BATON ROUGE – The National Championship comes back to New Orleans in 2012, and if fate brings the Tigers to the Superdome then big strides must be made this spring.
With two new coaches, 15 returning starters and hopes of a run at the crystal ball, LSU will begin spring workouts on Friday with the first of 15 practices, a stretch that will end with the Spring Game on April 9, which will be televised by ESPN for the second year in a row.
What should you expect from the Bayou Bengals this offseason? Here is TigerSportsDigest.com’s preview of spring practice.
The Skinny: Les Miles said that Jordan Jefferson had a great coaching session and is in better shape than he’s ever been, meaning that if the season started tomorrow LSU would send No. 9 under center. But sporadic play over the past few seasons leaves the door open for the backups, namely Junior College transfer Zach Mettenberger.
Coach Speak: “I think the Jarrett Lee-Zach Mettenberger pair certainly is the competition. We’re going to give those guys the opportunity to do things that they do, and we’re going to ask Jordan Jefferson to do the things he does and make us better. I don’t know that we will be any two-quarterback system, but we are going to let those guys that might naturally throw, throw, and we are going to let those guys who might naturally have athletic ability and movement to do the things that they do.” – Miles
The Skinny: Spencer Ware carried the ball only 14 times during the regular season, but January’s Cotton Bowl brought the touches the freshman needed to make his mark on the position (he rushed for 102 yards on 10 carries, both season-highs). Rejoining the team for spring practice after spending the past month on Paul Mainieri’s baseball team, Ware has become the lead candidate to replace Stevan Ridley, who elected to forgo his senior year and enter the NFL Draft. The question now becomes who steps into the No. 2 spot: Alfred Blue, Michael Ford, Jakhari Gore or freshman Kenny Hilliard?
Coach Speak: “I think Spencer Ware certainly has advantages to us at the tailback spot. He’s had a great coaches’ session, and I enjoy the fact that he plays another sport. We’re dually excited about Spencer Ware.” - Miles
The Skinny: Rueben Randle and Russell Shepard are the two names locked into starting spots, though Shepard’s first two seasons in Baton Rouge left much to be desired of the five-star high school talent. If the passing game improves, the aforementioned are the two names that should benefit the most. Chris Tolliver is back healthy and will compete for a starting spot, though young names, from Kadron Boone to James Wright, had strong 7-on-7 workouts and look to jump into one of the open spots on the outside. Tight end Deangelo Peterson should also factor in heavy in the passing game as Miles plans to use the 6-foot-4, 243-pounder in four-wide sets.
Coach Speak: “Spring ball is when young guys step to the front for the first time in live drills, and they say to their team, ‘You can count on me.’ That’ll be an interesting piece there.” – Miles on the shakeout behind Randle and Shepard
The Skinny: Four starters from opening day last September are back to the lineup this spring: left guard Josh Dworaczyk, center P.J. Lonergan, right guard Will Blackwell and right tackle Alex Hurst. The heir apparent to Joseph Barksdale’s spot on the blindside is Chris Faulk, a 6-foot-6, 316-pounder out of Slidell, La. who nabbed a pair of starts at right tackle last fall. Senior T-Bob Hebert, who started at guard after Blackwell went down on the first series of the season, should also see action in the middle of the line.
Coach Speak: “I think Chris Faulk, Alex Hurst and that offensive line looks pretty capable and very ready to come to the spring. To me, they can be better, and I think they’re a veteran group, but I think that veteran group can give us some advantages.” – Miles
The Skinny: Sam Montgomery has made huge strides after a season-ending injury last fall, meaning he will participate towards the back-end of spring after initially being told he wouldn’t practice again until the fall. Add in KeKe Mingo and Ken Adams and there is speed to burn off the edges. The big question: who will step up at defensive tackle? Michael Brockers made his mark in a backup role last fall, but the majority of the crop remains unproven.
Coach Speak: “We graduate two guys inside, and it’ll be interesting to see how Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson, Jr., progress there.” – Miles on who to watch for at defensive tackle
The Skinny: Former linebacker Kelvin Sheppard became defensive coordinator John Chavis’ right-hand man, leaving the veteran SEC coach in search of a fresh face to lead his unit. Miles said that he would keep returning starter Ryan Baker at outside linebacker, meaning redshirt sophomore Kevin Minter and redshirt freshman D.J. Welter will battle for Sheppard’s spot in middle. Stefoin Francois returns as the starter opposite Baker, but Karnell Hatcher’s offseason move from safety to strongside linebacker could see a shuffle in the chain of command.
Coach Speak: “Hatcher may well be that guy. He gives you some quicks and some ability there that can be significant.” – Miles on which safety would make the best outside linebacker
The Skinny: Patrick Peterson is gone, but Miles doesn’t seem the least bit concerned about the secondary talent left in the cupboard. It begins with cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, who earned Freshman All-SEC honors after bursting onto the collegiate scene last September. With Mo Claiborne sidelined, Tharold Simon and Ron Brooks are the other top cornerbacks. Brandon Taylor also remains sidelined, meaning Eric Reid and Craig Loston will take over at the now Hatcher-less safety position.
