Nine Thoughts On A 9-3 LSU Season – THOUGHT NINE: It’s All About 2019

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of a nine-part series surveying the LSU football program following the end of the 2018 regular season, this time taking a look at what could be a terrific 2019 Tiger team. For Part One, click here. For Part Two, click here. For Part Three, click here. For Part Four, click here. For Part Five, click here. For Part Six, click here. For Part Seven, click here. And for Part Eight, click here.

For LSU, 2019 was always going to be a better year than this one was, and that’s still true. There’s a gripey axiom among some LSU fans that the football program has turned into something of Next Year U, but in this case next year really is the opportunity to leave the ranks of the also-rans and make a real run at the college football playoff.

For one thing, LSU will have a favorable schedule. The 2018 slate turned out to be not quite as impossible as many predicted prior to the season, as Miami and Auburn didn’t materialize as the top-10 opponents they were billed to be, but LSU still had to play eight bowl-bound opponents, five of which ended the regular season ranked in the Top 25 and three of which are in the current Top 10 – and of those eight games only four were at home.

In 2019, the schedule is a little more manageable. Yes, there is a Week Two road game at Texas, in a marquee matchup likely between Top 10 teams, and yes, LSU travels to Alabama (at this point it doesn’t really matter where LSU plays Alabama in terms of what the result will be, right?) But the conference schedule flips over, to LSU’s benefit. Instead of traveling to Auburn, Texas A&M, Arkansas and Florida those games are at home, and on the road LSU gets Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and a Mississippi State team which is going to be rather brutally cleaned out of some high-profile players. The non-conference schedule outside of the Texas game is a bit more challenging than usual, as LSU opens with a Georgia Southern team which is currently 9-3, and also takes on Utah State – which is 10-2 this season, was ranked last week and just had a 10-game win streak broken last Saturday. It sounds as though USU’s head coach Matt Wells is about to get the Texas Tech job, though, so perhaps they’ll be starting over a bit. Georgia Southern and Utah State might be scary opponents like Troy was in 2017, and we all know how that turned out, so LSU will need to be wary.

But the 2019 club won’t be shorthanded like Ed Orgeron’s 2017 team was. Barring a flurry of bad attrition, 2019 shapes up to be the deepest, most experienced and most talented team LSU will have had in some time.

Start with the offense, and specifically with Joe Burrow. As we’ve noted Burrow’s 2018 statistics to date look exceptionally similar to those put up by Zack Mettenberger, LSU’s last highly-thought-of quarterback, in 2012 – which was Mettenberger’s first year as a starter. Burrow had a 57.4 percent completion rate this year which would have been well over 60 percent but for the many drops by his receivers, 2500 passing yards and a quality TD-interception ratio of 12-4. Those numbers were strikingly similar to the ones Zack Mettenberger put up in his junior year of 2012 at LSU (58.8 percent completion, 2,609 yards, 12-7 TD-interception ratio, 128.3 efficiency rating compared to Burrow’s 127.4),

There is one major difference between the two in terms of skill – Burrow, unlike Mettenberger, is a very good runner. Despite taking 33 sacks for 181 yards in losses, Burrow ran for 375 yards and seven touchdowns this year. Take out those sacks and his rushing line – 86 carries for 562 yards (6.5 yards per carry) with those seven scores would make him one of the best running quarterbacks in college football.

Mettenberger’s passer rating of 128.3 in 2012 became a passer rating of 171.4 in 2013, and LSU had its last 10-win regular season that year – which could have been a championship-contending season but for a poor defense. Meaning that having a talented senior quarterback with experience leading the LSU offense makes a big difference. And Burrow is already a much better decision-maker than Mettenberger was. In Myles Brennan, who successfully redshirted this year thanks to Burrow’s ability to stay healthy, LSU will have a much better backup than Anthony Jennings was for Mettenberger in 2013.

So this is as good as LSU has been at quarterback since probably 2007, when the Tigers had a senior QB in Matt Flynn backed up by Ryan Perrilloux. We can all agree that was a pretty good year.

