Since we’re all just getting back into normal mode after a four-day Thanksgiving weekend, I figured I’d depart from the usual fare and offer something for the sports fans among our readers.
Not to mention that football in the SEC seems to be a hotter national conversation topic than anything political today, what with the miracle field-goal return off a stupid Nick Saban coaching decision that enabled Auburn to win the Iron Bowl and deny Alabama a trip to the SEC Championship Game – and almost assuredly the national championship game – for the first time since 2010.
While I’m as full of schadenfreude about Alabama’s loss as anyone else, the concept of Auburn rising as a national championship contender doesn’t exactly immerse me in joy and I’m not sure why so many LSU fans aren’t with me in recognizing a problem with Auburn having made twice as many trips to the SEC title game in the last four years as LSU has. In Gus Malzahn, Auburn has an outstanding offensive coach who runs a consistently explosive attack and should be very attractive to recruits. What’s more, Malzahn has the PR skills of a Galapagos tortoise, and his wife is a well-known loon – which means that no matter how successful he might be at Auburn he’s unlikely to be leaving there any time soon.
And that threatens to provide LSU with yet another SEC West opponent it’s going to be difficult to beat every year. We’d better hope Malzahn is a flash in the pan this year, or else that miracle return just heralds things getting that much tougher for Les Miles’ Tigers to win championships going forward. Next season LSU plays Auburn at Auburn – and Malzahn has 16 starters, 10 of whom are on offense, set to come back next year unless he has early departures to the NFL.
So it’s a bittersweet experience watching Alabama sitting home for the SEC Championship Game – but knowing that LSU isn’t there, either.
There is some reason for Tiger fans to celebrate, though – LSU’s 31-27 win over Arkansas on Friday had its own miracle finish, as freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings came off the bench after a Zack Mettenberger knee injury to lead the team to a 99-yard game-winning drive capped off by a gorgeous 49-yard touchdown strike to freshman wide receiver Travin Dural. Jennings’ performance is being celebrated for two very good reasons; namely, it shows that the quarterback position will be in good hands despite Mettenberger’s graduating after this season, and it also saved LSU from a level of ignominy not yet seen in head coach Les Miles’ career. Until Dural’s touchdown it looked for all the world that Miles was headed for a loss to a team which had dropped eight straight games and was about to avoid a winless SEC season.
I haven’t researched it, but I can’t remember an LSU team ever being somebody’s only SEC win in a season. It hasn’t happened since I’ve been following Tiger football, I don’t believe. Losing that game would have been a calamity akin to the Hindenburg exploding, and having it come on the heels of that 27-24 loss to Ole Miss in October the screaming and dissatisfaction inside the LSU program would have been louder than it has ever been with Miles.
This season has seen LSU’s program on the brink of decline. Were it not for a terrific performance in beating Texas A&M 34-10 two weeks ago Miles would be over that brink. But Jennings’ heroics give him a chance to turn LSU back to the championship-contender status it has enjoyed for most of his tenure. Thanks to the comeback win, it looks like a Cotton Bowl berth against Baylor or Texas is in the offing, and we like LSU’s chances in either matchup. And regardless of some of the iffy performances this year, it’s hard to turn up your nose at a 10-3 season – which is what a bowl win would produce.
We think some offseason coaching changes need to be made, though. Because while Cam Cameron has been everything he was advertised to be as an offensive coordinator and John Chavis is as good a defensive coordinator as you’ll find on a consistent basis in college football, Miles’ staff seems to be getting a little stale.
First, he’s got to find a new offensive line coach. Watching LSU’s offensive line this year has been an experience worthy of institutionalization, and that’s a commonplace occurrence for LSU since 2007. At times – watch Jeremy Hill and Terrance Magee’s long touchdown runs this year, for example – you’ll see the LSU line put on a clinic on how to block a running play. At others – for example, the Adventures In Pass Blocking we’ll get to see all too often – one wonders whether these guys are being coached at all.
