Standing in front of the largest media contingent he’ll face until December if his team gets to the SEC Championship Game or January for a bowl game, LSU coach Les Miles wound up and aired it out Tuesday afternoon.
The Tigers’ affable head coach delivered a very early-season state of the program, ticking off depth-chart names and numbers and then fielded questions about the seventh edition of his team – one that he has said repeatedly is as talented as any he has coached.
It was LSU Media Day and Miles was upbeat and in the mood to joke after five days of practice aimed at the season opener against Oregon in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 3.
--- Just when it seemed safe to assume sophomore Spencer Ware is the clear-cut starter at tailback, Miles wove in some intrigue when he said calling the race over was a bit premature. He rattled the backs of several backs off in quick fashion, starting with Ware but also mentioning Michael Ford, Alfred Blue, and even freshmen Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard.
“What happens at the beginning of camp is some guy can get a tape cut or a hamstring, and it slows him,” Miles said. “Suddenly in the back end of the camp he catches his speed and you recognize who he is. It is hard for me to predict at this point.
“I think we will start with Ware and see where we go from there. I think all of the guys that I’ve mentioned will give us a freshness and a specific talent that we need.”
--- Just like the running back spot, Miles not-so-subtly hinted that at least two talented freshmen pass-catchers could be in the hunt for playing time.
--- Losing Kelvin Sheppard from the middle of the LSU defense created a gaping void in a lot of ways, but as he as several times during the offseason, Miles was quick to anoint senior Ryan Baker as the leader.
“It’s his time to be a leader,” Miles said of Baker, who ranked second to Sheppard with 87 tackles in 12 games and paced the Tigers with seven sacks. “There’s a responsibility for the veteran leading backer to lead that group. I think that he has taken that upon his shoulders.”
Baker will have plenty of veteran company at linebacker, although the player most likely to stay on the field in LSU's 4-2-5 sets, Karnell Hatcher, is in his first season at middle linebacker after starting at safety last season.
“I think Baker and Hatcher are as athletic a twosome at linebacker that there is,” Miles said.
--- Sophomore Tyrann Mathieu was a popular topic Tuesday.
Makes sense because he may be the best ball hawk on LSU’s defense, but he may not start.
Mathieu spent most of last season as the fifth defensive back and finished with 57 tackles, 4½ sacks, five forced fumbles, three recovered fumbles and a pair of interceptions.
Except that Miles made it clear that the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Mathieu will be on the field in some fashion most of the time.
“The corner spot is one that he came in and (is) trained for,” Miles said. “He understands it. He was our starter in nickel, and played about two-thirds of every game just in the nickel spot. He gives us a suddenness and a playmaker in that position. Few offenses are ready for his quickness. I like him at both spots.
“He’s a very talented guy. He has quick feet. The thing that makes him special is that his mind operates with the ability to make big plays. He always thinks there is something else to do in the play that is in question. Those types of guys come up with turnovers, with picks and they knock it out and force turnovers. The plays that you just didn’t think you could make, he’s finding ways mentally to make them. That is the difference in him. The guys that we have had here that ran the 40 faster, I don’t know if there is a sudden player in college football than him. A guy who can put his foot in the ground, change direction and see the play that needs to be made.”
--- Miles talked about the well-documented offensive staff change, necessitated when Steve Kragthorpe was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
The connection between Miles and newly appointed offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa has started to come into clearer focus the last few days and it manifested itself even more Tuesday when Miles was asked what Studrawa’s niche might be.
“Stud’s niche is his efficiency and making sure the things we are running are practiced well and that we’ll have advantages,” Miles said. “His style is not necessarily the issue here. It’s more substance. Whether it was Kragthorpe or Studrawa, the key is to make us efficient. I think that is something that he will do.”
--- Kragthorpe’s switch to quarterbacks coach will be a key because of the relationship he’s developed with senior quarterback Jordan Jefferson.
Since last spring, it’s been evident that Jefferson – erratic in his first two full seasons as the Tigers’ starter – has grown more comfortable under Kragthorpe than he ever was under former offensive coordinator Gary Crowton.
“I think that he’s relaxing,” Miles said of Jefferson. “He’s enjoying the position that he has on this football team. He realized this is more his team. I saw him laugh and enjoy a play on the field differently than I’ve ever seen him before. That speaks to a guy who is comfortable in his skin and knows what the team expects of him. He’s enjoying being who he is in that role. I think he’s confident in where he is at and more relaxed. Nothing will happen on Saturdays that he hasn’t experienced before.”