Previews 2015: LSU Tigers
Returning Offensive Starters: 6 (SE, TE, RT, LG, LT, QB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 6 (RDT, LDT, SLB, MLB, RCB, FS)
Returning Specialists: 2 (PK, P)
Projected Overall Record: 9-3 (UA, AU, OM)
Projected SEC Record: 5-3 (UA, AU, OM)
Projected SEC West Record: 3-3 (UA, AU, OM)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Av Defensive Line: Av
Running Backs: Ex Linebackers: Vg
Wide Receivers: Vg Defensive Backs: Ex
Offensive Line: Vg Special Teams: Vg
Despite being a tough out against most any opponent, LSU also finds itself carrying the banner of the SEC’s most underachieving team in recent years. No team holds a significant talent advantage over the Tigers, but LSU has found itself unable to crack the upper echelon of the SEC West ever since Alabama defeated the Tigers in the BCS Championship Game in New Orleans. This year, LSU finds itself in familiar territory – a lot of talented pieces, but with questions at quarterback and about its offensive philosophy. And now, LSU is minus John Chavis, its longtime defensive guru.
LSU uses the I-formation as its base, but when the Tigers have mobility at the quarterback position, they tend to sprinkle in a bit of spread philosophy as well. The skill sets of both 2015 quarterbacks would seem to push LSU more toward the spread side of the ledger, but Les Miles seemed determined in 2014 to force them into a system. LSU ran the ball well, but couldn’t throw it at all. Whether the Tigers become division contenders in 2015 depends on their ability to get a better offensive mix.
The battle between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris figures to go on all season. Jennings held the job at the end of 2014 and through the spring, but as is normal among SEC fan bases, the backup is everyone’s personal favorite. Jennings has good arm strength, good size and good running ability. Harris is more dynamic, but isn’t particularly physical and he struggled against top competition last year. He also ran afoul of coaches’ expectations by taking the position for granted. There are plenty of other names in down the depth chart, but no other quarterback has made a serious push for playing time. Signee Justin McMillan and holdovers Jake Clise and Danny Etling, the latter a transfer from Purdue, would probably make up the next group, but they’re far behind Jennings and Harris at the moment. Jennings appears to have the inside track to win the job, but neither he nor Harris have ever played at more than a mediocre level.
Depth isn’t what it has been in recent years, but when you have Leonard Fournette at the top of the depth chart, it doesn’t need to be. Fournette proved to be both durable and game-breaking as a true freshman, and LSU will ride him again in 2015 until he breaks. The issue for LSU in 2015 is that, outside of Darrel Williams, there isn’t a lot of proven depth on the team. If either of those players gets hurt, LSU could be in for a wild ride. David Ducre and John David Moore will split the fullback position, with Ducre probably getting some carries out of a single-back look as well. Moore is also in the mix at tight end and will be used as more of an H-back in this offense. Signee Derrius Guice will be the likely third running back, while fellow signee Nick Brossette and scatback Reshaud Henry round out the list.
Travin Dural was at times the only reason LSU could even claim to have a passing attack. He tallied 758 receiving yards, which was more than the next three LSU receivers combined. Dural is a game-breaker in every sense of the word. He’ll be joined by Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn and John Diarse, who all bring something to the table – but who all lack Dural’s consistency and game-changing talent. Dupre is probably the closest thing LSU has to another Dural, but he must stay healthy. Neither Quinn nor Diarse showed anything approaching the consistency they’ll need to take this passing attack to the next level. D.J. Chark and Jazz Ferguson are the next names up. Dillon Gordon is a road-grader at tight end, but not necessarily a receiving threat. Tight end depth is very good, but no one has stepped up yet. DeSean Smith, Jacory Washington and Colin Jeter are battling for the backup job along with fullback/H-back John David Moore.