For all the success on the ground LSU had against Arkansas Friday – they ran for 238 yards on a 6.3-yard average – the line’s crucial mistakes made Jennings’ heroics necessary when they shouldn’t have been. For example, at the tail end of a 13-play, 58-yard drive that ate up 6:30 of the clock, LSU had a 3rd-and-1 at Arkansas’ 17 yard line. But a visibly-gassed Hog defense was able to stone the left side of LSU’s line and throw Jeremy Hill for a loss. On the next play Mettenberger completed a pass to Hill, who was stopped short of the first down and a crucial drive ended without points with Arkansas ahead, 27-21.
Those kinds of plays happen to every team, but LSU’s offense has become notorious for false start penalties, blown assignments that lead to sacks and negative plays and the failure to deliver key blocks when needed. There are lots of examples – the failure to get a first down in a crucial fourth-quarter drive against Alabama last year and the failure to convert a quarterback sneak on 4th and 1 against Texas A&M two weeks ago immediately come to mind.
LSU’s line ought to be dominating. It isn’t. That isn’t acceptable. What else isn’t acceptable is the lack of development of LSU linemen into NFL players.
At virtually every other position LSU has lots of people on NFL rosters. But Greg Studrawa has been the line coach since 2007, and he’s produced exactly one player who’s on an NFL active roster: Joe Barksdale, of the Oakland Raiders. One player in six years, out of five positions, is a scandalously poor performance at a place like LSU where you can get almost whoever you want on National Signing Day. Ole Miss has six offensive linemen on NFL rosters, for crying out loud.
This year LSU has La’El Collins, who was the top offensive lineman in the country coming out of high school, thinking about going pro early. But nobody is talking about Collins as a first-round draft pick at this point; the highest ranking we could find for him is No. 8 among offensive tackles. Collins probably shouldn’t go pro yet, but based on the results of previous Tiger linemen he might think he can’t develop further under Studrawa and leaving as a 3rd round pick this year is about as good as it gets.
Studrawa is also LSU’s recruiter in Northeast Louisiana, and he’s proven himself a disaster on the recruiting trail up there. Northeast Louisiana used to be an automatic producer of top-flight recruits to LSU – in fact, the ease of convincing recruits to come to the Ole War Skule is why Studrawa, who isn’t known as a great recruiter, was assigned the area in the first place. But he’s managed to turn that hotbed into a wasteland over the last five years; LSU has signed just three players (Jordan Allen and Paul Turner from West Monroe in 2010 and 2011, John Diarse from Neville this past year) in the last five classes. That’s the same number that Alabama has received in the same time period – Saban has gone into Northeast Louisiana and come away with Denzell Devall out of Bastrop in 2012 and two players – Cameron Robinson of West Monroe, the top offensive lineman in the country, and wide receiver Cameron Sims of Ouachita Parish High – this year. Saban is also expected to land the commitment of Laurence “Hootie” Jones, the top defensive back in the state, later today – meaning he will have gotten as many players out of Studrawa’s recruiting territory in this upcoming recruiting class as LSU has in the last five years.
There are rumors Miles has pulled Studrawa out of that territory and sent defensive line coach Brick Haley, who does have a good reputation as a recruiter, into the area in an effort to stop the bleeding. But the damage is done.
Cameron ought to be consulted for the line job. He’s one of the best offensive coordinators in football, and he’s worked with some outstanding people. His Rolodex can certainly produce a great line coach to turn the La’El Collinses of the world into the first-round draft picks they ought to become. It needs to happen before outstanding young prospects like right tackle Jerald Hawkins and left guard Vadal Alexander finish their careers as mediocre players.
While we’re making changes, let’s hire a linebackers coach. Chavis is an excellent defensive coordinator, and he came to LSU with the reputation as a terrific developer of linebackers. Since his arrival in 2009, moreover, he’s had four proteges go on to the NFL – Perry Riley, Jacob Cutrera, Kelvin Sheppard and Kevin Minter. Their development – Riley, Cutrera and Sheppard were already at LSU when Chavis arrived, and all three were anything but star players before he got a chance to coach them up – was a testament to terrific coaching.
