Position battles shaking out

A look at five key position battles with spring practice in the rearview mirror.

There are a couple of things that are settled around LSU this spring.

For one, there's no discussion over the starting quarterback spot. Zach Mettenberger has that well in hand.

Minus left guard, the offensive line returns the same bodies that earned starts at the end of last season's run to a 13-0 regular season finish.

On the other side of the ball, Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo have the two defensive end spots locked up.

Bennie Logan returns to his spot at defensive tackle, and LSU coach Les Miles has already said Kevin Minter and Tahj Jones are planned starters at linebacker. The same goes for cornerbacks Tharold Simon and Tyrann Mathieu and safeties Eric Reid and Craig Loston.

As for the other 11 starters on each side of the ball, consider the spring the first round in an audition that will run through next fall.

"I think there is competition, and it's obvious," Miles said. "All jobs are based on competitive responsibility. You better be the best player."

Here is a look at how five of the team's position battles broke down during Saturday's spring game in Baton Rouge:

Cornerback:

Simon and Mathieu are among the most promising cornerbacks in the SEC, but thanks to Morris Claiborne's early exit for the NFL, the Tigers are inexperienced behind the front pair.

First-year defensive backs coach Corey Raymond and the staff worked with a clean slate when evaluating the talent that could step to the field, and the frontrunner appears to be Jalen Collins, who took a redshirt in his freshman season last fall.

"I think right now (Collins) would be our third corner," Miles said. "I think his abilities are going to be there."

While he's got time to get up to speed, Collins – lined up against the first-team receivers in Saturday's spring game - was repeatedly picked on, and beaten, in the first half, which Miles said was by design.

"We went after them a little bit," Miles said. "That's what we are supposed to do. We aren't going to be the only team to go after them in the fall.

"Their response was pretty strong, I thought, in the back end of the scrimmage, Jalen Collins really came to play.

"He will respond to being beaten. Every corner in America, even Patrick Peterson, has been beaten. I think he has had better scrimmages, but he needed to have this one. And better he miss our guys than someone else."

While wide receiver Odell Beckham delivered a couple blows that led to Collins' bad day, Beckham's first words after the scrimmage were praise for the team's soon-to-be third cornerback, which becomes all the more important given how often the Tigers go to nickel and dime packages.

"Jalen is very athletic," Beckham said. "He has speed, too. With that kind of frame and that body type, it makes him a good corner."

While Collins leads the way now, keep an eye on David Jenkins and Ronnie Vinson, the two other cornerbacks who took reps with the second-team this spring.

Safety:

Reid and Loston are the two safeties that Miles hopes he can keep on the field at all times.

But injuries have hit both players before, including Loston, who didn't participate in Saturday's spring game because of a foot injury.

That leaves the door open for Micah Eugene and Ronald Martin, a pair of 2011 signees who have been taking first- and second-team reps this spring.

"We have been on them really hard," Reid said. "We are going to need those guys this year. When we go to Mustang, one of them has to be on the field.

"Injuries can happen, too. That's how I got my chance when Brandon Taylor went down against Alabama my freshman year. So we are just trying to get them ready to play."

Martin earned playing time when Reid was injured against Ole Miss, while Eugene took a redshirt and will see his first action next fall.

That means Tiger fans don't know much about the progress each has made since joining the program last summer, though Reid, who said he has taken both safeties under his wing, knows their talents as well anyone.

"They know how to hit," Reid said. "They need to focus on studying and learning the plays. Once they do that, they can get on the field."

When the question of depth at safety was presented to Miles, he pointed to February's addition of prospects like safety Corey Thompson as potential candidates for playing time as a true freshman, meaning the puzzle might not be complete until the season gets underway.

"There are some (2012 signees) in the secondary that may get some opportunities this fall," Miles said.

Outside linebacker:

Without question, the loss of Ryan Baker – a veteran linebacker who knew defensive coordinator John Chavis' system as well as anyone on the defense – hurts the linebacker corps, which returns only Kevin Minter to the starting three spots.

Earlier this spring, Miles said Tahj Jones would be the starting strongside linebacker; meaning Karnell Hatcher's role from last fall was being handed over to Jones, a quicker linebacker who is entering his fourth year with the program.

Fellow junior Lamin Barrow has been taking reps with the first-team for most of the spring, and he appears to be the lead candidate for playing time at the position next fall.

But with Jones sidelined with an injury, it was Barrow's backup - Luke Muncie – that stepped into the spotlight on Saturday.

"I was originally going on the weak side to start the spring, but Tahj went down with injury and Coach Chavis asked me to step up and learn both positions," Muncie said. "I felt like I did pretty good coming out of scrimmage. I wanted to make some improvements in areas, and I am on my way to doing that.

"I feel like I am ready."

When Jones returns to full health, Muncie will go back to second-team reps, though the race for the field will be heated between Jones, Muncie and Barrow through fall camp in August.

"Lamin and I battle nonstop, every day," Muncie said. "I am going after Lamin and Tahj every day and trying to get the start at one of those linebacker spots."

For the trio of juniors, the competition doubles when the team welcomes 2012 linebacker signees Kwon Alexander, Lorenzo Phillips and Deion Jones to campus in June.

"We have some guys that might be ready for the field," Miles said. "And we have some depth at linebacker with (freshmen Ronnie Feist and Lamar Louis) in the spring. It gives them a great chance to understand defense and put themselves into a position to play next fall."

Wide receiver:

The most talked about question regarding wide receivers this spring has been who will replace Rueben Randle, who turned pro after his junior season and left the Tigers without a proven deep threat.

After Odell Beckham Jr. reeled in 115 yards and a touchdown on three catches on Saturday, including deep balls of 53 and 49 yards, the Tigers appear in good hands when Mettenberger wants to look down field.

"I felt like I had a pretty good (spring game)," Beckham said. "It was a good way to close up the month for me."

Added Miles: "(Beckham) has done that all spring. There is no magic there. He has the ability to run and has ball skills. We have a couple of deep threats there."

Russell Shepard reeled in arguably the best catch of the spring game, an 18-yard touchdown pass from Mettenberger when Jenkins blanketed Shepard. Then there was Jarvis Landry, who had arguably the strongest finish to the spring with 120 yards on six catches, making him Mettenberger's most popular target on Saturday.

"It's kind of like the running backs," Beckham said. "There are so many receivers and so many threats that, at any time, somebody can make a play."

Added Miles: "There are others. James Wright has really matured since his freshman year. He is much improved. He's strong … It's a key piece to any passing game."

While Randle worked as the No. 1 option last fall, Miles has yet to determine who the go-to receiver will be in 2012 – or if the Tigers will ever see a single name emerge from the bunch.

"We are going to need a number of guys to make plays in our receiving game," Miles said. "It won't just be one."

Offensive guard

This one is simple.

It's either sixth-year senior Josh Dworaczyk or sophomore La'el Collins. And, more than likely, both will get a good share of the reps at guard next fall.

"We have two really good options when Josh is healthy," Collins said. "That's always a good thing because it's hard to keep everyone on the line healthy."

Dworaczyk, who is coming off a season-ending knee injury in fall camp last August, was scheduled to be in a green no-contact jersey for the spring, but his rehab came along quick enough for Dworaczyk to start for the Purple team – which was made up mostly of the second-string.

Collins, who has taken reps with the first-team all spring, started at left guard for the White team.

"I just want to have the opportunity to bring both," Miles said. "La'el is a big, strong, young and very talented offensive lineman, and we wanted to get him all the reps we could.

"I think both will play next fall."


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