This is the second installment of what passes for our series previewing the 2018 LSU football season – we’re presenting it as a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis from yesterday through Friday.
For the first installment, Strengths, which appeared yesterday, click here. Today’s installment will be a little less sunny.
1. Ed Orgeron still hasn’t proven he’s up to the LSU job, and until he does he’s going to be seen as a weakness.
This isn’t a completely fair point, we admit, and it’s not intended as a means of bashing Orgeron or LSU athletic director Joe Alleva, who hired him. We’ve done plenty of that and we’re past that for now.
But objectively, if you’re going to evaluate Orgeron against the competition he faces this year, the head coach’s record simply doesn’t match up against the other coaches he’s going against in the brutal schedule to come. You can’t, in a head-to-head matchup, say that Orgeron would have an advantage over Nick Saban, Kirby Smart, Jimbo Fisher, Dan Mullen, Mark Richt or Gus Malzahn – and that’s half the opposing coaches on the schedule.
Does it mean Orgeron can’t beat those coaches? No, it doesn’t. He beat Malzahn last year, after all. And objectively, you can’t say Orgeron’s tenure at LSU has been all bad. He’s done some good things with respect to program management over the offseason – like for example going into the transfer market and plucking additions like Joe Burrow, Cole Tracy and Terrance Alexander, who are all going to start or play significant roles on this year’s teams in areas that otherwise would have been weaknesses.
But you could also look at developments since fall camp started and be less complimentary of Orgeron’s program management. He was the man, after all, who told several audiences during offseason speaking appearances that his team was focused and disciplined over the offseason – only to find out later (assuming that he wasn’t lying at the time, which we will assume because otherwise we don’t know what to say) about the Edward Ingram, Tyler Taylor and Drake Davis episodes. All three of those players would have seen major roles on this year’s team, and though none of them are fully off the team at this point even to bring them back would be a black eye for the program from a PR standpoint.
Add in the fact the season hasn’t even started yet and there has already been a players-only meeting, reportedly to air out grievances against Orgeron for going with Burrow as the starting quarterback over fourth-year junior Justin McMillan, who yesterday was told by LSU he wouldn’t get a release to transfer to another SEC team he wanted to join. That meeting doesn’t mean anything in particular, and in fact it could be a positive thing which brings the team together. But it’s another incident filling a pattern in which LSU’s football program appears to be rolling along on some wobbly wheels – and that’s been perceptible since Orgeron was named the head coach.
Orgeron can certainly prove that perception wrong, and this is the year to do it. If he can hold his own, or more, against that schedule and those other coaches this season he will have exited the danger zone and his name won’t be thrown around as a coach on the hot seat anymore. Until he does, though, his leadership will remain a question mark surrounding the program – whether it’s fair or not.
2. LSU’s offensive line hasn’t proven it’s good enough yet.
Two positions which appear to be weaknesses on the Tiger offensive line should not be. But when center Will Clapp and right tackle Toby Weathersby went pro after last year – Clapp was a late-round draft pick of the Saints and Weathersby was signed as a free agent by the Eagles – they created a void at their positions which hasn’t really been filled yet.
As such, the offensive line as a whole looks like a problem.
Saahdiq Charles was forced into action at left tackle as a freshman last season and played fairly well, all things considered, and Charles at least gives the line a capable player at its most important position. So that’s at least something Orgeron and new offensive line coach James Cregg an hang their hats on. And at the guards LSU has senior Garrett Brumfield, who is very capable, and JC transfer Damien Lewis, whom the coaches love. But the loss of Ingram means something Orgeron clearly wanted to do, namely to move Brumfield to center to replace Clapp, isn’t all that attractive an option.
That means sophomore Lloyd Cushenberry is LSU’s center by default. Cushenberry played very little last year, and in the spring game there were lots of problems with bad shotgun snaps – something a spread offense like LSU is going to run can’t afford. Cushenberry, we understand, has been getting regularly abused in practice by LSU’s nose guards. That could just be a reflection that in Ed Alexander, Tyler Shelvin and freshman Dominic Livingston the Tigers have some maulers in the middle of the defensive line, or it could mean there’s a huge void at center which will manifest itself in serious trouble when the season starts. If your center isn’t any good it means you’ll struggle to run the ball inside, and it also means there will be a consistent pass rush in your quarterback’s face, and both of those problems will flat-out shut an offense down.