What we don’t know is whether LSU’s offensive line will match the ones Flynn enjoyed in 2007 or Mettenberger played behind in 2013. Those lines were quite good. This one was not in 2018.

But if nothing else, that line has to be better. Garrett Brumfield and Saadiq Charles, both of whom were injured for much of the year, were the only linemen with any starting experience who played in 2018 – in 2019 you’ll have Charles, center Lloyd Cushenberry, who might have been the best of the group, right guard Damien Lewis and right tackle Austin Deculus all back, assuming Lewis doesn’t leave for the NFL draft. He’s supposedly going to ask for an evaluation, though he doesn’t project as a high draft choice at this point.

Unlike the last couple of years, moreover, in 2019 LSU can expect to have depth on the offensive line. Three returning players, tackles Adrian Magee and Badara Traore and guard Chasen Hines, all started games and/or saw significant action this year. That experience has to make for a better group. But the key will be if super-talented 6-8, 330-pound Dare Rosenthal, who redshirted as a true freshman in 2018 after arriving as a defensive end, is able to make a big jump and take over at left tackle. That could enable line coach James Cregg to really put the pieces in place – he could then shift Charles from left tackle to right tackle, where he’s better suited, and Deculus from right tackle to left guard where his skills are a much better fit.

A Rosenthal-Deculus-Cushenberry-Lewis-Charles starting five averages 6-5 and 319 pounds, and it’s a senior, three juniors and a redshirt freshman. You’ve got size and experience there, not to mention some pretty good athleticism. You’ve got some young talent to work with as well in redshirt freshmen-to-be Cameron Wire at tackle and Cole Smith at center, plus some incoming freshmen in guards Kardell Thomas and Anthony Bradford and tackle Ray Parker, to give you more depth than you’ve had on the line in a long time. It’s possible you might even have Ed Ingram back next year if his legal issue is resolved favorably, and Ingram was LSU’s best lineman heading into the 2018 season.

We won’t call the line a strength for 2019, because it’s going to have to prove it can protect Burrow. But it should at least be less of a weakness.

And we can expect a major upgrade at running back. LSU has commitments from the #2 and #6 running back prospects in the country in Destrehan’s John Emery and Southern Lab’s Ty Davis, and what Emery and Davis both bring is speed and the ability to break long runs. Adding them to Clyde Edwards-Helaire (626 yards, 4.6 yards per carry, seven touchdowns) and Lanard Fournette would turn the LSU backfield from a clunky, four-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust operation to a legitimate threat to take a run play to the house. That big-play element was lacking from the Tiger running game last year; it shouldn’t be in 2019. And should Steve Ensminger return as the offensive coordinator for LSU next year, it’s worth remembering that when he had some big-play producers in the backfield as the interim playcaller in 2016 his offense put up some impressive numbers – at least against ordinary defenses.

The wide receivers weren’t much better than the offensive line in 2018, but something worth noting on that score is that LSU returned only 28 catches from its 2017 WR production – whereas absent any attrition among the wideouts, in 2019 LSU is going to return 150 catches. That’s a huge, huge difference, and one which should translate into a big jump in productivity for the Tiger passing game. LSU has found a playmaker at wide receiver in Justin Jefferson, whose sophomore production compares pretty favorably to some of LSU’s previous star wide receivers. Here’s a chart of the most productive sophomore wide receivers over the last 20 years…

As you can see, Jefferson compares pretty favorably to some of LSU’s bigger-name receivers at this point in their careers. He still has a game left to play and he’s already got more receiving yardage than any of them as a sophomore.

What LSU needs is for Terrace Marshall and Ja’Marr Chase to make the kind of jump Jefferson, who didn’t catch a pass as a freshman, made this year. If Marshall, who had 12 catches as a freshman, and Chase, who had 17, can pull a 2004 Bowe-and-Davis or 2012 Beckham-and-Landry act next season you’ll now have a full slate of productive receivers to go with a senior quarterback in Burrow and, assumedly, an explosive running game. Plus you’ll still have some veterans in Derek Dillon, Stephen Sullivan and Dee Anderson, all of whom will be seniors next year and who each caught 20 passes in 2018. Anderson might explore a professional option, though it’s hard to see pro scouts giving him much of a draft grade.