But outside of that foursome, the development of the linebackers at LSU hasn’t been what we would have hoped for. As terrific as Sheppard became as LSU’s middle linebacker, Ryan Baker fizzled as a senior. That could also be said of Lamin Barrow, who replaced Baker at the Will position and who has had a relatively disappointing season this year (Barrow has led LSU in tackles with 86, but with only 4.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and two pass breakups you can’t really say he’s made a lot of plays). And the Tigers haven’t had a good Sam linebacker since Harry Coleman played the position in 2008, Chavis’ first year at LSU. Kwon Alexander was supposed to break out this year at that spot, but he’s been disappointing.
And Alexander’s failure to launch is emblematic of an even larger problem; namely, that he was one of six linebackers LSU signed in the 2012 class and virtually nobody in that group has emerged as a playmaker for the defense. Miles and Chavis touted that 2012 group as the one which was going to change the Tiger defense into one oriented toward great linebacker play; that hasn’t happened at all. In fact, one of the six, Trey Granier, has already transferred out of the program. Another, Ronnie Feist, didn’t play linebacker – or any other position – on the field for LSU this year. Two others, Lorenzo Phillips and Deion Jones, can’t seem to get on the field much other than on special teams, though Jones looks like the heir to Barrow’s Will position next year and once in a while shows flashes of being a solid player. One more, Lamar Louis, has played a bit as the backup to D.J. Welter at the Mike Linebacker – but that position is the biggest weakness on the whole defense.
Maybe it’s too much for Chavis at this point in his career to coach three positions plus serve as defensive coordinator. That’s a heavy load for any coach, and devising schemes to stop offenses like Auburn and Texas A&M is more than enough to put gray hairs on anyone’s head. Regardless, the results show that Chavis could use some help – so it’s time to get him some.
What the LSU defense needs is a young guy – preferably a recruiter, and hopefully one who can get up to Monroe and fix the problems Studrawa has created – with a ton of energy to come in and help motivate the players week-to-week. That might help alleviate part of the problem Miles’ teams increasingly have, namely a failure to show up against teams like Arkansas and Ole Miss. Yearly laydowns, or at least uninspired performances, against those two also-ran teams are becoming a major problem for LSU. Miles has to put a stop to that or it’s going to kill the program. Arkansas and Ole Miss see the LSU game as the Super Bowl and play accordingly; LSU barely even shows up and has to depend on a Jennings to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat or else lose a game no one can explain like the debacle in Oxford this year.
To open up an extra spot on LSU’s defensive staff for Chavis to get some help with the linebackers would require a reassignment of responsibilities. Current special teams coach Thomas McGaughey is supposed to be coaching defensive ends, but McGaughey doesn’t really do a lot with that position – Haley coaches the ends along with the tackles and doesn’t need that much help. What might work better is to flip McGaughey over to offense and let him coach the tight ends. LSU doesn’t ask all that much out of that position – they’re basically blockers; between them the tight ends caught all of 12 passes this whole season – and wide receivers coach Adam Henry was actually the tight ends coach for the Raiders before LSU grabbed him, so Henry can help a little there.
Current tight ends coach Steve Ensminger is best known for his work as a game planner, and with the current landscape of college football allowing for programs to bring on larger and larger numbers of “football office” coaches whose responsibilities are more strategic than hands-on, he looks like a great candidate for one of those positions. Ensminger has done a nice job at LSU, and his experience makes him a valuable commodity in such a position the way Steve Kragthorpe, who moved to a similar role this year after serving as the quarterbacks coach prior to Cameron’s arrival, currently holds.
Even with the debacle in the northeastern part of the state, LSU is in a position to have a great recruiting class that can fill some holes on the roster. The schedule gets a whole lot easier – a home game with Kentucky replaces this year’s road trip at Georgia – and until we know for sure who’s leaving for the NFL it’s at least possible to envision a veteran, talented team taking the field and competing for a championship next year.
Jennings’ 99-yard drive makes that vision possible, and it eliminates all the disgust over the way the Tigers played for most of that Arkansas game. But that’s football.