Most analysts are expecting the SEC West to come down to a two-team shootout between LSU and Alabama. This is a team with a defense just as veteran as Alabama’s, an offensive line to match and perhaps the best quarterback depth in Division-IA. Now all that has to happen is for LSU to finish the regular season strongly, which has been a problem in Les Miles’ tenure.
Returning Offensive Starters: 7 (SE, FL, LG, C, RT, TE, QB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 6 (RDE, LDE, WLB, SLB, RCB, SS)
Returning Specialists: 0
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Vg Defensive Line: Vg
Running Backs: Av Linebackers: Av
Wide Receivers: Vg Defensive Backs: Ex
Offensive Line: Ex Special Teams: Fr
LSU changed offensive coordinators over the offseason, moving from Gary Crowton to Steve Kragthorpe. Kragthorpe would have given the Tigers a good mix between passing spread and pro-set, but unfortunately, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease just prior to the start of fall camp. Kragthorpe will continue to coach quarterbacks, but offensive line coach Greg Studwara, who has previous coordinator experience at Bowling Green, will take over as offensive coordinator. LSU will stay with a standard alignment of fullback, tight end and two wide receivers, but as long as Jordan Jefferson is at quarterback, expect to see a good bit of option mixed in.
QUARTERBACKS (rating: Vg, 1st SEC West, 1st overall)
LSU has three battle-tested quarterbacks on its roster, headed by dual-threat Jordan Jefferson. Jefferson nearly lost his job at multiple points in the 2010 season, but finished the year as the team’s leading passer and second-leading rusher. He has a strong arm and is mobile, but doesn’t always make the best decisions when going downfield. As a senior, however, he’s seen it all around the SEC, and figures to be better in 2011 than his detractors would think. JUCO transfer Zach Mettenberger will be the new backup, taking over for senior Jarrett Lee, who was a capable relief pitcher for Jefferson in 2010 and was a big part of LSU’s defeat of Alabama. Mettenberger transferred from Georgia after being arrested two years ago, and he’s basically a bigger, stronger version of Lee, who also makes better decisions. Mettenberger clocks in at 6’5”, 250 pounds with a cannon. Jefferson will have a short leash.
RUNNING BACKS (rating: Av, 6th SEC West, 9th overall)
Spencer Ware and Michael Ford should form a potent 1-2 combination along with Alfred Blue. All three players are built to handle inside running, but have the speed to get outside. What they lack is a ton of experience, as the two combined for 69 carries last year as they mostly watched Stevan Ridley carry the load. Jakhari Gore, a wideout, could also see time as a scatback, along with signee Terrence Magee. Unlike most other teams, LSU will make use of the fullback position. Several players are competing for time there, including James Stampley, J.C. Copeland, Connor Neighbors and Kenny Hilliard. Neighbors is from the Alabama line of Neighbors players, while Hilliard’s uncle Dalton is a former LSU star. Hilliard will also be in the mix at running back.
WIDE RECEIVERS (rating: Vg, 2nd SEC West, 3rd overall)
Both starting wideouts and a entire covey of tight ends returns from 2011. Reuben Randle and Russell Shepard are physical receivers that aren’t a good matchup for most SEC corners. Randle has great leaping ability, while Shepard is a specialty player in a receiver’s body. He’s a capable runner and can throw the ball as well. The only issue for LSU at receiver is depth. Top backups James Wright and Kadron Boone combined for only 6 catches in 2010. Beyond that, it’s all freshmen and walk-ons. Armand Williams figures to get a look along with Jakhari Gore. Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarrett Fobbs also figure into the mix. At tight end, LSU has plenty of riches. Deangelo Peterson and Chase Clement figure to split the job for the entire season, with Tyler Edwards and Mitch Joseph providing depth. It’s a safe bet that no other team in America has as much depth at this position as does LSU.
OFFENSIVE LINE (rating: Ex, 2nd SEC West, 3rd overall)
Provided LSU finds a left tackle, the Bayou Bengals will be in business. Up the middle, LSU is strong with Josh Dworaczyk and Will Blackwell at guard and Patrick Longergan and T-Bob Hebert at center. Experience comes in the form of Josh Williford and Matt Branch. Alex Hurst returns at right tackle. Left tackle is up for grabs between Chris Faulk, Greg Shaw, Chris Davenport and true freshman La’el Collins. Faulk leads the way for the moment. LSU has gotten to the point with its offensive line that it simply reloads.