We expect a coaching shakeup at wide receiver next year – there is buzz around John Morton, who was the Saints’ wide receivers coach in 2015 and 2016 and turned Willie Snead from an undrafted camp body into a hyperproductive NFL receiver, as a possible addition. If it’s Morton, and he can get Snead-like numbers out of Chase and Marshall or some of the other holdovers, you’re now in business.

And LSU will have Tory Carter back at fullback, with an admonition that he ought to be used a bit more. Carter is an unsung weapon in the passing game; he’s got soft hands, and once he has the ball in the open field he’s like a bull at Pamplona. Assuming Steve Ensminger is back as the offensive coordinator it might be Carter who succeeds Foster Moreau as the tight end on the wing capable of blocking an edge rusher or going out for a pass. Jamal Pettigrew will be back from a knee injury that knocked him out of action in 2018, and he’s the tight end and potentially a good one. Racey McMath and Dontrieze Scott are the backups, as is Thad Moss if he could ever stay healthy, and all three look like good athletes. Whether they can help is a question.

On defense, a lot will depend on whether some of LSU’s marginal NFL draft prospects decide to leave as juniors or return. Kristian Fulton, Rashard Lawrence, Breiden Fehoko, Ed Alexander and Michael Divinity could all go pro and likely be drafted in the bottom four rounds of the draft (Fulton, before his ankle injury in the Arkansas game, might have had somewhat higher prospects) – or, what is more prudent, they could stick around. Orgeron, in a radio appearance earlier this week, said he had a “handle” on what his juniors were thinking. We don’t know what that means, but the buzz we’ve heard is none of the juniors outside of sure-fire first round picks Devin White and Greedy Williams are likely to leave for the draft.

That means LSU has the makings of a killer rotation on the defensive line. Lawrence had a rock-solid, productive junior year with 49 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss, and he ought to have a decent draft stock but for a hole which showed up in his game – only two sacks. He needs to show a better pass rush, which is what a senior year can do for him. Everybody around the LSU program believes he has a dominant season in him, but it didn’t quite pop in 2018. If Lawrence comes back the odds are good that it might. Alexander, who has some knee problems which might make him want to try to get paid to play football while he’s got some gas left in his tank, really did have a nice junior year. 28 tackles, three for loss, and one sack doesn’t really measure how many blockers he soaked up to let LSU’s linebackers fly to the ball, but he was a factor in the Tigers’ run defense in 2018. And Fehoko, who only had 16 tackles in eight games before a torn bicep ended his season, showed good mobility for a big man and the potential for a similar breakout season.

All three should return, not just because they’ve still got developing to do but also because the 2019 NFL Draft is loaded with more top defensive line prospects than any other year in memory. If they do come back, they’d make up half of a pretty darn good six-man rotation across the front. Glen Logan and Neil Farrell both had quality sophomore seasons, with Logan leading the defensive linemen with three sacks and coming in second to Lawrence with 43 tackles (he had 3.5 tackles for loss) and Farrell had 23 tackles, 4.5 of which were behind the line (1.5 sacks). They’re both pretty good penetrators who are hard to block, and as juniors both could really emerge as good players. That’s also true of nose tackle Tyler Shelvin, who opened the season overweight and sulking and finished it as a capable backup to Alexander with eight tackles and a sack in five games. Shelvin managed to lose 30 or so pounds over the course of the season – if he can build on that and continue to trim down to a playing weight of 330 or so pounds on his 6-3 frame. We’ll see what kind of offseason he has.