Coach Speak: “Brandon Taylor may well make it back for spring. He came off a pretty significant foot injury, and his prognosis is very good. We’re not ready to rule him out of spring, but we are going to moderate his progress and let him come slowly.” - Miles
The Skinny: The Tigers have to replace their starting punter and kicker, and then fill the void left in the return game by Patrick Peterson. Drew Alleman steps into the kicker role, and he should split punter duties with Brad Wing. PP7’s replacement on punts and kickoffs is down to a handful of names, ranging from Rueben Randle to Tyrann Mathieu.
Coach Speak: “Thomas is a great addition to the staff. He comes to us with a wealth of knowledge and expertise in all phases of special teams. He’s coached in both the NFL and college so he has a tremendous understanding of the game.” – Miles on newly hired assistant Thomas McGaughey, who will replace former special teams coordinator Joe Robinson
Les Miles has hired a pair of coaches since the last time his team took the field, replacing offensive coordinator Gary Crowton with Steve Kragthorpe and special teams coordinator Joe Robinson with Thomas McGaughey.
Miles praised Kragthorpe, a former head coach at Louisville and Tulsa, for his ability to develop quarterbacks, a spot that has fallen under much scrutiny during Crowton’s time in Baton Rouge. McGaughey, who was announced on Thursday as the new special teams coordinator, joins the staff after spending the last four seasons in the NFL with the New York Giants.
Three Fresh Faces
The two coaches aren’t the only new names on hand. LSU picked up quarterback Zach Mettenberger, running back Kenny Hilliard and defensive tackle Anthony Johnson in their most recent signing class, and the three enrolled in January and have been working out with the team since the end of the bowl season. The rest of the 2011 signees won’t arrive on campus until June.
The Tigers head into spring practice minus three starters on defense: cornerback Morris Claiborne (ankle), safety Brandon Taylor (foot) and defensive end Sam Montgomery (knee). Miles said that all three could be back by the Spring Game on April 9.
The Hot Topics
1. The Reps at Quarterback: Jordan Jefferson’s 200-plus yard, two-touchdown performance in the Cotton Bowl ended the season on a rare high note, but the reality of 2010 was that Jefferson and Lee combined for just six regular season touchdowns. With a new offensive coordinator in town, there’s nowhere to go but up. And Steve Kragthorpe won’t be the only one pushing the pair. Zach Mettenberger, who spent 2009 at the University of Georgia and 2010 at Butler Community College in Kansas, joined the group in January and will compete for the starting job. In typical Miles-fashion no starter will be named until after fall workouts, which should bode well for the newcomer in his bid to buck the veterans out of a job.
2. Defensive Tackle Depth: The Tigers aren’t so much short on talent as they are experience, losing a pair of starters in Drake Nevis and Pep Levingston. Many have penciled in Mike Brockers as a starter because of his role as a reserve last fall, but watch for guys like redshirt freshman Ego Ferguson and early-enrollee Anthony Johnson to make a big splash this spring. Eyes will also be on names like Chris Davenport, a five-star signee in 2009 who has yet to find his groove on the college level.
Here are some of the other key races for starting spots to keep an eye on this spring.
Spencer Ware vs. The Field – Ware saw time at fullback and running back as a freshman last fall, leaving fans giddy after he ran wild against Texas A&M in Jerry World. But like Ware, Alfred Blue and Michael Ford found success in spurts, and game reps seem to be one of the only things holding the group back from making the transition to reliable SEC backs. Freshman Kenny Hilliard, who led Patterson to the Class 3A State Championship Game last fall, has enrolled early and will also be in the mix.
Wide Receiver No. 3 – Five-star Jarvis Landry heads into his freshman year with hopes of starting alongside Rueben Randle and Russell Shepard, but the Lutcher, La. native doesn’t arrive to campus until the summer. This spring, Chris Tolliver, Kadron Boone and James Wright will be the lead horses for the open slot, and word out of 7-on-7 and conditioning workouts was that Tolliver – who was injured for most of the 2010 season – has taken a step ahead of the pack.
Linebacker Auditions – Ryan Baker might be the only Tiger that has his spot locked up at linebacker, leaving the door open for a slew of younger names – Kevin Minter, D.J. Welter, Luke Muncie and Tahj Jones – to step into their first live action. Returning starters Karnell Hatcher and Stefoin Francois will fight for the starting spot on the strongside. The start of camp marks the first time since fall of 2009 that Hatcher will be healthy and participating fully in the team’s offseason workout.
Current Practice Dates
Week 1: March 11, 12
Week 2: March 15, 17, 19
Week 3: March 22, 24, 26
Week 4: March 29, 31, April 2
Week 5: April 5, 6, 7, 9
LSU Pro Day: March 14
LSU Coaches Clinic: March 31 – April 2
LSU Spring Game: April 9