Three games and three wins in, LSU football is already at the quarter pole of the 2012 season.
Attrition has been a major theme so far, but so too has the inspiring play of many of the young guns asked to step into new roles.
Then of course there's the usually solid run game, the sticky defense and sometimes spectacular special teams play.
It's time to discuss it all, taking stock of where the Tigers are one quarter of the way through this fall's slate.
Note, as we go position-by-position, where there is turnover (whether via injury, academic ineligibility, dismissal) in the starting lineup from where things stood at the beginning of August.
Starter entering Fall Camp: Zach Mettenberger
Starter through three weeks: Zach Mettenberger
As Les Miles said this week on the SEC Teleconference, Mettenberger has done what the coaches have asked him to do. And what he's done best is complete passes – doing so at nearly a 73% clip. The thing is though, and Mett is acutely aware of this, the coaches haven't asked him to do all that much yet. He's only attempting 22 passes a game, and LSU, by design of course, has preferred to lean on the run game. The Tigers currently rank first in the SEC in rushing (269.3 ypg) and third-to-last in the conference throwing it (203.0 ypg).
This will inevitably change, at least to a certain extent, in SEC play as better defenses will force LSU to be more multi-dimensional. When Mettenberger is relied on more, he'll have to cut down on the red-zone interceptions (two already this season) and try to avoid some of the sacks taken (five). His backup, Stephen Rivers, has seen a decent amount of action, mostly mop-up, through three games, throwing only one pass. Emergency QB Rob Bolden is yet to see the field
Moving forward: It's all about staying efficient for Mettenberger – cutting down on red-zone picks, throwing for bigger chunks of yardage, not taking sacks. This last part, and the communication that goes with it, will be paramount with an offensive line currently in the midst of some musical chairs.
Starters entering Fall Camp: Alfred Blue at HB; J.C. Copeland at FB
Starters through three weeks: Kenny Hilliard at HB; J.C. Copeland at FB
Boy, this is a group that's undergone a good bit since the beginning of August. Good thing there's depth for days. Terrence Magee moved to wide receiver. Spencer Ware experienced a hip injury in Fall Camp and has been a ghost on the field for two of LSU's three games while the coaches allow him to recover. Starter Alfred Blue, who had a great start to the campaign, is now dealing with a knee injury and is likely to miss at least two-to-three weeks.
The most reliable back through it all: Kenny Hilliard. The bruising sophomore from Patterson takes over the reins as starter this Saturday against Auburn. He's down from 240 pounds to 225, and the slimmer Hilliard is adding some elusiveness to his game. Scary thought. Jeremy Hill also had his first action against Idaho, scoring two touchdowns. Perhaps the biggest saving grace for all these backs is lining up behind J.C. Copeland. The converted defensive tackle is rounding into one of the best fullbacks in America.
Moving forward: Health and availability are the biggest concerns. Frank Wilson has done a good job so far giving these guys rest (see: Spencer Ware) to avoid more serious, long-term injuries. Hopefully, for LSU's sake, that will lead to the full complement of backs being available as the season winds down.
Starters entering Fall Camp: Odell Beckham at Z; James Wright at X; Jarvis Landry as 3WR
Starters through three weeks: Odell Beckham at Z; James Wright at X; Jarvis Landry as 3WR
No shake-up at all in the starting lineup at receiver. Sophomores Beckham (9 catches, 143 yards) and Landry (14 catches, 137 yards, 1 TD) are the two most preferred targets, as expected, and Wright (7 catches, 90 yards) is taking most of the snaps in Rueben Randle's former spot. Maybe the only movement seen is at fourth receiver, where Kadron Boone, who's grabbed a touchdown in every game so far, is giving Russell Shepard (4 catches, 79 yards) a run for his money.
The dreaded "D" word has come up, however, a little too often this season, particularly in the aftermath of the Washington game. LSU receivers dropped five passes against the Huskies, negating a would-be touchdown (Shepard) and stalling the offense early in the game (Beckham, following a kick-return fumble). For a team that's not throwing it a ton, that takes a huge bite out of what passing productivity there could be.