There is the potential for depth behind the top six. LSU really likes Davin Cotton, who played in a couple of games as a freshman and had three tackles. He managed to redshirt this year along with three others – Justin Thomas, who’ll be a redshirt sophomore in 2019, and Cotton’s fellow redshirt-freshmen-to-be Nelson Jenkins and Dominic Livingston. We can’t really say yet whether the young guys will push the veterans, but one thing we can say is LSU will have more bodies on the defensive line next year than they’ve had in a while. At this point there isn’t much of a prospect for impact newcomers on the defensive line, as three-star recruit Joseph Evans is the only defensive line commitment.

But the return of K’Lavon Chaisson, whose ACL tear in the Miami game robbed LSU of what should have been an excellent pass rush, is a game-changing addition for next year. Chaisson was touted by his coaches and teammates as a contender to break LSU’s sack record in 2018, but he was only able to rack up one before that injury in the opener. Get him back healthy and your defense elevates significantly.

And having Divinity back opposite Chaisson would really make the outside linebacker positions a strength in 2019. Divinity was a pleasant surprise as a junior, finishing fourth on the team with 51 tackles, including 10.5 for loss, and tying for the team lead in sacks with five and in quarterback hurries with eight, plus that scoop-and-score fumble recovery in the Texas A&M game. Assuming he’s back as a senior to build on those numbers, Divinity could join Chaisson to make for a fearsome duo on the edge. There will be some experienced depth, as Ray Thornton and Andre Anthony will be juniors next year after combining for 34 tackles in 2018 – plus redshirt freshman Jarell Cherry and true freshman Marcel Brooks could push for action behind them.

White, who led the team with 115 tackles and 12 TFL’s, can’t be replaced. But LSU will have Jacob Phillips back for his junior year after Phillips placed second on the team with 83 tackles. He’s likely to emerge as LSU’s All-America candidate at linebacker next year; the big issue is who fills in at the Rover position White has been so dominant in for the last two years. First crack at that job will be Patrick Queen, who’ll be a relatively experienced junior in 2019 (31 tackles, three TFL’s in a reserve role this year). But LSU could have a key 2017 contributor back next year if Tyler Taylor, who missed 2018 with a legal issue after posting 32 tackles in part-time duty as a freshman, can make it back on the team. If not, Micah Baskerville, who was forced into action when Phillips missed the Florida game with an injury and most of the overtime periods in the Texas A&M game after a targeting call, should play a larger role. Baskerville admittedly struggled when he played, but those 18 tackles he made at least give him something to build on – and Aranda’s linebackers absolutely get better with time and coaching. Damone Clark, who played almost exclusively on special teams as a freshman, is another talented prospect, and there are two potentially really good freshmen coming in next year in Donte Starks, who has White/Phillips type upside, and hard-hitting Kendall McCallum. LSU has also jumped on a junior college linebacker named Victor Viramonte, whose film is insanely good; the word is they’ll work to close on Viramonte if efforts to haul in Nakobe Dean, the top high school inside linebacker prospect in the country out of Horn Lake, Mississippi, don’t pan out.

But it’s probably the secondary where LSU could really shine. While Williams got tons of publicity, and deservedly so, perhaps the most impactful player in LSU’s defensive backfield in 2018 was Grant Delpit, whose sophomore year was nothing short of eye-popping. He not only led the team with five interceptions, he tied for the team lead with five sacks and also with nine pass breakups and placed third with 9.5 TFL’s. Delpit finished the season as perhaps the most feared safety in the country and next year he’s going to be the quarterback of the defense as he takes over for the departing John Battle at free safety.

Delpit will have help, too, as LSU has a trio of rising juniors competing for the other safety spot. Todd Harris (30 tackles) emerged as a quality cover safety for the Tigers, inserting his name in the record books as the first player to intercept Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa in what was probably the highlight of an otherwise bleak night, and with a year in the weight room to add a bit more bulk to his frame Harris could be set for a major breakout in 2019. That’s also true of Jacoby Stevens (29 tackles, six TFL’s, four passes broken up), who seemed to disappear at times but was a major playmaker when he was used this year. He’s a classic run-stuffing strong safety who can help with the pass rush, plus he can cover a tight end. Eric Monroe, who showed some flashes as a redshirt freshman in 2017 but was slowed by injuries this year, could very well make himself a factor – Monroe is a hard hitter with lots of speed and not somebody to sleep on.

