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Regions Bank 2014 SEC Football Spring Preview: LSU

May 5, 2014
INDIANA SPORTS PAGE



Spring Game Recap
Spring Game Statistics
2014 Schedule
2014 Roster
2014 Signing Class

By Tony Barnhart
Mr. College Football

Les Miles, the head coach at LSU, looks at this week’s NFL Draft with equal parts of pride and melancholy.

There is pride when players under his direction realize their dreams of playing football at the highest level. But when they are talented enough to leave early there is the melancholy of what might have been in Baton Rouge had they chosen to stay.

Losing great players early to the draft is something to which Miles and the LSU faithful have grown accustomed. In January of 2013 a staggering 10 players (11 if you count defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, who did not play in 2012), gave up their remaining college eligibility to enter the NFL Draft.

This January that number was down to six, but the production that is walking out the door is unprecedented in LSU football history. In 2013 LSU became the first SEC team to produce a 3,000-yard passer (Zack Mettenberger), a 1,000-yard rusher (Jeremy Hill), and two 1,000-yard receivers (Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis Landry).

Mettenberger (3,082 yards passing) was the only senior in that group. A year ago LSU had 5,893 yards of total offense. Players who accounted for 4,483 of those yards were no longer present when the Tigers began spring practice back in March. Throw in talented defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson and senior linebacker Lamin Barrow and it’s clear that LSU has some major holes to fill if it wants to win 10 games for the fifth consecutive year.

But the consensus around the SEC is that if any program can reload after huge losses of talent it is LSU as Miles is set to begin his 10th season in Baton Rouge. If you doubt it, just check the record of consistency since Miles arrived from Oklahoma State:

“We’ve won six of nine bowl games and beaten 37 teams ranked in the top 25,” said Miles. “We have 14 straight years of eight or more wins (dating back to the Nick Saban era). We’ve won 31 of our last 32 games in Tiger Stadium.”

LSU’s historic venue, by the way, is undergoing yet another expansion that will put capacity beyond the 100,000 mark. It should be ready to go for the home opener with Sam Houston State on Sept. 6.

“You thought it was loud before,” said Miles. You could feel his smile over the phone.

Okay. Enough about who won’t be back at LSU in 2014. The question is whether or not LSU has enough talent on hand to challenge in the SEC West.

I don’t think we can say until LSU settles on a quarterback. Last November it looked like freshman Anthony Jennings had a lock on the job. The native of Marietta, Ga., came off the bench for an injured Mettenberger and led a 99-yard drive to beat Arkansas 31-27 on Nov. 29. Jennings capped the drive with a 49-yard touchdown pass Travin Dural with 1:15 remaining.

LSU fans thought this was a sign that the quarterback position was set for the foreseeable future. But then Jennings struggled in the Outback Bowl against Iowa, completing only 7 of 19 passes for 82 yards. It was Jennings’ first real test against a quality defense as Iowa ranked No. 6 nationally.

Enter freshman Brandon Harris who enrolled last January and made his presence felt in spring practice. In the spring game Harris completed 11 of 28 passes for 195 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for 77 yards and another score.

Jennings struggled, throwing a couple of interceptions that turned into touchdowns.

Speaking on the SEC Coaches teleconference last week, Miles said no decision has been made at quarterback.

“Our quarterback position will be (about) competition,” Miles said. “Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris both had marked improvement in the spring, but neither one played well enough to be the starter. Both have the ability to be very, very quality quarterbacks in this conference, and both are doing everything they can to improve and show leadership.”

Harris is going to spend the month of May in California working with noted quarterback guru George Whitfield, Jr. and former LSU quarterback Craig Nall.

If LSU can get the quarterback position solidified, it appears that a lot of reinforcements are on the way with a recruiting class that some say is the best Miles has signed in his decade in Baton Rouge.

“We’ve played 15 freshmen in each of the last two seasons and we expect that number will continue with a very quality group coming in,” said Miles.

The group is led by New Orleans running back Leonard Fournette, the consensus No. 1 recruit in America. Fournette has been billed as the best running back prospect to enter college football since Adrian Peterson enrolled at Oklahoma in 2004. There will be an immediate opportunity to play as Terrence Magee (644 yards in 2013) and Kenny Hilliard (319 yards) were the only scholarship backs that took part in spring practice.

Malachi Dupre, also of New Orleans, was rated by 247Sports as the No. 2 wide receiver prospect in the country.

Four out of five starters return on the offensive line, where veteran coach Jeff Grimes arrives with a proven track record for developing the big guys up front. He was the offensive line/running game coach on Auburn’s 2010 BCS national championship team. He spent last season at Virginia Tech.

The LSU defense returned only three starters last season but still finished third in the SEC and 15th nationally in total defense.  There seems to be ample talent on hand to replace Johnson and Ferguson inside with veterans like Christian LaCouture and talented redshirt freshmen like Greg Gilmore and Marquedius Bain.

If there was anything to quibble about on the LSU defense last season it was the Tigers’ inability to get a consistent rush on the quarterback. LSU ended the season with just 27 sacks last season after posting 35 in 2012.

That shouldn’t be a problem in 2014. Junior Danielle Hunter was unblockable during spring practice. Sophomore Tashawn Bower got a lot of reps at the other end spot with Jermauria Rasco, a projected All-SEC player, sitting out the spring after surgery (shoulder). Bower, from Somerville, N.J. played in six games as a true freshman in 2013.

“The defense is a very talented group,” Miles said. “These might be the two best defensive ends we’ve had in a while.”

Last season’s 10-3 record could have been so different. Georgia scored with 1:47 left to beat the Tigers 44-41 in Athens. Ole Miss kicked a 41-yard field goal with two seconds left to beat LSU 27-24 in Oxford. LSU and Alabama were tied 17-17 in the third quarter in Tuscaloosa and then the Crimson Tide dominated the rest of the way to win 38-17.

With all of the new players, is it possible that LSU can find a way to win those close ones this season and challenge Alabama and Auburn for the SEC West championship?

It won’t take long to find out. The Tigers open with Wisconsin of the Big Ten on Aug. 30 in Houston. There are SEC road trips to Auburn, Florida, Arkansas and Texas A&M. Alabama comes to Baton Rouge on Nov. 8.

On deck: Ole Miss.


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