SU Tigers: Team Overview
by Jess Nicholas
August 21, 2009
Perhaps no team fell short of expectations to the extent LSU did in 2008. Most expected the stacked Tigers to repeat as, at least, SEC West champions, but poor quarterback play and a bad coaching decision on defense prior to the start of the season – the installation of Bradley Dale Peveto and Doug Mallory as co-defensive coordinators – doomed the Tigers to a 7-5 regular-season finish, including blowout losses to Florida, Georgia and Ole Miss. While LSU took a substantial hit to the roster at graduation time, the Tigers still return one of the league’s most talented rosters, and new defensive coordinator John Chavis should be an upgrade over last year’s experiment. Better quarterback play will be the key.
Returning Offensive Starters: 7 (FL, TE, LT, RG, RT, QB, RB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 5 (LDT, RLB, RCB, LCB, FS)
Returning Specialists: 0
Projected Overall Record: 11-1 (UF)
Projected SEC Record: 6-1 (UF)
Projected SEC West Record: 5-0
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Fr Defensive Line: Av
Running Backs: Ex Linebackers: Av
Wide Receivers: Vg Defensive Backs: Vg
Offensive Line: Vg Special Teams: Fr
Offensive coordinator Gary Crowton likes to throw the ball – somewhat too often, some would say, pointing to the rash of interceptions thrown by Tiger quarterbacks in 2008 – but he also knows how to craft a solid running game. LSU operates from an I-formation base most of the time, but is multiple in its fronts and in its philosophy. Crowton has also added elements of the spread-option in recent years, and the Tigers are among the best in the conference at taking advantage of their most skilled players.
LSU has a unique situation at quarterback, where the returning starter, Jarrett Lee, isn’t considered the favorite for the job. Jordan Jefferson came in late in 2008 and showed more potential – and especially, fewer propensities to make killer mistakes – than Lee, who has a big arm but was weak in reading SEC defenses. The two players are very different from one another; Lee has average mobility but a big arm. Jefferson’s arm is decent, but he’s more mobile and showed more cool under pressure.
Beyond those two, the only players on the roster are true freshman, led by super-recruit Russell Shepard. Chris Garrett and Barrett Bailey round out the list. Lee would figure to be better with a year under his belt, but it appears as if Jefferson is the heir apparent to the job. LSU’s entire season pretty much depends on Jefferson’s ability to keep his head above water and not do what Lee did last year – through more than a half-dozen balls into opponents’ hands and watch them run the ball back for touchdowns.
LSU has the best 1-2 punch in the conference this year in Charles Scott and Keiland Williams. Scott will start, which means LSU is the only team in the conference this year that Williams couldn’t be the starter. Third-teamer Richard Murphy would start at a lot of SEC schools, and if that wasn’t enough, LSU also added Michael Ford and Drayton Calhoun in recruiting. And oh-by-the-way, Trindon Holliday is still around as a scatback when LSU needs a blast of speed at the position.
The only potential problem is at fullback, where converted offensive guard Richard Dugas led James Stampley and August Mangin coming out of spring practice. Dugas is likely to have a role as a short-yardage blocker, but he won’t be anywhere close to the effectiveness of last year’s starter, Quinn Johnson. True freshman Dominque Allen figures to get every chance to win this job.
Brandon LaFell was once known as one of the most unreliable, albeit talented receivers in the conference. Now, he’s the elder statesman of a group that is expected to be among the SEC’s best. LaFell caught 63 balls for 929 yards (14.7 avg.) and 8 touchdowns in 2008 after finally seeming to cure the problem of the dropsies that had plagued the first two years of his career.
Terrance Toliver and Chris Mitchell form the next line, with Toliver expected to be the breakout player. Redshirt freshman Chris Tolliver and true freshman Reuben Randle are also in the mix, and all have got talent to spare. Richard Dickson returns at tight end, where he caught 31 passes last year and was also effective as a blocker. Mitch Joseph and Tyler Edwards add depth to the position.
While LaFell, Dickson and Toliver are really the only ones with a lot of big-game experience, this group as a whole is among the most athletic in the conference, up there with Florida and with Alabama’s emerging group. LaFell’s presence pushes LSU over most.
