to be for LSU what Percy Harvin was for Gonzales at Florida. Shepard’s hands have been called into question, but that is the only factor in his game which might keep him from being a truly gamebreaking threat. The word is he’ll be on the field every down this year, that he’ll get chances to run the ball out of wildcat sets and speed sweeps, that he’ll be featured in the short passing game and that when he’s matched up with a safety as he lines up in the slot LSU will take the opportunity to throw deep to him.

Between Toliver, Randle and Shepard LSU has a legitimate NFL wide receiver corps. Gonzales has to make sure they perform to that level, run correct routes and hold on to the ball. And Jefferson just has to get it there. But if opponents are able to handle that devastating trio, LSU has a potential killer at tight end in DeAngelo Peterson. Peterson, a junior who converted from wide receiver, will outrun virtually any linebacker who tries to cover him and will overmatch any safeties as well. He has excellent hands and remarkable athleticism. Whether he’s a particularly good blocker remains to be seen, but with converted defensive end Chase Clement and returning veteran Mitch Joseph LSU has ample blocking tight ends. There is reason to be optimistic about the reserve wide receivers as well, as sophomore Chris Tolliver is a potential deep threat and LSU’s cast of true freshmen – Tharold Simon, Kadron Boone, James Wright, Jarrett Fobbs and Armand Williams – contains some names who will become very well known before they leave Baton Rouge.

OFFENSIVE LINE – LSU’s line was awful last year, and it didn’t have to be. Out of a misplaced sense of seniority Miles had seniors Ciron Black and Lyle Hitt playing virtually every down, but Black’s knees were so bad he had to have one replaced after the season and Hitt, at barely 280 pounds, was simply too small to be effective in the SEC. When Alex Hurst and Will Blackwell were on the field, LSU’s line was considerably better. Now, those two have replaced Black and Hitt in the lineup.

The line will open the season with senior Joseph Barksdale flipping from right tackle to left tackle to take Black’s spot. Barksdale should be poised for a big senior season; he has everything you look for in a potential star, and his play on the right side was relatively solid last year. Josh Dworaczyk returns at left guard, having added 25 pounds to his 6-6 frame from last year and now checking in at 307. Dworaczyk had room to improve last year as a first-year starter, but his potential was obvious. If the junior is ready to play like an upperclassman, he could be dominant. At center, sophomore P.J. Lonergan has moved ahead of junior T-Bob Hebert due to the latter’s offseason disciplinary issues – but Lonergan was likely to win the job anyway owing to his physicality and superior size (6-4, 300 as opposed to Hebert’s 6-3, 285) and strength. Lonergan gives LSU its first “big” center in recent memory, as even most of the Tigers’ excellent centers of recent vintage (Brett Helms, Ben Wilkerson, Todd McClure) weren’t particularly large. Blackwell moves in for Hitt at right guard, which is an unquestionable improvement, while Hurst gives LSU a right tackle with gargantuan (6-6, 335) size and a mean streak to match. There is ample, if somewhat inexperienced, depth; Hebert at center has game experience but backup guards Josh Williford, whom the coaches love, and Matt Branch, and backup tackles Greg Shaw and Chris Faulk are new. True freshman Evan Washington is likely to see action somewhere.

The group should be far more productive than it was last year. It is unquestionably bigger and stronger, and there is a great deal more athleticism on offer from the 2010 line.

DEFENSIVE LINE – LSU’s front wall last year was suspect at best, one reason why the Tiger defense struggled so often to get off the field. The defensive line did a poor job in generating a pass rush – as a team LSU had just 21 sacks and the defensive line generated only 14 of those – and opponents were able to get 3.5 yards per carry on the ground. The latter isn’t a horrible figure, but it’s not suggestive of championships either.

Three seniors are gone from last year’s line. Al Woods, a fourth-round pick of the Saints on potential rather than performance during his LSU career, the oft-injured Charles Alexander and defensive end Rahim Alem, who acquired a reputation as a problem child for team chemistry and for the difficulty of coaching him, failed to perform at a level of past LSU defensive linemen. With their departure, the torch will be passed to a new group of linemen who are not lacking in accolades as recruits or physical ability.

