Football season – or at least the very early stages of it – is here for LSU. And with a season of top-shelf potential that is shrouded in mystery just getting revved up for the Tigers, it’s time to look at some of the players and themes that will take center stage in Baton Rouge in 2015.
1. The elephant in the huddle
Unless you have been in a deep slumber since Zach Mettenberger limped off the field on the Friday after Thanksgiving in 2013 with a season-ending knee injury against Arkansas, you are pretty aware that LSU’s big, throbbing sore thumb is the quarterback position.
Sophomore Brandon Harris and junior Anthony Jennings are still jockeying for the starting job after spending all of last season with the job seemingly up for grabs for 13 games. The dichotomy between the two makes the battle deliciously intriguing: Harris flashes superior physical tools with his rocket-like arm and long-legged strides when he runs, while Jennings has proven to be the better manager of an offense that Les Miles has never put in total control of winning games because of LSU’s tradition for stout defense and game-changing special teams.
That said, with Cam Cameron as the offensive coordinator, Miles has shown he doesn’t mind letting his hair down: Just two seasons ago, Mettenberger topped 3,000 passing yards, Jeremy Hill rushed for 1,401 yards and now-NFL receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry each eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards.
The Tigers aren’t anywhere close to that equation right now, but getting one of the two QBs to at least establish a baseline of consistency and moderate production.
2. Who wants to play catch?
Travin Dural is the alpha dog in the receiving corps – that’s as clear-cut as anything else for the Tigers, except perhaps how head-and-shoulders above every running back Leonard Fournette seems to be. After Dural, though, and assuming SEC defenses will concoct schemes to neutralize him to a degree, LSU needs two or three other receivers to exhibit some reliability to give the quarterback(s) the best opportunity possible to blossom.
The pecking order of candidates isn’t short on talent or experience now. Third-year sophomore John Diarse and second-year players Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn all had memorable moments in 2014, but all three also disappeared at times. Those three will be factors and greasy-fast freshman Tyron Johnson is poised to be an immediate impact player as well.
Much like the QBs, the battle for snaps at receiver could be an ongoing and fascinating process.
3. One spot to fill, some depth to develop
Kendell Beckwith and Lamar Louis are two of the more veteran and talented players in the SEC at middle and Sam linebacker, respectively. That’s the really good news for the Tigers and first-year defensive coordinator Kevin Steele because it gives the heart of the defense two sturdy building blocks.
For that middle to stand up, though, Steele has to find at least one more backer to grab the Will spot and perhaps a second if, as rumblings continue to indicate, LSU operates at times from a 3-4 look. Veterans Deion Jones and Duke Riley are prime candidates for snaps because they have been around as long as anybody and have chimed in with major plays on special teams.
There are some other veterans who could emerge (Donnie Alexander, Ronnie Feist), but the direction the battle will likely head is with Steele looking for more hybrid-type players to man the outside spot or spots available. Keep an eye on converted safety Devin Voorhies, veteran safety Corey Thompson who is back from a knee injury and disruptive freshman defensive end Arden Key to get some looks. Those are three very different players who could all play roles against different styles of offense – much like a basketball coach goes with lineups to match up with how his team needs to defend.
4. Who and where are intertwined
LSU’s secondary is as talented a position group as there is on the roster, so finding starters isn’t the issue at all. Establishing who plays where and getting as many of those talented hands on the field as much as possible is the real challenge. Jamal Adams, Tre’Davious White and Jalen Mills are as good as anybody in the SEC at their positions, and they have plenty of talented company.
Thompson and Rickey Jefferson are poised to be stars at safety and may not even start. The cornerback spot includes potential future pros in Ed Paris, Kevin Toliver, Donte Jackson and Dwayne Thomas – another player returning from a season-ending knee ailment in 2014. With the uncertainty at linebacker, Steele and his staff has some flexibility to use a 4-2-5 formation if the situation is right or even a dime package regularly because of the blend of speed, versatility and physicality among the DBs.
LSU will face plenty of spread/read-option teams when those elements could be put to use, but there are also games with Arkansas and potentially Alabama when grinding it out will require the secondary dudes to play bigger.
5. Not the spot you usually want competitive
Usually a coach in charge of team with any kind of championship aspirations can chalk up a spot like kicker quickly and easily and move on to other concerns. The Tigers loom as a dark-horse contender for the SEC crown and championship semifinals because of the bevy of skill-position players all over the field.
At some point, though a game or two is likely to come down to the leg of a kicker, whether it’s a late or lengthy field goal or simply executing a kickoff that pins the opponent back. LSU struggled in both those areas in spots in 2014, with Colby Delahoussaye missing three field goals from 30 yards in and Trent Domingue’s kickoff out of bounds late in a nailbiter against Alabama setting the Crimson Tide up for a late game-tying kick.
Strong-legged Cameron Gamble is also in the mix, and all three kickers will battle the rest of pre-season campo for the different duties.