The SEC was awash in great offensive tackles in 2008. In 2009, there is but one: LSU’s Ciron Black. Black is the only bona fide franchise left tackle in the conference this year, and he’ll need to play like it for LSU to be solid on offense in 2009. Joining him are veteran right guard Lyle Hitt and right tackle Joe Barksdale, but the center and left guard starters are new.
T-Bob Hebert led the center job heading into fall camp, and Josh Dworaczyk was slated to start at left guard. But an injury to Hebert has brought Patrick Lonergan into the discussion at center. LSU’s biggest issue is that there isn’t an upperclassman anywhere on the depth chart once you get beyond the starting five.
This is a young offensive line overall and avoiding injury will be key. In fact, LSU has only two reserve tackles, Greg Shaw and Alex Hurst. The rest are dual-role players who are yet to find a position.
The arrival of John Chavis from Tennessee figures to be an overnight improvement to LSU’s defensive schemes. The Peveto/Mallory combination last year never got comfortable and the lack of instinctive playcalling was evident against top offenses. Chavis isn’t really an innovator, but he knows how to identify talent and he knows where the bread is buttered in the SEC: stop the run, pressure the quarterback, minimize big plays. LSU will operate from a pure 4-3 after dabbling in the 3-4, 3-3-5 and multiple fronts in previous years. Expect Chavis to make stars out of middle linebackers and free safeties.
Tackle Charles Alexander is back, but the rest of the group is new. Experienced former reserves Al Woods and Drake Nevis battled for the other tackle slot opposite Alexander, and the battle will continue through fall camp. At end, Rahim Alem will start on one side. Alem has few peers as a pass rusher, but his contributions in the past have been made in a part-time role and this is his first foray into playing every down.
The other end position appears to be filled by journeyman Pep Levingston, although signee Sam Montgomery and redshirts Chase Clement and Chancey Aghayere could push him for the job. In the spring, depth at tackle was pretty slim, with Lavar Edwards really the only player of note getting any time. But JUCO transfer Akiem Hicks and signee Chris Davenport have arrived to give depth a booster shot. It may take awhile for this group to grow into a cohesive unit, but rest assured the talent is there.
Chavis’ biggest challenge will be to improve a linebacker unit that was just plain bad at times in 2008 despite having a ton of talent to work with. Perry Riley returns to start on the weakside and longtime sub Jacob Cutrera looks to be the heir apparent in the middle. Both are seniors, but both are vulnerable. The starting strongside backer will either be Kelvin Sheppard, a junior who needs to shed the Tarzan looks/Jane-playing stereotype, or converted safety Harry Coleman, who is a bit small for a SEC linebacker but, honestly, didn’t have the flexibility to stay in the secondary.
Sophomore Ryan Baker will challenge Riley, while a host of players will be gunning for Cutrera, including signee Kevin Minter, Ace Foyil and Kyle Prater. True freshman Bar’Kevious Mingo will add to the depth at outside linebacker. Getting off to a good start is of paramount importance for this group in order to build confidence, but the real issue is whether Cutrera can handle the starting middle linebacker job, as LSU has no real second option in the event he struggles.
This group is considered at or near the top of SEC secondaries, but it could be even better than that in the long run. The cornerback trio of Chris Hawkins, Patrick Peterson and Jai Eugene has no equal in the SEC, and Peterson has the look of a future 12-year NFL player. Free safety is led by Chad Jones, who will get some help off the bench from Danny McCray in some situations.
The only real question mark is strong safety, where Ron Brooks and Karnell Hatcher battled for the job in the spring. Again, recruiting has been kind to the LSU defensive coaches, as Craig Loston, Josh Johns and Stefoin Francois are among the players competing for time. If Brooks or Hatcher can step up at strong safety, few teams will beat LSU through the air.
Colt David is gone, leaving the placekicking job to Josh Jasper, who went 5-for-5 on extra points and 2-for-2 on field goals last year in limited action. He was also the team’s kickoff man and should again fill that role. The punter figures to be either JUCO transfer Derek Helton or true freshman D.J. Howard.
Drew Alleman is an option in either role, and Jasper can punt as well as kick. Trindon Holliday handles returns. He is feared in either role, but for some reason LSU failed to make kickoff returns a feared part of its repertoire last year, finishing 99th nationally in those efforts. Punt returns fared much better (19th). Given that the offense may struggle early while the quarterback situation shakes out, the kickers had better do their jobs.