Orgeron has said that he might consider moving Brumfield to center even without Ingram available, and if he does he’ll be flipping either junior Adrian Magee or sophomore Austin Deculus, who are fighting for the right tackle job, over to Brumfield’s left guard spot. Magee, who played a little at right tackle last year and wasn’t bad, is the likely starter of the two, while Deculus, who’s one of the strongest players on the team but might not quite have the agility to play tackle, might actually find a home at guard. So maybe that’s a solution after all. But heading into the offseason the hope was that neither Magee nor Deculus would have to be a starter – the hope was that highly-touted JC transfer Badara Traore would emerge as the starter at right tackle, and that hasn’t happened yet – and now it might be that both of them will have to.
Again, this isn’t good enough. What’s more, there is very little depth. LSU has sophomores Donovaughn Campbell at guard and Jakori Savage at tackle, but neither one has done much to show he’s an SEC-quality lineman to date, and three freshmen – center Cole Smith, guard Chasen Hines and tackle Cameron Wire – who they’d like to redshirt but probably can’t afford to. It’s a fairly bleak picture and we’re told it doesn’t often brighten when this group goes against the Tiger defensive line in practice.
That said, Cregg comes very highly regarded. At previous stops at Tennessee and USC he put together some exceptional offensive lines and his specialty is pass blocking – something which appears to be this crew’s weakness, as most of them look like decent run blockers. If Cregg can cobble together an effective line from the available pieces this year it could go a long way toward this team exceeding expectations.
3. For the first time in a long time there is no bellcow at running back.
Lots of observers are counting this as the marquee weakness on LSU’s team, but we’re a bit less concerned about it given the program’s history. LSU’s two national championships in 2003 and 2007 came, after all, without Heisman candidates in the backfield – in 2003, it was freshman Justin Vincent and his 1,000 yard season who led the way, while in 2007 it was converted fullback Jacob Hester who topped 1,000 yards. And in 2011 LSU managed a quite effective running game with what was essentially a five-headed monster at tailback between Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue, Michael Ford, Kenny Hilliard and Terrance Magee. This program has proven that it can do just fine with a stable of productive backs rather than a superstar.
But the fans have been spoiled by the past seven years, and the Tiger nation expects to see a Jeremy Hill, Leonard Fournette or Derrius Guice heading up the ground game. There is no such ballcarrier on this roster.
What LSU does have is a capable Darren Sproles type in Clyde Edwards-Helaire, whose squatty (5-8, 212) physique and great open-field moves makes him a real threat catching passes out of the backfield. Edwards-Helaire is well-suited to the spread offense this team is going to run, but it might be too much to ask him to carry the ball 20 times a game. He’s also unlikely to move a pile when LSU simply has to get two yards against a determined run defense.
And beyond Edwards-Helaire it’s something of a crapshoot.
We’re hearing good things about freshman Chris Curry, who at 6-0, 219 is a little sturdier than Edwards-Helaire and might emerge as the thunder to his lightning. If Curry, who reportedly had something of a breakout in Saturday’s scrimmage, can become an inside running threat perhaps the backfield won’t be a weakness after all. A four-star recruit rated as one of the top 10 running back prospects in the country, the Floridian has drawn comparisons to Marshawn Lynch for his tenacious running style, and while he doesn’t have blazing speed he’s not just a plodder.
But what needed to happen was for senior Nick Brossette, a former highly-touted recruit out of University High in Baton Rouge, to emerge as the bellcow for LSU this year after sitting in the shadow of Fournette and Guice for three years. That hasn’t happened, and right now it isn’t known how much LSU can get out of Brossette. And if you’re going to rely on a stable of backs rather than one or two stars, that stable has to be full. If Brossette isn’t productive, this running game is going to rely on two guys who are going to be full of bumps and bruises by midseason.
And behind Brossette are junior Lanard Fournette, who has shown little of his brother’s talent so far, and true freshman Tae Provens. If either of them are capable of being an SEC tailback we haven’t seen much evidence of it.
And for a program with a history of pumping running backs into the NFL, this looks like an awfully bare cupboard so far. Let’s hope the newfound emphasis on the passing game truly is a reflection of the talent at the receiver positions rather than the lack thereof in the backfield.