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May 8, 2014

Spring Wrap-up: LSU returns experience on defense



Editor's note: This is the seventh installment of a 14-part in-depth look at spring practices from throughout the Southeastern Conference from the SEC writers of the Rivals.com network. Up today are the LSU Tigers.

BATON ROUGE, La. | There is no doubt which side of the football drew the most attention of the LSU coaching staff during spring practice.

Let's go through the check list.

Zach Mettenberger, a 3,000-yard passer, completed his eligibility.

Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, two 1,000-yard receivers, elected to give up their final season to go to the NFL.

Jeremy Hill, a 1,000-yard rusher, decided to bypass his last two years at LSU for the NFL.

So, the Tigers must replace those four playmakers who together put up numbers never before done in the history of Tigers football.

The task of finding replacements for those four individuals began in spring practice. Nothing was determined as true freshmen will enter the picture at both wide receiver and running back. Those players will not be on LSU's campus until June.

At least, true freshman quarterback Brandon Harris was an early-enrollee. So, the competition between Harris and sophomore Anthony Jennings commenced during spring drills. Harris was the star of the spring game, but Jennings was the better quarterback in the two spring scrimmages.

Tigers coach Les Miles stressed that neither quarterback performed well enough during spring practice to be named the starter.

How quickly the players develop at the offensive skill positions will determine the rate of success for LSU in the 2014 season. The defense, which had to deal with major losses to the NFL a season ago, will be improved. Obviously, nothing less than being a Southeastern Conference title contender is acceptable.

FIVE QUESTIONS ABOUT LSU

SEC SPRING WRAP-UPS
LSU TIGERS
MISSOURI TIGERS
MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS
OLE MISS REBELS
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS
TEXAS A&M AGGIESS
VANDERBILT COMMODORES
Who will be the starting quarterback?

Following the Tigers' Outback Bowl victory against Iowa, there were five scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. Only Jennings had any appreciable playing time. His amount was a grand total of five quarters - one against Arkansas in the regular-season and finale and four against Iowa in the bowl game.

In reality, there are now just two candidates for the job - Jennings and Harris. Stephen Rivers will transfer to another school after graduating at the end of the semester. Rob Bolden moved to wide receiver in spring practice. Hayden Rettig finished spring as the No. 3 quarterback.

Jennings has the edge in experience over Harris. However, Jennings performed poorly in the bowl game and the spring game. He had two interceptions returned for touchdowns in the spring game. Jennings has good mobility, but his passing must improve.

Harris certainly has a stronger arm than Jennings. But, he must undergo the growing pains of a rookie quarterback in the SEC. Harris made some big plays in the spring game. However, he also made mistakes typical of a freshman.

The competition between the two quarterbacks will definitely continue through preseason practice in August. Both quarterbacks will probably be used during the season. Offensive coordinator/quarterback coach Cam Cameron must develop both quarterbacks as well as figure out the proper rotation.

Who will be in the rotation at running back and wide receiver?

Spring practice showed that LSU has just three players on the roster who are ready to contribute in the SEC - senior tailbacks Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard and sophomore wide receiver Travin Dural. Therefore, incoming freshmen must be quick learners at these two positions.

The Tigers signed Leonard Fournette, the top running back in the nation. Fans expect Fournette to be the go-to back starting with the season opener against Wisconsin. The good thing for the Tigers is there is no need for Fournette to be the No. 1 guy immediately due to the presence of Magee and Hilliard.

However, the wide receiver situation is different. Since Dural is the lone proven commodity at the position, freshmen must be prepared to be a factor in game one. The Tigers signed four wide receivers - Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, D.J. Chalk and Tony Upchurch.

Dupre and Quinn are ranked among the top ten wide receivers in the country. But, high ratings do not automatically translate into immediate production. The Tigers cannot afford to have a long period of adjustment for these incoming receivers.

What will be the effect of new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes?

Greg Studrawa, the offensive line coach for seven years, was fired by Miles after last season. That position was an area of the team in which player development was not up to par. LSU has not produced a full-time NFL offensive line starter since Andrew Whitworth, whose last season was 2005.

Grimes, who was the offensive line coach at Virginia Tech in 2013 after serving in the same role under Gene Chizik at Auburn, is Studrawa's replacement. There was an obvious change in the priority for the offensive linemen during spring practice.

Technique was the focus of Grimes' coaching. Under Studrawa, emphasis was placed on knowing whom to block in the many schemes. Grimes is inheriting a veteran offensive line with four returning starters - left tackle La'El Collins, left guard Vadal Alexander, center Elliott Porter and right tackle Jerald Hawkins.

All of the linemen said that they benefited from the technique work during spring practice. Older offensive linemen get bored when a lot of time is spent on blocking schemes. Grimes was running drills in spring practice which will make each lineman better individually.

How much better will the LSU defense be?

Defensive coordinator John Chavis will at last have experienced players at just about every position this season. In 2013, LSU had only three returning starters on defense - linebacker Lamin Barrow, cornerback Jalen Mills and safety Craig Loston.

When the 2014 season rolls around, the Tigers have seven returning starters. In addition, there are another three or four players who were part of the playing rotation at their position a year ago. The only spot where there is no returning starter on defense is tackle.

Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson, the two starters at tackle last season, gave up their final year to enter the NFL draft. Sophomore Christian LaCouture and junior Quentin Thomas ended spring as the starters. Both LaCouture and Thomas had limited meaningful snaps in 2013.

Both starting defensive ends - senior Jermauria Rasco and junior Danielle Hunter - are back. Hunter has the makings of being the next all-star defensive lineman. The back seven in the defense should be a strong point, particularly the secondary.

Mills, a junior, has been shifted to safety due to the presence of sophomore cornerbacks Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson. White started all but two games as a true freshman, while Robinson moved into the lineup in the nickel and dime packages at midseason.

Mills will be joined at safety by senior Ronald Martin and junior Corey Thompson, both of whom started at least five games last year. Freshman Jamal Adams could see immediate playing time at safety. Senior D.J. Welter and junior Kwon Alexander are returning starters at linebacker.

Can LSU be a SEC title contender in 2014?

It has been three years since LSU had its unbeaten run to the SEC title. The Tigers won 13 straight games - all by double digits except for their overtime victory at Alabama. Unfortunately, LSU had to knock off the Crimson Tide a second time to be national champions. The Tigers were no match in a 21-0 loss.

During the past two years, LSU has been a very good team - not a championship team. In 2012, the Tigers lost a late lead to Alabama which cost them the Western Division title. LSU's season closed with a last-play defeat against Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

A season ago, an upset loss at Ole Miss basically eliminated the Tigers from the SEC West race before the end of October even though they had easily handled eventual league champion Auburn. LSU has posted back-to-back ten-win seasons, but the bar has been set much higher.

It will be difficult for LSU to win a division crown this year because of the youth on the offensive side of the football. A nine-win regular season may represent the high water mark for the Tigers, who may be a year away from being a SEC title contender.


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