The most experienced of the returning players has a new position. Pep Levingston started 10 games as the left defensive end as a junior in 2009, posting a respectable 28 tackles with eight for loss. Levingston has added 30 pounds and will now play left defensive tackle at 6-4, 295; he might not be the most talented defensive lineman LSU has, but he played with tenacity last year and his new physique should make him a factor inside. If not, Levingston will be pushed by 6-6, 305-pound redshirt freshman Michael Brockers, who like Levingston moved from end in the offseason. Brockers has the potential to be a major space-eater inside. At the other tackle will be senior Drake Nevis, who has gone from having a reputation as a talented underachiever with a spotty off-season work ethic to setting some records in this year’s off-season program. At 6-1, 295, Nevis is a low-to-the-ground penetrator who was the most productive of LSU’s defensive tackles last year despite not starting a game; he had 50 tackles, 11 for loss and four sacks in 2009. There is ample reason to think this could be a real breakout year for him. Nevis, like Levingston, will be pushed; sophomore Josh Downs is active and cat-quick, and Downs will be a very good player before he’s done at LSU. Redshirt freshmen Bennie Logan and Chris Davenport are anything but slouches in reserve.

At the ends, LSU will be breaking in a new group which looks nothing like what fans and foes of Tiger football alike are used to. Gone are the hulking, if a bit plodding, 290-pounders. In their place are quick pass rushers who contain the edge against the run and use speed to offset size disadvantages. It’s unlikely that 6-5, 250-pound redshirt freshman Sam Montgomery, who will replace Alem at right end, will be held to only 4.5 sacks as Alem was in 2009. In fact, Montgomery’s backup Barkevious Mingo, who will in passing downs likely be on the field at the same time, should top Alem’s total as well. Junior-college transfer Kendrick  Adams, who at 6-5 and 252 pounds reportedly runs a 4.4 40, will also be a terrifying edge rushing threat. And sophomores Lavar Edwards and Chauncey Aghayere, who were both productive off the bench last year, round out an athletic unit. Add to that mix true freshman Ego Ferguson, possibly LSU’s highest-rated recruit in the 2010 class, and it’s inconceivable LSU won’t be able to put two excellent ends on the field this fall.

LINEBACKERS – LSU only has one returning starter at linebacker, but after Kelvin Sheppard racked up 110 tackles last year it’s reasonable to wonder whether the Tigers really need too much help for the All-America candidate. Sheppard was always frightfully big (he’s 6-3 and 248 pounds now) and fast, but before defensive coordinator John Chavis came along last year he didn’t play as though he was particularly smart. But Chavis’ reputation for developing linebackers was certainly served by the job he did with Sheppard last year. Now that he’s a senior, he might end up as the best linebacker LSU has had since Bradie James. It’s assumed Sheppard will play the Mike position this year, though there are other possibilities.

Getting Sheppard some help will be an interesting prospect. In junior Ryan Baker, Chavis certainly has a lot to work with; the 6-0, 225-pounder is certainly possessed with all the speed and athleticism a coach needs in an SEC linebacker, and Baker has for the last two years been a devastating special teams player. The guess here is he will make the kind of leap Sheppard did last year and make himself a weapon. Opposite Baker, though, fellow junior Stefoin Francois is a question mark. Chavis took a liking to Francois, a former blue-chip recruit who struggled with attitude problems early in his career, and seemed to draw him out in the spring. He’s now poised to give the Tigers a fast outside linebacker who can cover backs and receivers and run plays down in space; as a former safety he also has some ball skills which might come in handy for a defense which needs to produce more turnovers. But if Francois can’t adequately replace the departed Harry Coleman, Chavis has the option of sliding Sheppard outside and plugging in redshirt freshman Kevin Minter, a 6-0, 240-pound pit bull who posted 19 tackles in the spring game, at the Mike. Minter is a star in the making, so the pressure is on Francois.

Behind the top four is a grab bag of youngsters. True freshman Justin Maclin has the look of a future star, redshirts Lamin Barrow, Tahj Jones and Josh Johns have all shown promise, true freshmen Luke Muncie and D.J. Welter have been impressive in offseason workouts. All are very green, and two will have to fill positions on the second string.