LSU has a commitment from superstar defensive back prospect Maurice Hampton, who figures as a free safety if he’s not swiped away in the major league baseball draft next summer. The Tigers also look likely to sign WR/DB Devontae Lee from Amite, who could be a star strong safety in college. So the pipeline could remain full at a loaded position.

Williams was largely avoided like the plague this year but still tied for the LSU team lead with nine pass breakups and had two interceptions. But tying Williams was his cornerback mate Fulton, who in his first year of significant action had 25 tackles, nine pass breakups, an interception and a forced fumble in 10 games. Though he could declare for the draft and be selected somewhere Fulton is currently expected to return – and opposite him LSU would have some good options. Kary Vincent turned into a whale of a nickel corner in 2018, posting 30 tackles, six pass breakups and an interception – he’s not the biggest guy out there, but Vincent’s speed means he won’t be beaten deep often and he breaks on the football as well as anyone in the game. If LSU can maintain the luxury of having Vincent in the nickel to cover slot receivers in a junior season which should show him off as an honors candidate, the Tiger secondary could really be scary.

But to achieve that luxury would mean somebody else would have to emerge outside. Luckily, LSU has sophomore-to-be Kelvin Joseph, who had 12 tackles and a pass breakup as Fulton’s backup before being slowed by a hamstring late in the season. Joseph has the look of a future star as a physical press corner capable of run support and tight coverage of big receivers. But Joseph will struggle to win that job over incoming freshman Derek Stingley, LSU’s most heralded defensive back recruit since Patrick Peterson in 2008. Stingley looks the part of Peterson – he’s 6-1 and 190 with blazing 4.3 speed, he’s incredibly physical and he’s a supremely gifted football player who should not only be a plug-and-play cornerback but potentially the answer to LSU’s suspect return game. If he’s as advertised and Fulton does come back, LSU’s nickel package of Fulton, Stingley, Vincent, Stevens and Delpit could be far and away the nation’s best – plus there will be some pretty good depth behind them.

The biggest loss for LSU might be Cole Tracy, whose 25-of-29 effort as the team’s field goal kicker was possibly the biggest single impact on the season. We don’t know who’s going to replace him, though one hopes that 2017 starting placekicker Connor Culp, who had a somewhat-promising 11-of-16 season as a redshirt freshman ruined by a late-year slump, will have made some improvement two years on. If not, LSU has a heralded freshman set to arrive in Cade York – or, perhaps kickoff specialist Avery Atkins can develop enough accuracy to take a stab at the placekicking job. There is reason to think the dropoff from Tracy won’t be intolerable, particularly given the positive effect special teams coach Greg McMahon seems to have had across LSU’s special teams.

Both punters – Zach Von Rosenberg (45.6 yard average, 18 inside the 20 vs only one touchback) and Josh Growden (35.6 average, 10 inside the 20 vs three touchbacks) – return. LSU’s net punting average of 41.2 yards was a significant improvement over the 38.7 yard number from 2017, which can be attributed to McMahon’s work.

Kick coverage should be rock-solid again, and that just leaves the need for developing some lightning in the return game. Edwards-Helaire had a decent 21.9 yard average returning kickoffs, so if nobody displaces him he’s at least serviceable, but a punt returner – Derek Stingley, call your office – has to be found.

In all, it’s a potentially really good team which should be in the playoff discussion late in the season regardless of what happens Nov. 9 in Tuscaloosa. Worth watching are whether any of those defensive juniors who aren’t projected high picks leave, whether the offensive line can develop some tackles who can pass-block, whether Marshall and Chase can make a jump like Jefferson did this year, how big an impact Emery and Davis make at running back, what kind of return Chaisson can make and whether Stingley is as advertised as a cornerback and return man. If those questions get answered favorably, whatever coaching staff changes are made have favorable outcomes and major injuries are avoided, Orgeron might just make LSU football great again.

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