LSU: Rebuilding or Reloading?

LSU coach Nick Saban has some holes to fill for the defending SEC football champions.

Hoover, Ala.--Nick Saban, the third-year head coach of the defending SEC champion LSU Tigers, knows all too well how fickle college football fans can be.

Prior to reeling off six straight victories to close the 2001 season, Saban's team dropped a 35-24 decision to the Ole Miss Rebels on Oct. 27th in Tiger Stadium at Baton Rouge. That dropped Saban's Tigers to 4-3 for the season and 0-3 in the Southeastern Conference. It also brought out howls of protest from many Bayou Bengal fans.

"After the Ole Miss game, they would have run me out town on a rail as soon as look at me," Saban said at the opening session of the SEC Media Days. "In fact, it was so bad after that game. I had my two children in the back (of his car) and we were coming home. It was about midnight and my son has the radio talk shows on and they were hammering me. My little girl, who is 11 years old, was sitting in the backseat listening to that. When we pulled in the driveway, she said, ‘Daddy, are we going to have to move again?' So, it wasn't always a great year.

"What happened to our team is that we were picked real high last year. We didn't play well early with much consistency. We had a tough schedule playing the two Top 10 teams in the East (26-18 loss to Tennessee and 44-15 loss to Florida). But when everybody decided they wanted to take care of business and do their job and accepted their role on the team, we came together and improved and played some very good football in the last six games of the season against some pretty good teams--Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Tennessee and Illinois."

Nick Saban is in his third season as head coach at LSU.

Saban returns six starters on offense and six on defense from his 10-3 team. The group includes talented performers such as 6-2, 225 junior tailback LaBrandon Toefield, 6-4, 185 sophomore receiver Michael Clayton, 6-3, 238 senior linebacker Bradie James, 6-3, 270 junior defensive tackle Chad Lavalais and 5-11, 191 senior free safety Damien James. Toefield, who rushed for 992 yards and 19 TDs, was a first team All-SEC pick last year as was Bradie James, who made 113 tackles.

The LSU coach admits he has a lot of talent returning, but notes that there is a big question to be answered about how well his team will perform after losing their two stars from 2001--quarterback Rohan Davey and receiver Josh Reed.

"Offensively, I know everybody's question will be, ‘What about the quarterback position? How do you replace Rohan Davey. How are you going to replace Josh Reed?' I really don't think you can replace people like that. I think those guys were our team. They were a big part of the character and identity of our offensive team last year. We have other good players whether it be Toefield, Domanick Davis, Michael Clayton, (wide receiver) Jerel Myers and a little better offensive line with four guys coming back. As a team on offense, we should be able to play a little better with more consistency and have more weapons and maybe spread things out a little more.

"We were hopeful in the spring we would be able to develop the personality and identity that would nurture the leadership you need to be be a good football team on either side of the ball," notes Saban. "Because of some of the key components not being there--Toefield being out with a knee injury, Michael Clayton being out for most of the spring with a back injury--that didn't quite happen, but we made progress, I think. We are looking forward to fall camp so we can continue to try to develop this team chemistry on offense that will be very, very important."

Defensively, Saban says that the Tigers will miss star player and captain Trev Faulk's linebacker skills, but predicts that Bradie James is ready to take that role and calls him a "fantastic leader."

Saban adds, "We have two starters back at linebacker, we have three starters back in the secondary and two starters back up front (counting 6-6, 300 senior Kenderick Allen who is coming back from a knee injury) and we have some good young players that I think can even improve us as a defensive team. One of our biggest problems defensively has been giving up big plays. I think we need to make improvement in the secondary, which I was pleased with in the spring."

The LSU head coach says the kicking game should be solid with senior John Corbello back along with punter Donnie Jones. The sizzle on special teams is provided by Domanick Davis, a 5-10, 211 senior. The backup tailback led the SEC in punt return average at 13.8 yards last year and is second in school history in career kickoff return yards with 1,608. Jones, a left-footed punter, averaged 43.7 as a sophomore and Corbello hit 14-23 field goals, including three from 45 yards and out vs. Tennessee in LSU's 30-21 victory over Tennessee in their rematch in the SEC Championship Game.

Sophomore Matt Mauck, who filled in admirably at QB in the championship game when Davey was injured, is expected to handle the QB duties. He is 6-2, 216 and a good all-around athlete with a strong arm. Backup help at the position is a major concern with Marcus Randall, a sophomore, recovering from a spring game ACL injury. He may not be fully recovered to start the season when LSU travels to Blacksburg, Va., to play the Hokies of Virginia Tech in the season opener on Sept. 1.

Saban notes that Virginia Tech is the first national power that LSU has opened with in many years and the game is a rare road opener. (The last was a 33-17 loss at Texas A&M in 1995.) "Our fall camp is going to be really, really important to our preparation for the first game--especially with the fact that Virginia Tech has a game before we play."

Tiger Ticket Extra: Bradie James says that LSU can't afford to rest on its laurels from 2001. "You can't really reflect on what happened last year," he says. "What happened to us last year was a great confidence builder by winning the SEC championship. We talk about setting a foundation. We set the foundation, my class and the class last year by winning the Peach Bowl. We made another step by winning the SEC Championship and another step by winning the Sugar Bowl. Now we talk about climbing a mountain and it's more treacherous to be on top of the mountain because now we have gone from being the hunter to the hunted. We are circled on people's schedule now. We won't sneak up on anybody anymore. With that said, there is more pressure to go out and practice hard and do the intangibles to stay there."...Tailback Toefield, who has recovered from his ACL surgery, says, "We are probably going to be more of a run team as opposed to last year when we were more pass than run, but it is just going to be until Matt Mauck gets that confidence that he can lead us and play in the SEC. I think that he will eventually get that and be able to lead us. Matt is doing pretty good. Right now he is organizing a little 7-on-7 every now and then. A lot of guys now are starting to really listen to him and do all the things he says. As far as Rohan, when he talked everyone listened. That is the only thing Matt Mauck is missing. But he will get that."

LSU will travel to Auburn this year for an Oct. 26 contest. It will be a third straight SEC test for the Bayou Bengals, who will play at Florida on Oct. 12th and face South Carolina in Baton Rouge on the 19th...Saban says he has been pleased with the offseason preparations his team has had throughout the summer and says it could be because of a "sense of urgency" to get ready for a tough Virginia Tech team on opening day...Mauck, who is 23 years old, played three years of minor league pro baseball on farm teams for the Chicago Cubs. A catcher, who is from Jasper, Ind., he originally signed a football scholarship to play for Saban when the LSU coach was the head man at Michigan State...LSU's coordinators have Auburn ties. Defensive coordinator Will Muschamp was a graduate assistant at AI from 1995-97 and offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher coached Auburn's quarterbacks from 1993-98.

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