LSU employs John Chavis as defensive coordinator, and with Chavis you know what you’re going to get: 4-3 scheme that uses a moderate amount of blitzes but mostly showcases the best athletes on the unit and lets them do what they do best, whatever that is. Chavis’ charges put together a solid 2010 against both run and pass. This year’s group needs experience up the middle, and LSU had to move a defensive back or two into the linebacker corps to shore up depth in the spring.
DEFENSIVE LINE (rating: Vg, 1st SEC West, 2nd overall)
Despite not knowing what its tackle rotation will look like, LSU finished our preseason polls ranked 2nd in the conference along the line, mostly due to the population of athletes it has available. LSU is super-strong from the outside, where Sam Montgomery, Lavar Edwards, Bar’Kevious Mingo, Ken Adams and Justin Maclin are all competing for two starting jobs. Montgomery appears to have one of them nailed down, while Mingo and Adams will mostly split the other. Montgomery is the prototypical 4-3 end, while Mingo is reminiscent of Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw. The question marks come in the middle. Michael Brockers will start at one of the tackle slots, while the other will be a battle between Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson. Johnson is a true freshman, but the man with the nickname “Freak” is everything his name says it is. He’s 6’4”, 300 pounds and moves like a defensive end. If he stays healthy, he’ll almost certainly be in the NFL in three years. Josh Downs, Ego Ferguson and senior Dennis Johnson fill out the depth chart. This group will take some time to jell, but once it does LSU should be fine.
LINEBACKERS (rating: Av, 3rd SEC West, 6th overall)
Ryan Baker has quietly become one of the most feared linebackers in the conference. While not huge and overpowering, he plays bigger than he is and is smart and instinctive. Flanking him will be a pair of former safeties, Stefoin Francois and Karnell Hatcher, who bring a ton of speed to the position but not much bulk. Coupled with Baker’s slight size, LSU’s defense might look like something out of the Joe Kines playbook. Kevin Minter could end up starting in place of Francois; he’s a bit bigger and has more experience at the position. The rest of the depth figures to be provided by Lamin Barrow, Tahj Jones and Josh Johns. There are two common denominators: Youth, and lack of size. LSU certainly seems to be moving away from the larger linebackers that some teams, including Alabama, have favored.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (rating: Ex, 2nd SEC West, 2nd overall)
Trailing only Alabama, LSU brings a solid group of players into 2011. The only thing separating the Tide from the Tigers is that LSU will have two new starters. Morris Claiborne returns at one cornerback position, while Brandon Taylor returns at strong safety. But LSU must replace Patrick Peterson at corner, and 2010’s primary nickelback, Tyrann Mathieu, will get first shot. Craig Loston steps into the void at free safety, but Eric Reed and Ronnie Vinson are right on his heels. There is good depth at cornerback in the form of Ron Brooks and Tharold Simon. Derrick Bryant also should see time at safety. The coaches felt comfortable enough with this group to move two players to linebacker, so LSU is obviously doing something right. The biggest different will be the change from the nearly-6’3” Patrick Peterson to Mathieu, who goes 5’9” on a good day and isn’t nearly as physical.
SPECIAL TEAMS (rating: Fr, 6th SEC West, 11th overall)
Perhaps it’s not such a good idea to give LSU’s special teams a “Fair” rating, given that the Tigers seem to grow kickers on trees. Drew Alleman will be the new kicker and Brad Wing likely the new punter, although the jobs are still technically open. D.J. Howard is competing with Wing at punter. Practice observers say punting won’t be much different from 2010, when LSU finished 13th in the country in net punting and frustrated opposing head coaches. Punt and kickoff returns were also dominating, but Patrick Peterson is gone and with him, the return game. Reuben Randle and Ron Brooks look like early favorites for the job along with Tyrann Mathieu and Morris Claiborne. Look for LSU to improve steadily as the season progresses.