Moving forward: It's key that Beckham and Wright become the downfield threats that can make teams pay for stacking eight or nine in the box against LSU. Landry and the other short speedsters are more than capable of handling the underneath routes, but there has to be more of a vertical element added to this Tiger passing game.
Starter entering Fall Camp: Chase Clement
Starter through three weeks: Chase Clement
Kind of an out-of-sight, out-of-mind group through three games. Part of the reason for that is because there's nothing sexy about what Clement does blocking in the run game. He's devastatingly effective in his role as the sixth lineman, but it's not something that stands out to the average fan.
Senior Tyler Edwards was part of the group ruled academically ineligible for the season. Sophomore Nic Jacobs has taken his mantle as the second tight end, joining Clement on LSU's frequent two-tight sets. Third in line: True frosh Dillon Gordon, who plays on goal-line sets. Finally, it's worth noting that the tight ends have been invisible in the passing game, with only Clement registering a catch … for four yards. This isn't the best pass-catching group anyway, but it's been obvious the staff would rather involve the backs than the tight ends to supplement catches from the wide-outs.
Moving forward: The more Jacobs can develop, the better LSU will be in the jumbo sets Miles and Greg Studrawa like so much.
Starters entering Fall Camp: From left – Chris Faulk, La'el Collins, P.J. Lonergan, Josh Williford, Alex Hurst
Starters through three weeks: From left – Josh Dworaczyk, La'el Collins, P.J. Lonergan, Josh Williford, Alex Hurst
Other than losing Tyrann Mathieu several weeks before the season, Chris Faulk is the biggest subtraction from this lineup from the time Fall Camp kicked off. LSU's big left tackle was injured in a routine drill in practice the Tuesday following the North Texas opener. Replacing him has become the biggest question mark surrounding this team since.
The current solution: Just slide sixth-year senior Josh Dworaczyk, a career left guard, in at tackle. The long-term solution, from what I've been able to gather: Move Hurst to left tackle and play more Vadal Alexander at right tackle. It may take a few weeks to transition, but I expect this move to happen. Dworaczyk's knees simply aren't likely to hold up for an entire season. Also worth monitoring: LSU's anchor at center, Lonergan, is still dealing with some residual back pain. Elliott Porter may see some additional time spelling the senior.
Moving forward: A lot like the running backs, it's all about health and surviving attrition here. The line is doing a great job clearing running lanes, but the sack total is way too high. Protecting Mettenberger must be job number one for whoever ends up out there.
Starters entering Fall Camp: KeKe Mingo and Sam Montgomery at DE; Bennie Logan and Josh Downs at DT
Starters through three weeks: KeKe Mingo and Sam Montgomery at DE; Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson at DT
If I told you LSU only had four sacks on the season, three from the D-Line, and ranked 12th in the SEC in that category, you'd probably say the usually disruptive line is struggling. That's not necessarily the case. Against North Texas and Idaho, two games in which LSU registered no sacks, the opposing quarterbacks put an absolute premium on getting the ball out fast. They weren't going to let LSU's pass rushers come near them.
As far as personnel, most everybody has remained in good health. Mingo, after having a neck procedure in the offseason, has been stellar when on the field, but he's also been held out a bit – especially versus Idaho – to keep him fresh for SEC play. The guy making the biggest push so far is "Freak" Johnson. He's now starting for the on-again, off-again injured Josh Downs, and nobody so far has been able to block No. 90 in goal line or tight situations. Finally, true frosh Danielle Hunter has seen some time at end, and he looks to be taking the Jermauria Rasco role from a year ago.
Moving forward: It's critical Logan, the rock of the line, Johnson and Ego Ferguson continue to get good surges in the middle. Do that and anything becomes possible with those edge rushers and all that speed. Also LSU will benefit from more solid play from Lavar Edwards, especially if Mingo is still being ushered back in full-time.
