With LSU on the verge of starting year seven under coach Les Miles, here are some themes to keep in mind with exactly a month before the Tigers kick off a promising campaign against Oregon.
1. New leader(s), same offense?
OK, we know at least one major figure has changed with LSU's offense heading into the 2011 season with the arrival of Steve Kragthorpe as offensive coordinator. And the quarterback spot is stable, if not spectacular, with seniors Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee back for their swan songs. Kragthorpe's offenses in the past have tilted toward passing the ball more, but don't forget that the offense is still the same scheme Les Miles has relied on for the first 10 years of his head-coaching career, so there figures to be plenty of between-the-tackle power-running football. Will Kragthorpe have more freedom to expand the play-calling, especially if he improves the QB play as much as Miles is counting on him to?
2. Who's at the front of the tailback line?
For the first time since 2006, there doesn't seem to be a clear-cut No. 1 ball carrier in the Tigers backfield with the early departure of Stevan Ridley to the NFL Draft. There are plenty of candidates, led by Spencer Ware and Michael Ford, but nobody right now to cause opposing defensive coordinators much lost sleep. With Miles' affinity for running the ball, and particularly for identifying a go-to hoss in short-yardage and grind-it-out situations, there won't be a shortage of willing candidates to fill Ridley's shoes, but how effective they are – even if it winds up being by committee – may determine whether LSU is as balanced as Miles wants to be or the offense leans more toward the passing game, a la 2006 when JaMarcus Russell piled up 3,129 yards and 28 TD passes.
3. Four big holes, young feet to fill 'em
There's no sugarcoating how tough it will be for Tigers defensive coordinator John Chavis to find new faces to take over for Patrick Peterson, Kelvin Sheppard, Drake Nevis and Pep Levingston. But Chavis, Brick Haley and Ron Cooper won't have to scramble much to find talented and hungry players to take a stab at filling those shoes. Up front on the interior, four returnees (Michael Brockers, Bennie Logan, Chris Davenport, Josh Downs) will be either sophomores or a junior and incoming freshman Anthony Johnson is pegged as an immediate-impact player. A bevy of young linebackers, along with converted safety Karnell Haycher, are licking their chops to step in for Sheppard and push Ryan Baker and Stefoin Francois for playing time, and the secondary is already ripe with players barely old enough to shave who have already played well on the big stage – Tyrann Mathieu, Tharold Simon and Eric Reid. While there is definitely work to do on defense, the foundation established in 2010 gives the Tigers the capability to reload quickly. Two huge keys are how quickly and effectively defensive end Sam Montgomery and safety Brandton Taylor bounce back from season-ending injuries suffered last season.
4. Getting their kicks
As vital as finding replacements at key positions will be on offense and defense, no area has more question marks than special teams. New special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey has to find a new kicker, punter, punt returner and kickoff returner after the LSU kicking teams were as good as anybody in the SEC a year ago. Miles never takes special teams for granted, so the next wave of kickers – Drew Alleman and Brad Wing – and return men – Mathieu, Rueben Randle, Ron Brooks, Mo Claiborne – will have to work to earn spots that loom so large. National championship aspirations could hinge greatly on if that crew can come anywhere close to what the Tigers accomplished in the kicking games in 2010.
5. An LSU man
When Miles turned Michigan away at the door for the second time in four seasons in January, he planted his feet firmly as the LSU coach for the long haul. Now that he's emotionally proclaimed "I'm an LSU Tiger and look forward to being an LSU Tiger for quite some time," how will the fan base embrace him? If there are some stumbles in 2011, a season which launches in a month with national championship expectations, are the fans more forgiving since he's reaffirmed his commitment to them? Or will one clock-management snafu bring the anti-Miles faction off the fence and out of the woodwork? Bottom line: Miles might always be a Michigan man, but by staying put in Baton Rouge and restructuring his contract for another seven years, he is also very much an LSU man.
6. Distractions, distractions
With one NCAA investigation out of the way, the Tigers still have to contend with whatever might happen with alleged street agent Will Lyles and his connection to the program. LSU has been proactive since an NCAA team visited campus this summer and offered up whatever the governing body asked for. But nothing has been resolved yet. As if that wasn't enough, junior receiver Russell Shepard is dealing with some compliance issues related to off-campus housing, although he is expected to practice with the team starting Thursday. The NCAA is not involved right now, but if that changes, things could get awfully uncomfortable for Shepard and LSU. Miles has persistently said the matter with Shepard won't amount to much, but it's a situation that bears watching until and unless it fizzles out.
SIX-PACK: Some preseason themes to ponder
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