For whatever reason, LSU never developed the consistency in this unit last year to take the offense to the next plateau. Pass blocking was an issue all season, but this unit also had the maddening tendency to have breakdowns in run blocking at the worst possible times. For 2015, the tackle positions should be fine, with Jerald Hawkins and Vadal Alexander manning those posts. Ethan Pocic will start either at a guard position or at center, and he’s one of the best interior linemen in the SEC. But presuming Pocic lands at left guard, where he finished the spring, the other two positions could prove problematic. Will Clapp, a freshman, had the edge coming out of spring, with sophomore Andy Dodd on his heels. The right guard position is in flux, with Josh Boutte, K.J. Malone and Garrett Brumfield the candidates to take it. Boutte is probably the favorite, and his massive size would allow LSU to load up the strongside running game. Depth outside is a major factor; senior Jonah Austin, who was set to be the third tackle for 2015, left the team just before fall camp. That leaves Jevonte Domond, who has little experience, and a collection of true freshmen vying for the slots behind Alexander and Hawkins. Given Alexander has the propensity to get dinged up, this could become an issue.
LSU lost John Chavis to Texas A&M and replaced him with Alabama’s Kevin Steele. The Tigers will continue to run a 4-3 defense, but Steele will be heavily scrutinized, as his career has been far more checkered – particularly as a coordinator – than Chavis’ ever was. LSU, as expected, struggled a bit with rush defense in 2014, but a late change in the linebacker lineup mostly fixed that problem. For 2015, the question marks concern the edges of the defense and whether LSU can manufacture a competent pass rush.
All eyes will focus here, as LSU has far more questions than answers. Davon Godchaux is the only star-quality player among the starting unit, but Christian LaCouture provides a steadying presence next to him and will help minimize the double-teams. Greg Gilmore and Quentin Thomas figure to be the top backups, although Frank Herron is also in the mix. The real issue of concern is the situation at defensive end. Tashawn Bower should be able to solidify one position, but at the other, LSU is hoping Lewis Neal can get the job done. The Tigers originally wanted converted tackle Maquedius Bain to be the guy, but he left school after running into off-field trouble. Either Sione Teuhema or signee Arden Key will end up the third end. Deondre Clark, M.J. Patterson and Isaiah Washington look like the next group at the moment.
The turning point for the LSU defense in 2014 was when the Tigers sat D.J. Welter and began using Kendell Beckwith as the middle linebacker. Welter’s “coach-on-the-field” ability paled in comparison to Beckwith’s ability to thump with the best of them, and by the end of the year, he was as good as any middle linebacker in the country. Beckwith’s presence elevates the LSU run defense automatically. The question is whether the supporting cast will be up to par. Lamar Louis returns on the strongside, but he has been mostly a role player so far and isn’t considered a playmaker. Deion Jones will start on the weakside, and he’s a bit small for what LSU typically wants to see in their weakside backers. Ronnie Feist and Duke Riley figure to be the reserve outside backers, but there’s no proven player behind Beckwith now that Clifton Garrett has elected to transfer away. In fact, LSU had no other linebackers, outside of Beckwith and Garrett, who weighed more than 225 pounds in the spring. Feist has bulked up, but LSU also failed to sign a single linebacker in this recruiting class. Jonathan Rucker is the only other player besides Feist who is big enough to play there, but he has no experience. An injury or two could kill LSU’s LB corps.
Tre’Davious White is the next great LSU cornerback, and he’ll get plenty of help from a talented, if a bit inexperienced unit. Jalen Mills returns at free safety, so the question marks will be the off-corner across from White (Ed Paris held the job in the spring) and strong safety, where Jamal Adams currently leads. Rickey Jefferson, Corey Thompson and John Battle are the primary combatants at safety, while Dwayne Thomas and signee Kevin Toliver II are the second-line corners. Once again, this is expected to be a strength of the LSU defense, as recruiting has allowed LSU to stockpile a full third- and probably fourth-team behind the starters.
Colby Delahoussaye returns as placekicker, but he had a disappointing 2014 season, all things considered. Delahoussaye lacks the leg strength necessary to be a weapon from beyond 40 yards or so, and for that reason, Trent Domingue is in the mix for the job, especially long-distance kicks. Jamie Keehn returns at punter, and he, too, needs to get more consistent. The raw talent is certainly there, however, and many expect Keehn to pull up close behind Alabama’s J.K. Scott by the end of the year. Domingue will handle kickoffs. As for the return game, it’s a bit of a mystery at the moment. Leonard Fournette returned kicks in 2014 but with depth concerns at running back, the Tigers might be wise to spare him the work on returns. Trey Quinn and Tre’Davious White are in the mix for both jobs.