Starters entering Fall Camp: Tahj Jones at Sam; Kevin Minter at Mike; Lamin Barrow at Will
Starters through three weeks: Luke Muncie at Sam; Kevin Minter at Mike; Lamin Barrow at Will
Maybe the most pleasant surprise on the team in the early going, the linebackers have actually stood out in 2012. Those words, put together in the same sentence, were never applicable in 2011. Last year's team ended the season with its top three tacklers coming from the secondary and four of the top five. Now, Minter, who John Chavis said recently is playing as well as any middle linebacker in the country, leads the Tigers with 21 stops and Barrow, a fellow junior, is second with 18 tackles.
Even Muncie, who's had to fill in for the academically ineligible Jones, is playing up to snuff. It was thought in some circles the true freshmen would quickly surpass him. That has not been the case, and it's a credit to Muncie, a junior. The freshmen have been heard from, however. Kwon Alexander is the first backup on the outside, and Debo Jones is right on his heels. With D.J. Welter no longer an option, frosh Ronnie Feist is now the backup Mike ‘backer. Lorenzo Phillips and Lamar Louis, finally back from an injury, have also seen time.
Moving forward: So far Chief is sticking to his guns, playing the three starting juniors for most of the ballgame with few, if any, substitutions. Eventually one of those freshmen will have to be counted on more. Hopefully that player (probably either D. Jones or Alexander) is ready.
Starters entering Fall Camp: Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon at CB; Eric Reid and Craig Loston at S
Starters through three weeks: Jalen Mills and Tharold Simon at CB; Eric Reid and Craig Loston/Ronald Martin at S
What happened with TM7 is old news at this point. What's happening with his primary defensive replacement is not … and it's also really impressive. True freshman Jalen Mills has not only secured the starting second-corner gig, beating out Jalen Collins, but he's also the preferred option at Mathieu's old nickel-back haunt. Mills has taken the opportunity by storm, too, currently ranking third on the team in tackles (17) and tied for first in interceptions (2) while also playing a bunch of special teams.
The other main development is what's going on at strong safety. Loston is still dealing with a turf toe injury sustained in Fall Camp, and Ronald Martin replaced him versus Idaho, even though Loston has been fairly adamant that he thought/thinks he's healthy enough to go. Continue monitoring this situation as it may be less about an injury than strategy. Simply put: Martin is a much better coverage option against pass-heavy teams. Finally, four true freshmen have played in the secondary so far. At corner: Mills, Dwayne Thomas. At safety: Corey Thompson, Jerqwinick Sandolph.
Moving forward: Simon and Reid are as steady as it gets. How this group goes will depend on how consistent the other pieces – Collins (who features as the third corner on all nickel and dime sets), Mills, Martin and Loston – are.
Starters entering Fall Camp: Brad Wing at P; Drew Alleman at K; James Hairston at KO; Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry at KR; Odell Beckham at PR
Starters through three weeks: Brad Wing at P; Drew Alleman t K; James Hairston at KO; Michael Ford and Jarvis Landry at KR; Odell Beckham at PR
The kicking component of special teams has been fantastic, as per the usual, for Miles and coordinator Thomas McGaughey. Senior kicker Drew Alleman is 4-of-5 booting field goals, with his only miss coming in the opener. James Hairston continues to put balls into and through the end zone whenever he wants, depending on if LSU opts to send an intentionally returnable ball (to thwart teams from getting to the 25). And Brad Wing is quite simply the best punter LSU's ever had. After missing the opener, the Aussie has come back just as strong as a year ago, and Wing currently averages 48.6 yards per punt.
The return game has been strong as well, despite some recent turnover. OBJ brought two punts back to the house against the Mean Green, with one brought back due to penalty, but he also fumbled away The Opening kickoff versus Washington. As a result, Miles has taken a little off the receiver's plate. He'll still return punts, but Ford is now the team's kickoff returner. On a final note, it's been amazing to watch the kick coverage units, which are basically breeding grounds for defenders of the future. All of the true freshmen linebackers have been in there. Ditto for DE Danielle Hunter, CB Jalen Mills, S Jerqwinick Sandolph and CB Dwayne Thomas.
Moving forward: The switch to Ford at kick returner appears to be a smart move. It's the perfect way to find more touches for No. 42. As long as Wing keeps bombing punts inside the 20 and the kick coverage doesn't allow any run-backs, this again forecasts as one of LSU's biggest strengths.
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