SECONDARY – Even despite Chad Jones’ decision to turn pro early, LSU has the makings of a frightening group in the defensive backfield. Start with superstar cornerback Patrick Peterson, who at 6-1, 214 is a great deal bigger than your usual cover man. Peterson was at times sensational last year and at other times ordinary, but now that he’s a junior he seems to have taken on the persona of the shutdown corner. Even last year, he posted solid numbers – 52 tackles, two interceptions (a third was taken from him in Tuscaloosa on an inexplicable – and damaging – official’s call) and 13 pass deflections. Peterson has All-American possibilities. But in the spring, sophomore Morris Claiborne staked a claim for a bright future of his own. Claiborne, a sleeper recruit who became a camp sensation as a freshman last year, is, like Peterson a tall, physical corner with terrific change of direction skills. The duo should allow Chavis to get out of his comfort zone a little and blitz more than he did a year ago; LSU has the personnel to leave its corners on an island this year. Junior Ron Brooks and sophomore Ryan St. Julien give the Tigers good depth, as does redshirt Drayton Calhoun and true freshmen Tyrann  Mathieu and Ronnie Vinson.

Strong safety Brandon Taylor spent some time feeling his way a bit last year, but the junior has great potential and should break out in 2010. Senior Jai Eugene moves from cornerback to free safety, and though Eugene is a bit smaller than what Tiger fans are used to at the position, he does have a reputation as an excellent tackler. Eugene also has good speed and adequate ball skills. But he’s in a major fight to keep his job, as redshirt freshman Craig Loston has superstar written all over him. With junior Karnell Hatcher, an excellent run-support safety whose coverage skills needed work last year, converted cornerback Derrick Bryant and true freshmen Eric Reid and Sam Gibson, there is solid depth.

SPECIAL TEAMS – Josh Jasper was about as good a placekicker as a college team could ask for last year, and there’s no reason why the senior shouldn’t be even better this year. Jasper was outstanding as a kickoff man, holding opponents to an average starting position at the 25 yard line (LSU, in comparison, averaged the 33). But it was as a scoring threat where Jasper shined brightest; he hit an astonishing 17 of 20 field goals and was perfect on 34 PAT attempts. Other than a fluke 19-yard miss in the Mississippi State game, Jasper’s only unsuccessful kicks were a 49-yarder and a 52-yarder against Auburn. Jasper also hit a 56-yard field goal in the spring game for good measure; if there’s another kicker in the country better, we’d like to see him.

Derek Helton was more than adequate as LSU’s punter last year, and as a senior this fall he’s expected to continue apace. Helton’s 40-yard average included 25 fair catches in 46 punts, an indication of his excellent hang time, and his 7-1 ratio of punts inside the 20 to touchbacks was excellent as well. Jasper, as LSU’s pooch punter, was superlative; of 15 punts he placed 10 inside the 20 with only one touchback.

The coverage units should be excellent again as they were last year, when LSU held opponents to just 4.4 yards per punt return and 17.5 per kickoff return. Replacing Trindon Holliday and Chad Jones as the return men will be Peterson, who will handle both, with Brooks alongside him on kickoffs. Special teams was one area last year in which it was apparent LSU was very, very well coached, and Joe Robinson’s return this year should give LSU a strong edge over most opponents.

So while Miles is quite justifiably the subject of grumbling among LSU fans, the team he has ready to take the field this fall is nothing to sneeze at. LSU is replete with players who either showed themselves a year ago to be stars, like Sheppard, Jasper, Patrick Peterson and Toliver, or who have all the makings of breakout players this year, like Randle, Shepard, Baker, Nevis, Taylor, Hurst, Ford and DeAngelo Peterson. It all comes down to chemistry, leadership and the chess match. Miles proved in his first three years at LSU that while his interviews and press conferences can be challenging to decipher and while his sideline persona can be loopy, he’s capable of winning championships with the right ingredients around him. If Chavis can solidify his defense in Year Two of his scheme and Gonzales can bring a high intensity and focus to an offense which lacked it a year ago, and if Jefferson can round into form as a quarterback, LSU can be as good as anybody in the SEC.

It’s certainly time for LSU – and Louisiana – to get a few breaks. Miles isn’t the only one in the state who’s had a difficult offseason.  Perhaps he’ll be able to silence a few critics this fall, and if he does the Tigers might be able to return to the ranks of the elite.

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